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Blog post Part of series: Covid-19, education and educational research

Postgraduate research students’ experiences of the coronavirus pandemic

Ross Goldstone, Cardiff University Jingwen Zhang, University of Manchester Victoria Christodoulides, University of Bath

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has caused most postgraduate research (PGR) students to encounter research restrictions and undertake their research duties from home (see Burridge et al., 2020). Yet an insufficient amount of research has explored PGR students’ pandemic experiences. This blog post draws on an online survey of 994 UK-based PGR students conducted in January 2021, which explored the experiences of students, the support received during lockdown and the future plans of PGRs after the coronavirus pandemic (further methodological information is available here).

In our survey, we asked students whether they were experiencing a number of mental health and social issues as a result of the pandemic. Eighty-five per cent of the respondents reported that they experienced anxiety and stress; 80 per cent experienced fatigue and burnout; 66 per cent felt isolated or lonely; and 69 per cent reported other mental health concerns. Our findings align with previous research on PGR students’ mental health, which has shown that 80 per cent of PGR students and early researchers experienced some level of mental distress (Byrom, 2020).

We also measured average working hours before and after the pandemic began, discovering that a pre-pandemic average of 37.6 working hours – which is consistent with research funding bodies’ requirements, such as the Economic and Research Council – fell to 32.4 hours during the pandemic and are evidently more disperse (see figure 1). This suggests a varied negative impact of the pandemic on PGR students’ working time.


Figures 1a & 1b: Students’ average working week (hours) before and after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic

Data shows that the reduction in weekly working hours was most pronounced among students with caring responsibilities (9.6 hours), third-year students (6.8 hours) and natural science students (6.1 hours). In addition, some students reported working 48 or more hours per week, with international students (18 per cent) and fourth-year students (19 per cent) more likely to report this.

Furthermore, over half of participating students (52 per cent) reported having adapted to working from home somewhat or very ineffectively, which likely placed additional pressure on students’ productive working time during the pandemic. Ineffective working environments and practices, moreover, would have been shaped by the inaccessibility of homeworking equipment, an issue reported by 41 per cent of respondents (see figure 2). Other forms of support, including training on adjusting research plans and adapting methods were also unavailable for a significant proportion of the sample (52 and 44 per cent respectively). This shows variable access to important support for completing a research degree during a pandemic and raises questions regarding support received by PGRs.


Figure 2: Forms of support available to participating PGR students (%)

Among students who had received training on adjusting research plans (for instance online research), this was ‘unhelpful’ or ‘very unhelpful’ for most students (69 per cent) (see figure 3). This means that, even where participating students had access to training, this was felt to be inadequate. This is concerning given that 59 per cent of the sample had been required to adjust their research in light of the pandemic, with this adaptation taking up to six months for 57 per cent, more than six months for 9 per cent, and still ongoing for 35 per cent of participating students.

Supervisory support to adjust research plans (such as changing to remote research) and library resources (such as access to online books) were reported as particularly helpful, with 81 per cent and 67 per cent of students feeling each had been either ‘helpful’ or ‘very helpful’, respectively (see figure 3). This shows that support aimed to facilitate effective home working (such as online study resources) or delivered by supervisors was positively received by participating students.


Figure 3: Perceived helpfulness of selected forms of support for participating students

Higher levels of satisfaction (either satisfied or extremely satisfied) were expressed towards institutional support (37 per cent) compared to research council (11 per cent) and United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) (5 per cent) support. In light of students’ pandemic experiences and insufficient support received, 58 per cent were either ‘very unconfident’ or ‘not so confident’ in completing their studies on time. Moreover, one-in-four (26 per cent) were now considering leaving their studies.

Despite the difficulties experienced by PGR students during the coronavirus pandemic, many reported being able to achieve a number of ‘outputs’. Completing or drafting a thesis chapter, teaching experience and delivering a conference presentation were common outputs achieved by participating students (see figure 4). However, there were differences across years of study, particularly in completion of a thesis chapter. Many of the participating students did not complete a thesis chapter, despite this typically forming a core part of annual progress reviews during doctoral degrees. 


Figure 4: Participating students’ achievements during the pandemic by year of study (%)

These findings evidence the difficulties experienced by participating UK PGR students during the coronavirus pandemic, demonstrating negative experiences across health and wellbeing, academic study and students’ personal lives. Not only does our survey suggest that provision of support is variable for participating students, but it also shows that the utility of support provided is questionable. As a result, further research is required to explore how best to support PGR students during the ongoing pandemic, which should work collaboratively with students in co-constructing effective support measures.


References

Burridge, H., Gates, S., Iyer, P., Roberts, E., & Griggs, J. (2020). UKRI Covid-19 student consultation: Final report. NatCen Social Research. https://www.ukri.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/UKRI-11112020-NatCenUKRICOVID-19StudentConsultation.pdf

Byrom, N. (2020). COVID-19 and the research community: The challenges of lockdown for early-career researchers. Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neurosciences, King’s College London. https://elifesciences.org/articles/59634