Since the coronavirus pandemic forced schools, from kindergartens to universities, to cease nearly all in-person operations, a typical day for sixth-year Ph.D. candidate Sarah E. Bruhn has shifted from studying mothers and school environments to trying to create a school-like environment for her three young children.
“The mornings are spent trying to help the kindergartner with reading and get my third grader to do her math work, while holding my toddler and trying to get her to not draw over her siblings,” Bruhn says.
Before, Bruhn had been using this academic year to collect data for her dissertation, which explores how immigrant mothers from Latin America develop a sense of belonging in their communities, and in particular the role of schools in facilitating inclusion and exclusion. Her days were spent in the field: sitting in on school-hosted events and parent English classes, observing at the school enrollment center, and interviewing mothers and educators.
“All of it basically came to an overnight halt on March 12, when the schools closed,” she says.
The pandemic puts graduate students like Bruhn in a precarious position. Social-distancing measures have made remote research nearly impossible, altering dissertation plans, graduation timelines, and career trajectories. With most summer positions cancelled, many are unsure of how they will afford the next few months of rent — let alone an extra year of graduate school. The academic job market has collapsed.
On top of that, graduate students cannot access many of the benefits available to workers in other sectors of the economy. “Many people don’t see us as being workers, even though it’s graduate students who actually do most of the research that makes the University what it is,” says Max G. Ehrenfreund, a Ph.D. candidate in History of Science and representative for the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers.
“The crisis has shown that graduate students are like any other worker in the American economy today, exposed to all kinds of financial and personal risks,” Ehrenfreund says. Many care for dependents, face financial insecurities, live in areas at higher risk of infection, and lack a home environment conducive to working remotely.
HGSU-UAW and other student groups have been in conversations with the University regarding ways to alleviate these adversities, most notably demanding the extension of an additional year of funding to those who need it, a so-called “bridge year.” And though Harvard has enacted several emergency measures, many graduate students like Bruhn feel the response has been slow and nebulous, leaving their futures — and by proxy the University’s — uncertain.
Bruhn now wakes up around 5:30 a.m. each day and spends much of the morning caring for her children. Her husband takes over in the afternoon, but Bruhn spends many of those hours teaching a course at Wellesley. By 9 p.m., when she might have some time to work before bed, she’s usually too exhausted to sit down and synthesize the data she’s collected.
Even if she had the time and energy, working on her dissertation would be near impossible. Social distancing has particularly hurt ethnographic research, which relies on interviews and is location-specific. The pandemic has added much adversity to the lives of the mothers she researches, who often lack access to video call service, making remote research difficult. Bruhn has just recently started conducting some interviews via phone.
She is not alone — the pandemic has upended research for Ph.D. candidates across the University, closing off access to travel, archives, libraries, labs, interviewees, and more.
Nathan Grau, a third-year graduate student in the History Department, was about to set out on his research year before the pandemic ended most international travel. He studies decolonization in the former French Empire and had secured a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct nine months of research abroad in France, Algeria, Madagascar, and Vietnam. His days would have been spent digging through archives, drawing analytic connections, and conducting interviews.
His scholarship is delayed at least until the start of 2021. Even if he can travel in January, he may have to substantially alter his research plans in the face of the pandemic. His more elderly interlocutors will be more reticent, and with the French archives closed, Grau cannot request document declassifications in advance — his first few months in France could be spent waiting for approval.
And even if research goes smoothly, Grau will at a minimum have to use one of his finite semesters of his “guaranteed teaching” — a system by which GSAS provides a teaching position and supplements, or “tops up,” teaching fellows’ salaries for up to four semesters — in the fall.
“I will be burning through an extra semester of Harvard’s sort of support for us while we’re on campus,” he says. This means in the future he will struggle to generate income or, even if he manages to teach, will have to take on extra sections to make up for not having a salary “top up” (nearly $800 per month during the four semesters of guaranteed teaching) — eating into his time to write and research a dissertation that will shape his academic career.
Shireen Z. Hamza, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in History of Science, has found herself in similar straits. She received a Fulbright Grant to travel to India starting on April 1, but the trip has been postponed until January at the earliest.
“My whole timeline on the dissertation is going to be delayed at least by a year,” Hamza says. Her research focuses on Unani medicine in India, meaning she has lost a singular opportunity to see how Unani medicine practitioners are responding to this pandemic.
Beyond delays, Hamza says the pandemic poses questions for her project as a whole: “I don’t think that it’s right that me sitting at Harvard, I’m going to write this whole dissertation about the history of Unani medicine without even knowing how that work is going to be received by the community of practitioners or without having discussed it with many of them,” she explains.
Hamza also has more immediate concerns: The postponement of her research means she will have no income until the fall. She has turned to submitting pieces to online magazines for popular audiences — and her partner has a job, which helps stabilize her financial situation — but nonetheless her future remains uncertain.
