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'This Can Be Career-Ending': Graduate Students Face Uncertainty with Job Opportunities Due to Coronavirus Pandemic

The GSAS Student Center is located in Harvard Yard.
The GSAS Student Center is located in Harvard Yard. By Amanda Y. Su
By Callia A. Chuang, Crimson Staff Writer

As graduate students approach the end of their programs at Harvard, many students have expressed uncertainty about their post-graduation employment prospects due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.

In response to the COVID-19 public health crisis, Harvard has altered traditional aspects of the graduate student experience by moving classes online and canceling the public dissertation defense requirement in some departments.

Looking ahead at life after graduation, some graduate students said they were concerned about the scarcity of employment opportunities given that universities across the country — including Harvard — have implemented hiring freezes in light of the pandemic.

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Ann Hall wrote in an email that GSAS has reached out to alumni to help identify jobs for graduating students, and is working with the Office of Career Services to facilitate professional connections.

Still, Jessica A. Bardsley, a Ph.D. candidate in Film and Visual Studies, said the coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated an already-competitive market for postdoctoral jobs.

“There’s already not very much out there,” Bardsley said. “What I witnessed as everything with COVID-19 came to pass is that a lot of schools that hadn’t already found people to fill certain postdocs and visiting positions, a lot of those positions actually just disappeared.”

Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Rachael Dane wrote in an email that FAS froze some visiting faculty searches, but kept others “based on curricular need.”

Other students also expressed worry regarding the pattern of hiring freezes. Ph.D. candidate in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Blake V. Dickson said if he does not find a job, he will likely move back to Australia because his Harvard health insurance plan ends on July 31. Without a job, he will be left without coverage.

“The only option that I have is getting a job right now,” Dickson said. “If I don’t do that, it’s stressful to think about because I would have to then uproot my entire life to a different country again.”

As a result of the limited job market, students are evaluating other options, including delaying their graduation. Bardsley said she had planned to graduate this year, but in light of the pandemic, she decided to continue her studies at Harvard for another year.

Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy David A. Thorstad said spending additional time in graduate school could impact a student’s future employment prospects.

“If you have to spend not only one more year in graduate school as a consequence — but maybe two or three if this trickles down to the job market next year — this can be career-ending,” Thorstad said.

As the public health crisis persists, students have called on their institutions to provide them with financial assistance, according to Bardsley. Harvard’s graduate student union has been advocating for the University to provide Ph.D. students with a fully-funded “COVID-19 bridge year” to subsidize their research efforts that were disrupted by the outbreak.

“I think that’s what a lot of [Harvard] graduate students in this position are pressing for. For the University to step up,” Bardsley said.

Hall wrote that GSAS had first focused on graduate students’ “immediate safety needs” and is currently working with the University to “evaluate the categories of need” students have.

“Since the Coronavirus Disease pandemic began, GSAS has focused on helping our students during this crisis,” Hall wrote.

—Staff writer Callia A. Chuang can be reached at callia.chuang@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter at @calliaachuang.

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FASOffice of Career ServicesGSASCareers Coronavirus