Ambitious students may regard graduate school as a dream come true, but for many of them, COVID19 has turned it into a nightmare. The pandemic has physically isolated them from their work and colleagues, often creating financial trouble, compromising their ability to conduct research, and limiting their prospects for professional development.

The extent of these problems has been confirmed and outlined in a newly released survey by the Toronto Science Policy Network (TSPN), a student-run organization based at the University of Toronto. TSPN was founded in 2018 and now consists of a large, interdisciplinary network of students at all levels of study, as well as members of the community at large with an interest in matters of science policy.

Between April 22 and May 31 TSPN formally approached that network with a series of detailed questions about the pandemic’s impact on the country’s graduate student population. This survey collected 1,431 responses that formed the basis for nine specific recommendations for actions that could be taken by academic supervisors, student governments, educational institutions, and governments. These have now been assembled in a 73-page document that includes all the survey results.

“Our report is a snapshot of what graduate students were experiencing in the early stages of the lockdown,” says TSPN representative Sivani Baskaran, a third-year PhD student in chemistry at the University of Toronto. “We have identified opportunities for action for decision makers in institutions and governments to ensure that the next generation of researchers and budding professionals can recover and thrive after the pandemic.”

TSPN’s findings capture the nature and extent of the challenges that these students are facing. For example, fully three-quarters of respondents indicated that they no longer have access to the necessary resources to carry out their studies or research. Some 26% of students stated that they are considering a long-term leave of absence from their degree work, a result more than double that of responses from students who were asked the same question before the pandemic. More than half of the international students who took part in the survey indicated that they are now worried about their ability to meet their degree requirements before their Canadian study permits expire. And half of all students queried who were expecting to complete their degrees by August had become uncertain of whether they could now do so.

By way of addressing these different problems, TSPN’s report offers a variety of measures that would be practical and effective. For example, the financial pressures could be reduced by introducing extensions to student loan repayments and promoting further financial assistance in the form of academic grants rather than more loans. In addition, since student find themselves restricted in their ability to build professional networks by attending conferences, taking up an internship, or studying abroad, TSPN calls on the organizers of these cancelled opportunities to find alternatives that will achieve the same goals for all concerned.

Advocacy was another priority cited by TSPN, which asked supervisors, student unions, and other administrators to use their positions of authority to assist graduate students. Such support could take the form of public commentary to inform more people about what has been happening to graduate education or lobbying to raise funds that can be directed at students in need.

Even more fundamentally, the health and welfare of many graduate students has been seriously threatened by the pandemic, which has turned programs of self-directed, independent learning into a marathon of seclusion and loneliness that sometimes inflicts grave psychological damage. Nor has the gradual reopening of various campuses necessarily alleviated all of these difficulties.

“It is imperative that relevant information, including safety procedures and work expectations, is communicated in a clear, timely, and accessible manner, with consideration towards reduced productivity in these challenging times,” states the report. “There is a need for increased support and empathy by institutions for all graduate students, and in particular, for those who are facing difficulties working from home and those with additional care-giving responsibilities.”

As for the sheer necessity of that support and empathy, just ask TSPN representative Farah Qaiser, who recent had to resort to an on-line strategy so she could virtually defend her Master’s thesis in molecular genetics at the University of Toronto.

“Graduate students are the life force of discovery and innovation, providing the critical ideas, talent, and labour necessary for the majority of research being conducted in Canada,” she says. “As a result of COVID-19, many of them remain trapped in a limbo, facing an uncertain future.”