Coming Back from COVID: The Grad Student Perspective
Daniel Gorman Jr.
I am loath to write anything about what history graduate education will look after COVID. For one thing, we’re still in COVID. Yes, millions of Americans have been vaccinated, and yes, most universities are planning for in-person education this fall. Unfortunately, the right variant could render vaccines less effective and cause colleges to backtrack on their plans, leaving us in Zoom limbo. There is no guarantee that master’s and PhD students will be back in classrooms and archives by Labor Day.
There’s also the question of what higher education will look like when the pandemic ends. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 400,000 fewer students went to college last fall, depriving colleges of tuition revenue. Controversial austerity measures have been instituted at numerous universities. These trends bode ill for improved grad student stipends and tenure-track faculty lines. Meanwhile, recent polling indicates that 1 in 4 Americans want to leave their current job after the pandemic. This raises the possibility that professors will retire or quit in large numbers. Will colleges recruit more tenure-track faculty instead of relying only on contingent faculty? In short, we don’t know if the job prospects for recent history graduates will worsen or improve post-COVID. (I assume they will worsen, because corporatization in higher education, but you never know.)
Despite these concerns, we need to talk about grad students. They need our help — or, to be precise, they need the help of the tenured professors and university administrators reading this article.
For the past year, archives have been closed. Some facilities have the capability to scan documents for researchers working remotely, but the typical queue for PDFs is months long. With most borders closed to international travel, the prospect of visiting international archives is doubtful. Grad students need access to their data, but first they need time. Departments and universities need to give grad students more time—a year, at bare minimum—to complete theses and dissertations.
Graduate advisors and program directors need to throw out their typical expectations of what a dissertation or thesis should be. As part of giving all grad students more time, faculty must help students reframe their projects. This means active, hands-on mentoring instead of letting students brainstorm ideas in isolation. Faculty should also allow COVID-era students to submit final portfolios of their work to earn the Ph.D. Such a portfolio would comprise term papers, exam essays, and sample syllabi alongside a shorter dissertation or thesis. As Katina L. Rogers argues in Putting the Humanities PhD to Work, “Even minimal flexibility, such as allowing the dissertation to take the form of a collection of articles rather than a single cohesive book-like structure (already widely accepted in a number of STEM and social science fields, but relatively uncommon in the humanities), can help students to make steady progress while still engaging in rigorous research and analysis.” Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch make a similar point in The New PhD: “Ambitious portfolio writings or an experiential set of scholarly criteria might substitute for the ubiquitous exam, and relevant work internships or forms of public scholarship could become alternatives or additions to courses, the exam, and the one-size-fits-all dissertation.”
Reconceiving the format and structure of the thesis/dissertation will help students recover from COVID delays and also prompt an overdue conversation about allowing students to submit a final assessment other than a book draft.
Then there is the matter of funding. It’s time for departmental and university administrators, working together, to get creative about grad student salaries. Many history departments have paused Ph.D. admissions for fall 2021, but this does not mean that enough money will be available to extend every doctoral stipend (or master’s scholarship, for that matter). I propose a temp-work model to help grad students in M.A. and Ph.D. programs bridge the time added to their programs. Universities can place grad students in unfilled roles of department and program administrators, student life advisors, admissions counselors, press editors, and library clerks. The number of openings will not be enough for every grad student, so departments must work with college career centers to place students in temp jobs in the community.
Temp work on or off campus may not conform with the idealized image of the ivory tower. Paradoxically, it could slow degree completion, as students would have to balance their academic work with the responsibilities of their jobs. Nonetheless, temp jobs would provide tangible benefits—namely, rent, groceries, and healthcare premiums—for grad students. Higher ed institutions have a moral responsibility to help their grad students stay financially solvent while recovering from the pandemic.
Finally, there is the matter of peer support for grad students. Many students have formed ad hoc writing groups using Zoom, Discord, Slack, and other platforms. Such peer support will remain essential as students return to campus and navigate the stress of being near other people again. Faculty can support student groups as they transition to in-person life by providing a designated space on campus and underwriting any costs associated, from room rentals to coffee to printing fees. I strongly discourage faculty from attending as facilitators, however. For peer writing groups to be truly effective, they cannot feel like mandated work or an extra class that faculty are forcing students to attend. Give the students their own space and then leave them alone.
These are only initial notes toward the transition from a COVID work environment to … something resembling a normal one. Students do not need platitudes from the administration about “We’re here for you.” Rather, students need specific forms of support—more time, adjustable dissertation components, guaranteed employment, and protected student-only spaces.
Let’s get to work.
Daniel Gorman Jr. is a history Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rochester. He was a 2019–2021 Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow and is a past recipient of the Beinecke Scholarship.
Madeline St. Amour, “Few Positives in Final Fall Enrollment Numbers,” Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 17, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/12/17/final-fall-enrollment-numbers-show-pandemics-full-impact.
Francois Furstenberg, “The Era of Artificial Scarcity,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Apr. 8, 2021, https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-era-of-artificial-scarcity.
“Is This Working? A Year In, Workers Adapting to Tomorrow’s Workplace,” Pulse of the American Worker Survey: Special Report (March 2021), https://news.prudential.com/presskits/pulse-american-worker-survey-is-this-working.htm; see also Kim Hart, “1 in 4 plan to bolt job post-pandemic,” Axios, Apr. 6, 2021, https://www.axios.com/post-pandemic-job-turnover-04cdedcb-ddd6-4b20-b936-70b1cc2595aa.html.
Katina L. Rogers, Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and beyond the Classroom (2020), 90.
Leonard Cassuto and Robert Weisbuch, The New PhD: How to Build a Better Graduate Education (2021), 203.