When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Stanford in March 2020, it marked the end of a multi-year doctoral research project for Chiara Giovanni, then a third-year doctoral student. student in comparative literature.
Before the pandemic, Giovanni had set aside 18 months to study, learn and engage in Dominican social dance through communities in the Dominican Republic and New York. But with Stanford cleaning up campus labs and research spaces of all non-essential researchers, and with social gatherings made taboo by California’s shelter-in-place order, it became clear to Giovanni that his research was in conflict with the unique constraints posed by a virus global airport.
With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, Giovanni made a difficult decision – she would start over with an entirely different doctoral project, abandoning most of her previous research.
“It’s a big deal to do in your fourth year of graduate school,” Giovanni said, now a doctorate in fifth year. student. “It’s like changing major in the final year.”
Giovanni has put COVID-19 at the heart of his new project, studying how people negotiate with desire and concern to stay intimate with each other during the pandemic. But while Giovanni’s shift in focus is unusual among doctoral students. students, many of whom have continued their original research even in the face of COVID-19, the challenges she faced are representative of a larger trend among the Stanford doctoral community. Giovanni said part of his motivation for his project comes from the lack of space provided by the University for graduate students to fully cope with the consequences of COVID-19.
“The same aggressive productivity that is demanded of people in the US economy was in high demand for the doctorate. students at Stanford, ”Giovanni said. “The graduate students didn’t have time to grieve and process. “
For many graduate students, conducting research during the pandemic had an emotional and academic impact. A medical school graduate student, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the University, described the first six months of the pandemic as incredibly isolating, with the lack of in-person interaction posing a major obstacle to their work in neuroscience. .
“It’s not like you log into Zoom and suddenly talk about issues,” the student said. “A lot of ideas are born organically when you spend time with people and chat with each other in the office. “
Stanford was only able to resume most of the research on campus “a few months after the start of the pandemic,” University spokesperson EJ Miranda said. Miranda added that the early return to research was possible because of the Stanford community’s commitment to follow public health advice. Miranda also acknowledged the continuing effects of the pandemic on graduate students, writing that “the University is working to support students whose research has been delayed due to COVID-19.”
For many graduate students, however, institutional support from the University has been lacking. Instead, most of the relief from COVID-19 has come from individual departments according to Alexa Russo, a fourth-year anthropology doctorate. student. Russo said the help of his program advisor was crucial in tailoring his research to the challenges of the pandemic.
Abandoning his preliminary fieldwork plans, Russo turned to hosting Zoom meetings and writing grants for his research on sustainable agricultural cooperatives.
“I sometimes think I won the lottery with my advisor,” Russo said. “And I say this because the system is set up in such a way that you are lucky to receive help.”
Comparing his experience to that of his colleagues in different graduate departments, Russo said the anthropology department has become a bright spot on a campus where support for graduate students sometimes seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Russo specifically raised the topic of summer research funding, which the University has started to provide for doctoral students. students this school year. Prior to 2021, not all departments provided summer funding – a particularly important resource amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Stanford’s commitment to summer funding was a rare victory for graduate students, who advocated strongly for policy during the summer months of the pandemic in 2020. Several graduate students said the University had encountered other student efforts organized to receive support for COVID-19 silently.
“A [other] The coordinated action was a big petition that thousands of students signed at the start of the pandemic for funding extensions, ”Giovanni said. “There has been no response to this petition.”
Russo echoed Giovanni’s comments and said she also can’t remember the university’s response to the students’ petition. Russo further noted that most of the work of graduate students takes place “behind the scenes,” pointing to the University’s failure to recognize the efforts of student advocates even when announcing its commitment in 2021 for summer funding.
“One of Stanford’s most powerful tactics to respond to student voices is to ignore our existence,” Russo said. “Even when we win.”
According to Miranda, Stanford made additional funds available to doctoral students during the pandemic, mainly “in the form of teaching assistant positions and thesis scholarships, as well as the expansion of several doctoral scholarships at the university scale “. Miranda also wrote that many “Stanford schools and programs have drawn on reserve funds to support students who have suffered disruption related to the pandemic.” He did not comment on the University’s response to the students’ petition for funding extensions.
As the fight for increased institutional support became widespread, the medical student noted that even though the University had offered additional financial support, there was little that little could be done to make up for lost productivity during the pandemic.
“The most important thing was time [lost], not the money, ”the student said. “In a way, the University had its hands tied behind its back with county regulations shutting down labs and everything.”
When institutional support is insufficient or unable to compensate for the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ingenuity and adaptability of graduate students become indispensable, Giovanni said.
“If the University doesn’t want to support us financially or structurally, we have to find ways to improvise around that,” she said. “We have to do research that will push for the things we want to see in the world.”