‘It is stressful, there are so many uncertainties’

| Michaela Nesvarova

The corona crisis has put research on hold. This impacts all science, but especially PhDs and young researchers are concerned about the situation. Many share the same fear: not being able to finish their research on time. ‘Most PhDs worry about the situation. None of them know if they will be allowed to extend their deadlines,’ says the PhD Network of the University of Twente (P-NUT).

‘It is stressful because there are so many uncertainties,’ says Anton Atanasov, P-NUT President and PhD candidate at the UT. ‘Many PhDs are funded through various grants and scholarships and it is completely unclear if they get any extension on their deadlines and contracts. Some of them are dependent on lab access and for them this is a nightmare. On top of that, you have the issue of people needing to present at conferences, which is a requirement for PhDs. They can write their papers, but they have nowhere to present them.’ All this means many young scientists might ‘fall behind’.

              ‘Everyone has different guidelines to follow’

Roberto Cruz Martinez, PhD researcher at the BMS faculty, understands this very well. ‘I come from Mexico and what worries me right now is my scholarship provided by the Mexican government. There is no guarantee that they will be willing to extend it beyond the deadline, which in my case is in November 2021. I don’t see it as likely that they will be willing to extend it. For PhDs, the main challenge right now is that they all fall under a different framework. Someone with a scholarship from Iran needs to fulfil different requirements than me. Some of us don’t have contracts, everyone has different guidelines to follow. I think most worry about the situation.’

Problems for international researchers

The Young Academy at the UT (YA@UT) also recognizes the issue, says its board member Ruchi Bansal. ‘The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented challenge that is affecting the global scientific community, especially PhDs. We need to realize this and see what options there are to improve their situation. The crisis can cause bigger problems for international students. PhD students generally have four years to complete their thesis, but master students only have two years for which they pay up to 30.000 euros. If they suddenly need to spend three extra months on it, it is a big deal. This will surely affect their timelines and deadlines. They can’t do any lab work, they can’t go on internships and so on. They are definitely struggling.’

The YA@UT has contacted the Executive Board regarding this topic. ‘The Dutch National Young Academy has published a letter concerning the challenging times in science. The YA@UT endorsed this letter and sent it to the Board,’ explains Bansal. This letter stressed the need for extension of temporary contracts: ‘This is especially true for PhD students, whether internally or externally funded, as an extension to their contracts, and the grants or salary attached, is vital at times when their projects might be stalled for months through no fault of their own.’

‘Everything stopped’

This issue of extending deadlines remains valid even if the scientists’ work isn’t immediately affected, points out Cruz Martinez. ‘For my research I was focusing on doing online surveys so I can continue with my work now, but I might feel the hit later in the year, because everything is being postponed or cancelled. I was planning to do data collection directly with patients, but had to stop making arrangements for that. I was also supposed to go for research to Spain later this year, but now that might not be possible. Everything stopped.’

rector thom palstra responds to the situation of phds

‘We acknowledge that many young researchers may be affected by the current corona crisis. It can be a stressful period with uncertainties, in which we need to support them to the best of our ability. This goes in particular for PhD students in a later phase of their PhD programme, as there seems to be limited room for flexibility.

As a university, we need to look at every PhD candidate's situation individually to come to a convenient solution, as many factors come into play. The issues are very diverse, ranging from employment terms to hiccups in conducting research activities through current limitations. In any case, we strive for coming to a satisfactory outcome together.

The situation is not unique for the UT. Also, other universities in the Netherlands and abroad struggle. In close consultation with VSNU, the Dutch ministries of Education, Culture and Science but also financing organisations, we need to figure out how this can be dealt with adequately.’

Mental strain

Moreover, it isn’t only ‘external obstacles’, such as no lab access or cancelled conferences, that lead to delays. ‘When this crisis was starting it was a big challenge for my mental health,’ says P-NUT board member Franziska Baack. ‘My work doesn’t require lab space but it is still very difficult to work from home in this situation. It was very stressful and very difficult to stay focused on work. I can continue working online, but I miss the interaction with my colleagues. I have less than two years left so the deadline is much more tangible. I feel the pressure and it all depends on how productive I can be in the next few months. It’s a mental strain.’

              ‘My planning has been thrown completely out the window’

Her colleague Anton Atanasov has a similar story to tell. ‘For me it’s still difficult to adapt and stay focused on work,’ he says. ‘There is no distinction between work and home. I tend to dive fully into work and the UT was a designated place for that, but now I alternate between days of working 16 hours straight and days of not working at all. It is not pleasant. I hope I can soon adapt to this hermit life or that the lockdown is over. Also, for my work I depend on tools at the UT, so now I have to treat prototyping very differently. It is all based on wishful thinking: maybe I can do this next month. My planning has been thrown completely out the window. It is like a restricted prison where we can work.’