Graduating grad school in face of pandemic uncertainty

Caitlyn A. Hall, John F. Malloy, Griffin McCutcheon

While university administrations grapple with COVID and campus life, we’re grappling with how to successfully earn PhDs in the midst of this pandemic. Griffin helped his fiance move from their home in Arizona to Detroit, Michigan, where she will spend the next three years in an Emergency Medicine residency. He wonders how he can continue to support her from across the country. For now, he’s trying to compress a typical 5-year program into 4 years to join her in Detroit. He’s living with the fear/reality that, as a frontline emergency doctor, she will catch COVID-19 as a second wave is predicted to surge cases nationwide. And he won’t be there to help her from across the country. Beyond 2020, he wonders what the world will look like after grad school and how the pandemic will force his and his fiance’s decisions about their professional and personal lives.

Their situation is not unique. All graduate students are trying to balance completing a degree with personal obligations during this global pandemic. In normal times, we are supposed to become experts in our fields, while establishing a career and building a life that meets our passions, life goals, our partner’s ambitions, and our family’s needs. Obtaining a PhD is a slow and uncertain process that rarely acknowledges the agency or maturity of the student at the best of times. COVID-19 complicates an already difficult juggling act.

The prospect of a near graduation is equal parts exciting and nerve-wracking, particularly due to a pandemic-stifled job market. We’ve been lucky that our time as graduate students has led to professional growth and networking. But our professional development doesn’t ensure stability in the face of a looming graduation date that could mean unemployment.

Plenty of uncertainty is ahead of us. The internet is swimming with announcements of hiring freezes, faculty layoffs, funding cuts that lead to abandoned research, and successful researchers leaving academia. These announcements are harbingers of long-term budget cuts within universities, as funding sources and endowments seem to dry up. Beyond academia, job prospects are bleak — employment in a world impacted by COVID-19 is going to be challenging. This leaves graduate students who are just beginning their careers with even more of an uncertain future. What will the job market hold when the dust settles? We’ve spent 4–8 years working in research and want to continue being successful personally and professionally. But do we have the necessary training and preparation to be successful outside of academia?

Graduate students are the backbone of academic research, and continue to be so during the time of COVID-19. However, a lack of dialogue and support for graduate students’ needs during this pandemic is unfortunately common. Universities that are failing to support their students’ basic health and wellness are witnessing strikes. As graduate students are getting married, having children and entering a hostile world in our mid-to late-20s (at the earliest), we should be more holistically supported and trained to better secure future success. We are more than just students, and this pandemic is highlighting the inequalities within the graduate system.

Griffin McCutcheon (he/his) is a Ph.D. candidate in the Biological Design Program at Arizona State University. He designs genetic control systems and studies how they can be integrated with biological self-assembly for new methods of nanoparticle fabrication. He is the co-chair of AzSPN and enjoys mountain biking the desert trails, woodworking, and being a dog dad to his two pups.

John F. Malloy (he/him) is a Ph.D. candidate studying Astrobiology and Complex Systems Science at Arizona State University in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. He studies the fundamental nature and definition of life, both on Earth and on other planets, through exploring the evolution of life and life-like systems. He is a member of AzSPN and enjoys training for and competing in ultramarathons across the American Southwest.

Caitlyn A. Hall (she/they) is the co-founder of the Arizona Science Policy Network and a Ph.D. student in Environmental Engineering at Arizona State University. Her current research promotes natural hazard resilience by using microbes to reduce damage from earthquakes. She works with industry, community, and government leaders to develop best-fit technical, policy, and public health solutions to best-address a community’s challenges and values. For fun, Caitlyn spends her time rock climbing and trail running.

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