Through Their Own Eyes: The Implications of COVID-19 for PhD Students

Nicholas Haas, Aida Gureghian, Cristel Jusino Díaz, and Abby Williams

Has COVID-19 made doctoral students more receptive to non-academic careers? Economic fallout from the pandemic has exacerbated problems with an already-precarious job market, upending expectations for post-graduate employment – particularly among PhD students. News of university budget shortfalls, hiring freezes, and furloughs have in turn led to calls for universities to take concrete steps to prepare students for an altered post-pandemic reality, for instance by hastening investments in existing efforts such as greater preparation for non-academic careers.

The success of such efforts, of course, will depend critically not only on academic departments but also on their students, what occupations they wish to pursue and why, and whether the pandemic has led them to update their expectations or preferences. To meet PhD students’ needs, it is critical that universities comprehend them first. Effective post-pandemic higher education policies must thus take doctoral students’ career aspirations, labor market outcomes, and reflections on their academic departments into account.

In this paper, we study the effects of COVID-19 on PhD students’ career aspirations and priorities. Since 2017, in conjunction with a Council of Graduate Schools’ (CGS) Understanding PhD Career Pathways for Program Improvement grant, we have fielded annual surveys that aim to capture the career aspirations, priorities, and professional development of students from a number of different cohorts. Notably, the survey allows students and alumni to speak for themselves, and thus seeks to address a heretofore largely overlooked graduate student perspective. The spring 2020 survey was already underway when news of the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated fallout first broke.

To evaluate the effect of COVID-19 on students’ aspirations, we compare survey responses prior to and following significant developments in the pandemic. Contrary to our expectation, we do not find that COVID-19 has caused substantial shifts in PhD students’ career aims or priorities: although fifth-year students register some increased receptivity to non-academic careers and appear to place greater value on job location and security, evidence is limited and inconsistent. We also find some evidence that students view their academic departments more favorably in the wake of the pandemic.

Even in times of increased uncertainty and reduced job availability, then, our results indicate that doctoral students’ interest in academic careers continues unabated. Why? We offer a few different interpretations. First, it is possible that the pandemic was not a sufficiently large shock to PhD students who already anticipated an extremely challenging job market. Second, students at the comparatively well-resourced institution we study may have felt somewhat insulated from the worst of the fallout, as many received funding extensions due to the circumstances. The visible attention to student needs exhibited by many academic departments may have even made some students feel more favorably about their departments and academia more generally.

A third possibility is that our study does not capture changes that nevertheless occurred. It could be that our study was conducted too early, and that a study conducted at a later date would record more substantial shifts. Although the response rate to the survey was high, and responses were anonymous, it is also possible that students were reluctant to express their unvarnished opinions, which could lead to an underestimation of their dissatisfaction. However, many students did speak quite openly about their concerns with their departments or career paths.

Do our results bode well or poorly for PhD students? On the one hand, we find some evidence indicating that efforts by departments to blunt the deleterious effects of the pandemic were successful. Despite the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, students in our study did not appear to be more dissatisfied or anxious. On the other hand, if the pandemic results in sharp decreases in the supply of academic jobs but PhD student interest in academia continues unabated, the gap between the demand for and supply of academic positions may continue to grow.

We hope that our study sheds new light on the effects of the pandemic on PhD students’ career aspirations, and more generally effects of recessions on career choice, as well as results against which other scholars can compare their own.

We believe a number of important questions remain unanswered. Will aspirations shift in the longer-term – and if so, how well will programs meet demands in a changing climate? How might post-COVID academic employment exacerbate inequalities related to ethnicity, gender, citizenship, and socioeconomic status across disciplines? Will inter/intradepartmental relations become strained, given smaller cohort intakes and even fiercer job stakes? Potential plans for future study could also consider longer-term effects of the pandemic on differentiation of the academic profession – by tracking remote work shifts, the presence of online learning positions, and related developments that reflect changes to the traditional market.

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