Leeds PhD students say they have 'fallen through gaps of support' during Covid pandemic

PhD students in Leeds say they have “fallen through the gaps” of support during the pandemic, which has left them under professional and emotional strain.

Friday, 12th March 2021, 6:00 am
PhD students Elizabeth Young and Joe Lawley

In March, final year PhD students funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) will see the end of their six-month funding extension.

While the extension provided extra time to cover any disruptions students saw because of lockdown, it was offered primarily to final year students.

For students not in their final year, their need was assessed on a case-by-case basis.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Angus Naylor, a third-year PhD student researching the impact of climate change on Arctic communities

The Yorkshire Evening Post spoke to a number of PhD students researching in Leeds to see how they were faring under the pandemic.

Joe Lawley, a third-year researcher in spatial energy services, said: “Based on the level of disruption, the loss of productivity and still being expected to produce the same level of research during this time, it’s just not enough.”

Many students have had to redesign their projects, Joe said, using time that they won't get back.

Angus Naylor, a third-year PhD student researching the impact of climate change on Arctic communities, was unable to return to the Canadian arctic this year to retrieve vital data.

Kelly Lloyd, a researcher in cancer prevention

He said: “The UKRI have made it clear that they’re not funding people for lost time but in order to adapt the projects, but it’s not something you can do overnight.

“The first year of your PhD is essentially spent just conceptualising and developing a project so to be expected to turn on its expense and to be able to do that and not get any dispensation, it makes no sense."

Angus, like many other researchers, spent time trying to sort out how to use university software at home, using up more time.

The UKRI, which funds around a quarter of doctoral students in the UK, announced in January that they would be allocating an additional £19 million across 100 research organisations for students who had been worst-hit by the pandemic.

However, Angus fears that for first and second year students, it may be more difficult to prove their need for the grant.

Angus said: “Because it was done in that way, it meant first and second year students would essentially take the hit.

“What that kind of forgets is that everyone has been impacted in one way or another and taking an evidenced approach to something that is incredibly difficult to prove.”

The director of talent and skills at UKRI, Rory Duncan, said the organisation is consulting on what extra support they can provide for students and will publish further guidance on support in the spring.

In a statement provided to the YEP, he said: “PhD students are an essential part of the research sector, and are facing huge challenges in both their professional and personal circumstances.

"Working closely with research organisations, we have made more than £60million funding available to support UK doctoral students, especially those who are most in need.

"A further £11million has been provided to help students based at higher education institutions in England.

“We are making the best use of the limited resources available to us to support students and the wider research and innovation system through the pandemic.

“For doctoral students who can, we are advising them to adjust their research projects to enable them to complete on time. For those who cannot adapt their project, there is UKRI support available, with students advised to contact their research organisation to apply.

“UKRI is also currently consulting on a number of options to provide further support, including flexibility to use training and cohort development funding for extensions, and to reduce recruitment in 2021/22. We intend to set out further guidance after this consultation, in the spring.”

The PhD students said the added stress of the pandemic was having an impact on their emotional wellbeing.

Elizabeth Young, 27, a final year researcher in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, said that without being surrounded by peers in the same position, she has lost the sense of motivation to finish.

She said: “I think in a really strange way I’ve almost disassociated from it so much but also in a bad way, because my funding runs out next month and I’ve barely considered it.

“When you’re living such a different life, you just disassociate and get on with the day to day.

“Next month I’m not going to get paid anymore but it hasn’t really hit me, and I feel no urgency to submit or get it finished whatsoever.

“I hope I’ll finish and I know I will finish but this has not helped my general perception of my project or wellbeing of my project".

Kelly Lloyd, a researcher in cancer prevention in her second year, said: “There’s the words of 'you’re doing research under a pandemic, take care of yourself; but the other end of the spectrum is 'you still have to complete your PhD by this deadline, you’re still going to be up against other PhDs for post-docs, there’s going to be less post-docs, there’s going to be more competition' – it doesn’t feel like the pressure is off at all.”

When talking about taking annual leave to give herself a break, she said: “It’s just a bit hard to do that because you take annual leave and you’re just in the same place you work so I’m not sure you really escape the stress of it.”

Joe, Kelly, Angus and Elizabeth said that their personal supervisors and their own small post-graduate communities have been ‘excellent’ when it has come to wellbeing, but they all said more needs to be done to support PhD students across the country.

Joe added: “PhD students have fallen through the gaps in support.”

Support the YEP and become a subscriber today. Enjoy unlimited access to local news and the latest on Leeds United, With a digital subscription, you see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Click here to subscribe