Graduate Students and COVID: Experiences from a Difficult Year
This issue of The American Historian is dedicated to the current state of graduate education. The COVID pandemic upended the lives of historians of all professions, but graduate students arguably suffered more than any other cohort. Graduate students already occupied a tenuous place in the academic ecosystem before the pandemic struck, and the issues they faced--inadequate funding, heavy teaching loads, diminishing prospects of obtaining a tenure-track job, to name a few--have only since been exacerbated by the pandemic. What follows is a series of essays and articles on how COVID impacted graduate students and a call to action for history departments across the country to rethink how to best support an often undervalued but absolutely essential faction of the history profession. We believe that now is the perfect time to transform the traditional graduate education model into one that can provide graduate students with secure economic footing now and best prepare them for a future where tenure-track jobs are not the only viable option for long-term job security.
We start with a roundtable of graduate students across the country. The American Historian asked graduate students to detail their experience of graduate school during the pandemic. We decided to leave the students here—and their institutions—anonymous so they could speak open and honestly. We hope that history departments listen and take seriously what these students have to say.
Student A, Public R1
Every one of us has experienced an amazing amount of pain, adjustment, struggle, stress, and triumph since our lives as we knew them shut down in March of 2020. For my institution in particular, it was just after spring break. We were feeling refreshed, ready to take on the world and the latter half of the spring semester, but weary of the news of a growing epidemic. Then the university informed us we would not be returning to our beloved campus and everything changed. These students from departments across the country would like to speak out about our struggles, pain, and even our successes of being graduate students of various levels in a pandemic. I’ll let my colleagues speak, and get back to you in a moment.
Responses from Graduate Students
Student B, Public R1
For me, the COVID disaster has meant the collapse of perhaps the greatest pleasure a historian-in-training could have: archival travel. Some would say that being sequestered at your apartment with basically nothing to do but write is a blessing for a true scholar, but my research was far from complete when daily life around me began to shut down, and thus I have needed to manage both research and the dissertation, all the while facing the uncertainty of further funding (money from my admission package is almost out) and the additional constraints that my visa status puts on my completion timeline.
Of course, going to the archives is always a challenge, because you risk wasting too much time basking in the warm breath of the past literally springing to life from the pages and boxes in front of you and losing your current focus. After all, it's work. But archival trips always seem to strike a perfect balance between labors and the enjoyment of daily life--almost nothing else makes me feel simultaneously full of purpose and relaxed, with the absolute hardest task of writing still ahead as I take in a city I haven't been to in months or see friends between my sessions in a library. COVID took this from me, while leaving firmly in place the performance anxiety, the wild thoughts of professional competition, and the plain fear of the wheat thresher that is the job market. I'm sure we shall overcome all of this, but the price will be steep.
Student C, Public R1
I was hesitant at first to respond to this call because I have been very fortunate in my experience with COVID, and I don’t think that I reflect the experiences of most graduate students. To begin with, I am slightly older than the average graduate student. Therefore, I have more practical experience than many other students, and I was able to save up some money before joining this cohort. My husband and I are in many ways living the Millennial dream.
After working steadily since college while living at his parents’ house, my husband had saved enough for a down payment for a house. We got married over winter break in 2019 before social distancing measures and closed on a house on March 16, right as our university was going fully online. We had already planned to have children while I was in graduate school because I had been advised by multiple tenured faculty members and family who have attended grad school that I will have more flexibility now than as an assistant professor, or in almost any other full-time job. Working from home while pregnant has definitely been a blessing. I can’t imagine that my job would have allowed me to work from home in any other circumstance. Not only am I safer from COVID risks at home, I also don’t have to be on my feet for much of the day, commute on the bus, or deal with the stairs and implicit bias associated with pregnancy.
As enthusiastic as our director of graduate studies is about in-person classes, I haven’t noticed substantial differences in my learning or socialization between online and in-person classes. I found the social distancing measures in my one in-person class in the fall to be uncomfortable. It is hard to interact socially with other people through a thick mask and several feet of distance. At least through Zoom, you can see facial expressions and hear more clearly what your peers/professor are saying. I do not appreciate the university’s apparent preference for in-person classes, especially because their poster child, the person speaking for all of our COVID measures publically, is a big proponent of opening public schools and does not seem to care about the health of the teachers, only about learning targets for children.
