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COVID-19 is setting back the lives and careers of young scientists

How two graduate students are navigating science and graduation through a pandemic

Francesco Zangari

Molecular Biology

University of Toronto

Graduate students are the next generation of scientific leaders. However, to achieve their goals, graduate students must be happy and healthy — both physically and mentally. Often, the rigorous demands of academia encourage many to work until they burn out.

This culture has created a mental health crisis among graduate students. Now, a survey conducted by the Toronto Science Policy Network (TPSN) has highlighted how this pre-existing mental health crisis has been amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic. The lockdown strategies that countries took directly affected scientific research by halting almost all data collection, further exacerbating existing burdens on graduate students like securing future funding and finishing their degrees on time.

The TPSN survey assessed the effects of the early COVID-19 pandemic from April 22 - May 31, 2020, across Canada. Polling 1,431 doctoral and master's students across 45 Canadian institutions revealed the pandemic's negative impacts on productivity, health and wellness, graduation times, and professional development. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has harmed all graduate students to a degree, it has brought about an additional set of challenges for students nearing graduation. For example, communication with their supervisor is essential for students nearing graduation to complete their research projects. This was especially vital — and challenging — through the period of confusion during the lockdown when many graduate students had to work remotely. However, the TPSN survey highlights that over 50% of students received little-to-no input from their departments or supervisor regarding any expectations for remote-based work. 

“What's happened [in my case] is that there's less supervision but more expectation,” says Simon (name has been changed for privacy), a sixth-year PhD student and molecular biologist. “And then you get forgotten about, but get asked why you are not doing work.”

Simon adds that the shift to COVID-19 specific work has limited their supervisor's ability to communicate with students. To address this, the TPSN report recommends the development of accessible and robust communication lines, specifically that institutions need to define clear guidelines for meeting frequency between students and supervisors and provide additional departmental mentors as an alternative outlet for graduate students. 

Through the COVID-19 crisis, Simon has felt alone. “This pandemic has exacerbated this existing problem in academia,” they said when I asked about their mental health. Simon’s feeling is in line with many students, with 72% of respondents to the TPSN survey reporting a decline in their mental well-being, leaving students exasperated with the existing infrastructure. 

With graduate students reporting anxiety/panic attacks, depression, feelings of uncertainty, and reductions in motivation and focus, TPSN’s report highlights the need for rapid implementation of new mental health and wellness infrastructure. They recommend introducing flexible counseling hours and removing existing barriers for long-term leave of absence applications to stem rising mental health concerns, especially as the pandemic's effects have stretched well beyond the polling period. 

This deterioration of graduate student well-being has compounded the issues for students near graduation. Concerns regarding hiring freezes and job prospects have left students like Simon wondering about the sustainability of pandemic hiring sprees.

“Certain fields related to science are booming like scicomm [science communication], medical writing, and pharma [pharmaceuticals],” explains Simon. “What I am worried about is when COVID-19 is over that all these opportunities will disappear...so, we'll see how the trend goes.”

Students looking to build their professional networks may struggle because of the cancellation of in-person professional development opportunities and conferences. TPSN calls on institutions to take a proactive role in assisting students with preparations for the new job market to ease the concerns of obtaining employment. With the rise of virtual meetings, it is now possible to hold more networking events, job fairs and mentorship programs with little to no cost to participants. 

While Simon’s pandemic experience has been a difficult period marred by worries related to degree completion and future employment, they report a sustained level of personal growth. In particular, being forced to handle their own mental health has led to the development of coping skills that have helped Simon through these times. Despite the struggles, Simon believes these shared experiences will resonate in the future.

“Yes, I am [hopeful],” says Simon. “One thing I am hopeful for is that people will see value in the individual and see that people are people.”  They hope that future hiring committees acknowledge the struggle many are going through this time and rely on interpersonal criteria more than traditional CV metrics when deciding who should get permanent science jobs.  

The pandemic also has Boris Dyakov, a fifth-year graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Molecular Genetics program, feeling thankful. “I feel actually, all things considered, pretty lucky with how the pandemic has treated me...as our funding has not been affected” says Dyakov.

“If I didn’t live with my partner, it would have also been much more difficult…in some ways, I feel like I actually even benefited in a funny way because we got to spend more time together even if we were working.” 

As Dyakov notes, his support network made the pandemic easier to navigate. However, with more lockdowns, there is a further concern of increasing feelings of loneliness than were reported in the TPSN survey, especially for international graduate students who are barred from traveling to see their families. 

Through the time away from the lab bench, Dyakov feels a renewed sense of mastery in tackling his studies.

“Being a more senior student...I had tons of data that I've been sitting on, but I just really hadn't had time to sit down and analyze,” says Dyakov. It helped “really get into my data and make sense of it and figure out how to finish up my project."

“I spent a lot of time really researching different career paths and, like learning really what they're all about and seeing what opportunities are out there and reaching out to people in my network,” explains Dyakov. “When I started researching general management consulting, I realized this is an area of work that really interests me.”

Dyakov’s story represents a scenario where even the most troubling times can provide an avenue to achieve personal growth. 

