Surviving Grad School During a Pandemic

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By Erin Gallagher-Cohoon

This post has been cross-posted with

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to the 20 graduate students who shared their stories with me. Wherever you end up, may you never lose your passion, curiosity, and empathy. I see you. I acknowledge you.

Two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about surviving grad school during a pandemic. I was flattered (and saddened) that my comments seemed to resonate to such a degree with other graduate students. I noticed that many who shared my post on social media quoted one paragraph in particular, a paragraph in which I refute the idea that we are simply preparing for a future career. One colleague messaged me to say how “soothing” it was to hear someone else acknowledge what she does as a career. Another fellow graduate student e-mailed me to say how much she appreciated folks “sharing their stories despite the immense difficulty of the time and self-exposure of the practice.”

I started to more deliberately ask people to share their stories with me. Many wanted to discuss their role as workers and the lack of recognition from the university for their labour. Some were sessional instructors or Teaching Assistants during the move online. For some, there was a noticeable increase in their hours of work, in the emotional labour needed to support undergraduate students who were themselves anxious and stressed, and even in the technical support some faculty were asking from them as someone who was “young and decently tech savvy and reasonably approachable.”

My willingness to see graduate school as a career, to talk about our work as work seems to have resonated so deeply with people because that is how many experience graduate school. And, yet there is a disconnect between this experience and the perspective of university administrations. One colleague described it like this: “Basically, it feels like their approach to graduate student work is that we do this for professional development or some sort of recreation or like extra pocket money or something . . . my job actually is what I pay the rent with.”

In the last two weeks, I have spoken with 15 graduate students and 5 others have messaged me with written comments. I spoke with students from Simon Fraser University, the University of Lethbridge, the University of Saskatchewan, Queen’s University, Carleton University, the University of Ottawa, the University of Guelph, Université Laval, and York University. They have ranged from M.A. students to PhD candidates in their 8th year, in programs as diverse as Computer Science, Sociology, Kinesiology, History, and Anthropology.

I spoke with students who felt that their universities (or, more often) Departments had really stepped up and provided them with support, and many others who felt disillusioned and disheartened by the lack of support. I spoke with students who had prestigious external awards and were as financially stable as possible while in graduate school, and others who were beyond the guaranteed funding period. Some felt that graduate school had actually prepared them for working from home, or in isolation, or that previous mental health crises had given them the coping skills that were so crucial at this time. One student with a serious injury described how, despite the many problems with online learning, “maybe it will make the university see that it’s actually doable so that my accommodation wouldn’t be seen as something insane to ask.” In other words, for some, transitioning to online research has been possible, and may even come with some surprising benefits. For others, it has meant drastic adjustments, perhaps even a complete halt to their work.

They have been mature students with children, students with permanent or temporary disabilities, international students, low-income students, students in the middle of their comprehensive exams, students who have moved back in with their parents, students who worked three jobs before they lost hours due to the pandemic, students who were teaching when the university moved online, students with poor internet connection, students with mortgages to pay, students who used their local food bank, students with spouses working from home or spouses who were recently laid off, students with roommates, students with no dedicated workspace, students with pets, students taking anti-depressants. During our conversations, children wandered into the room, someone made a cup of tea in the background, and a dog had to be rescued from having tangled himself up in the leash. I was provided with glimpses into their families and their homes, perhaps more glimpses than they ever intended to share with me.

I did worry about asking students to share such intimate details about their lives.  Many of them have already spent time and emotional energy sending e-mails to university administration or Department Heads. Many have asked for support, have applied to emergency bursaries with detailed information about their financial struggles, and have answered university surveys on what research barriers they are facing and how their productivity has been affected by their family responsibilities and mental health.

In fact, at least one graduate student clearly indicated to me that they were “tired of having to explain [their] life.” I acknowledge that those who are most struggling with their mental health, those who have the greatest family responsibilities, or those who are most financially precarious likely have neither the time nor the emotional capacity to discuss their personal and professional lives with yet another stranger. As a result, and despite the very real struggles my colleagues shared with me, the stories I heard may have been skewed towards those who have some relative privilege within the hierarchy of graduate students.

The diversity of experiences became especially clear while talking to international students and students from working-class backgrounds. As one low-income student with no guaranteed funding reminded me (a 2nd year PhD candidate with a decent funding package and family who, if need be, are financially capable of providing support): “People who have funding right now are lucky that they have funding so that they’re able to live through a pandemic.” Several people (whether in acknowledgment of the small mercies in their own lives, or in frustration with specific administrators or tenured professors not recognizing the financial precarity of grad school) also referenced a phrase that has made the rounds of social media – “We are in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat.”

Graduate student experiences also varied greatly depending on living arrangements and what region they lived in. Graduate students in Vancouver and Toronto had less access to space and were more concerned about high rent prices. Other students (in Saskatoon, for example) spoke of their access to a backyard or to spaces outside of the city as “privileges.” The privilege of space is linked to financial stability but also to regional differences in living costs and the built environment of various cities. I heard a real diversity of experience among grad students during these conversations, but some common themes did emerge.

I asked about their mental health, financial situation, and physical space, about research barriers and about the supports being provided by the University or their Department. At times, I also asked about their parenting and caretaking responsibilities, their physical health, or their anxieties about at-risk loved ones, depending on their situation.

It was in describing their mental health that graduate students were most evocative. “I feel like I’m sitting in a house on fire,” said one PhD candidate in reference to the ‘This is Fine’ meme. You know, the one with the dog. “Thank God for medication,” said another. A comment that was eerily parodied during a different conversation a few days later by yet another – “I’m so happy that I went on my anti-depressants before all this because I think if I hadn’t and this would have happened, it would have been terrible. So, thank God for the ability to purchase dopamine and serotonin at the store.”