Since my husband and I transitioned from a larger city to come here, and he has taught special education for students with high incidence disabilities in both locations, it is very evident to him that teachers are valued more in our original city than in our current city, and they have more rights there than here. All of his siblings are teachers, and not only have they all received vaccines, they also haven’t had to be in-person at all since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
The faculty and staff in the history department have been lovely during COVID. I do think that it is a positive move to accept fewer graduate students this year in recognition of the dismal job market. I would like to see the history department and the graduate school redistribute those funds that would have been used to fund additional graduate students to existing graduate students. If there aren’t sufficient jobs for us as assistant professors, then we should be treated as junior faculty members now. The apprenticeship model is broken. It only makes sense to live off of a stipend for five to seven years if there is a job waiting at the end. We should have benefits and a living wage comparable to our education and skills, which means at least the salary of a public school teacher, if not an assistant professor. I don’t begrudge them what they have earned, but the faculty’s salaries are public, and it’s hard to stomach a graduate student stipend when full professors make six figures and there’s no clear path to tenure for most of us students. If we’re so valuable to the university, we should be paid for our labor. COVID has highlighted the most important things for me in my life: family, personal wellness, and future security. As enriching as reading historical texts and writing about archives are, I also need to think about my family and plan for the future.
Student D, Public R1
Writing a dissertation in a pandemic has been challenging. In March 2020 I was almost done with my first chapter. The depression and alienation caused by COVID resulted in me procrastinating and not finishing the chapter until October 2020. Starting the next chapter was another struggle, as the archival site in which I hoped to access sources was closed until February 2021. Luckily, I was able to use a bunch of newspaper articles and secondary sources to formulate my argument(s) and gather supporting evidence.
The issues wrought by the institution were equally depressing. There has been absolutely no mention of providing additional funding for graduate students already struggling financially, or adding an additional year of support for those whose projects were halted by the pandemic. Instead, our institutions want us to keep working as if nothing happened. The empty platitudes through town hall meetings are only lip service. Additionally, they have done little to nothing to support Black students amidst police killing people who look like us with carte blanche. Instead, our universities are increasing their police budgets, which only makes matters worse.
After graduating, I am weighing my options to seek employment outside of academia. As much as I love teaching, the lack of support has only showed how little academia cares about its students, let alone faculty of color. Even Black tenured faculty are being fired throughout the country. Where are our allies and co-conspirators? I am far from prepared for the job market, but I am doing all I can to be ready when the time comes. Luckily, I have built a network of support with other graduate students and recent graduates who offer advice and give feedback to my writing. Without them, I would have left my program already.
Student E, Private R1
Starting any statement about COVID without the cliché “The pandemic has changed everything” is a challenge to say the least. For the past year, timelines have shifted indefinitely, classroom pedagogical methods have been upended in favor of remote-friendly techniques, the stability of funding and financial security—already precarious for graduate students—has taken a hit.
I started graduate school with the understanding that pursuing a Ph.D. was the only route toward a career in academia as an eventually tenured professor in history. Make no mistake; I looked forward to the privilege of spending five years exploring the depths of a topic I cared deeply about it. Insofar as that goes, I’ve not been disappointed. However, I was unprepared for the isolation, moving goalposts, and inherent competition that a graduate career held. In those ways, the pandemic changed very little. In fact, it only exacerbated those conditions.
