Pandemics and PHDs


The pandemic is upon us. My university is moving rapidly online with everyone who can working at home.

I’ve seen a lot on social media about how to teach online, whether to teach on line, and how to offer students support. I haven’t yet seen a lot about PhDers and their research. Well maybe a bit about labs.

Some of the people I work with are in the middle of field work, or just starting. They work in and with schools, galleries and community organisations. In other words, populous places which may or may not be closed for an indefinite period of time. Some docs are close to having enough data. Some aren’t. And because of the time-limited nature of the PhD in the UK, this data deficit might create real problems for them.

Up to three of the PhDers I work with have research which may have to be redesigned mid-way through. Redesigned so that their data is not entirely people-based, and/or not as comprehensive as envisaged. While I am confident that we will be able to sort something out, this redesigning is not an easy task, intellectually or emotionally.

The half-done problem won’t of course be confined to our small group.

I cannot imagine how many PhDers are currently worrying about whether they can do the research they want to, whether they have to start again, and/or whether they can afford the additional time it might take to get their projects done if their designs are un-modifiable.

This midpoint situation is obviously an immediate challenge not only for PhDers but also their supervisors.  I have already written to people I am working with who are in the middle of field work, suggesting that we meet straight away to discuss options (by distance mode of course as I am self-isolating after getting back from overseas, and the university is moving online.)

But the effects of the pandemic on PhDers is something that universities also might be able to do something about, sooner rather than later. They need to not wash their hands of PhDers, but be very proactive in offering reassurance and support.

For example:

Some PhDers might want to suspend their studies – and be able/afford to do so. Current rules about suspension of study usually make illness or serious crisis of some sort the only reason for suspension of studies. This pandemic is just such a crisis and ought in itself to be enough reason for leave from study if it is requested. Enrolled doctoral researchers need to be informed about this option as soon as possible.

Some PhDers may need to change their research designs and titles to reflect a necessarily changed design. In some institutions and with some research funders, such changes require lengthy and substantiated justification. In this instance, doctoral researchers need to be given permission, be told that such changes are possible in the circumstances. And ideally, research scholarship funders ought to make funding for an additional catch up period available to those people who have no possibility of changing their research mid-stream.

Some PhD designs may now look a trifle unusual. Ethnographers and action researchers for instance may now have a unique opportunity to see how their site responds to a crisis. (Others will not be able to continue, they will simply be locked out – see above.) So examiners will need to understand and respond positively to any forced change of circumstances with knock on effects on the research. The need for understanding of changes also needs to be written into institutional viva guidelines for this cohort of PhDs.

Some PhDers will find the pandemic just one thing too much. The PhD is already highly stressful. This crisis on top of the usual stresses may mean that many more people than usual will need additional support. Universities must offer extra counselling services. But graduate services might also offer online discussion group spaces where PhDers can talk about their worries and specific issues, writing and research difficulties and so on, together. Facilitating self-help support groups is surely a key function for grad schools at this moment in time. (And yes this is also something I am going to do in my own school, with my colleagues .)

I am sure there are other specific PhD pandemic issues I haven’t yet thought about. Please add those that concern you in the comments and I will spread the word through my social media networks – and I’m sure you will too.


Events move fast. I’m now adding links to useful resources and activities.


(1) link to list of academic publishers giving free ebook access through CV19 affected university libraries

(2) Deborah Lupton’s Innovative Methods for Field Work, a collective google doc. You may have to get permission.

(3) Resources for fieldwork from Dr Anuja Cabraal


1) Australian higher degree students’ petition. A link is coming so you can add your name.

✊✊Call for solidarity with HDR students in Australia ✊✊

Link to petition to add your support here

In light of the unprecedented situation provoked by the coronavirus pandemic, a group of concerned HDR students have developed the following open letter. As the situation stands there has been no indication that any of the policies or conditions under which we are enrolled will be altered given the situation. This is a concerning state of affairs.

We are sending this letter to institutions, student and trade unions, academics and individuals for support. We encourage you to join us.

HDR Students and the pandemic

Universities are already beginning to close down teaching facilities and local libraries are closing. It is likely that other social institutions, schools, childcare settings, and workplaces will be shut. Access to the internet may be impacted by increased use as more people spend time at home. In light of such developments (many of which we understand are in the interests of public health), we the undersigned are convinced that our capacity to continue research in these circumstances will be highly limited, even if we don’t become sick ourselves.

In order to mitigate the impact of this crisis we demand:

• All candidates final submission dates are extended by a minimum of 12 weeks

• All milestone dates are extended by a minimum of 8 weeks

• Additional support is provided for working from home – for example, small grants for home office equipment, ergonomic furniture, internet costs and the like.

• Additional leave of absence without penalty be granted to any HDR students who are unable to reasonably work from home (if they don’t have adequate space, ergonomically sound equipment, access to labs and so on)

• Extended sick leave for students (including scholarship payments) by a minimum of 6 weeks

• Carers leave for students (including scholarship payments) by a minimum of 6 weeks

• An extension of scholarship funds to reflect any period of leave students have had to take.

• The granting of hardship funds for part time students without scholarships who are unable to work because of the current situation.

