What About Graduate Students?

Graduate students face many of the same challenges as faculty members during COVID-19 but have received fewer assurances. Top on their wish list are extended funding and time-to-degree extensions.

April 7, 2020
 
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Tenure-clock stoppages came fast and furious last month to faculty members worried about how COVID-19 will throw off their career timelines. Graduate students have similar concerns about how their research has been upended and how that will impact progress toward their degrees. Yet accommodations to their program timelines and funding packages are almost nil.

Graduate students need help “figuring out where they stand,” said Bradley Sommer, president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and a Ph.D. candidate in history at Carnegie Mellon University. “A lot of students right now just need basic information on what to expect.”

Students who were overseas when the public health crisis escalated, doing research or attending conferences, are in some cases stuck there, Sommer said. Stateside, many students in the natural sciences and engineering don’t have access to their labs. Their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences, meanwhile, lack access to libraries, archives and research sites. And students who collect data in K-12 schools have no idea when widespread school shutdowns will end.

Seeking Funding and Degree-Timeline Extensions

Where students’ progress toward their degrees has been significantly disrupted, will graduation dates be pushed back?

“I think that would be a comfort to students,” Sommer said, “knowing how departments plan to address this sudden halt to the normal timeline of their program.”

Another question: Where time-to-degree extensions are granted, will students be able to afford taking advantage of them, without parallel extensions to internal and external funding packages?

Gwen Chodur, director of social justice concerns for the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and a doctoral candidate in nutritional biology at the University of California, Davis, said that the coronavirus crisis puts an already financially precarious group at greater risk.

Top among graduate students’ needs, Chodur said, is funding. Whether through extended teaching assistantships, external grants or other means, it’s about “making sure that they won’t be penalized for the impact that this has.”

Within the California system, for example, TAships are limited to six years, or 18 quarters for campuses that follow a quarter system. Graduate students on a number of campuses, along with the statewide United Auto Workers-affiliated graduate employee union, are advocating for an additional year.

International students must be covered by any such changes, these groups say, in the form of extended nonresident supplemental tuition waivers and other policies.

The California system -- which was already dealing with a growing graduate employee strike over requested cost-of-living adjustments -- is "committed to doing what it can to best support its graduate scholars as they continue their educational journeys," said Stett Holbrook, university spokesperson. At this time, the university is "not offering a systemwide adjustment to graduate-degree completion timelines because of COVID-19," he said, as degree timelines already vary by campus and program, and the current "level of uncertainty is unprecedented."

Campuses will examine what allowances "might be considered regarding normative time to degree," Holbrook said. Regarding funding support, individual campuses are also "assessing how best to mitigate the financial impact on students."

Departments Want to Help, but Their Options Are Limited

Houri Berberian, professor of history and Meghrouni Family Presidential Chair in Armenian studies at the system’s Irvine campus, said that Irvine’s School of Humanities and the university have announced certain accommodations thus far, including: an application-based emergency relief fund, various fee waivers for the spring and summer terms, and advancement-to-Ph.D.-candidacy deadline extensions through the end of summer for third-year students, without any impact to their stipends.

The department is helping students where it can, though, its ability to respond is limited. Time-to-degree stoppage and funding will need to be addressed further up the chain going forward, Berberian said, “as travel restrictions and other obstacles and insecurities continue to mount.” Students’ international and domestic research “has for the most part halted.”

Ann Waltner, professor of history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said that gradate students “represent the future of the profession, and it is essential that we find ways of getting them what they need to see them through this crisis.” So far, her department hopes to find summer funding for most graduate students, including by repurposing funds previously set aside for faculty travel. Preliminary oral exams and dissertation defenses are happening remotely, and scheduling is flexible.

Looking past summer, Waltner said that the department hopes to somehow be able to offer additional funding time to graduate students, “not just because of the disruptions of this spring, but because the job market has gone from dismal to dystopian.”

Hundreds of institutions already have reportedly announced some type of hiring freeze for the next six to 18 months. A few, such as the University of Oregon, have specifically included graduate assistants in these freezes.

At Minnesota, an announced hiring freeze does not apply to graduate assistants. The university also has offered supports for graduate students, including an emergency funding program and 80 hours of emergency leave for student instructors.

Absent some bigger intervention, however, the main mechanism the history department has at its disposal to help affected students to admit even smaller, future graduate cohorts than previously planned. Already, Waltner said, the program has agreed not to admit any students on the alternate list for the fall, and a “very small class” for 2021.