In my department, graduate cohorts each year are relatively small—roughly five to eight people accept offers each year. The number of students studying American history is a fraction of that, typically two or three. That said, going a full year without seeing or regularly interacting with the other five or so students in comparable stages in the program did irreparable damage to any sense of intellectual community or collegial support. Moreover, and equally disorienting, was the overall lack of contact with faculty members and advisors. There was—and still is—a learning curve in terms of communication sans office hours, contact at department events, or even random hallway run-ins. With respect to the fact that faculty members were also navigating the landscape of working from home, I felt like I had been set out to sea without a map in terms of advisement. I was in competition with Zoom meetings, undergraduates needing guidance through the shift to virtual instruction, and requests to historicize the events of the summer of 2020 for time on my advisors’ calendars. At the same time, no one could help me shape a realistic set of goals for the next three, six, or even twelve months. Regardless, our yearly evaluations during which faculty gather behind closed doors to assess each student in the program still took place at the end of the term. Only two months after the world closed, while people dealt with unprecedented anxiety, no access to workspaces and materials, and rightfully feared for their health and that of their loved ones, this struck me as unnecessary and even cruel.
Domestic travel remained unsanctioned under my university’s COVID restrictions until very recently, which made archival research was nearly impossible. With major kudos to archivists who worked tirelessly to correspond with researchers and scan sources, nothing supersedes perusing the archives. At the nascent stages of a dissertation, “What are you looking for?” is the million-dollar question, often unanswerable. When I found out that I could visit the repository I needed most in February 2021, then was vaccinated in March, my excitement was palpable. However, due to the university’s travel policy, I could not use funds previously granted to me to pay for the expense. Despite the fact that my archive was within driving distance, in an area with low community spread, operated under limited capacity, and I had indicated to my school that I would not be on campus at any point, I was denied access to the funds I needed to travel. A student government representative appealed to the graduate school on my behalf with a full explanation of the circumstances. Nonetheless, my request for the funds to be released was denied. In the interest of progressing toward degree completion, I assumed the costs myself.
In my opinion, the failure to account for students engaged in their own research when designing university pandemic guidelines was a blistering oversight. Regulations meant to keep undergraduates safe on-campus in dining/residence areas and classrooms were frankly a slap in the face as no such provisions had been made for graduate students engaging in necessary activities. It is frustrating that although we were unsupported in our research for a year, we are being held to original timelines for degree completion in terms of guaranteed funding.
As I look toward graduation, I aim for cautious optimism, but realistically, I rationally fear the job market. My only semester as instructor of record at my university was interrupted, which meant that evaluations necessary for my dossier were cut, as well. Both in quantity and thoroughness of evaluations, I have little to show for that semester, though I feel that I met the challenge of extremely rigorous teaching circumstances. Typically, class time is set aside for students to complete final evaluations. This practice yields a strong sample of evaluations to analyze, typically close to or over 90%. In 2020, students were emailed a link through which they had the option of accessing evaluations. Understandably, by the end of the semester, student burnout led to a completion rate of less than 65%. Fortunately, my department encouraged faculty members to conduct enhanced classroom observations to provide documentation of our teaching practices. Still, though, these observations reflect the fruits of a pivot to remote instruction with two weeks’ lead time, not the in-person course designed nearly a year in advance.
All things considered, I count myself fortunate to have had access to a steady source on income, health insurance, and overall wellbeing during one of the most catastrophic global events in modern history. It is my hope as we emerge from the darkness of the pandemic that tenured faculty, members of hiring committees, and university administrators recognize the effects of the pandemic and adjust notoriously lofty expectations of “productivity” in academia accordingly. Five or six years in a graduate program that includes 2020 and a good portion of 2021 may only look as fruitful as three or four on a student’s CV in non-pandemic time. Trust us, however, when we tell you it feels like seven or eight.
Student F, Private R1
I came to graduate school late. I had originally deferred college for what I thought would be a year or two out of high school because I couldn’t afford it. Plans changed when I managed to luck into relatively good and interesting jobs in arts non-profits for about a decade until the fallout of the 2008 economic crisis made those jobs scarce. I figured it was a good time to go to college and the state I lived in made it easy (and free) to do so. I wasn’t thinking about grad school when I started my undergraduate work, but I liked history and I liked learning in community with people. The idea of five years of thinking deeply about a topic I cared about was appealing – as was five years of a guaranteed salary and health insurance. I’ve spent my whole working life working multiple jobs and stringing together precarious work – for me grad school was a pretty good financial choice even knowing I’d likely never get a tenure track job.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how far removed many tenured faculty’s perception of grad students' lives and choices are from the reality of them. When giving undergraduates advice about whether to pursue graduate education I often hear faculty tell students to weigh the option against the financial losses of not building a career, contributing to a 401k, or increasing the earning potential. I’m sure that’s a valid consideration for plenty of students, but for many more our gig labor economy has shut the door on those options making grad school the most stable employment option available. My school, like most, if not all others, has guidelines barring grad students from unapproved outside work, but I can count on one hand the amount of grads who don’t work at least one other job just to survive. The idea that you have to work multiple gigs or take on the occasional side hustle is absolutely normal to every grad I know and completely alien to most tenured faculty I know. I often wonder how many tenured faculty in my department know what the average price for a studio apartment is in the major American city we live in. I wonder how many of them know the care or responsibilities many of their students have. How many of them, especially those who work on labor and economic histories, have ever calculated how much their grad students make per hour?