Several people talked about the university messaging, and the idea that they should be able to work from home or that they had an excess of free time right now. When I asked about research barriers, students often talked about the closure of libraries or archives, the inability to carry out planned fieldwork or international travel. Even those who were in the writing stage, however, felt like their productivity had diminished and that their “galloping anxiety and insomnia” made it hard to focus. One colleague studying for her comprehensive exams described how a trip to the grocery store “was the most anxiety-inducing thing ever,” how she was exhausted by the end of it and “couldn’t do work for the rest of the day.”

Often unprompted, they would talk about the pressure they felt to continue being productive, to not lose momentum even during a pandemic. “The neoliberal drive for productivity continues,” wrote one graduate student. Another, thinking out loud, mused:

“It’s really made me realize how unsustainable this all is. Like, the constant pressure both externally and internally. I don’t know. We do so much, and we always devalue ourselves because – I think it’s a reflection of being devalued . . . We bust our ass and we’re just like – ‘this is normal.’ Like, we suffer through poor funding, poor communication, like crazy expectations of productivity and we just think that that’s the normal that we have to meet. It’s not really a sustainable thing. At all.”

The push for productivity has meant that some graduate students are being encouraged to adjust or completely change their research projects. In the historical field, for example, students are being encouraged to turn to digital sources because they cannot access archives. While digital history is a legitimate methodology, there are also some important limitations that need to be acknowledged. For one, not all research projects can pivot towards digital sources.

Graduate students might feel pressured to abandon valuable research projects, perhaps especially those projects which are trying to highlight underrepresented voices and perspectives. One graduate student whose research had completely stalled because of the closure of archives defended her project: “this project is actually shaping up to be really important . . . My work is valuable, and I shouldn’t be asked to just change it and forego it because I might have to take an extra year.”

Similarly, a PhD candidate in Anthropology described her concerns for the future if she wasn’t able to pursue fieldwork.

“The truth is, for anthropologists, as much as people have written back against this colonial idea of being there – you know, fieldwork came from the colonies being available for study. So much has been written, but it’s still a rite of passage and if you haven’t done fieldwork – I could see them just like throwing away two or three cohorts . . . It’s really worrying that they’re telling us like ‘oh, consider online research,’ but I don’t think anyone will ever hire us.”

A few students did feel like the University was providing them with the support that they needed, or that they didn’t need additional institutional supports. More commonly, however, I heard students highlight the supports they received from individual faculty members or at the Department level, but become visibly frustrated when talking about higher administration. Many referred to being “disillusioned” and “disheartened.”

Not everyone agreed on what the university response should be (summer tuition waiver, additional mental health supports, drastically increasing the emergency bursary amounts to support the most financially vulnerable), but the majority agreed that their university’s response was lacking. Many referred to university communications that encouraged students to take leaves of absences if they were struggling with productivity or could not afford tuition.

“If you say – I can’t get my work done, they say – well you should withdraw. And if you say – Oh, I’m sick – you should take a leave of absence. And if you say – Oh, I just can’t afford it – you should take a leave of absence. . . I think those are horrible. I think those are horrible options. I think they amount to abandoning people.”

With a few exceptions, the people I spoke to felt abandoned by their university administration. Universities have insisted that they will provide support on a case-by-case basis. The individualization of support has meant that students have felt pressured to prove their need. One low-income student who applied to and received $300 from her university’s emergency bursary described the application process as invasive, an “explain-how-you’re-suffering thing.”

It has also meant that some students have not applied to available support because they worry that they are not needy enough or deserving enough. Asking for support from supervisors, especially, was highlighted as a step that is fraught with tension because of the power dynamic. One female M.A. student, a student who has had to ask for accommodations in the past, worried about being seen “as weak, or too emotional in a male-dominated space, or a traditionally male space of academia. That kind of messes with your head, too, in something uncertain like a pandemic because now you’re thinking – what can I say that won’t make me seem like I can’t deal with this or I can’t navigate this space.”

On the other end of the spectrum, a different student felt “personally incredibly lucky because I do feel safe asking my supervisor for things, asking her for money . . . I feel lucky when I am compared to other people, but that’s part of the whole problem . . . I think there’s sort of like this sense of ‘well, we’ll grease the pockets of a few to keep them silent.’ And, yeah, I just kind of have a sense that a lot of my colleagues do not have similar treatment.”

Invariably, they also spoke about others in their community, graduate students who had even less funding, or international students who on top of everything else were dealing with increased racism and nationalism. Many graduate students expressed concern for the particular financial precarity of international students, and their emotional wellbeing considering the rise of anti-Asian and anti-immigrant sentiments in Canada.

One colleague, considering the lack of financial support being provided by his university, wondered whether he could start a GoFundMe page so that students like him, who had guaranteed funding for the summer at least, might be able to help others who couldn’t even afford groceries. It surprised me the first time one of my narrators described themselves as “lucky” and admitted to me how worried they were for others. By the last conversation, I had come to expect such comments. People who had just finished telling me about their stress dreams, or about being late on rent or how little they had for groceries, were still thinking of others.

As one PhD candidate said: “good news is – seriously though, our colleagues are some of the best people. Like truly. And so, I do have hope, believe it or not, that like, change is possible and will happen and we will get through this but that’s because we band together.”

That is also where I turn to for hope these days, to some of the best people I know.

Erin Gallagher-Cohoon is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Queen’s University. Her research focuses on the history of queer parenting in Canada.

Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash

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