Should you quit (go part time or pause your PhD during Covid-19?


Deciding how to carry on with your PhD in a pandemic  is a classic ‘wicked problem’ with no right or wrong answer. No doubt there will be pros and cons both ways. While it is tempting, especially if you are on a paid scholarship, to stay in your program, delays you might face now might have unexpected consequences down the track. Other people might be tempted to quit immediately… but this might not be the most opportune time to down tools, no matter how hopeless it looks.

(For some of you working in Covid-19 related research, this will be your busiest time – thank you for your work and carry on!)

Obviously, I don’t have all the answers, but I do have a few of the questions you should be asking. This post is intended to help you think through the effects of what is happening now on your individual PhD timeline, which is further complicated by the uncertain ‘virus timeline’. ANU is closed until the end of June, when we hope the peak of infections in Australia will be over. However the uncertainty about lockdowns and closures could go on much longer. In reality, until there is a vaccine, international travel, and some global supply chains, will continue to be affected and the economic fallout is still largely unknown.

In this post I will discuss the issues related to stage of study, the availability of work to support yourself and the long term employment prospects for PhD holders. These are not all the issues you need to consider, but they are the ones I always discuss with people who are seeking advice about carrying on with a PhD in difficult circumstances.

This post is Australian focussed in details, but I suspect that most of of the observations will still be valid in countries where this blog is read the most. Please take this advice in the spirit it is offered: as the most useful thoughts I can offer right now. I am an expert in helping people finish their PhD. Here I attempt to use my expertise to imagine some possible consequences of this global ‘pandemic pause’ and to make a few modest predictions. I hope these thoughts are helpful – and even a bit reassuring.

Factor one: how far through your PhD are you?

Superficially at least, people in the last six to twelve months of their program are in an ideal position to use the ‘physical distancing measures’ to their advantage. No doubt, you are telling yourself that now is the time to just sit down and write the thing with minimal distraction. Being locked at home is an invitation for your bottom to pay an extended visit to chair town.

If you can ‘write up’: wonderful! But not everyone will be able to do their best work right now. Self isolating is unexpectedly exhausting for many people and some have mounted convincing arguments as to why pursuing ‘academic productivity’ can be bad for you right now.

Remember that any kind of ‘ write up’ is a difficult task at the best of times. While some people have a lovely home office and cat to keep them company, others will be in shared houses trying to work on the kitchen table, or caring for families under stress. Even people who seem to be in solo writing heaven, with their cat, might be facing problems of social isolation and lack of support. Most of us are worried and everyday life is weird. Be careful of putting too much pressure on yourself or others to be ‘productive’ in this crisis. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to put ‘writing up’ on  hold if lockdown is not the right time for you. If you still feel you must write, perhaps work on something more ‘low stakes’ than your dissertation: like a journal article or something.

People who have just started their PhD might be ideally placed to do the ‘deep dive’ into the literature and work out exactly what this project is about. If that’s you, wonderful! However, since you are new, it’s my role to encourage caution. The first six months to twelve months of a PhD program are crucial to making sure that you are set up for long term success. Ideally you should be in constant contact with supervisors to help you direct the reading and planning.

The intense reading at the start of a PhD is notorious for being unsettling; often revealing there is a lot more work in the proposed area than you initially thought.  If you start to feel really unsure about 1) the project and/or 2) the supervision you are receiving, there is no harm in pausing for a couple of months. Supervisors are not Gods: they do not always correct about the right way forward. This is why, at the early stages of your project, we encourage you to go to presentations and talk to other people in your department. Sadly, this is not an option if your campus is closed or restricted.

If my state of mind is anything to go by, your supervisors are probably pretty distracted right now. I’ve seen great supervisors, who aren’t paying enough attention, let candidates develop a poorly thought out project, which everyone has to continually ‘fix’, right through to the end. Trust me when I say you don’t want to change data collection methods and even research questions mid way through. And the bad blood that develops as a result of early misdirection can mean you need to change supervisors too! Better to have a well thought out project that starts a bit later than one that dissolves under you in the middle stages.

For people at the midway point, my thoughts are with you. I know people at ANU had to destroy experiments and come home in the middle of important fieldwork: heartbreaking. Stretching out the ‘doing’ part of the research can be difficult, with consequences that are hard to predict. For example, your experiments might be time sensitive, or your plan involves doing more fieldwork in that place might be impossible for years. Worse,  you might already be committed to a path that cannot simply be just put on hold for 6 months. Some people will be left holding some, but not all the data they need – or you might be wondering if the data is even relevant anymore. Some people will be facing a radical change in PhD plans that will need careful thought and time to resolve.

Making a decision about whether to stay enrolled or formally step back for a time is terribly difficult. Remember going part time can give you the option to ‘slow down the clock’ and take the pressure off yourself, while remaining connected. Perhaps the other factors will be more important anyway, so let’s turn to these now.

