Ds Scholarship

Pandemic disruption to PhD research is bad for society and the economy – but there are solutions

Written by Catherine Whitby *From


Opinion – Thousands of students each year enroll in doctoral degrees at New Zealand universities. The government funds their degrees because the advanced knowledge and innovations they develop benefit our economy and society.

Public library / students

(file image).
Photo: RNZ / Richard Tendler

But there is growing concern about the impact of Covid-19 on doctoral students. It is feared that some will give up their degrees, with real implications for the potential social and economic benefits of future research.

Doctoral students are required to conduct extensive research and document their findings in a thesis. Many do this using specialized equipment only available on college campuses.

But due to closures in the past two years, most of their laboratories have been closed for several months. Given the ongoing uncertainty, how can we help students whose degrees have been disrupted?

Funding problem

Government funding is based on the assumption that a PhD takes three years to complete full-time, plus the time of the thesis exam, which means universities are funded for these degrees for a period of four years.

Universities also award the best students with three-year scholarships to help pay for their living expenses while they are doing their research. Some offer scholarships to students while they are writing their thesis and are examined during their fourth year.

But while scholarships and funding are time-dependent, progression depends on the amount of research a student does. They need enough discoveries to write a 100,000-word thesis. Despite completing annual (or every six-monthly) reports on their progress, many find it difficult to measure and plan their research.

One study showed that students took longer than expected to finish, even before the pandemic: 50 percent of full-time students took more than four years and one month to complete their degrees.

Stalled search and crippled study

We do not yet know how long the Ph.D. period will be extended as students try to recover time lost due to the pandemic. But closing the campus during the shutdown has halted many research projects.

Health scientists at the University of Otago, for example, estimated that 95 percent of their projects were affected. Like their overseas counterparts, even those who could work from home struggled to make progress due to limited access to supervisors and colleagues.

Now back to their labs, the students have to adjust their research plans. A study by Te Bona Matatini sheds light on how vulnerable our PhD students are to the ongoing crisis. Many need funded extensions to complete their research. They also face diminished employment opportunities in academia.

The risk is that some will give up their degrees. Surveys show that up to 25 percent of PhD students in Australia and Canada, for example, may stop their training.

The loss of a similar proportion of students in New Zealand will disrupt the research workforce that supports economic growth and social development.

The power of small gains

These are big challenges. A report by the Department for Business, Innovation and Employment identified that universities, policymakers, funders and the community will need to work together to protect the future of the research sector. In the meantime, I think a couple of smaller changes can make a difference.

Improving how students measure their progress will increase the rate at which they complete their grades. It is normal for students to suffer. They are looking for new data and insights in their field – things that are hard to find.

There are currently two major teachers in most PhD programmes. Students are assessed at the end of their first year and must have made sufficient progress in developing their research project to continue their studies. After that, the next milestone for most of them is to submit their thesis.

Breaking the thesis preparation into manageable portions during the years in between should help. Researchers who have been following 3,500 European students for 30 years noticed a jump in thesis completion when stricter deadlines for the submission of thesis classes were introduced.

Helping students make their progress tangible helps build on what we know about the power of small wins.

A recent survey showed that students who feel stuck, and think they have no significant results, are less likely to finish.

Best professional advice

The second change involves upgrading the career advice offered to students. PhD students all over the world aim for a career in academia. They often rank the alternatives as second best.

But an analysis of the national research workforce in 2020 by the Royal Society of New Zealand showed that about 75 per cent of PhD graduates work outside universities. Therefore, it is critical that students receive high-quality information about alternative careers.

Researchers at ANU have developed artificial intelligence tools that can analyze thousands of job advertisements and determine which ones are suitable for PhD graduates. They found that 80 percent of ads for highly skilled researchers do not target people with PhDs.

Leveraging the information provided by tools like this will improve how universities train students for their future jobs. A better understanding of the demand for research skills would enhance the contribution of PhD graduates to the New Zealand economy.

This will mean that the next generation of researchers is ready to support recovery from the pandemic.

* Katherine Whitby is a graduate student in the School of Natural Sciences and Associate Professor of Chemistry at Massey University.



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