The PhD students are asking the university for measures. Last week they published an open letter in which they explained their problems and possible solutions.
Visiting concerts is impossible
Femke Vandenberg (ESHCC) is studying the current phenomenon whereby more and more people are listening to locally produced music. The Irish researcher has Dutch roots, but growing up she knew nothing about the Netherlands’ musical landscape. This didn’t stop her from including the Dutch levenslied in her doctoral study, and just before the Covid crisis, she could even be found attending a Trijntje Oosterhuis concert at the Ziggo Dome.
During such events, she asks concertgoers whether she can interview them about the factors that have formed their musical preferences. “I had already rounded off the interviews for my first case study, about levensliederen (the Dutch version of schlager music). So I could still publish about that. But I had just started on my second and third case studies when the crisis started.” This meant Vandenberg had to skip the next three concerts on her list. And it’s still very unclear when large-scale events like concerts will be allowed again. She has around 18 months left until her presentation. “I’ve tried to contact people via online concerts, but this proved harder than expected.” In the concert stream chat rooms, no one responded to her requests for an interview.
In fact, Vandenberg has been forced to acknowledge Covid in its own right. “I’ve been rewriting my research proposal to include a comparison between people’s online and offline concert experiences.” She isn’t sure to which extent this will lead to delays in her programme. It’s hard to deal with that kind of uncertainty. “Most PhD students are in a similar situation: you don’t know whether you can start planning field research, or a trip to the archives. Nor can I be sure that I’ll ultimately be writing the best thesis I could have come up with.”
Another thing that makes the current crisis harder for doctoral candidates is the lack of interaction with colleagues, according to Vandenberg. “PhD research is quite solitary as it is, and Covid has only made it worse. I wouldn’t call it lonely per se, but you do become a bit of a hermit. And now you don’t even have the opportunity to walk over to the coffee vending machine and chat about your work with a colleague. I’m lucky enough to have a boyfriend at home who doesn’t mind hearing about my research. But not everyone’s that fortunate.”
'It would be nice if the university was a little more flexible'
For her doctoral research into genetic identification, Gabriela Dankova (Erasmus MC) has to visit the lab almost daily. But the facility was forced to close its doors at the start of the lockdown – with Dankova half-way through an experiment. Fortunately, the lab reopened some six weeks later, in early May. “We still need to keep our distance, but that isn’t too big a problem for my department, thankfully: it’s a small department and the lab itself is quite spacious,” explains Dankova.
But that doesn’t mean her worries are over. “For my experiments, I’m also dependent on other people being present at the hospital, and they don’t always work on location.” In addition, she was planning to supervise a student project at the lab in May. “But these students aren’t always allowed in – and it remains to be seen how long this ban will remain in place.” Of course, this has given her more time for other matters, like writing up lab results. “Still, this isn’t what I was supposed to be doing, so it has messed up my planning to a degree.”
The hardest thing to deal with for Dankova is the uncertainty. “I get it that the university can’t avoid delays, but it would be nice if they were a little flexible in for example the number of publications required, or if they alotted some more time.” The most important thing in her view is that the university recognises the challenges faced by PhD students and listens to what they have to say.
'Stress, I tend to notice afterwards'
In his doctoral programme, Zouhair Hammana (ESHCC) researches diversity-related issues at various secondary schools. “For example, I am studying how teachers handle specific situations in the classroom as well as outside.” He originally planned to conduct interviews on location in March and April. This had to be called off when the crisis broke. “Of course, you could still interview people via Zoom, but this is hardly practical with a target group that works in education. To start, teachers working in secondary education have generally had their fill of Zoom, and they have to put a lot of extra work into online education for their pupils. On top of this, video interviews ultimately don’t work as well as talking face to face.” With secondary schools starting to reopen, Zouhair can try to arrange new interview appointments. Still, he’s a bit pressed for time: the summer holidays are coming up.
As a doctoral candidate, Zouhair also supervises student work groups. Right now, this is still done via digital channels, making the process more demanding than usual. “I never know exactly how much stress I’m going through – I tend to find out afterwards. I start to feel physically tired and see a drop in my output.” He isn’t entirely sure how much he’ll fall behind due to the Covid crisis – right now, Zouhair is half-way through his doctoral programme. “It prevents you from doing your fieldwork. Of course, you try to get back on track as soon as possible. But looking at your planning, you can definitely see delays.”
Last week, hundreds of doctoral candidates called on the university to take steps to alleviate their situation. After EM reported on this letter, the Executive Board invited the signatories to an informal consultation. The doctoral candidates will be sending several delegates to this meeting, which will be held on Thursday. During Tuesday’s broadcast of Erasmus TV, EUR’s Chief Diversity Officer Semiha Denktas already argued for an extension to PhD students’ existing contracts.