How the virus is affecting academia

A survey of the impact of the pandemic on PhD students of the Scuola Normale Superiore

It seems that the COVID-19 crisis has reinvigorated various discussions in the academy, offering new perspectives on public health, on what it means to live together, and on how systems could be made more resilient and more responsive. But there is a question on everyone’s mind: what if the spaces enabling these conversations erode due to physical barriers and financial constraints that are now imposed upon researchers?

This is a report of the Student Representatives of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa and Florence. As an Italian institution the SNS was one of the first universities facing the consequences of locked classrooms, labs and cancelled fieldwork trips. 156 PhD students from all departments and various academic years participated in the study. Surely, the SNS is one of the better-off places in the academic world since all of the PhD students enrolled in a programme get a monthly scholarship. Yet, the aftermath reflects a path into uncertainty and precarity, and if this is the case for a relatively well established institution, it could hint at even greater disparities in other universities.

All potential translation errors are entirely owned by the Pandemic Academic team.

Off-Site Activities

Data was collected for about 5 types of off-site activities: 1) Exchanges / visiting; 2) conventions / conferences / seminars; 3) fieldwork and research activity; 4) language courses; 5) teaching activities. Half of the questionnaire respondents (N = 79) encountered problems in carrying out the planned activities, while the other half did not, either because they had not planned any activities (44%) or because they managed to carry out the activities without any interference (6%). The most affected activities were those of visiting conferences, followed by fieldwork and university exchanges. Language courses and teaching abroad were the least affected activities, which may also be due to the fact that they are happening less frequently than the others.

Conference activities

68% of respondents who encountered problems carrying out off-site activities (N = 78) should have participated in conferences. Conferences form an important part of research work, because it offers opportunities present and discuss our recent progress with experts and colleagues. 66% of those who should have participated in those conferences believe that this is a significant obstacle in their work.

In 8% of cases the activities have been permanently cancelled whereas 57% of activities have been rescheduled, thereby offering an opportunity to make up for the problems faced this year.

This picture looks a little different particularly for the final year PhD students of the (26% of cases) who are afraid of not being able to participate in activities that will be rescheduled in the course of the next year, due to the lack of funds. Similarly, PhD students from other course years (9%), fear that they might be unable to participate because there may not be enough funding.

However, so far the financial loss seems to be limited: in 74% of cases respondends had not yet made any bookings or the organisers of the conference has already refunded any registration costs. Yet, in 26% of cases (N = 14), the PhD students had already incurred the expenses necessary for carrying out the scheduled activity (for accommodation, travel or both).

Research Activities

50% of the PhD students who should have carried out off-site activities had received mobility funds for research activities (fieldwork, experiments, archives, museums, etc.), or 26% of the total respondents to the questionnaire. By the time of the outbreak of the pandemic, in 75% of cases, activities had not yet started and had been provisionally canceled, by the Scuola or by the host institution. In the case where the research activity had already started,10% of PhD students have decided to return to Italy or in their country of origin, while in 10% of cases they decided to stay in the host country. Due to the uncertainty and cancellation of activities, the vast majority of respondents (82% of the years three, four, five) considered this to be a severe interference in their research work. Whereas 46% of the concerned students confirm to be able to resume the activity in a later period, 37% of final year students, however, fear they will be unable to reschedule the activity at all. A total number of 15%, on the other hand, would like to reschedule the activity  but it is not sure whether they would be able to do it, be it for time or financial constraints.

In some cases, PhD students have reported having difficulties to replace fieldwork with other activities, and in other cases being unable to do anything else at all. Both situations are perceived as a major obstacle to finishing up research work.

As far as the financial aspect is concerned, most of the activities should have been financed by the fund allocated by the mobility commission of the respective departments. Yet, 10% of activities should have been financed externally by scholarships such as DAAD funds, Vinci scholarships, Erasmus+ Trainee-ship etc. 80% of respondents had not yet incurred expenses for their  fieldwork period, while 20% had already incurred some expenses (travel,accommodation or both).

 Exchange programmes and visiting periods in other universities

The most common funds used for exchange programmes are the Erasmus Trainee-ship, as well as the provisions of the mobility commission (contributing to about 20% of total funding). The rest of the funding varies between various other sources such as external contributions.  

At the outbreak of the pandemic, 40% of concerned students had not yet left for their exchange period and had to cancel their stay due to decision of their host institution while about 20% cancelled on their own account, whereas 13% had already started their activity and returned to Italy or their country of origin. On a scale from one (low) to five (very high), half of the respondents consider the negative impact of the interruption of exchange programmes as high or very high (4/5, 5/5; 21% and 29% respectively), while only 14% stated that it would have a low impact. No one, however, estimated that the impact would be low (number one).

