Impact Blog

Adjusting the PhD to a new COVID ‘normal’

February 2022
Rees Quilford, PhD candidate
School of Media and Communication, RMIT University


The cautious easing of COVID-19 restrictions here in Australia is seeing all number of changes within our tertiary settings. Interstate and international borders are re-opening and international students are returning. On-campus activities are resuming to liven up traditional campus venues.

For many these changes mark a welcome return to some semblance of ‘normal’. For others, including those who recently commenced their study, these changes may bring new challenges. Everyone has different feelings about re-entering university, work, and society. Optimism, caution, excitement, and trepidation are all commonly held feelings.

The COVID pandemic has changed the way we do many things. Some ways of work and ad hoc workarounds, brought about by necessity, will soon fade into memory. However, there is no doubting many daily tasks and interaction methods will remain forever changed. The mass uptake of online collaboration tools, virtual meetings and hybrid work arrangements will likely remain central to our study, research and work habits.

It remains unclear to what extent the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the normal progression of graduate research programs. The lasting impacts on the quality and quantity of supervision of PhD-students also remains unclear. Numerous editorials and commentaries have cited alarming rates of student disengagement and outlined the broader societal implications of severe disruption to PhD programs but only time and the collection of quantifiable student experience and completion data will tell the full tale.

But what does the return to on-campus learning combined with new ways of work mean for the graduate research experience? How have and will current PhD and Masters by Research students adapt to these new conditions? How will the lasting impacts of the pandemic affect commencing graduate researchers?

Universities across the country are grappling with these questions. Many are scheduling events, information sessions and webinars to help students, supervisors and academics identify and understand common reactions to change as well as adaptive strategies for transitioning to COVID-normal. Peer-reviewed research surveying and interrogating the effects of the pandemic on the graduate research experience and completion outcomes is also beginning to emerge across the globe.

Numerous PhD students and supervisors have also penned insightful self-reflective pieces examining their personal journeys and learnings. These publications offer glimpses of what the post-pandemic graduate research experience is likely to entail. Many also contain helpful insights and advice to assist current students and supervisors navigate both the opportunities and disruptions that COVID-19 has brought to the research and university context.

The passages below highlight some of the common themes of this commentary. as well as several pieces that may have particular resonance for current and future graduate researchers and supervisors.

 Acknowledging the impact of COVID-19 and seeking peer support

Understandably, the disruptive emotional, health and financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is a common focus of much of the commentary. The COVID-19 pandemic has left PhD students and supervisions (alongside so many others throughout the population) feeling overwhelmed, isolated, stressed and tired.

Health and wellbeing problems are high. The pandemic has caused financial hardship as well as impacting scholarship and visa arrangements. For many, access to resources, labs, libraries, and collections has also been impacted, limited or removed for extended periods. Many of these issues will be addressed with borders reopening and cautious returns to on-campus learning. However, hesitation or the inability to return to in-person learning for some staff and students means universities (and their systems) need to remain flexible and supportive.

Remembering that you’re not alone is a key point raised by many current students and academics commenting on how to navigate the disruption of the past few years. Masters student Mariam Abood’s piece ‘The benefits of virtual networking for researchers’ explores the act of seeking out, and engaging with, the peer networks in the virtual world.

Connecting with student, discipline and institutional communities has multiple benefits according to Abood. Online networking affords opportunities for growth through shared knowledge, helps you find people with common interests and can also raise your academic profile. Many of online forums also discuss common responses to the pandemic and highlight wellbeing and recovery strategies.

Maintaining realistic goals and proactively communicating progress

Ciara O’Brien’s ‘Six lessons from a pandemic PhD student’ is a fantastic insight on the challenges of commencing a PhD program at the height of the pandemic. O’Brien offers reflections and advice on navigating relocating to a new country, configuring equipment and IT access through to her study progress and interactions with supervisors.

Key insights include being realistic and kind (to yourself) when setting goals, then also assessing progress made. O’Brien also discusses strategies to integrate into the peer networks, the unexpected learnings that come through volunteering as well as the benefits of taking ownership for your research project.

Another key point raised in much of the commentary, and by student support services, is the importance of proactively communicating progress to supervisors and candidature management teams. Even when projects have not progressed as much as planned, it is important to meet with your advisory committee to discuss the circumstances and seek advice on how best to proceed given those circumstances. Many institutions have enacted COVID-19 leave and extension provisions for confirmation and candidature. Being aware of these programs and discussing them this with your supervisors can help no end.

Tailoring the supervision experience

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for students and supervisors alike. However, ensuring high quality supervision arrangements is a critical component in ensuring candidate wellbeing and completion outcomes.

A 2021 paper ‘Challenges in PhD education due to COVID-19 – disrupted supervision or business as usual’ outlines the findings of a cross-sectional survey of Swedish biomedical sciences graduate students who have studied through the pandemic. Findings suggest that more frequent supervision and using a diverse array of meeting platforms can be helpful in improving the experience of graduate research students. The importance of students feeling that they have their supervisor’s emotional support is also highlighted.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced much change and a significant number of students are still living and researching remotely. Many supervision meetings continue to take place online. Given these trends are likely persist, it is crucial that we continue to look for innovative ways to facilitate connected and rich research experiences.

Many institutions and academics are embracing hybrid learning modes and sophisticated online tools to create innovative forums for collaboration and other interactive experiences. But these tools do not suit every situation or project. Tailored approaches, flexible tools and offering different modes of interaction are all crucial to meet the needs of individual students, supervisors and projects. Flexibly, communication and good will remains crucial to achieving positive research outcomes.

Photo by DICSON sourced from Unsplash

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