PhD candidates’ letter concerning COVID-19 impact on their trajectories

Rashid Gabdulhakov

Through this letter we, as an Erasmus PhD community, intend to convey our grievances, concerns and worries pertaining to our PhD-trajectories at the Erasmus University Rotterdam amidst the Covid-19 global pandemic, and in its aftermath. The current global pandemic and its accompanying (economic) crisis are having an effect on all of us, in various sectors, some more than others, and in vastly different ways. Precarity is a recurring theme in the way the current corona crisis is affecting people differently. The virus affects people that have been, and still are, struggling under conditions of continuous duress more severely, as a result of existing, historical, systemic inequalities. Having a precarious position means that you have to worry about more than only your physical health.

As temporary staff, we occupy a position of precarity within the academic institution, especially as PhD candidates, in which we understand the ‘business as usual’ approach of the University to be detrimental to our health, safety and economic social positions. Our concerns stem from a number of issues, namely the following:

1) Research. The global pandemic means that the majority of PhD candidates cannot continue their research, whether it be data collection in general, lab work, experiments, archival work and/or fieldwork. A lot of us cannot substitute these various forms of data collection by simply migrating to an online platform. This means that a lot of us have to rethink our data collection and look for different ways to continue our PhD-trajectories, within or outside of our PhD contracts. This sets us back and requires more time, and in some cases, more funding to deal with and navigate through these changes.

2) Teaching. As PhD candidates, we are also involved in teaching and it has been challenging to suddenly migrate our offline designed education to (various) online platforms. This has put a strain on the teaching staff, including PhD candidates who now not only have to worry about their graduate research but also about ‘online teaching’. This is very much a labor issue as well, as we have to put in more hours and attempt to continue ‘business as usual’, whilst the separation between our private lives and work lives have extremely diminished due to our work and homes becoming one.

3) Our mental and physical wellbeing. In April 2020, the Erasmus University surveyed 5,000 students and 1,300 staff members to ‘find out how they are coping with studying and working from home’. The report says the following: “PhD students experience significantly more negative emotions such as loneliness, worrying and anxiety than other groups of staff”. This is not a surprise. There is extra stress on us as the ‘business as usual’ approach adopted by the University expects PhD candidates to continue working as ‘usual’ during a global pandemic. Diverse scholars have already demanded urgent attention to the mental health of PhD researchers, and working under the aforementioned conditions exacerbates the situation regarding our mental wellbeing. Not only our mental wellbeing is compromised, but our physical wellbeing as well. The lack of access to proper working stations and office equipment puts some of us in working conditions that have a negative impact on our health.

What do we want? We demand a couple of things, namely the following: 1) We want more time: an extension of our contracts to be able to properly adjust our research to the circumstances under which we all have to work. This can be done in various ways, either through an extension of PhD contracts or by offering different means of allowing us to have a paid continuation of our PhD trajectories. 2) This brings us to funding. More funding might be necessary to adjust to the changes that are needed to continue our PhD trajectories. And 3) flexibility. Considering the cancelation and postponement of various PhD courses, we ask for leniency in the required EC amount needed to graduate. We are not alone in stipulating these demands, the PNN (Promovendi Netwerk Nederland) has issued a statement in which it recommends Dutch universities to compensate PhD candidates for delays.

We also want the University to pay attention to external PhD candidates. Due to their contractual conditions, they are in a position in which their funding and contracts are tied to external funding agencies and institutes. We ask the University to aid and support these PhD candidates during this time of crisis, and not simply neglect their struggles because of the adjective ‘external’. For example, the University could set up a fund to compensate any delays external PhD candidates might face due to the corona crisis.

We understand that our University is dealing with a lot and that this is a difficult time for us all. However, we also understand that this corona crisis has a serious effect on our PhD trajectories. We thus feel it is imperative for us as a community to voice our concerns, worries and our demands to better our position in this time of crisis. We also ask the University to pay attention to its temporary staff, maintenance staff, service staff and its students. These staff members and students are in similar, but also very different, positions of precarity as us. If the University values education, study and research, then it needs to aid and support these various staff members and students in whatever way it can. Without the temporary staff, maintenance staff, service staff and the students, there would be no University.

We stand in solidarity with the temporary staff, maintenance staff, service staff and the students.

*If you share our vision, you can join us by signing this letter via this link.