“I’m just applying for everything at this point,” Hamza says of summer fellowships and positions. “Because otherwise it’ll continue to be a no income situation until the fall.”
The carnage is not limited to the social sciences and humanities: In March, Harvard directed all research laboratories to severely limit operations. For Stephen P. McInturff, a fourth-year graduate student who studies auditory implants in mice, this means he can only go into the lab every third week or so to check on his mouse colonies. All specialized equipment, wet bench work, and histology are off limits.
Like Grau, McInturff will also be unable to immediately recommence research when de-densification regulations ease. When Harvard announced it would limit lab operations, he had to reduce his mouse colonies to breeding pairs, meaning there are no mice available for experimentation.
“It will take basically nine weeks from when I set the breedings up to when I can use them,” he explains.
With lab work and in-person data collection nearly impossible, others have had to rethink their dissertations entirely. Jeanne Gallée is a fourth-year graduate student who studies neural networks and language processing. She had planned to begin collecting data for her thesis, which would have involved working with patients with rare forms of dementia, in March.
Instead of spending the last two months gathering behavioral assessment and neuroimaging data, her days have become isolated, even monotonous: She works from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on her laptop, the biggest change of scenery consisting of moving from the couch to the kitchen.
“My entire project had to reroute, especially since I’m trying to graduate next year,” Gallée says. She can no longer collect the data she needed, particularly because she studies a particularly vulnerable, elderly population. She has had no choice but to shift to working with pre-existing datasets.
Rerouting research plans can have repercussions well beyond completing a degree. Writing a dissertation based on experimental research, or one based on extant data, can mean the difference between marketing yourself as someone who works in a lab and someone who does large-scale statistical analysis; the difference between a career made in the field and one carried out from behind a screen.
Before the pandemic, History 97b: “What Is Intellectual History?”, a writing-intensive tutorial, met once a week for two hours. Now, with students scattered as far as Australia, the course has split into two, two-hour sections. On Wednesdays during the second half of the spring semester, Marissa J. Smit, one of the course’s TFs and a third-year Ph.D. candidate in the History Department, began teaching at 7 a.m. and stayed up until 9 p.m. to hold office hours.
Time zones posed only one obstacle to remote teaching, though.
“The boundaries of our roles as TFs, and of our time and our schedule, got totally eroded,” Smit says. “And unfortunately a lot of bandwidth and emotional labor went into being there for students, and my research totally ground to a halt in March and hasn’t really started up again since.”
After two years of training to teach in a classroom setting, many TFs were unsure of how to proceed this March. “There’s been this proliferation of work and new technical skills and new techniques that none of us were really trained to do when we first started our teaching,” Grau says.
TFs have had to adjust their teaching methods, create new sections, change evaluation standards, and accommodate each students’ individual circumstances. Amid unprecedented turmoil, many felt formal guidance was lacking, or when present ad-hoc at best, not provided nearly far enough in advance of easily foreseeable problems.
“Every time I have a new conversation with our director of graduate studies or someone else, they introduce some new resource or webpage that is pulled out of magical thin air that explains things that half of us have never heard of before,” Smit says. “It feels like there’s a jack-in-the-box effect of when we find out about things.”
There was a lag, for instance, between when the College announced emergency grading and when GSAS did so. For that week, Smit had to both adapt to remote teaching and focus on maintaining her own grades.
Similarly, Smit says TFs lacked guidance on what to expect from students who were ill or had been quarantined, or for their responsibilities to students who felt lonely or scared. Instead, they were told “just to be as flexible as possible,” she says.
GSAS weekly email updates did include resources for remote teaching, often in the form of links to resources from the Office of Undergraduate Education and the Bok Center, which provided consultations and Zoom workshops for TFs to discuss and improve remote pedagogical methods.
More generally, Harvard has sought to provide guidance and support to graduate students via frequent updates and online resources. In the immediate aftermath of pandemic-induced closures, GSAS mobilized resources to protect students’ personal safety and extend emergency funds to those in acute financial distress. The University has helped house students who were unable to leave campus after the start of de-densification, and GSAS has partnered with alumni to help students find jobs.
Despite these efforts, some graduate students feel services suited to their particular needs, from financial insecurities, to research delays, to the exigencies of remote teaching, have fallen short.
“I just don’t think they’re doing as much as they could; they’re not really prioritizing [graduate students],” Hamza says. “I mean, basically two months have passed until [the Emergency Support Initiative] was announced. What were people doing in these months?”
With so many of their peers in crisis, graduate students have begun looking to one another for support. Student organizations across campus have been collecting testimonies and formulating solutions.
HGSU-UAW has compiled teaching and other resources for students. The Graduate Student Council, too, has hosted town halls on mental health and wellness and partnered with Students vs Pandemics, founded by a Harvard graduate student, to provide educational, parenting, and other resources. Many graduate students are looking beyond the University, helping those in need by tutoring, volunteering at medical clinics, and more.
