Life as a doctoral student – Pil Maria Saugmann writes about doctoral education during Covid-19 and the new report from SFS-DK

Today we welcome Pil Maria Saugmann, chair of SFS-DK, as a writer for the blog. She writes about research that has been delayed, why prolongation for doctoral students is so important and about the report newly released by SFS-DK.

Today it’s the 12th of March. A day that marks a weird anniversary for me. It has now been a year since my supervisor and I planned what to do if we had to work from home for a while. I don’t think either of us had imagined what it would really be like.

I consider myself lucky, I get to represent doctoral students in Sweden as chair of SFS-DK. It has been incredibly fun, and I have gotten to meet and work with a lot of people, who, like me, care about research, higher education, and of course doctoral education. This year, it has however also meant I have gotten to know how the pandemic affects doctoral education. Recently we, SFS and SFS-DK, published a report “Delays in doctoral education due to the corona pandemic”. Here we discuss what can be done about the delays doctoral students experience.   

What does it take to do research!

I am a theoretical physicist. Most of my work I do at a desk and alone. If you had asked me a year ago what I needed to do my research, I would have said: pen and paper, a computer, a stable internet connection, and supervision. I still need those things, but I am now painfully aware that I need other things as well. I need a proper workspace, I need a boundary between my work as a doctoral student and my private life. I need inspiration, support and a research environment around me. 

How it used to be!

Last February my routine looked something like this,  I went to my office, got coffee, and said hi. I would look at my research, doing calculations and bouncing ideas off my colleagues or my supervisor. My supervisor would be three doors away, my closest colleagues were in the same corridor. We would eat lunch together, from doctoral students to professors we would cram around the table discussing everything from who we would bring on a desert island to our research. Looking back it gave me a large support network of other researchers, who I could turn to for help. In the afternoon, I would go to seminars and hear about others’ research, get inspired and puzzled, and discuss it with other doctoral students. I would look into what conferences I should apply for, and ask for advice for these applications. 

My days were filled with interactions with other researchers, from doctoral students to professors. If I got stuck, I had someone to bounce ideas off or ask for help. If I had an off day, there was someone to support me. But that was last February. 

Reality check! 

Today my walk to work is one and a half meters. I have pen and paper, a computer, I have supervision. I certainly do not have a stable internet connection and my flatmates hardly make up for the research environment I used to be a part of. It is not as efficient and it makes learning how to become an independent researcher much more difficult. While all doctoral education is individual, I think this is a picture many doctoral students can recognize. Delays in our research and education are accumulating. Many worry if they can live up to the requirements, if they will be able to finish on time, or if they will run out of financing. 

Doctoral education is education

As a doctoral student you are both a researcher and a student. It is easy to assume that the consequences that doctoral students experience are the same as for other researchers. They are, but doctoral students also experience another type of consequences that are tightly coupled to being a student. We are here to learn how to become independent researchers, we do so in the interaction with other researchers and not isolated at home. Working from home and without the same access to a research environment as before delays doctoral education.  

Prolongation is key

There is no way around it. For delays that have already happened, there is only one real solution and that is to prolong doctoral students. From the feedback we have received in SFS-DK our understanding of the situation is that more or less that all doctoral students who were enrolled in March 2020 have been affected by the pandemic and experienced delays due to it. This is why we in SFS-DK together with the rest of SFS argues that

  1. all doctoral students who were enrolled before April 1st 2020 and are still enrolled by April 1st 2021 receive 2 months of prolongation,
  2. this is supplemented by an individual assessment for those doctoral students whose research projects need to be entirely replanned,
  3. individual assessments are made for those doctoral students who have started after April 1st 2020. 

Doctoral students should not be expected to make up for these delays caused by the pandemic by working overtime or finishing without financing. The central question is of course where the money for prolongation should come from. Many departments, especially in social science and humanities, do not have the funds. In SFS and SFS-DK we therefore suggest that the state should finance a broad prolongation for doctoral  students.

What else should happen? 

It is important that doctoral students do not continue to accumulate delays! SFS and SFS-DK organized a meeting where we gathered a lot of different actors to discuss and brainstorm how to avoid further delays. All of their suggestions can be found in the new report, but a few highlights are mentioned!

  1. Create a central, university-level, source of information for doctoral students. 
  2. Help doctoral students to create structure in their workday. 
  3. Intensify the initiatives addressing the doctoral students’ mental health
  4. Maintain the research environment

You can find the report here. The situation is urgent and we hope that many of these suggestions are implemented. 

If we are to end on a happier note, I think a lot of the things we have learned over the past year can be used to improve the situation for doctoral students and doctoral education. We have a stellar opportunity to learn from the situation and create a much more sustainable academia. 

Pil Maria Saugmann, Chair SFS-DK