One Year Later: The New Reality of Graduate Research in the COVID-19 World

by Kaitlyn Easson & Sai Priya Anand, Science and Policy Exchange (SPE)

In the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, university institutions across Canada shut down non-essential scientific research thus creating substantial challenges for the progression of the research projects of graduate students. Despite the gradual resumption of research activities at scientific institutions last summer, the graduate student experience has not yet returned to its pre-pandemic state. This “new normal” research environment for graduate students presents a variety of challenges for both in-person research at institutional facilities and remote research from home. In this post, we look back on the past year and the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it, reflecting on the lasting alterations to the landscape of graduate research that have emerged.

Graduate research students have had to adapt to evolving changes to their research environment in the past year (photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels).

In the Lab: Revamped Work Schedules, Supply Shortages, and Reluctant Participants

Students returning to the lab in person are typically doing so on an adjusted work schedule, involving creating staggered work schedules for lab members in order to minimize the number of individuals at a given time, facilitating physical distancing among coworkers.

Sai Priya: “As a student studying microbiology and immunology, the majority of my research involves doing wet lab experiments on the bench. With the pandemic, navigating biological experiments over the past year has definitely been complicated with odd working hours, informally established to have sufficient physical distancing in our otherwise busy and crowded lab.”

This system typically does not allow for full-time facility access for students. For students who rely heavily on facility access for their research, part-time access can hinder the progression of their thesis projects. This is particularly problematic for students with experimental protocols that require long hours over several consecutive days. Moreover, these regulations can leave students in labs with large numbers of personnel to compete for limited facility access time. In addition, accommodating time for all lab members likely involves extended working hours over the weekend or late in the evenings, which complicates the already disrupted work-life balance of graduate students. Inconsistent access to facilities disproportionately impacts graduate research students in “bench science” fields such as chemistry, biological sciences, biochemistry, and chemical engineering.

Many graduate students also depend on reliable access to equipment, materials, and participants in order to advance their experiments. Research in wet laboratories has been further complicated by a shortage of essential lab supplies, such as pipette tips, that are in high demand for COVID-19 testing procedures. Furthermore, research involving human participants is often slowed by the understandable hesitancy of individuals to participate in elective medical research in the midst of a pandemic.

Kaitlyn: “As a student in the field of human neuroimaging, my research progress relies heavily on my ability to access my institution’s imaging facility and recruit and interact with patients from the clinical populations I study. While our research was approved to resume last summer, with extra precautions to protect the health of our participants, our recruitment progress is slower than it was before the pandemic, and I have had to revise my degree timeline to allow myself more time to finish the data collection phase of my project.”

This is a particularly relevant consideration for research involving certain clinical groups, including older adults, immunocompromised individuals, and individuals with chronic pulmonary or cardiac conditions, that are at a heightened risk for COVID-19-related complications. With this in mind, current restrictions at some institutions justifiably prohibit in-person research with certain at-risk populations.

Working from Home: The Remote Research Experience

Guidelines for research activities typically only allow in-person laboratory research to be performed when it is impossible to conduct that work remotely. This leaves remote-friendly work, such as literature review, writing, and data processing and analysis, to be done from home.

Kaitlyn: “As I am only back in the lab part-time for essential data collection, I have dedicated a greater amount of my time in the past year to ‘remote-friendly’ activities that I can complete from home. In addition to jumping on the bandwagon and baking my first sourdough loaf in the early months of the pandemic, I have focused my energy on catching up on new literature in my field, enrolling in online courses to brush up on my programming skills, analyzing data I have already collected, and preparing publications.”

Sai Priya: “At the start of the pandemic, I utilized time away from the bench to explore and develop extracurricular skills that I otherwise would not have the time for and also took the time to read more literature and follow through with the exciting and inspiring research progress in the fields of virology and immunology over the past year.”

Nevertheless, the completion of these remote activities requires individual students to have access to a personal computer with sufficient computational power to perform data analysis and a reliable, high-speed internet connection. These resources may not be consistently available to all students. In addition to these technological requirements, students may not have access to a dedicated, quiet workspace at home.

Another hurdle that graduate students may face is staying virtually connected with their supervisor and other members of their lab without regular in-person interaction. This may impede the communication of expectations between supervisors and students and hinder students’ access to support, feedback, and assistance from their colleagues, thus causing further delays to research progress.

The Bottom Line: Delayed Graduation and Funding Complications

With all of these persistent challenges to conducting graduate research in the midst of a pandemic, it is not surprising that graduate students are encountering delays in their research timelines and experiencing subsequent challenges with degree completion. In a survey of Canadian graduate students conducted by the Toronto Science Policy Network in the spring of 2020, approximately 40% of research-stream students reported that COVID-19 would negatively impact their degree timeline and their ability to graduate. These graduate delays present a challenge for students who may be nearing the maximum years of study allowed by their program or for international students whose study permits are approaching their expiration date. Another survey from Queen’s University of graduate students found the majority to be facing financial strains and uncertainties about their research projects that have negatively affected their mental health. A frequent thought voiced by respondents was to lower tuition and student fees and increase funding.

Fortunately, universities have indicated that they will be lenient in granting extensions to time limitations for degree completion, and government agencies have implemented measures to extend study permits and more flexibly grant post-graduation work permits. Continued flexibility on these fronts will be required to counteract the long-term impact of COVID-19 in the months to come.

Graduation delays can create complications for research students’ funding packages. In addition to supervisor grants, these funding packages frequently include student fellowships, such as external fellowships from federal and provincial funding agencies and internal fellowships from the student’s university, that are awarded for a set period of time. However, many fellowships offered by federal and provincial agencies and by universities are only awarded to students in the earlier stages of their degrees. Students who have already completed a certain number of terms in their degree are deemed ineligible. In recognition of the unforeseen pandemic-related research delays experienced by senior graduate students, agencies should relax the eligibility criteria of existing fellowship competitions, or, alternatively, offer new funding opportunities targeted specifically to late-stage graduate students to allow them to complete their degrees.

Fortunately, some changes to funding opportunities have already been made to address the needs of graduate students. Some universities have established new scholarships for graduate students who are making contributions in any form to the field of COVID-19 research. Furthermore, to address the potential need for fellowship extensions as a consequence of delays caused by COVID-19, the Tri-Council agencies offered fully-funded four-month extensions to federal doctoral awards that were set to end between March and August 2020. While this initiative provided critical financial support and flexibility to a subset of students whose graduation was directly interrupted by the acute effects of the pandemic, this initiative only addressed the immediate short-term impact of the COVID-19 in the first few months of the pandemic. Future funding extension initiatives are needed to recognize the continued detrimental effects of the pandemic on the research progress of graduate students.

Moving Forward: Re-Imagining Academic Culture

The past year has been a period filled with rapidly evolving challenges for graduate students. Ahead of us, many uncertainties still remain regarding the future of academic research through the remainder of the pandemic, and in the post-pandemic world where COVID-19 may remain as an endemic threat. Graduate students have demonstrated their adaptability and resilience in overcoming the challenges that COVID-19 has posed to their research and adjusting to the “new normal” research environment. However, the burden to adapt to the pandemic should not rest on the shoulders of graduate students alone. As the pandemic and the restrictions it brings to graduate student research continue to evolve, academic culture should also evolve, adapting from the lessons we have learned in the past year. This could not only involve strengthening communication and trust between students, institutions, advisors, and faculty to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic in the upcoming year, but can be channeled into re-imagining the traditionally competitive nature of academia to foster a culture that is more collaborative, empathetic, and supportive of graduate students and researchers at all stages in their careers.