“The most useful things I’ve found out are ones I learned from Union sources,” Smit says.
Nestled into each weekly GSAS email update, beneath COVID-19 updates and support offerings, is a section titled “Staying Productive,” which includes links to resources and suggestions for maintaining academic productivity. For some, these emails’ wording at times veers from encouragement to accountability, creating undue and unnecessary pressure.
One such email, dated May 6, introduces a “Staying Productive” resource with the clause, “For those who have the best intentions, but fail to follow through on academic work…” Another email, from mid-April, states that “The Academic Resource Center is offering a variety of workshops and accountability groups.”
The implication, Smit says, seems to be that graduate students must be held accountable to complete their work — to the tune of, “‘How can we keep you as laser focused as possible?’, which is sort of alienating,” she adds.
“It’s a little rich from the University to expect increased or maintained levels of productivity when the University is refusing to fund students for that productivity,” Michael Ortiz, a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies and secretary of the Graduate Student Council, says.
As the Graduate Student Council and the Graduate Student Union have been in conversation with the University, voicing the difficulties graduate students are facing during the pandemic, funding has been one of the main points of contention, in particular in the form of a bridge year — providing all graduate students a year of guaranteed funding to make up for COVID-induced setbacks. An HGSU-UAW letter written in April calling for GSAS to provide a bridge year garnered over 1,000 signatures.
“There’s this sort of precipice that all the people in my cohort year are looking at,” Grau says. “We’re trying to figure out a way to mitigate that, and bridge funding is what I understand to be the best short term solution.”
Having a bridge-year “is essentially [the difference] between finishing my dissertation and not,” Bruhn says. “As a parent of three small children, I had anticipated doing most of my data collection this year and made plans around childcare accordingly next year, and now I’m going to need additional childcare.”
GSAS announced an “Emergency Support Initiative” on May 1. Among the emergency provisions are lost-time funding and emergency summer research awards, available to students whose term-time or summer 2020 research plans have been disrupted.
“We first focused on personal safety and emergency needs while we worked with our University partners to evaluate additional categories of need to determine this next phase of support,” GSAS Dean Emma Dench wrote in the email announcing the initiative. “In the coming weeks, we will continue working with our University partners to augment and expand this program.”
The Emergency Support Initiative is the second phase of University support for graduate students, following the emergency funds for those struggling with rent or groceries. Further support phases are likely to come, and many Ph.D. candidates expressed a degree of satisfaction with GSAS’ engagement with and support for students to date. “We’re very pleased with the progress that’s been made so far for dealing with the issue of bridge funding,” Ehrenfreund says.
Yet the current emergency COVID-19 funds are not a bridge year, and many feel significant shortcomings remain — in particular, the funds appear to not be universal.
“[The Emergency Support Initiative] in itself is a highly competitive process,” Ortiz says. “You have to apply, get letters, it’s read by a committee. And then there’s still an adjudication process where some people's forms of need and some people’s forms of suffering and hardship are deemed more worthy or more visible than others.’”
The Emergency Support Initiative raises its own set of uncertainties, Ehrenfreund adds. In particular, he says the announcement’s phrasing suggests lost-time funding will only go toward those whose research has been directly disrupted, rather than targeting the much wider set of pandemic-related concerns, and that GSAS seems to not be interested in extending guaranteed teaching.
“What about students who are teaching as of March 2020? [The announcement] doesn’t say anything about that group,” Ehrenfreund says. “People who are coming to the end of their guaranteed teaching appointment and are wondering about how exactly they’ll get paid come the fall.” This is especially worrying, he says, given the possibility of fewer available teaching positions in the fall, whether because many undergraduates take leaves of absence or because online teaching requires fewer TFs.
The current announcement, he adds, also leaves unclear whether lost-time funding entails tuition and health insurance, or includes a stipend — and if so, whether the stipend would be conditional on teaching. HGSU-UAW’s letter demanding a bridge year calls for “an additional year of guaranteed funding with healthcare fee and facilities fee waivers.”
“I know that GSAS has announced this Emergency Support Initiative, and I’m sure that will be helpful to many students, but the eligibility criteria they’ve outlined leave out many students who have been heavily impacted,” says Nadirah F. Foley, a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in education. “Many students are optimistic that there will be subsequent phases that make sure no student left behind, but in the interim there is still a tremendous amount of anxiety.”
The phase 2 emergency funds are limited. In a letter to directors of graduate studies, GSAS administrators wrote, “Because this phase of support is funded by a donation from a generous alumnus, we have a finite amount of funds to distribute.”
