Graduate studies in the time of COVID

As Kit sat down for the last class of the semester, launching the all-too-familiar Zoom application, with their hair a mess and a bowl of cereal in their hand, they could not help but reflect on how strange their postgraduate experience has been. A little over a year ago they were sitting in a lecture hall with friends and stressing over the upcoming exams for their final year as an undergraduate. Now, they are a Masters student, sitting in their living room with all their classmates represented as tiny squares on their screen.

Kit’s experience is not a unique one: most of the 2020-2021 cohort of Masters students at the University of Glasgow will have spent the entire 12 months of their programme online, meaning that many will graduate without having ever set foot on campus, and potentially never meeting their classmates or lecturers in person. The COVID-19 pandemic is the most influential public health crisis of our time. Since December 2019, COVID-19 has not only led to a remarkable loss of human life but has also posed unprecedented challenges for our social and economic systems. To remedy the situation and reduce the number of cases and hospitalisations, world authorities have introduced several disease control measures, including travel bans, social-distancing, self-isolation, and temporary (although quite long-term!) closures of businesses and educational institutions. These actions are helping to counteract the spread of the virus, but they have also had a profound impact on all segments of the global population, including the education sector.

Graduate studies have always been a life-changing and sometimes stressful experience, with many students moving away from home for the first time and developing a new social circle. However, the isolation many students feel when starting a new programme has been enhanced this year, as online classes offer few opportunities to form meaningful connections with peers. This has been particularly challenging for international students who often had to travel thousands of miles, self-isolate for up to 14-days in a small one-bedroom hotel, only to continue almost an everlasting (at least it feels like!) solitary life in their apartment. As an international student, Sajib also had to pass through this phase when he moved here from Bangladesh for the very first time. However, he was lucky to be able to start his Ph.D. work soon enough to make a few friends at the Institute and grab a few cups of coffee together.

In pre-COVID times the Institute was widely regarded as a great place to network with peers, thanks to frequent seminars and social events such as Friday Fox, Ceilidhs, and other sessions in the museum and local pubs. There have been efforts to combat the lack of in-person social activities by arranging virtual events such as online seminars and virtual get-togethers through, but of course, these cannot fully replace the experience or ease of meeting new people and sparking new conversations. This year’s cohort of Master’s students have created a series of WhatsApp groups for courses and individual modules, which has allowed them to share information about their studies and interact with peers in a more relaxed format. The MRes Ecology and Environmental Biology group chat, for example, has been a great way for students to feel less isolated, as students can share their feelings on assignments and trade tips, similar to the conversations they might normally have after lectures. It also helps that the students within the group are incredibly supportive and see themselves as a team, even going as far as arranging rideshares for the field trip that took place at the start of June (yes, things are finally opening up!), which allowed some of the students to meet in person at long last.

Mental health is often less emphasized than physical health, but the impact of COVID-19 on students’ mental wellbeing has been considerable. Students who are coming to a new university or even continuing their studies at the same university are worried about how the virus is impacting their lives. They are also stressed because of financial instability and career planning for an uncertain future, particularly as many courses have been unable to provide the opportunity to develop either lab or field-based practical skills. A number of Masters students are concerned that their practical skills may remain underdeveloped due to the lack of volunteering opportunities and hands-on experiences they could normally gather from attending expeditions such as ZooSoc, which were understandably canceled for 2020 and 2021. Apart from concerns over skills development, the Masters students had a delayed course start date, meaning that they could miss out on many of the graduate jobs and Ph.D. opportunities that start in September and October.

When the campus was open, students with problems could walk into student services, or the Students’ Representative Council’s Advice Centre, to receive support and guidance. Whilst these services are still running, they are harder to access, particularly for students new to the university who may not have been aware of the services. 

The impact of COVID-19 on research and learning has also been substantial. For example, the university assumes that every student has access to a quiet study space, stable internet connection, and a laptop, but this might not always be the case. As a result, the lack of a computer or any issues with internet connectivity can cause a person to miss a class or become completely lost. This is also true in the case of online examinations, as there are some instances where students failed to submit their papers on time due to faulty internet connectivity. Consequently, they had to submit a Good Cause claim on MyCampus to explain the reason for their delay. 

Due to restrictions, many practical research activities were ramped down or changed, as until recently only a few Ph.D. researchers were able to access their labs or field sites. This pace of research progress was in some cases further reduced because of lockdown measures impacting the reagent supply chain. However, it is worth noting that some of these supply chain disruptions could also be attributed to recent Brexit-related rules or complications – those RT-qPCR or RNA extraction kits always seem to be out of stock! Fieldwork is an important part of many research projects at IBAHCM and unfortunately, this has also been substantially downregulated due to lockdown and social distancing measures. This in some ways increases the research costs, as according to recent rules, no more than a few people per vehicle are permitted to travel for any purpose including a field trip, thus requiring extra transport. 

It has not been all doom, Zoom, and gloom though. Online lectures have allowed many students to remain at home, saving money by eliminating commuting or childcare costs for some, and for others negating the need to potentially move into costly accommodation. Online material and lecture recordings have also made it easier for students to review material and build better notes, whilst studying at a time that best suits them. A number of students have also bonded over the awkwardness of Zoom lectures, with students sharing what their pyjamas look like and both staff and students showing off their pets during breaks (or whenever a cat decided to sit on a laptop!).

The University realised that providing a safe study space with stable internet was vital, and opened several staffed study spaces such as the St Andrews building and the McMillan Reading Room. To protect everyone and reduce the chances of transmission, the university is also encouraging students to undertake voluntary rapid antigen or PCR based tests. This allowed students without a quiet space or stable internet connection to come onto campus and study in a safe environment, with access to staff to assist with any queries and technical issues. 

Some Masters students and Ph.D. researchers have been allowed back onto campus for field and lab work essential for their projects, and small groups of students are planning socially-distanced study sessions in parks. The world is slowly returning to normal, although hopefully we will learn from our experiences during the lockdown and retain some flexibility in our approach to learning and teaching.

Written by: Kit Russell and Mohammad Saiful Islam Sajib

Kit is an MRes Ecology and Environmental Biology student. They have a particular interest in marine mammals and their current project focuses on geomagnetic storms and cetacean strandings. Outside of their studies, Kit enjoys working in science communication and public engagement environments.

Sajib is a Ph.D. student, and his research focuses on infectious diseases. He aims to improve public health by generating evidence for future policy decisions and worked as a microbiologist at Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF), Bangladesh. Currently, he is developing a robust clinical metagenomics pipeline to diagnose sepsis, improve patient outcomes, and reduce antimicrobial resistance.

Feature image: Original artwork courtesy of PhD researcher Eleni Christoforou, 2021©

Edited by: Taya Forde and Lucy Gilbert

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