Factor two: what are your finances like?

In a pandemic, the normal business of putting a roof overhead and food in mouths gets more difficult and many PhD students are already on low incomes. People in the so called ‘gig economy’, retail and hospitality are feeling the pinch of closures. If this is you already, my sympathies. I hope the extensive measures the Australian government have introduced to help people who have lost their jobs are helping a bit. To complicate matters, not everyone will find themselves worse off. For example, Australia’s announcement of free daycare would have been a godsend at the end of my own PhD!

A huge number of people doing PhDs make, or supplement, their living by teaching casually at universities. We’ve seen a drop in available work already, as a result of the reduction of international student enrolments. This situation is serious and may persist for a long time if international travel stays restricted. Making a living from casual teaching is difficult at the best of times. I’ve spent far more of my 20 year career as a casual and contract employee than as a permanent. In fact, ANU only made me permanent in this role at the end of November last year and I started in 2013!

My years and years as a precarious worker have taught me one key thing: never get too comfortable and reliant on one income provider.

If you are a casual, it’s always a good thing to work on multiplying your sources of income. Normally I would say ‘network, network, network!’ to identify other universities where you could offer services, but in these physically distanced times that’s much harder. I don’t have good suggestions other than to recommend you keep in touch with all the academics who normally supervise your work and keep asking questions about the future. Keep a weather eye on the state of your university’s finances, and the academic industry as a whole. Follow the commentary about our industry carefully; a good example is this article by ANU VC Brian Schmidt which talks about the need for a transformed HigherEd sector after this crisis. Lurk on Twitter, watching hashtags like #academictwitter and subscribe to sites like University World News and the Campus Morning Mail. You’re a researcher, so you have all the skills to use your observations of the sector – and your corner of it – and make decisions accordingly.

Only you will know the exact mix of work and scholarship etc that will work for you right now, but what about the future? Let’s think about that for now as it’s an area I am well qualified to offer comment on as a researcher.

Factor three: is having a PhD still worthwhile to me?

People start a PhD for all kinds of reasons. Some are highly motivated by curiosity and the project itself; coming into study later in life with specific goals. Others are high achievers who do a PhD as a ‘next step’;  encouraged by academic mentors to continue to explore their intellectual abilities. Some of us will finish a PhD no matter what, while others are motivated by wanting a specific kind of job, usually an academic one. Around 25% or so of PhD students drop out along the way in normal circumstances. Some of these people drop out because they become convinced the PhD will not give them the kind of career and life they want. There’s no doubt that the lack of job security in academia is part of this decision making process.

If you want a job outside academia, normally I would say it’s definitely worth carrying on with a PhD because there are many more employment options than you might think.

For the last five years, for the academic part of my role as an associate professor at ANU, I’ve been studying the nature and extent of the non-academic job market. Most of our current work is on measuring the market outside academia using machine learning to ‘read’ job ads and identify which of those are research skills intensive. Our research has shown that 80% of employers looking for PhD level talent in Australia do NOT include the term ‘PhD’ in the ad, which means that most of the potential job market for your skills is not visible. We have been working for a couple of years on developing an app to help make this job market more visible called PostAc. Our app uses big data sets from Burning Glass to measure demand for PhD graduates across the economy. Our latest report modelled jobs data from Australia and NZ in 2017 and showed there were tens of thousands of job opportunities for PhD graduates in all kinds of industries.

Are those jobs still there? Up until March, I was confident there was not much change from year to year except that the high end knowledge work was growing. Now the honest answer is: I’m not sure. The job ad data we use has a lag time, so we are seeing a drop off, but it’s too early to see how big. The situation will need to be monitored closely. For now, we have decided to hold off for 6 months before we get another data pack. I’m still confident that the demand for high end knowledge workers will be there, but it remains to be seen which sectors will be affected. Watch this space: we will report as soon as we can.

Lots to think about… what can you do in the meantime?

Making a decision to pause, go part time or even drop out of a PhD is a huge life decision. Ideally it’s a decision that should not be rushed and should be done with appropriate consultation, with your supervisor – and with others who matter in your life, like partners and family. Bear in mind that you can do a lot with your time that is useful to your PhD, even if it doesn’t seem directly related to the ‘reading, writing and doing’ parts of the process.

Now is a good time to explore all kinds of professional development and hone your communication or technical skills. I’ve noticed all kinds of virtual conferences and seminars have popped up – Twitter is a good place to track these, using hashtags like #academictwitter, #phdchat and #phdpandemic. The website Virtual not Viral (@virtualnotviral on Twitter) has been created specifically to share PhD related opportunities. There are many instructional videos on Youtube to help you master all kinds of software and I have noticed major companies offering extended free trials for their research related software. In short, there are many ways to stay usefully busy if you have the time and inclination.

In this time of crisis I can only add my best wishes for your health and safety over the coming weeks. I’ll be back with another #PandemicPost soon.

In solidarity,