Lots of Anxiety, So Many Unknowns

Joseph Dennis, associate professor and director of graduate studies in history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said his department is also looking to fund as many students as possible this summer from various department sources and possible donations. Many students typically pick up off-campus work over the summer, and that has all but dried up, he said.

As for support packages, the department is studying how it can extend them to account for COVID-19-related delays. Graduate students have come home early from research trips that were essential to their dissertations, and "I expect more canceled trips in fall unless there is a major turnaround in virus control."

Dennis and others noted that graduate students -- like faculty members -- suddenly have other types of work to juggle: online course transitions, caregiving, homeschooling children and sourcing materials needed for their studies. To better understand these challenges and needs, the department last week held an online forum for graduate students.

Over all, students are anxious, Dennis said. "So we are trying to do everything we can to reduce anxiety -- working on finances, extending various deadlines, checking in on everyone."

At least part of the reason graduate student accommodations have been slow in coming is that no one has a crystal ball. It’s unclear how long the coronavirus pandemic will last and -- significantly, given that the requested accommodations will be costly -- how university budgets will be affected.

Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank has said, for example, that the university is bracing for a $100 million loss -- if things get back to normal by June. That equates to a 22 percent cut in state funding for a single year, or 3.2 percent of the total budget, according to the Wisconsin State-Journal.

Of course, the research institution model is dependent on graduate assistants to help with research and deliver instruction. But right now much research is halted, and another unanswered question is what fall undergraduate enrollment will look like.

Advocacy From Professional Organizations

Professional organizations are advocating for graduate students, too. The Modern Language Association has called for extensions on graduate student contracts and funding and on time-to-degree limits.

“Graduate students at the end of their contracts will be especially hard hit by this crisis,” reads an MLA statement on academic labor during COVID-19, “as much hiring has come to a screeching halt in both higher education and the many other industries into which Ph.D.s would normally have moved for employment.”

The American Historical Association on Monday released a similar statement urging departments and universities “to be flexible and understanding in accommodating the needs of students whose studies have been interrupted through no fault of their own.”

Institutions should consider extending the duration of funded support to graduate students “as well as offering whatever support possible to graduate students who have suffered serious financial losses relating to the impact of the pandemic,” reads the AHA statement. “Such disruptions might include incurring added expenses for interrupted travel, loss of rent, visa and other fees, and similar situations that cannot always be specified in advance but which are quite real.”

The American Sociological Association also published a statement on academic labor, but focused on professors. Teresa Ciabattari, professor of sociology at Pacific Lutheran University and the association’s director of research, professional development and academic affairs, said that universities should be “flexible, accommodating and humane in how they work with graduate students.” In so many ways, she added, “they are facing the same challenges faculty members are facing, with research being pushed online, being stuck at home, course being pushed online.”

Things graduate students need are flexibility on degree timelines, funding and emergency financial support, and additional help navigating a job market that just got more spare. Specific policies to help graduate students, however, “will really just depend on the institution.”

The Student Caucus of the Sociologists for Women in Society is currently collecting information on departmental and institutional responses to COVID-19 concerning students, to develop a list of best practices. Jax Gonzalez, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder who is involved with the project, said the "best way to support graduate students at this present moment is to help us advocate for protective measures at universities and colleges." 

Questions About External Funding

Emily Miller, associate vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, said she hasn’t heard of policy shifts toward another year of funding or time-to-degree stoppages just yet.

“I do know there is a lot of anxiety and stress among graduate students at this time, and faculty members are working hard at this time to think of ways to support their research groups and teams and labs.”

The AAU spent many days last month working with institutions and federal agencies to answer the most urgent questions about graduate student funding, namely whether students who are paid from federal research grants (not internal assistantships) may continue to be paid that way -- even if they are not technically working in their labs during the pandemic. The answer, by and large, is yes.

Miller said that’s because graduate students working from home are -- for now -- doing work relevant to their research duties. Think: data analysis, literature reviews and manuscript preparations.

How long that work and, therefore, how long these federal funding directives will last remain to be seen.

“There’s a time horizon for which that work can be sustainable,” Miller said. “If there continues to be a need for social distancing and remote education, and if we can’t be on campus in our labs, then extensions on time clocks would need to be addressed by institutions.”

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