Impact Blog

How to support graduate students during a global pandemic

October 2020
Associate Professor Melissa Hart
Graduate Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, UNSW


A typical Australian PhD often involves a focused research project, at one university, with one to two supervisors, and often far from your home country. It can be a quite isolating experience.

PhD students are also at great risk of suffering from mental health problems. A pre-COVID study from Belgium found that one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress, and one in three is at risk of psychiatric disorder.

And this year we have thrown a global pandemic into the mix.

The cross-institutional, collaborative nature of the Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence has allowed a re-imagining of the Australian PhD experience. Here we outline the steps that the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes has taken via its graduate program to support our students during COVID.

The program is led by a dedicated academic position, our graduate director, who also acts as an advocate and mentor to our students.  At any one time we have 100 graduate students enrolled in one of five universities across four cities. Sixty percent of these students are international.

The cross-institutional nature of our centre meant that our students went into the pandemic already used to videoconference meetings, seminars, and training. What was lost, however, was the important, and often ad-hoc, supportive and collaborative conversations with peers and colleagues at conferences and workshops, or simply with officemates in the work kitchen.

Beyond the challenges of continuing their research under new, even more isolating, conditions, our students also have a range of individual factors they need to deal with in the current circumstances. These may include: caring responsibilities, challenging work from home environments, being far from family, or simply the mental load of undetaking a PhD during a pandemic.

Early on in the Centre’s life we established mental health initiatives to ensure centre-wide support and wellbeing. These initiatives, which range from weekly hump-day tips focused on mental wellbeing through to ensuring we had staff and students at each university trained in mental health first aid, have become increasingly important during the calamity 2020 has become.

Importantly, we recognise that as supervisors we cannot resolve all issues and while we can provide an empathetic ear, in many circumstances students need to be redirected to the mental health support available via our universities’ counselling services.

We realised early on in the pandemic that leaders in the centre can only offer support when they themselves are supported, therefore members of our centre executive received guidance, and have undertaken training, on managing others in a time of crisis offered via their universities’ employee assistance program so that they are best equipped to provide support where needed.

Our researchers were specifically tasked with checking in on all their students. We asked questions about working from home environments to ensure that students had access to the computing and internet needs they would require to continue their research, while also making note of any circumstances that may impact progress, such as caring responsibilities.

Any issues that the centre could resolve we did. Those we could not resolve we made sure were reported in student progress review documents, and ensured students were aware of additional support available such as university counselling services.

A recent study of Australian PhD students showed that 75% expect to experience financial hardship as a result of the pandemic, and we saw that too. Those students close to completion were hit hardest. They were faced with the end of their scholarships at a time of employment uncertainty, often with no access to government support, and closed borders that prevented them returning home.

In response the Centre quickly offered post-submission scholarships to provide bridging funds after thesis submission. These scholarships were offered once individual university support was exhausted and required a tangible outcome at the end, e.g. writing up a thesis chapter for submission to a journal.

At the same time as we dealt with the practical realities of student finances and research, we also made every effort to keep everyone socially connected.

Our annual winter school, a cornerstone event of the graduate program, shifted online. To avoid Zoom fatigue we replaced the week-long face-to-face schedule, with a winter school offered in two-hour slots. Sessions were recorded and breakout rooms used to focus student engagement with each other. When we saw how students were delighted to see each other in small groups and catch up, it was a sign for us to step out and let them engage with their peers.

We introduced additional Slack channels, held virtual morning and afternoon teas, and put together a weekly Centre-wide lunch for all early career researchers. The numbers on these virtual meet-ups declined as students settled into new routines but in contrast our research meeting and seminar attendances went through the roof. We found that if an event has a purpose people attend, even while social check-ups became less successful.

Finally, through a regular weekly email update that has been running for years, we continued to celebrate successes and PhD submissions. In those same updates, we made it clear through messages from the Director that we understood that that for many progress may be impacted during these times.

While not everything worked perfectly, our Centre-wide relationship with students developed by having a Graduate Director dedicated to their concerns put us in an excellent position to respond quickly, transparently and with student input as the pandemic unfolded.

We do not know how long this pandemic will last. What we do know is that all current, and any incoming, PhD candidates will be impacted in some way. With more than half of university research in Australia coming from PhD students, this crisis illustrates the importance of ongoing development and support of higher degree research students.

What can you do to support your grad students?
  • Maintain regular individual meetings, ideally weekly. Talk beyond research, ask them how they are doing.
  • Run regular research/lab group meetings.
  • Organise peer-to-peer meetings among your students. Step out of the zoom and leave them to share with their peers.
  • Set realistic and achievable milestones. Realise that these may need to be revisited as COVID situations shift.
  • Assist your students in documenting the impacts COVID has had on their candidature.
  • Provide an empathetic ear and be aware that you cannot solve all problems.
  • Be aware of the counselling services your university offers and openly discuss support available. Undertake mental health first aid training if possible.
  • Encourage students to take advantage of support your university is offering.
  • Celebrate even the smallest of successes.
  • Be sure to also look after your own wellbeing.

Republished from The Conversation

1 comment

Susan Kinnear says:

A great article Melissa, and some great advice for everyone struggling to ‘hang in there’ during such an extraordinary year for research .

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