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What might Covid-19 mean for PhD students & postdocs?

  • 16 March 2020

This blog has been written by Bethan Cornell, a PhD student at King’s College London.

What might be the implications for doctoral (PhD) students and postdoctoral researchers that are unable to work due to Covid-19, either because of self-isolation or departmental closure?

Work on projects may have to stop – this especially affects PhD students using specialist equipment, who are unable to work from home and stopping work for more than a couple of weeks may impact on their ability to finish their PhD on time.

  • Consequently, they may need to interrupt their degree, the mechanism used to ‘stop the clock’ on work and effectively extend their deadline to account for any time that unforeseen circumstances prevent them from working. 
  • PhD student are almost universally funded via stipends, ie they are not employees, so when they interrupt their PhD their funding stops and they are not paid. It is vital that institutions review their policies towards PhD students who are forced to interrupt due to the virus, otherwise many may face severe financial hardship. Discussions on government policies on loss of earnings must include individuals who rely on stipends for income as well as workers and businesses. 

PhD students are often employed on short-term teaching contracts to undertake work such as marking coursework for their departments. Stipends are not large and many students, especially those with dependants, rely on the extra income this teaching brings to support the cost of living.

  • It is vital that any loss of earnings from such work is taken into account by the government as part of its financial package to help those affected.
  • It is also worth considering the number of international students who may need to claim for this lost money. They may be less familiar with the processes required than those from the UK. Therefore, departments should put in place processes to support all their affected PhD students through any processes required to claim back lost teaching earnings

For those early career researchers (ECRs) who are self-isolating but whose institutions remain open, there may be temptations to keep working despite advice to stay at home. The recent Wellcome report on research culture highlights the pressures faced by ECRs to work long hours and ‘publish or perish’.

  • The prevalence of short-term contracts and the increasingly competitive job market have left many ECRs feeling they must continually produce quality work in order to secure their future. If they are feeling well and facing an uncertain future about when, if and for how long their institutions may close, some ECRs advised to self-isolate or with minor symptoms may be tempted to come into work; the pressures of their career may well outweigh concerns about their health. Needless to say, this would not be a good public health outcome! But given current research culture, it is not an unexpected one.
  • Therefore, departments should be proactive in reminding all students and staff of the risks they pose to others if they continue to work when they should be at home. They should also be proactive in providing additional support for ECRs, potentially in the form of an action plan to help those who feel their careers may be damaged as a result of Covid-19. 

1 comment

  1. Agata Lambrechts says:

    Thank you for your post Bethan!

    Your points are hitting very close to home (to close for comfort!) so I really hope our institutions consider these!

    This will be hard for everyone, but institutions need to ensure that all angles are considered and planned for – doctoral and post-doctoral researchers are not always valued by institutions, but we bring so much to our departments and universities. We have closer relationships with students, we pick up the marking nobody else wants to (or has time to!) do, we maintain collegiality, setting up reading groups and filling audiences at invited talks, we RA helping the careers of more established staff, we publish and represent our organisations at conferences. We need to be recognised as staff, and major contributors to the success of our institutions!
    A boost in funding from government would be helpful now…

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