Interrupted fieldwork could mean terminated careers for PhD students

Urgent action is needed to help doctoral candidates whose research has been halted by Covid-related travel bans, says Lorena Gazzotti

October 8, 2020
Source: iStock

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted travel on a scale not seen in recent history. There has already been much debate about what this means for universities that rely on fees from international students, but largely ignored are the more personal challenges faced by students whose research involves fieldwork.

Travel bans and the imposition of lockdowns in field sites have unsettled the personal and working lives of many PhD students who were abroad when the pandemic started or were about to leave for fieldwork. Take the case of Luke (not his real name), a second-year PhD student researching development economics at a UK university. He was due to spend six months in two African countries from March 2020. But just as he was about to depart, airlines began cancelling flights, different countries started issuing travel bans, and Luke got stuck in the UK. Even if he had managed to leave, local restrictions imposed to curb infection rates would have made data collection impossible.

“Fieldwork is a very organic process that involves meeting people…in a very unstructured kind of way,” Luke explains. “And that’s difficult to achieve when you can’t really go to coffee shops [or] restaurants” and restrictions largely prevent researchers from “being able to see people”.

Even if travel bans have been partially lifted in some countries, travelling has health implications that do not allow everybody to board the first available flight. “Jessica” is a fifth-year PhD student in political science at a US university who was due to leave for fieldwork in North Africa in mid-March. The pandemic prevented this, and she is now unsure whether she will be able to travel at all. “A travel ban on official university travel is in effect,” she says. “And even if it was allowed, I have health issues that make me borderline high risk.”

Switching to digital research methods is not a practical or valid option for all doctoral projects. Eliminating the casual encounters facilitated by in-person contact also prevents researchers from establishing the kind of trust needed for high-quality (and indeed ethical) research.

“Julia”, a second-year PhD student in the UK who conducts research in a rural community in eastern Africa, tells me that her research assistant has managed to conduct phone interviews with some of their respondents. Yet this has been possible only because the pandemic hit when she was about to finish her second major field trip: “We already have relationships with people, so we could just ring them up and they’d be quite open to talk about things.”

But online research methods are only applicable to interviewees with a high level of digital literacy. “Clara” is pursuing a PhD at a southern European university that involves interviewing a lot of European Union civil servants. She was able to continue her research over the phone because such interviewees are very used to remote meetings. Still, she is under no illusion that the quality of research will be the same as it would have been if she had been able to interview them in person. “You always get a better interview when you’re there,” she argues. “One of the best interviews that I did was with a journalist, and he basically gave me a whole cache of documents. This would have never happened on the phone.”

Despite these major issues for researchers, the response of many universities and funding bodies has been distinctly underwhelming.

“Jaskiran”, a third-year PhD student doing fieldwork in rural India, is struggling to get reassurances from her UK funding body that her scholarship will be extended. Her fieldwork was first disrupted in autumn 2019 by political tensions in the region, and then again by the pandemic. With Covid-19 infection rates still spiralling in India, she has severe doubts about whether she will be able to resume fieldwork any time soon, but needs time and guidance in switching to digital methods.

As well as posing immediate problems, disruptions to fieldwork threaten the longer-term career prospects of graduate students. “Mark”, a second-year PhD student in the UK, is struggling to advance his thesis in literature. Because it is heavily dependent on archival research, his project has been greatly delayed not only by travel bans but also by the widespread closure of archives. Furthermore, he is convinced that PhD students such as himself will be further penalised by hiring committees, especially now that the academic job market is under such pressure. We might see, for example, someone with a “disrupted PhD” applying for the same position as “an associate professor with huge amounts of experience [and] a big research profile” who has been made redundant and forced to look for a job “two grades down”.

As the pandemic drags on, universities need to ramp up their support for their disrupted PhDs. First and foremost, they must offer timely funding extensions to give people the flexibility to change their research plans. They must also put appropriate mentoring and training resources in place to help with such adjustments. Yet to safeguard the longer-term career prospects of a new generation of scholars, it is crucial that we work towards a more sustainable, and less marketised, system of higher education.

Lorena Gazzotti is Alice Tong Sze research fellow at Lucy Cavendish College and the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge. She is also the anti-casualisation officer of the Cambridge branch of the University and College Union.

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