Our Graduate Associates talk about the impacts of COVID-19

The series of rapid developments around the COVID-19 pandemic this spring has forced YCAR’s Graduate Associates to adapt to changes that impact them as students, researchers and educators. We reached out to them to share with us some of their thoughts about their education, research, finances, home life and future.

The following is a small selection from the responses.

One of the common concerns was around fieldwork plans. On-site research is a key component of many research projects. With the current travel restrictions and the related health concerns, students are left in an unenviable dilemma: should they wait in the hope of this crisis passing in a reasonably short period or do they rework their research plans?

I was scheduled to start my fieldwork in August 2020 and spend one year in [South Asia]. I am unsure about whether I will be able to do this … At this moment it is impossible to predict when I will be able to go … [PhD student, Anthropology, year 3]

Some have embraced the disruption by incorporating the crisis into their work:

…the direction of my research has reversed … How can you ask participants … to give their views strictly on the past and not comment on what is [the] biggest challenge today? [PhD student, Humanities, year 5]

Many are grappling with how to move forward:

I will have to completely rethink my proposal, and even may have to consider that I will not be able to do fieldwork for an extended time at all. [PhD, Anthropology, year 3]

The road to shaping a research project is long and large-scale changes may require proposal rewrites and resubmitting ethics applications—processes that can add months to one’s graduation timeline. One Graduate Associate shared her need to shift to conducting interviews remotely in order to maintain as much of their research plan and timeline as possible. However, she also expressed frustration at how this change is problematizing data collection and will impact the research:

I will no longer be able to visit the site identified around which I am anchoring my research. Along with my committee, I have now decided to take interviews through Zoom/Skype. However, given the context of [local] government offices, where interviews with officials take a lot of persuasion, numerous office visits, and referrals, I [fear I cannot rely] on this particular set of interviews [and will have to augment them with] interviews with researchers and academicians already working on similar topics … [I fear that I] will be compromising on the quality of [my] project. [MA student, year 2, Environmental Studies]

One of the major consequences of these disruptions for some is the need to push back graduation timelines:

Without completing my fieldwork, I am likely to need more time to finish my PhD. [PhD student, Anthropology, year 3]

Given the uncertainty of my fieldwork I will likely need to rework my research plans and may need longer to finish my program. [PhD student, Anthropology, year 3]

These are also linked to understandable worries about finances and for calls to the university to extend support:

The lockdown has not only affected my fieldwork, but also put me in a difficult position in terms of paying rent for the next four months. [Instead of heading to the field site,] I am now looking for part-time jobs during the summer… [MA  student, Environmental Studies, year 2]

Under these circumstances I am worried about whether I will continue to receive York University’s fellowship beyond my 18 terms and whether I will be able to work as a TA beyond [the guaranteed period]. [PhD student, Anthropology, year 3]

[I am an international student and I have had to make] adjustments and compromises… in order to finish my Master’s program on time … [there have been] student demands and petitions to extend funding for graduate students by another semester. Students are losing valuable fieldwork time and those graduating at the end of the Summer term, like me, will be compromising on the quality of our very final project. [MA student, Environmental Studies, year 2]

The disruptions brought on by COVID-19 also saw the sudden merger of home and professional workspaces for many. The impacts have ranged from the need to adjust to remote teaching to simply finding the motivation to study and write. While the transition to online teaching was seen by most as a necessary disruption, our Graduate Associates did note that it was “far less effective” [PhD student, Dance, year 1] and that it “cannot replace the camaraderie and collective learning experience of a classroom” [PhD student, History, year 6]. In this crisis life stresses seem to grow exponentially as our Associates try to live normally during abnormal times.

The discourse around the lockdown has been swinging between two extremes—one, is to use this time and the lack of distractions to focus solely on work and be productive. The other is to reject this push towards productivity, to acknowledge that this is an unprecedented disruption in our lives and routines, and to take care of ourselves and work accordingly. As an international student, both these positions are untenable! I am finding it really hard to be productive during this time (though I know a few others who are managing it). At the same time, I do not have the luxury of indulging in ‘taking care of myself’ by allowing myself to take a break or rest – I am still paying tuition and need to graduate so that I don’t have to pay even more down the line! [PhD student, Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies, year 6, international student]

For our Associates with young families, the coalescing of these two worlds has added a new responsibility—their children’s’ education.

I usually work on my dissertation at home. But now because social distancing measures and school closures for my kids, the whole family is also home. This leaves me with NO time for my research.[PhD student, Socio-Legal Studies, year 6+]

I am … a single parent. My son is in Grade 9. As a result of the school closure I have had to take up home schooling for him, which requires me to spend a lot of time working with him. This has reduced the time I can spend on my own work. It is also an added emotional stress on me. [PhD student, Anthropology, year 3]

International students find themselves in a double bind, both worried about family and friends back home, and concerned about their own safety should they return.

The news from [home] is unsettling and combined with the events [locally], my mental health and ability to concentrate … has been impacted. [PhD student, Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies, year 6]

I had planned to go back [home] at the end of Winter term. But now because of the different territorial lockdowns and the ongoing presence of COVID-19 infections, I am unsure when it will be possible for safe travel. [MA student, Geography, year 3]

These disruptions to research and education may also impact future career prospects:

If I am unable to conduct my year-long ethnographic fieldwork, I am concerned about how my research experience will be seen [by prospective employers]… This could have adverse impacts on my future career … [PhD student, Anthropology, year 3]

Employment now, more than ever, is uncertain as economies are in recession. [MA student, year 3, Geography, international student]

… completion would only be a concern if there were jobs waiting for all of us. [PhD student, Humanities, year 5]

[I am an international student and] I had planned to find work here in Canada and possibly apply for more secure immigration status (work permit/PR). However, given the vast numbers of layoffs being reported and issues with finding new employment at the moment, I am preparing myself to go back [to my home country] where finding some sort of work might be easier and where the cost of living is definitely cheaper. [MA student, Environmental Studies, year 2]

One Graduate Associate also shared her advice for her peers:

Don’t personalize your lack of motivation or inability to get things done—we’re all suffering from this huge shift in our daily lives. … advocate for yourself. Don’t feel bashful about asking for extensions, supports, resources. [PhD student, Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies, year 6, international student]

Overwhelmingly, however, the Associates see this crisis as a shared moment and call for empathy:

This is a time for crucial collectivity. We need to come together to support each other. [PhD student, Humanities, year 3]

Hang in there. We will get through this together. We are all in the same boat! [PhD student, Socio-Legal Studies, year 6+]

*One of our associates also wrote a personal account of her experiences during this crisis. To read Noa Nahimas’ piece, please click here: https://ycar.apps01.yorku.ca/covid19impacts/

**To learn more about becoming an associate please visit: https://ycar.apps01.yorku.ca/about-ycar/becoming-a-ycar-associate/


***Top image from Toronto’s subway system from Mr. Stick/Flickr

About York Centre for Asian Research