Regarding their possibilities of rescheduling those exchange periods, 40% of respondents said that funding would not affect their intent to undergo the programme in the future, while the same number reported that it will not be possible to find new dates for those activities as their PhD programme would end before. All remaining students reported that they would like to reschedule but were uncertain whether those funds would still be available.

Out of 15 mobility projects examined, 6 were part of a cotutelle programme. Among the latter, more than half of the doctoral students concerned have described the negative impact on one’s cotutelle path as very high or high; the remaining 30% instead described the cancelling of mobility as medium or medium-low.

University Infrastructure

One of the most felt problems by the doctoral candidates is the inaccessibility of research materials – one third of all respondents believe that this has affected their research. Even if there is no considerable variation between different years (except for the last year) the science department is significantly more affected than the humanities department.

  • Inaccessibility

Taking the overall data, it is clear how the lack of access to libraries is the most felt problem, having been raised by 110 PhD students, which turns out to be deeply felt both in Humanities  and in Sciences Political and Social, where it is the primary working space, followed by archives (35%). Laboratories are a predominant problem in the science department (26% of total respondents), where offices are the second-most concern raised by students (16% of total). An analysis by year of enrollment shows that the problem of access to infrastructure research (libraries, laboratories and museums) is more prominent in the early years, while the issue of office tends to lose importance in higher years.

  •  Effects on the doctoral thesis

The overwhelming majority of doctoral candidates believe that this situation will have an effect on their research work – independent of department or year of enrollment. However, only one quarter believe they are unable to continue research until the reopening of the research spaces. This percentage is zero in the Political Science department while it exceeds 40% in Humanities. In absolute terms, this is a problem mostly reported by first-year students. More than half of the PhD students believe that the current situation has had an “average” impact on their research leading to a significant slowdown. Less than one quarter belief that the pandemic has no effect at all on their research. A total number of 24 out of those respondents who stated that the impact will be nil are from the science department.

Mensa

The students from the Scuola Normale have access to free canteen facilities in Florence and Pisa respectively. When these facilities were closed during the pandemic, a third of respondents stated that they did not use the facilities routinely and were therefore not affected. Another fourth claimed not to have encountered problems since they left Florence and Pisa for the time of crisis. However, about 36% of the respondents instead remained in Pisa or Florence and faced difficulties due to the inaccessibility of canteen facilities. In the feedback form attached to the questionnaire, many students raised the concern that this may increase financial burdens as well as further reduce time available for research activities.

Online teaching

Even though this crisis offers an opportunity to investigate the potentials of online teaching, many respondents left this column blank in their questionnaire, especially in the Science department where more than half of the colleagues did not find it useful to respond. Among those who did, two fifths have stated that they no longer had to take courses. A fourth (43% of those who still had to take courses) stated that all courses that should have taken place were cancelled. A fifth of respondents (37% of those who must attend) said that the impact of distance learning is minimal, affecting only a few aspects (e.g. the planning of seminars). A tenth of the respondents (16% of those attending courses) has encountered substantial problems in the implementation of courses. However, since compulsory courses are usually attended during the second and first year of the PhD, those issues mostly arose in their batches, while it was not of concerns for most of the other years.

What should be done?

As we have seen in the previous paragraphs, the crisis in which we find ourselves has led to the substantial reorganization of PhD work. The immense caesura of the virus reflects clearly in the responses of the students. We asked PhD students which measures they would consider necessary, in order to face the current crisis.

Besides monetary concerns – 58% of respondents expressed their support for an extension of the scholarship for all for a time equal to that of the duration of the emergency – the demand for fieldwork rescheduling was one of the strongest emerging from the study (53% of all respondents). About 40% find it urgent to adjust the academic calendar as well as possible submission deadlines: A figure which is understandably higher (92%) for those in their final year before their PhD thesis submission.

Apart from the generalized questionnaire which was designed to open a discussion within the Scuola Normale, also included were numerous testimonials that help to understand what the motivations of PhD students are to promote the measures listed in this section. It is considered appropriate to report some of the opinions collected through the questionnaire to testify to the complexity of the situation and the numerous individual difficulties during this quarantine.

  • Care obligations

Some respondents stressed how the time spent on care obligations has significantly increased, taking time away from work. The closure of kindergartens and schools for those with children; the need to take care of loved ones for those who have family members/ roommates/ partners who have fallen sick, either by catching the virus or due to other diseases.

