Opinion: Grad Students Face Uncertainty During the Pandemic
Opinion: Grad Students Face Uncertainty During the Pandemic

Opinion: Grad Students Face Uncertainty During the Pandemic

With mounting feelings of isolation, research projects derailed, and financial futures cast into doubt, grad students are anxious in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Lila Westreich
Mar 19, 2020

ABOVE: LILA WESTREICH

Amonth ago, my life as a graduate student at the University of Washington was going well. I was scheduled to give five public talks on my research during the first week of March, my laboratory experiments were proceeding apace, and I was prepping for fieldwork set to start in a few weeks. Then everything changed.

On March 4th, public health officials in King County, WA, responding to the growing outbreak and increasing number of cases of COVID-19 in the state, announced during a press conference that Seattle residents should stay home. The King County Department of Public Health officials also advised the cancellation of any group event involving more than 10 people. My scheduled presentations were canceled almost immediately. The University of Washington (UW) quickly shifted to online classes. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer disappeared from grocery shelves across the city. Graduate students were left stranded.

As a graduate student, I am responsible for teaching classes while completing my own research. Teaching funds my graduate career, by allowing me to earn a stipend, tuition, and healthcare benefits in exchange for my time and effort. But even in the best economic times, these stipends often aren’t enough to cover living expenses, especially in a city as expensive as Seattle. Many graduate students work other jobs to pay the rent. Graduate students tutor undergraduates, proctor exams, and work retail and service industry jobs. With in-person classes canceled and restaurants closing, graduate students are losing vital sources of income. We already face food and housing insecurity, as do graduate students across the country. What will happen when our financial situation gets worse?

At UW, graduate student workers are ineligible to accumulate paid sick time. If we get sick, we stay home—but the lab time we miss must be made up with late nights and weekend work. With the move to online classes and UW’s recommended self-isolation guidelines, grad students are uncertain about their research, their financial and mental wellbeing, and their futures.

Students whose research can be done remotely worry about the effects of prolonged isolation from friends and coworkers on their mental health. Emotional effects, such as difficulty focusing on work and maintaining productivity, are likely to set in if in-person classes are canceled for much longer. Grad students defending theses have been forced to give final presentations to empty rooms, with professors joining through video conferencing. Students working in labs are choosing not to quarantine, mainly because many life-science experiments require constant observation. In addition to these disruptions, numerous graduate students rely on undergraduates to help collect data. With undergraduate students urged to stay home, graduate students relying on continuous data flow are forced to make up for the loss of assistants, skyrocketing stress levels and lengthening research timelines. These students don’t always have the option to self-isolate without sacrificing data collection, even when the Public Health Department explicitly recommends staying home.

I am lucky that my samples—pollen foraged by native bees in Washington that I analyze genetically—are collected locally in remote fields of wildflowers or public parks.  For graduate students who must travel internationally to collect samples and data, UW guidelines have forced them to cancel or reschedule in hopes the virus will diminish before the field season ends at the start of next winter. Graduate students traveling domestically are forced to make their own decision on whether to stay or go, risking their health and potentially contributing to the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to complete their projects, or canceling their trips and postponing graduation or missing funding deadlines.

If I catch the virus, I can self-isolate. But if I were quarantined, I would be unable to perform the necessary tasks and experiments to complete my doctoral degree on time—a reality many graduate students are facing in the coming months in Seattle and beyond. Our work won’t get done without us, and our funding deadlines aren’t likely to change just because the world has been plunged into pandemic turmoil. We don’t have the financial or job stability to navigate a crisis. With the number of infections forecasted to grow in Seattle and across the country, universities, academic administrations, and funding sources need to start making a plan and addressing the uncertainty confronting graduate students. Creating a source of bridge funding for graduate students during the pandemic to allow them to self-isolate without repercussions on their research is a good start.

Lila Westreich is a PhD candidate at the School of Environment and Forest Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @lilawestreich.