However, Dyakov's experience is a far cry from the experiences most graduate students have had throughout the pandemic. One prominent example highlighted in the TPSN survey surrounds those students with dependents like children or ill loved ones. With the pandemic further hindering those students' ability to carry on their research, the TPSN recommends the urgent development of physically distant childcare on-campus or emergency funding for graduate students with dependents. This would be a first step in leveling the playing field for these students (the majority of whom are women) facing extenuating circumstances. 

COVID-19 will continue to be a problem long into 2021, until vaccination becomes widespread, and likely past then. With that in mind, institutions must adopt changes to current operation procedures and promote the well-being of junior researchers. While there are individual cases in which students can benefit from the time away from the lab, graduate students as a whole are worse off now than before the pandemic. Institutions now hold the power, armed with this knowledge, to change the current trajectory and mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic for the scientific leaders of tomorrow. 

Comment Peer Commentary

We ask other scientists from our Consortium to respond to articles with commentary from their expert perspective.

Marnie Willman

Virology

University of Manitoba Bannatyne and National Microbiology Laboratory

I definitely agree with this article that the majority of graduate students (particularly in the sciences where hands-on benchwork is required) are worse off because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Supervisors are now torn in multiple directions, picking up  coronavirus projects in labs that previously did not do this sort of  work, and trying to learn new ways of designing and performing  experiments to meet new demands (while trying to meet the needs of their current students).

While many of us will look back on this as a time of resilience and  finding inner strength, it has been particularly hard for graduate  students already facing significant barriers such as poverty or  childcare. This was a succinct look at the problems that had already begun to sprout at the beginning of the pandemic, which blossomed into full-fledged nightmares for students around the world during the first Earth-halting pandemic we’ve seen in modern history here in North America.

Well written, with a spark of hope at the end for a brighter, more  focused future for those graduate students affected by the Covid-19 pandemic of 2019-2021 (and counting).

Anna Wernick

Neuroscience

University College London

This piece really resonated with me. The time pressure and lack of supervisory support due to the pandemic are issues that I recognize and are widespread. I especially liked the strong focus  on mental health issues and the separate problems that PhD students with dependents are facing.

Another interesting point that you made was about the implications of the lack of in-person networking events! I’ve personally found online conferences very difficult to become immersed in, especially because you don’t physically go anywhere so you feel you have to juggle both the online conference and your day to day work and other meetings you might have.

I think the time pressure may be felt on a greater scale in some  countries with shorter PhD lengths than the US, such as the UK and other European countries - where PhDs are usually 3 to 4 years long. Hopefully funding bodies will recognize the need to extend funding for not just final year students, but students who have been affected at all stages.

Deanna MacNeil

Cell Biology

McGill University

This is a very meaningful story! I really appreciated how you emphasized the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of graduate students, and that you highlighted personal experiences of individuals with different perspectives on how productivity and support systems are affected by the pandemic. As a graduate student who also finished my studies during the pandemic, Simon’s story really resonated with me.

The recommendation to introduce flexible counseling hours and remove existing barriers for long-term leave of absence applications is especially crucial, given the already large productivity expectations placed on graduate students under the best of circumstances. It was nice to hear Boris discuss how having the support of his partner helped him navigate the pandemic, and I hope that graduate students and supervisors alike are able to similarly prioritize supporting one another’s wellbeing throughout the pandemic and well after.

Hayley McKay

Genetics

University of Toronto

This was such a great read! I recognized almost every point you made in my own graduate student experience throughout the past year, so thank you for putting those feelings into words and legitimizing them.

I think its really important for graduate student mental health  issues like these to be talked about openly, and this article does a  great job of highlighting the problems and recommending steps for  improvement.

I especially resonated with your interviewee’s experience of feeling  forgotten - although I’m not glad others are experiencing this, its nice to know I’m not alone. It’s also helpful that you were able to support the individual experiences with data that quantifies the (shockingly high) percentage of students with supervisors who went MIA during the lockdown.

This piece is a great combination of personal experiences and  eye-opening statistics that should serve as a wake-up call to graduate  student supervisors and departments that their students are probably struggling more than they realize. If it were up to me, this would be required reading for anyone in supervisory positions in academia.

Krystal Vasquez

Atmospheric Chemistry

California Institute of Technology

This is a great piece! I especially resonated with the part that discussed concerns of hiring freezes and job prospects. As someone currently about to graduate, the job market feels very unstable right now. For me personally, I’ve gotten so many resume-building opportunities because of the remote environment of the  pandemic. But it’s hard to find anything long term. That’s why I loved the recommendation for institutions to hold more networking events. Looking back, I think this has been a missed opportunity for universities.

I also appreciate the glimmer of hope shown at the end through  Boris’s experience. I’m very lucky in that I relate to his experience a  lot. It makes me wonder what other factors can make or break a grad student’s experience during this pandemic. On one hand, you mentioned grad students with caregiving responsibilities (especially women) have been really struggling. On the other hand, as a disabled student, the pandemic has actually made my work life much easier because virtual meetings are more accessible to me in many aspects.

As you said, institutions have a lot of work to do in order to  mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19. But I also think that they need to reflect on the fact that certain aspects of the pandemic (such as remote work and virtual events) have benefitted many and start integrating that into their culture once this is all over.