New report: Consequences for doctoral students due to the corona pandemic

The Doctoral Committee within SFS, SFS-DK, have conducted a survey regarding the situation for doctoral students during the corona pandemic. Problems highlighted include unclear procedures regarding prolongation, increased problems with mental health, lack of sufficient work environments and more. Read the summary in english below.

En svensk sammanfattning går att läsa i rapporten.



This report is based on the results of a survey conducted by The Doctoral Committee within Swedish National Union of Students, SFS-DK, among doctoral students in Sweden, as well as inputs that SFS-DK has received from university level doctoral student representation.

The aim of this report is to highlight the impact of the corona pandemic on doctoral students in Sweden. All doctoral students in Sweden have been affected by the corona pandemic, but to what degree of course varies. 

Many doctoral students have in their responses argued that they need prolongation to have a fair chance of meeting the learning outcomes of their education. In SFS-DK we cannot judge how many doctoral students should be prolonged, but we see a need for the universities to address this issue. Until now most universities have said that this will be handled on a case to case basis, this gives room for very different treatment of doctoral students within the same university. Also this leaves it up to the doctoral student to negotiate prolongation with a department that might not have the financial means. 

Our clear recommendation is therefore that all universities address this issue, clarifying under which circumstances prolongation can be given due to the corona pandemic, and that the financing of prolongation is handled at central university level. 

Almost all respondents mention mental health as a common problem. Previous reports as “Doktorandspegeln” from UKÄ (2016) and “Hur mår doktoranden” (ST, TCO and SFS, 2012)  shows that doctoral students as a group that struggles with high stress levels and poor mental health in general. It is not surprising that the current situation intensifies this issue, but it is therefore even more important that the issue is addressed and that actions are taken.

Many doctoral students also mention that having a sufficient work environment is currently challenging. As universities have gone over to remote teaching, and many recommend that their employees work from home, there is a void for how to carry out doctoral education. Doctoral students repeatedly mention lack of supervision, lack of contact with peers and other seniors as something that delays them. Also not all doctoral students can be expected to have access to a workspace at home. It is important to stress that it is the universities and not the individual doctoral students responsibility to ensure that the work environment allows for full-time work. 

Doctoral students are in many cases also teaching in undergraduate courses. As undergraduate education has moved to be digital, it has required a lot of adaptation of teaching materials and methods. This takes time, and many doctoral students report that they are using more hours teaching than previously, without receiving the appropriate amount of compensation. Doctoral students are not allowed to use more than 20% of their employment on departmental duties. If the teaching burden has increased for doctoral students, it is important that the universities see to that they are compensated appropriately. It should be stressed that when doctoral students use more time on teaching than they are compensated for, it means that they have less time for their own education.

Some doctoral students experience that their research projects are significantly delayed or fall apart. There can be many reasons for this, and it is important to notice that it happens within all fields. For doctoral students who experience long delays in their research projects, it is important that they receive support in how to handle this. For those whose research projects fall apart it is important that the universities address the issue. It adds an extra level of stress to an already stressful situation if so big issues go unaddressed.

While all doctoral students are affected by the situation to some degree, it is worth mentioning that doctoral students with children, international doctoral students from outside of Schengen, and doctoral students belonging to the risk group face extra challenges. We have been made aware that some doctoral students with small children have been suggested to go down in time, to compensate for the interference that taking care of small children at home may add to your work. While such suggestions may come from a good place, it should be stressed that this is in general not a suggestion that the universities have given to other groups of employees, nor should it be. International doctoral students’ visa rights rely on them having funding for their doctoral studies. While they are not immediately affected, some fear that they will not finish on time due to the current situation, and not just run out of funding, but also lose their visa. 

All of these issues and many more affect the doctoral students and their education. At the moment many of them goes unnoticed and undocumented by the universities. While doctoral education is very different from undergraduate educations, it is still an education and this needs to be remembered. 

The individual doctoral education is governed by the individual study plan (ISP), and this is an appropriate tool to use when following the impacts of the corona pandemic. 

In SFS-DK it is our clear recommendation that the universities should specify that when the ISP’s are updated they should include information on how the doctoral education was affected by the corona pandemic, what measurements that was taken, and if the doctoral education has been delayed in any way.