Helping Graduate Students in a Time of Crisis

By Brian Porter-Szűcs, History, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

I feel fortunate that the COVID-19 crisis arrived while I was serving as my department’s Director of Graduate Studies. That might sound like an odd thing to say, but I mean it sincerely, because this position has allowed me to take some small actions to help others, at a time when most of us are feeling so powerless. And that help is needed, because graduate students are facing serious challenges during this lockdown. Those of us fortunate enough to hold faculty positions need to recognize these challenges, and respond accordingly.

The first major crisis for us came when the library closed. Students who had been preparing for their comprehensive exams were suddenly cut off from the books they were required to read. I’ve been impressed by the proactive steps taken by our librarians, who quickly redirected funds so that we could expand our e-book offerings. We now have access to digital books that would have been unimaginable last week. Different solutions have doubtlessly been enacted at different institutions, but the (mostly unseen) crisis response of librarians everywhere deserves a round of virtual applause.

Even with expanded e-book access, however, the conditions for comprehensive exams have been radically changed, and our faculty have been forced to make adjustments. We have to walk a fine line. On the one hand, we must be understanding if a certain “essential” work of scholarship was not read, or if a particular sub-section of exam preparation was not completed. On the other hand, we don’t want anyone thinking that exams taken this year are easier than those taken under normal circumstances. No one wants to have an asterisk on their CV.

This leads me to the most intractable problem that doctoral programs now face: how to deal with interrupted dissertation research. If, through some miracle, all the travel restrictions in Eastern Europe are lifted within a month or two, everything should be fine. If, however, students lose the opportunity to carry out their archival research or field work until next fall, or even next winter, then what do we do? Like most universities, our administration has assured assistant professors that they will be given extra time, if needed, before coming up for tenure. But we cannot make the same offer to our doctoral students, because we don’t have nearly enough money to finance their studies for that additional time. Our department moved to a system of full funding for all doctoral students over 20 years ago, because we strongly believed that no one should take out massive loans to get a PhD in history. We now provide every PhD student with a six-year package of support, combining fellowships and teaching assistantships. But now what? If we tell our current students that they can take an extra semester or year (with funding) in order to compensate for the COVID-19 crisis, we would bankrupt our program. If we tell them that they can extend their time to degree, but without funding, they will be cast adrift without income at a time when the economy is in a coma. The only remaining option is to urge our students to try as hard as possible to stick to their original timetable, even if that means cutting back on the time they had planned to spend in the archives.

This is where our mentorship role comes in. We need to convey to our students that the quality of a dissertation depends on insightful analysis, original interpretations, and eloquent prose—not the number of archives visited or the duration of the fieldwork. Many of us are old enough to remember the days when scholarship on the Soviet Bloc had to be thinly sourced because of restricted access to key collections. I’d venture to say that a student today could gather more material using only digitized archives than many of us managed to collect during a year or two of research behind the “iron curtain.” We need to convey a clear message in the months and years ahead: when evaluating a dissertation, what counts is the quality of the author’s mind, not the length of time spent overseas.

Obviously, the attitude of someone’s dissertation chair is only one factor among many that will delay students who are dealing with the coronavirus emergency. Sadly, we are powerless to address most of those concerns. But it is in our power to take this opportunity to turn down the pressure and consider the exigencies of real life as we communicate our expectations. That’s something we should have been doing anyway.

Brian Porter-Szűcs is Thurnau Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of History at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.