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Support for doctoral candidates during the pandemic at the University of Melbourne

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by Ai Tam Le

This blog is based on the author’s contribution to a special issue of Studies in Higher Education published online in January 2021. The special issue includes a range of commissioned articles from academics worldwide about their  experiences of Covid19 restrictions in 2020.   Many of the authors featured in the Special issue will be speaking about their contributions at the SRHE Webinar being held on 27 January 2021.

There is little doubt that doing a PhD can be hard; doing a PhD during a pandemic certainly makes it harder. But the diversity of PhD projects, the resources required to undertake them, and the differences in our situations mean that each PhD candidate has faced a rather different set of challenges and experienced varying degrees of disruption due to the pandemic. In my university, the University of Melbourne (henceforth the university), for some students, the pandemic has made little impact on their progress; for others, however, the lack of access to lab facilities or fieldwork means that their project came to a halt.

In a recent paper for a Special Issue of the Studies in Higher Education, I took a closer look at the support provided to doctoral candidates at the university and discussed some of the arising issues. In this blog, I summarise the situation and highlight two major issues with the university’s approach to supporting doctoral students.

University’s support and graduate researchers’ Open Letter

When the pandemic was escalating in March 2020, alongside advising students to work from home, the university gradually introduced different support measures in terms of finance (emergency funds), psychological well-being (counselling services) and candidature (extension of candidature and stipend). Yet the following months saw a rising uneasy sentiment among a group of graduate researchers (masters and doctoral candidates) at the university who then drafted and sent an Open Letter to the university outlining their requests for ‘real’ support. The letter has been signed by more than 640 graduate researchers and academics.

What was requested in the letter? Two major requests were put forward: a special category of leave (a period of non-active enrolment) for reasons related to COVID-19; and a six-month universal extension for all students. Six months was requested because, I suppose, there was an expectation at the beginning of the pandemic that it would take at least six months to be back to ‘normal’. (The reality has proven that this expectation was overly optimistic.) Similarly, the Graduate Student Association at the university at first advocated for three-month universal extensions and later ‘the commitment to six-month extensions as standard or more where needed’.

The university did not respond – and has not, according to my understanding, officially responded –  to the Open Letter; however, their support measures have addressed these concerns to a large extent. Specifically, a new category of leave was created to support students who were not able to continue their research due to the pandemic. Extension of stipend from 3 to 3.5 years was automatically granted to students at a certain stage of their candidature*.  Stipend beyond 3.5 years (up to 26 weeks of extension) can also be requested given that the student can provide sufficient documents to support their case.

The ‘hidden’ issues

It is fair to say that, overall, these measures have accommodated the needs of most students. But there are some ‘hidden’ issues as highlighted below.

First, the university’s ‘business-as-usual’ expectation could create undue pressure for doctoral students. While the university’s commitment to supporting its students to make progress was well-intentioned, the expectation of ‘business-as-usual’ in an unusual time could be misinterpreted as a pressure to work, which was not possible for some students. Failing this expectation can be seen as a sign of weakness by the students, hence creating further stress.

Second, the application process for leave or extension was deemed as bureaucratic by some students. In the application, a student must demonstrate the ‘exceptional circumstance’ under which their research has been disrupted. Some students argued that the existence of the pandemic itself constituted an ‘exceptional circumstance’ that would qualify all students for leave or universal extension. The requirement to demonstrate ‘exceptional circumstance’ was deemed as just another layer of documentation and reporting. Moreover, some changes and disruptions can be documented and quantified such as days of lacking access to lab or fieldwork; other disruptions are not quantifiable such as lack of appropriate workspace or psychological stress due to isolation and the pandemic threat. For example, it would be challenging to quantify and document the loss of productivity due to sitting on a dining chair instead of an ergonomic chair, or due to distractions caused by homeschooling kids. There could be students falling through the cracks by not being able to accumulate ‘sufficient’ documents to support their case for leave or extension.

Looking back, these issues were hidden – acquired by inside knowledge and detail – and seemed trivial compared to the support provided; they can easily be forgotten as time goes by. With the advantage of hindsight, it is now easier to make sense of the contestation between the university’s support and the students’ demands. On the one hand, constrained by financial resources, mostly due to the loss of revenues from international students, the university had to strike a balance between, among other things, organisational survival and doctoral students’ needs. The mechanisms set up – bureaucratic as they could be – were necessary for allocating limited resources for those deemed most in need. On the other hand, research students did not know what situation they were getting into and how or when they were getting out of it, so that any barrier to getting support – regardless of how small it was – added to the existing chaos and would seem significant to the students.

Concluding thoughts

Even though the situation has improved in Australia and some parts of the world, the pandemic is not over yet. No one can confidently say when things are going back to ‘normal’ and how that ‘normal’ would look like. As many PhD candidates are still unable to go back to campus and go about conducting their daily business, the question of how effective these supports are in the long-term remains open.

Moreover, given that research students make a significant contribution to research and development in Australia (ABS 2020), there is a need for further monitoring and reporting on how research students have been affected by the pandemic. This would provide a nuanced understanding of the impact of the pandemic on research workforce capacity in Australia.

*In a recent announcement, the extension has reverted to standard procedures through which students must have approval from their supervisory committee instead of being granted automatically.

Ai Tam Le is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Centre for the Study in Higher Education and Melbourne Graduate School of Education (University of Melbourne, Australia). Her PhD project explores aspiring academics’ understanding of the academic profession in Australia. She is a contributor to the Early Career Researchers in Higher Education Blog (echer.org). She tweets @aitamlp.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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