Since the Kindergarten is closed my working time drastically reduced to less than two hours a day. The university can’t do anything at the moment, yet they should consider such cases and provide a prolonged scholarship. “

“Adjust requirements for thesis submission and defense deadlines because it is impossible to focus on PhD thesis editing and finalizing during quarantine. For example,there is not enough space at home to work, you have to home-school your kids, and work remotely at the same time. “

  • Reduced productivity

Another worry is the limitations imposed by the quarantine on the ability to work efficiently and produce academic scholarship many PhD students question the possibility for many to maintain these standards. Therefore, it should be recognized that just because it may seem that there is a lot of potential time at home which could be spent on productive activities, the working infrastructure at home may not be adequate to facilitate that.

“This period should not be passed as a useful opportunity to get ahead with work or study or research, because this only generates further frustration.”

“I would like to point out that not only the experimentalists who suffer most from the situation as they cannot go to the laboratory, even for those who do theoretical work there are consequences. Personal productivity is not the same and the same is true for colleagues.

Even if my research does not require laboratories, the house in which I live is not a place where I can work just as effectively as in the office or other places specially prepared for study as study rooms, libraries etc therefore has however suffered a worsening. If, as I imagine, other people also have been affected by this, this aspect should also be considered in any changes of educational obligations / duration of the scholarship / duration of thesis period.”

  • Precariatization

The inability to plan activities for the next few months increases stress and insecurity. The need to do emerges clarity on what is required by doctoral students at this stage and provide reassurance on the possibility of carrying out the planned activities once the crisis has ended. PhD students from non-EU countries are even more affected by this sense of insecurity due to the blockage or slowing down of procedures in the issuing of residence permits. This risks compromising their ability to stay or return to Italy or carry out your research activities.

“I would suggest that the ‘psychological’ burden of the anxieties caused to colleagues who have many more burdens than me and who are in the grip of ‘not being able to say no, so much are you at home and everything is done via computer’.”

“Extending the purse right now would be one of the few solutions for also contain a precarious psychological situation, due to extreme uncertainty e precariousness in which we are working and which does not guarantee the material conditions for continuing to carry out research effectively.”

“The economic aspect is fundamental: those who have exhausted the PhD scholarship and thought of to complete the writing of the thesis by arranging with part-time jobs, no longer has the opportunity to do so and finds himself having to continue working on the thesis without the means to survive. For the time being, the measures taken by the government to financially support those who have been out of work because of the virus do not take into consideration our category. In any case, since who has not yet delivered the thesis is working full time to produce a search for excellence in these too severely limiting conditions, the fairest thing would be for this work to come paid, especially at a time when it is impossible to find any other source of income.”

“Help international students with the current and oncoming Visa issues during and after the crisis. Since all operations are suspended for the moment, this will result in further delay in receiving residence permit cards which is already a highly delayed procedure that hinders our mobility to a great extent and puts us in a very disadvantaged situation compared to our European peers. This, coupled with the crisis and the residence permit question mark, I don’t even think that I will be able to accurately plan or undertake research mobilities in the next year, given that the system that is already impossible to navigate and estimate will be even more chaotic and we need assistance from the university to help and remedy this situation. “

  • Disintegration of the academic community

Among the immediate effects of social distancing the risk of endangering the very existence of the academic community we are part of. Research work is not only done by one indivudial, but the result of a continuous exchange and relationship with colleagues and teachers. Therefore, the need to identify tools that go beyond the lessons promoted by the Scuola so far, which can foster dynamic exchange in times of social distancing, being aaware that this may still remain even with partial liftings of the lockdown.

“Ideally, the university may provide access for a сhat application like skype for business or microsoft team to simplify personal communication inside school society. “

The daily interaction between colleagues that normally takes place in the office is helpful and fundamental in proceeding quickly and effectively in research, especially for PhD students who collaborate with others in their research “

Conclusion

At ministerial level there have been numerous requests to open a discussion on the condition of doctoral candidates and research in general. A petition on the extension of scholarships reached 8,500 signatures in a few days and was delivered within the last days to the Minister, to the CRUI and to the CUN.

At the international level, there are numerous countries that are moving towards a remodeling and an extension of scholarships. Austria, Germany, Spain and Poland have already taken measures of extension of stock exchanges, while similar measures are under discussion in other countries. In the United States several universities have taken similar measures or are discussing them as a result of a large number of initiatives by PhD students and researchers.

What we believe, however, is that the exit strategy from the crisis must be identified congenially and has to include each and everyone of us.

This survey has been conducted by the Scuola Normale Superiore Student Representatives.


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