This post continues our series by a onetime academic job seeker, now academic-at-large, containing advice on how to support grad students, now more than ever.

American grad students, who are already living on small stipends and facing soft job markets, have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Access to research materials is difficult, with labs and libraries closed and travel curtailed for the foreseeable future. Students with caregiving responsibilities may find themselves with very little time to work with the materials they do have with them. And in many fields, thanks to hiring freezes, the job market has gone from “pretty bad, but you might swing something, if you’re lucky” to apocalyptic—adding a new layer of fear to their pandemic experience. Yet many report that they don’t feel supported by their departments at this time. What can you, a faculty member who works with grad students, do to help?

Don’t assume that “grad student” = young and unencumbered 

If you think of grad students as cloistered and research-driven—garret-dwelling or lab-bound,  without much of a life beyond their work—it might seem that, for them, the pandemic is simply a fine time to get a lot done, without those pesky happy hours interfering. But that’s not necessarily the case. We’ve all heard the famous “Isaac Newton invented calculus while hiding out from the plague” story, but that story isn’t entirely true—and besides, Isaac Newton had no toddlers. Grad students may be caring for children, parents, or sick family members; some may have more time to work, but some may have way less. 

Try to provide as much clarity as you can 

Some of the worst impacts on grad students seem to be related to confusion around expectations. 

  • Some STEM grad students don’t know if they’re supposed to be physically present in their labs
  • Humanities grad students don’t know whether they’ll be given extensions on their funding packages
  • Nobody knows what will happen with the job market in 2021

Several of these unknowns are true unknowns, and some could be clarified by institutions. 

Reporting for Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty wrote that many departments want to be clearer with their students, but don’t, themselves, have clarity from administrations on what’s going to be expected of grad students during this time. If that’s the case, faculty should try to let grad students know that they are aware of these questions, and that the department is pushing to get them answered ASAP.

Try to make extensions and allowances standard

As with so many things related to the impact of the coronavirus, the impacts on individual grad students are going to be very hard to quantify. It might be better to simply adopt a universal policy relating to coronavirus disruptions, than to make people account in a granular way for what’s happened to them during this strange period. 

Jan Tattenberg, a doctoral student in history at the University of Oxford, argued that systems like his department’s—they require students to log how they spent their time during the pandemic in order to petition for extensions based on harm done to research and productivity—fail to take into account the mental health impacts of isolation during a global pandemic.

“I will lose work time because I will wonder if any of it is worth it, given the state of the world right now,” he tweeted. “I will lose work time because I miss my friends. And I don’t know how I quantify any of this. Or if any of it would be accepted.” 

Consider their immediate financial need

Finally, programs should appreciate the wrench the pandemic has thrown into plans that students may have put in place to support themselves during the summer break—a notably bad time for grad school funding, in the best of years. If there is a way to use institutional funds to provide short-term teleworking jobs, or simple grants in aid, to students who need summer coverage, it should be considered. “Individual faculty,” Duke professor Gabriel Rosenberg suggested in a tweet, “who have fungible research funds previously earmarked for (now impossible) travel and archival work should consider creating and self-funding flexible RAships”—especially if those funds have expiration dates. 

What are some ways you are supporting graduate students right now? Share with us on Twitter.