The Fate of Graduate Research in a Time of Pandemic

In April 2020 I was thrilled to learn that I had won a Fulbright award to Ukraine. The good news meant that I would be fully-funded to conduct dissertation research in Kyiv for the 2020-2021 academic year. The nine-month process of completing the application, writing fellowship essays, and interviewing with the Fulbright commission finally seemed to bear fruit. My sense of fulfillment quickly diminished when I learned that the 2019-2020 Fulbright recipients were returning home due to COVID-19. I could not help but feel insecure about my recently acquired funding as the thought of not being able to go to Ukraine became increasingly possible.

The initial letter informing me of my award did not speculate on what might happen in the next year. I followed the Fulbright announcements closely, and I learned that some countries were delaying their awards while others were considering cancelling them altogether. Fulbright sent another letter to 2020 grant recipients several days letter confirming our worst suspicions: all grants would be delayed until at least January 2021. The letter also indicated that it would not be possible to extend our grant period and that we should make plans to spend less time in-country than our originally promised nine-months. This meant that I was looking at getting five months of research in Kyiv rather than nine, which is a severe cut for any graduate student needing adequate time to work in their respective fields. However, because I had been able to spend the past couple of summers in Ukraine gathering materials I remained hopeful that I could hit the ground running in January and make the most of my time in Ukraine. I am one of the fortunate ones; many others will not have this valuable time to conduct pre-dissertation research.

Unfortunately, my story of COVID-19 disruptions is familiar to many graduate students, and the diminished prospect of conducting research abroad is only one of the hurdles that we face amid the pandemic. The delay or cancellation of research funding is but one drop in a large pool of ripple effects and “hidden” costs. Many students who were scheduled to go abroad for research now have to navigate an uncertain future of funding, housing, and time to degree. Others will face the reality of whether or not they can even complete their current dissertation projects without dramatically adjusting their project’s scope, content, and premise. Inevitably, many will not be able to finish their dissertations unless they are able to extend their years in a graduate program and find financial security, which is already a near impossible task when the world is not sheltering-in-place. This prospect will be made harder still by a collapsed job market, which remains atrocious for humanities PhDs.

The precarity of housing is another problem that many graduate students are facing. This problem existed well before the pandemic but has worsened because of it. I had planned to be gone in Ukraine during the whole 2020-2021 academic year, and my partner was set to leave her job for a year to travel with me. We gave up our lease on the house we were renting as we prepared to move abroad thinking we wouldn’t need a place in the U.S. for at least a year. Luckily, our landlord was understanding and agreed to let us keep renting our place until December. Others have not been so fortunate. Finding six-month leases can be tricky, as most landlords want tenants to sign leases for a full year. Many Fulbrighters will sign twelvemonth leases that they will have to break so they can travel to conduct research. Breaking a lease often incurs costs that many simply cannot afford. This also forces graduate students to find short-term leases in their research countries in midwinter.

Perhaps the biggest threat to graduate students is time. While we face delayed research start dates, the clock on our funding packages keeps ticking. I was looking forward to the pause on my five-year package while I took my Fulbright year. If students in my department win an outside fellowship, then their department package is paused so they can use that money upon their return to the university. Since my Fulbright grant is now delayed until at least January, I must use some of my department funding for the Fall 2020 semester. The DGS and other faculty in my department are working hard to secure an extra year of funding for graduate students, but there are no guarantees. With university budget cuts decimating entire departments, it is hard to see how our history department, which is already underfunded when compared to other programs across campus, will be allotted extra funds. Even if students are able to leave the university to get their research done, they may come back to a department with empty pockets. Without adequate funds to write the dissertation, students will be forced to take jobs outside of the university. This inevitably leads to less time spent on writing, research, and productivity. All schools must do what they can to support time extensions for their graduate students.

Finally, something must be said about the type of work that will be produced given the current circumstances. Scholars in our field typically make use of multiple languages, archives, and institutions. Once abroad, it is relatively easy to move between countries and visit libraries and archives that house material related to your work. This may no longer be possible due to entry bans on foreign citizens. The pandemic may also permanently close institutions that were already hanging on by a thread. Certain materials may become inaccessible. Before COVID-19, I started conducting interviews with survivors of the 1946-47 famine in Soviet Ukraine. This type of work relies on personal connections that are built out of informal, in-person discussions. One may contend that this type of work could continue over Zoom or Skype, but I disagree. The people I work with in Ukraine live in remote villages and towns that do not have regular internet access. Moreover, many of these folks would have no interest in speaking to scholars over this medium. It is a reminder that our research is a luxury that often relies on the intellectual labor of the people we study, though our names don the covers of books and dissertations. The least we can do is visit their country, speak their language, and spend time in their world. Without access to travel, funding, and time, the foundations of our work will be undermined.

The problems mentioned above reflect my own difficulties as a graduate student, and I do not pretend that these are the only issues that exist. Many graduate students are undoubtedly facing worse circumstances and different problems. My heart sinks for those going on the job market next year. I hope departments, such as mine, fight for their graduate students to receive extra time and funding. For those departments that have remained silent thus far, reach out to your graduate students and check in on them. In addition to navigating professional uncertainties, many are grappling with depression, anxiety, and family difficulties as a result of the pandemic. As murmurs of extended tenure clocks start to be part of regular conversation, remember that current graduate students are future faculty, and they, too, will need more time to complete their work. The fate of graduate research remains uncertain, but our response to the problem does not have to be. I hope universities, departments, and academic organizations will reaffirm and expand their support of graduate students so they can complete their degrees and move forward, despite the crisis.

John Vsetecka is a PhD candidate in Soviet/East European History at Michigan State University. His dissertation is entitled “In the Aftermath of Hunger: Recovery, Relief, and Retribution in Soviet Ukraine, 1933-1947.” He is also the founder and co-editor of H-Ukraine.