It’s been a long fifteen months. My comps defense happened about two weeks after everything shut down and my dissertation prospectus defense was pushed back as I tried to figure out a research plan during the uncertain spring and summer of 2020. I’ve defended and am in candidacy, but I essentially lost an entire research year. I’ve been able to do some work digitally, but I still feel behind and under the gun trying to figure out how to fit research and writing into this last year of funding I have. Despite all the urging from my department and graduate school to “get creative” with sources there’s only so much that can be done. Especially when you are worried about that rapidly ticking funding clock while also balancing living through a mass casualty event.
My graduate school, like many, has promoted virtual wellness events, graduate appreciation Zoom yoga classes, and shared tips on managing stress. But they’ve been silent about the one thing that would actually relieve the crushing stress on me and my colleagues – a universal funding extension. My department has also largely been silent – we’ve heard from our DGS perhaps twice each semester during this past academic year. I taught my first solo class online in the fall and never had anyone from the department outside my advisor check in on how it was going or even how it went. I’m extremely lucky to have an amazing advisor who’s been a genuine support to me academically and personally. That’s a help, but one I’m lucky to have and know that not all of my colleagues enjoy. Grad departments and faculty often spend a lot of time telling new students that grad school can be isolating and warning them to guard against that. Yet, when the most isolating event in modern memory arose and left many grad students stranded thousands of miles from their support networks my department did nothing to help combat that isolation.
I came into grad school thinking it would be a good and worthy way to spend five years – I didn’t come in expecting to go on the job market. I planned to use the skills honed in school to do more non-profit or organizing work. I fell in love with teaching along the way and reconsidered my decision about going on the market before COVID. Now I have come to grieve that I likely won’t continue to get to continue to teach. Part of that realization comes from an honest acknowledgment of the realities of the job market and a honest accounting of, as a queer woman, where I would move for a job and where I wouldn’t. But it’s not just the lack of jobs that’s cementing my decision to go on the market – it’s also that I just don’t think the modern American university is a good place to work or, more importantly for me, to make change. Everything I’ve learned over four years thinking about the history of the carceral state and liberation leads me away from the university, even if there’s a real joy and possibility found in being in community with the student you teach and learn from. Maybe that’s fifteen months of the pandemic talking, but I don’t think it is.
Thank you for taking the time to listen to my colleagues speak.
It has been hard enough even to capture the voices of the cohort because of increasing demands on us as students, parents, partners, friends, family members, and grieving members of society. Especially those of us of minority populations. Jobs are difficult to find. Research has been incredibly difficult. For my research in particular, developing the relationships necessary to do proper oral history work has been nearly impossible over zoom. Many of my archives are not digital and the costs associated with asking archives to scan things for you is astronomical. Furthermore, it's hard to ask them exactly what to look for when you haven’t seen the archive, you aren’t sure what they have, and your topic is so obscure the archivist does not even know what they have in your topic.
I will say the most incredibly rewarding part about everything being online is having the amazing opportunity to go to more conferences (saving on travel costs) and attend virtual lectures of many of my favorite scholars because they’re all publicly available online if I can simply fit them into my busy schedule. I’m thankful for these opportunities and I hope that readers, faculty, departments, etc. take note and keep these accessible options open in the future so that our scholarly networks can continue to grow. “Returning to normal” may not be optimal.