• That the wages of all university casual workers be paid in full for the period of a university closure

• That paid sick leave be granted to all university casual staff.

2) HEPI Blog post on CV19 and PhDers

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, pandemic, stress and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Pandemics and PHDs

  1. Morven Gow says:

    Excellent. I raised this on Twitter a couple of days ago via a PhD account but didn’t get a huge response. I’d imagine many are affected (like me) by the cancellation of public events. While I’d already planned social media harvesting and can conduct interviews by Skype, I can’t conduct workshops, take part in participant obs or ethnographic studies. I do find the additional aspects due to the virus useful (move to digital consumption of media) but it’s limiting. I’m sharing your post. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. fortuneall says:

    Wonderfully and well thought about. Thank you for this post.
    With your post coupled with that of Morven Gow, I think that I don’t have anything more to add for the now.
    Well done!


  3. Thanks Pat. You were the very person who came to mind when I was thinking about advice to PhD candidates re Covid19. A range of options is always best and you rise to the challenge here. Thanks so much for your input. Kip PS Don’t forget to take care of Pat too!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Helen says:

    This is a very interesting read Pat – I am currently on fieldwork embedded in a local authority and interviewing older homeowners in their own homes. So far no one has declined to be interviewed but ethically I feel a bit uneasy as I would not want to put any participants at risk. I am carefully monitoring my own health and using a strict hygiene regimen before and after any research visits. I will be discussing this with my supervisors later on today and the next phase, which was a series of focus groups, may need some re-thinking. Do a PhD they said, it will be great they said……!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Alison says:

    Thanks Pat. Wise words as usual.
    Im wondering about Research Ethics committees and realising that they may need new special procedures to accept the volume of changes to approved designs?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I read your post with interest. I am in a similar situation to Morven in that I am conducting an ethnographic study of book bloggers and how they interact with the book world for my PhD. I am about a third of the way through my data collection. I have a huge session planned at an upcoming book festival including my best opportunity to shoot for my videography at a festival that I know well and am comfortable at. There is no news on that yet and perhaps things will have calmed down a bit by them but the idea of not being able to do this is totally stressing me out and I think may be inevitable. I can hopefully continue interviewing on Skype and by email but only having this one method of data collection is not comforting or satisfying my data needs. I wonder if I should take a 3 month LOA. I also have asthma and elderly parents to consider as well as my own two young children. They are at school today but if school close it will be very challenging. I am trying to stay positive but feel kind of defeated by it all.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Anne-Marie Shin says:

    Indeed Pat, wrong time to be attracting focus groups and commencing field work…will probably need to suspend.


  8. Ben says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. What advice would you give on ways to study how an institution respond to such a crisis? What questions should we ask? What reading should we do to guide how we design this part of our project? I am currently in the middle of fieldwork at an elite university in a country that has now shut all academic institutions. I cannot access campus but I have collected data on how faculty and administrative try to move online. However, I fear that I may be missing important things as this took us all by surprise and I had not enough time to think this through…


    • pat thomson says:

      Most unis have social media, but the intranet and internal emails are what’s going to matter first. Emergency guidelines etc. I’m getting information this way as staff, but students are also being advised to watch social media. I think the union branches may also go online more too. Your inside informers will matter a lot now. Good luck.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Sarah A says:

    Nice, Pat. Thanks. These are already coming up for my students. We’ll be gathering online to talk through them soon and will keep this piece to hand.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: You were planning on in-person data collection? This might help. – Anuja Cabraal

  11. A. S. CohenMiller says:

    Thanks for this! Useful considerations and resources I plan to share with our PhDs and master’s.


  12. Sue Dymoke says:

    Very useful as always Pat. The PhD experience can be isolating at the best of times. I’ll be using Teams at NTU to give our Education PhD students and their supervisors chance to hear about each other’s work and to offer support. Extending all deadlines and offering delayed starts for new PhDs needs to be advocated by all.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pauline McGonagle says:

    Thank you Pat for this comprehensive consideration of the situation. A national Library where I am embedded on a collaborative project working with archives has had to close. I am on my last year and writing up while using these materials and cataloguing them. This part of the project will now be suspended or delayed and I will have to make some adjustment. I have been in touch with my supervisors and heard some general reassurance from my University about all those doing PhDs with support and guidelines, from my funder AHRC about deadlines and plans to adapt to circumstances but less so the Library, yet. Their systems are set up for their employees including their emergency set ups and their PhD and casual contractors do not have access but we have access to emails via webmail to keep up to date. This should be a time for me to get my head down and get on with so many unfinished tasks and editing and writing but I find myself anxious and concerned despite having all this support and good personal circumstances. Good health, a husband working from home and enough food in the house. I can only imagine what this is like for so many who are not in such a good position. Thank you for raising all these real concerns.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Pauline McGonagle says:

    Thank you Pat. Access involves a weekly journey (I am part time) of a couple of hours by train with one change. Even if access opens eventually I will also be relying on transport. Good luck to all.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Elle says:

    Thanks Pat. The only thing I would add is the impact on the availability of supervisors when many have additional workloads converting their taught programs to an online format.


  16. Pingback: An instant switch to e-learning—a bad idea for Sri Lankan higher education – Simplify

  17. The teddy bear looks so cute!


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