Research is vital to our economic and social growth. But how has the pandemic affected our PhD students?

PhD students are no strangers to high-stress, low-support work environments. The pandemic has exacerbated existing pressures.

The pandemic’s effects on higher education institutions have been profound. High school leavers and undergraduate students have been the particular focus of media in this area, but they aren’t the only ones affected.

For PhD students the situation is quite different. Unlike high schoolers or undergraduates, PhD students receive grants and scholarships and programs are self-motivated and self-directed. Before 2020, a PhD student already knew they were entering into a tough lifestyle: pre-pandemic studies from other highly developed OECD countries found that one in three PhD were at risk of developing a common psychiatric disorder.

That stands to reason: any PhD student can regale you with all sorts of “funny anecdotes” about their experiences, from hellish supervisor stories to eighty-hour weeks, dwindling support and shoestring budgets. But how have the last two years of pandemic chaos exacerbated these existing pressures?

In Australia, PhD students experienced financial instability to an even greater extent than most of us in 2020, as a majority are employed casually and were not eligible for JobKeeper. Lockdowns meant trying to work without access to the full scope of university resources and a drastic decrease or elimination in laboratory access. Less measurable has been the impact on informal support structures, with less access to colleagues, mentors, family and local communities.

In 2020 the Guardian reported that those Australian PhD students expecting to suspend their studies, take extended leave, or drop out in the next six months had skyrocketed to a staggering 45%. Stalled research and disrupted study is still contributing to problems among PhD students in New Zealand as well.

A study published in December 2021 revealed that more than 40% such students met the criteria for moderate to severe anxiety or depression—a noticeable increase when compared to the pre-pandemic studies.

Some relief may yet be on the horizon for PhD students, at least at home in Australia with the announcement in February of $296 million earmarked for 1800 industry PhDs and over 800 in fellows over 10 years in specific areas aligned with our national manufacturing priorities.

But new funding won’t affect current students, and it’s clear that PhD students require more support across the duration of their research—and never more before than they do now, when existing support structures have been so thoroughly disrupted.

ResearchMaster is an industry-leading research management system made specifically for the Australian and New Zealand research environment. Find out more.

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