Sixteen PhD students affiliated with the Erasmus School of Health Policy Management (ESHPM) have written an open letter to ask the university to be more lenient to all of its PhD students due to the pandemic. They hope that all PhD students attending all of EUR’s faculties will be granted six additional months to complete their research projects and dissertations.
Asked what kind of problems they themselves encountered during the pandemic, two PhD students who signed the letter, Chiara Carboni and Iris van de Voort, shake their heads in disappointment. This is exactly the kind of question they don’t want to answer. “We’ve had to complete so many evaluation forms and surveys in which we are asked to explain why we have fallen behind and to quantify the extent to which we have fallen behind.” They say that the evaluations are causing unease, because some PhD students are given an extension, while others aren’t, even though many PhD students have fallen behind in their work in a way that cannot be expressed in weeks.
“For instance, how can you calculate the extent to which you’ve fallen behind because you had less of an opportunity to network? Because you were sometimes very lonely? Or because you weren’t able to use your fellow PhD students as sparring partners in your research?” Van de Voort asks. For this reason, she and Carboni and the other signatories of the letter ask that all of the university’s PhD students be given a general pardon: a six-month extension, no complicated questions asked.
When we press them for answers, the two PhD students do give us some examples of situations they encountered during the pandemic. “For us, conducting research often means you have to go to a hospital or nursing home to observe things,” says Carboni. “For a long time, we were unable to do so. And even when we weren’t in lockdown every once in a while, the healthcare providers had to catch up on so much care they hadn’t been able to give their patients earlier that we researchers weren’t really a priority to them. They simply didn’t have time for us.”
Needless to say, attending conferences was more complicated, as well. “The first presentation I gave was at a symposium organised remotely. But because it was supposed to have been held in Toronto, they stuck to that time zone, so I had to give my presentation at night.” The PhD students also missed out on the social meetings that usually take place after such presentations, which are important networking opportunities.
Loneliness was a significant problem to many PhD students, says Van de Voort. “Conducting PhD research is a pretty lonely job at the best of times, and during Covid-19 it became a very lonely job. Being able to share your ideas with your colleagues and being inspired by them really helps motivate you when you’re conducting research.”
Although many restrictions have now been eased, the situation is still far from normal. “Now we’re mostly dealing with uncertainty, because we never know when the rules will change again, or when a new outbreak will begin.”
In the summer of 2020 – which turned out to be merely the start of the pandemic – a budget was allocated to contract extensions. According to Van de Voort, 21 of the 60 PhD students attending ESHPM were given an extension. She and Carboni did not have recourse to the arrangement, mostly because they weren’t aware of it and had only just begun conducting doctoral research. Furthermore, they had no idea at the time how far they would fall behind or how long the pandemic would last. “Moreover, many of these PhD students were given temporary teaching contracts, and we simply weren’t ready for that. That is something you do towards the end of your research period.”
The fact that some PhD students are granted an extension while others aren’t has already caused resentment in some places, say Carboni and Van de Voort. “Take ESSB, for example,” says Carboni. “At that faculty, PhD students who received external funding were not given an extension. We wrote a letter to the faculty board to tell them that they should be considerate to them, too.” The two PhD students believe that treating all PhD students the same way across the board will be the solution.
The open letter, signed by sixteen PhD students affiliated with ESHPM, was sent to EUR Rector Annelien Bredenoord and ESHPM Pro-Dean Werner Brouwer on 10 March. By now, Brouwer has responded, proposing that he sit down with the group for talks. At the time of writing, Carboni and Van de Voort had not yet heard from Bredenoord. According to an EUR spokesperson, the Rector will react to the letter this week.