The announcement of emergency summer funding, though it provides hope, may prove a similar story. The Emergency Support Initiative, as of now, seeks to support those “whose summer 2020 research plans will be disrupted, especially students at G5 and above” who have lost funding opportunities. Yet absent jobs and research opportunities, and likely stuck at home, nearly all graduate students are vulnerable this summer.
“A lot of people are looking at the next three months in particular, wondering, ‘How am I going to get through this?’” Ehrenfreund says. “And the guidance on the emergency summer research from the administration is just a little bit vague.”
The faulty assumption that underlies current GSAS COVID-19 emergency funding, Ehrenfreund says, is that only graduate students whose current research was disrupted by the pandemic have lost time.
But graduate students in every year have seen their lives and studies upended — in a pandemic, lost time is ubiquitous. Students earlier in graduate school have had to transition to online learning and lost opportunities to build crucial connections with faculty; more advanced students’ opportunities to learn, research, and teach have dwindled and disappeared. And academic disruptions don’t take massive financial insecurity into account. “The future of a cohort of academics is at stake here,” Foley says.
“Students are concerned that they’re going to be on the hook for tuition and fees and health insurance, all of which is over $8,000,” Foley adds. “And that’s in the context of students having partners who are losing jobs, having to step up and support families, who are also experiencing all sorts of economic disruption, there are student parents who are thrown into the unenviable position of having to homeschool their kids while also trying to make progress in a Ph.D. program.”
On top of these widespread complications, international graduate students face a unique set of challenges, with global air travel severely limited, the American job market eviscerated, and the clock ticking on their visas. For instance, students on F-1 Visas receiving STEM degrees can apply to extend their post-graduation stay in the U.S. from one to three years, a time many use to apply for a work visa or green card, explains Krish Sreedevi, an Indian international student who just graduated with a Masters of Education.
But students need an employer to receive this extension, which will be difficult to find given the coronavirus-induced recession and how international students often struggle navigating the American job market, he says. Those not graduating face a jobless summer, leaving many wondering how they will support their education or work to repay loans. And due to exchange rates — 75 Indian Rupees equal about one U.S. dollar, for instance — “the economic strain students take is much more acute when you’re coming from another country,” Sreedevi adds.
Returning home isn’t always an option, with most international flights cancelled and governments scrambling to return citizens stranded abroad. And visa applications have halted, leaving incoming international students, too, in limbo.
“Should we grab the first opportunity to go back to India, or should we sustain the dream we had when we came to Harvard?” Sreedevi asks.
Graduate students in already compromised or marginalized positions — not just international students burdened with loans and precarious visas, but also those facing financial, health care, and academic insecurities — are at perhaps the greatest risk, seeing their vulnerabilities amplified. “COVID is only revealing problems that had been in place for many, many years before this outbreak,” DeAnza Cook, a Ph.D. candidate in history and vice president of the GSC, says.
“If you already came from more humble beginnings and didn’t necessarily have a lot, this has only exacerbated it even more,” says Bryan O. Buckley, a Ph.D. candidate at the Chan School and former president of the HGC. “We feel those same disparities as graduate students, and even more because some of us have family members.”
A neglectful health care system, neighborhood segregation, predisposition to conditions associated with higher COVID-19 morbidity and mortality rates, and assuming caretaking responsibilities are among several factors that have led COVID-19 to disproportionately affect Black and Latinx communities, working class families, and women. Ph.D. candidates are not immune from the pandemic’s unequal devastation.
“When you think of not just the aspects of loss of income, but when you think of COVID-19 as the co-morbidities that are associated with people who are affected more than others — so for example me, as a Black American, high blood pressure runs in my family and cardiovascular disease run in my family, and so those could put me at high risk,” Buckley says. “When you think about [more vulnerable] communities, which are often in Boston — we have a lot of graduates that live in Dorchester, Mattapan, because they can’t afford to live closer to Boston or Cambridge — how are those communities affected?” COVID-19’s compounded complications, he adds, can produce burnout and damage mental health in minority populations.
Women, in many cases, have borne the brunt of child caring responsibilities due to the pandemic, which has spilled over into academia. Gallée, also co-chair of Harvard Graduate Women in Science and Engineering, points to preliminary data from scientific journal editors that indicates a precipitous dropoff in the number of papers submitted by female authors — likely because, following the structure of a traditional household, female researchers are taking care of children and the home, Gallée explains.
Yet the pandemic bringing already-existing inequalities into high relief may also present an opportunity to enact broader changes to the University. HGSU-UAW, for instance, has begun making progress in bargaining sessions with the University to establish a graduate student contract.
“I kind of see it as a moment to not only address the immediate concerns students are facing because of cancellations and shutdowns and lockdowns caused by COVID,” Cook says. “But it’s also an opportunity for us to realize that the students who are being most affected right now by the pandemic were often the case for students who were already susceptible and struggling.”
— Staff writer Matteo N. Wong can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @matteo_wong.