As universities move many activities online in the fallout of the Covid-19 crisis, doctoral schools face unique challenges. EUA-CDE Head Alexander Hasgall discusses the impact on early-career researchers, in particular their doctoral defences, funding, international collaborations, and mental health and wellbeing.
The development of structured doctoral education in Europe has long been linked to the assumption that while early-career researchers need to be granted a significant level of independence, institutions must be responsible for promoting mutual support by establishing appropriate structures. Nowadays, doctoral schools and similar structures have become important meeting places within universities where doctoral candidates, supervisors and institutions, as well as increasingly the public, all come together.
With the coronavirus pandemic, personal interactions with the supervisor, whether transversal or through research skills training, as well as exchange with peers, no longer take place in a physical space. Meetings and encounters need to work differently. With the move to an online space, doctoral education is currently witnessing a rapid and impressive change as universities transfer a relevant part of their doctoral training into cyberspace.
However, moving offline activities to an online space is not the only important challenge that doctoral schools face. They are addressing the organisation of doctoral defences, the securing and defending of appropriate funding, the maintaining of international collaboration, and the support of mental health and wellbeing of doctoral candidates.
Defending a thesis in times of confinement
Doctoral defences may be one of the most challenging areas that doctoral schools and candidates face during the coronavirus crisis. For a doctoral graduate, the defence is a highlight in his or her career as a researcher, marking a milestone in an endeavour that lasts several years. At the same time, it is a legal requirement that officially acknowledges the success of a doctoral training and research.
Enabling thesis defences in confinement presents the challenge of deciding which online platform to use, as well as – more importantly - a rethinking of the whole context. The dissertation defence must be understood as rite of passage and an initiation, with a symbolic meaning that should not be underestimated. To add another layer of complexity: some legal frameworks require that doctoral candidates and examiners be physically present in the same room, which makes online defence a difficult endeavour. However, regulations have been adapted in some countries, alternative frameworks established and some doctoral candidates are promotnig their defences to a global audience – even inviting their peers to support them online. Therefore, we are seeing how a symbolically charged activity connected to physical space is now transforming into a virtual act.
Extending the funding to stay on track
As in most cases, the symbolic is interconnected with the material – in this case the funding situation of early-career researchers, but also of other areas of doctoral education. On the one hand, given the current limitations, in many cases it is not realistic to expect research to be conducted as previously scheduled. On the other hand, funding is mostly limited in time, and extensions are not granted everywhere. This leads to a situation in which supervisors and doctoral candidates have to evaluate the appropriate funding and to obtain an extension, which is not always successful. But even in cases where we are seeing situations resolved with some degree of flexibility and additional funding, there is also a need to take a long-term approach. As the EUA Public Funding Observatory shows, it can take years for the university system to recover from a financial crisis and it is important that early-career researchers do not pay a high price.
Mental health and wellbeing matter
Uncertainties in the funding situation, as well as many other issues like isolation or preoccupation for personal health or the health of others, entails the risk of developing challenges with mental health and wellbeing. On social media, early-career researchers are describing their solitude, difficulties to concentrate, or anxieties towards the future. At the same time, people share support messages and examples of how to adapt well. Many focus on the fact that it is fine to not be at the height productivity when the world is confronted with a major crisis.
On this issue, it is paying off that for some years now the topic of mental health in academia has been increasingly addressed by several stakeholders. It is now more accepted that doctoral candidates confront challenges in mental health and wellbeing, and there is no need to hide. At the same time, universities also offer support structures for early-career researchers that are experienced and equipped to confront the issue.
Enabling global exchange under difficult circumstances
Another challenge in doctoral education during the pandemic is seen in the international character of research. Early-career researchers need to build international networks, and this is not always possible via Zoom alone. They need research stays, participation and presentations at workshops, conferences and summer schools. Also, in certain countries, up to 40% of doctoral students come from abroad and co-tutelles between different institutions are becoming increasingly popular.
Such collaborations and international mobility are at risk in the long term if the borders do not become more permeable again and travelling becomes more complicated and costly. The challenge for all parties involved is how to prevent this generation of early-career researchers from being disadvantaged in this area, compared to the previous generation and possibly subsequent ones - for example with regard to mobility requirements and the Academic CV. At the same time, developing and testing alternative ways of connecting between borders and the experiences of recent weeks will also be of use when discussing how to lower the financial and environmental impact of travelling.
Investing in the future of early-career researchers
As these briefly described topics show, the coronavirus pandemic does influence the way we imagine the future academia and knowledge society. In view of the massive economic and social effects of the current lockdown, there is the risk that policies will be effective in the short-term alone, putting the promotion of the new generation of researchers and knowledge workers in second place. This will not help anyone. The challenges facing our societies existed before Covid-19 and will not disappear with the virus. On the contrary, the crisis has shown how important it is to invest in the people who will shape the science of the future and who can serve as translators between science and other fields. Only in this way can trust be built and problems be tackled from different sides.
We have seen what doctoral education can achieve in difficult times. Although cyberspace cannot always replace mutual exchange, the structures were able to count on past work, and networks can offer stability where much is in a state of very rapid change. In order to take stock of these issues, the EUA Council for Doctoral Education (EUA-CDE) has invited its members to discuss the topic in a series of online sessions. Participants will be invited to reflect on the experiences of the last three months and discuss the challenges that lie ahead. This includes how to meet and work in person again, when a certain physical distance is still required. None of these challenges can be easily solved, however the experiences we share today can be our most valuable assets in confronting what is about to come.
This article was originally published as Doctoral Debate on 22 May 2020.
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