Juggling inequalities: STEM Research in a pandemic

“I just feel like for a lot of people, even when we try and get to these marginalized identities, they’re still personal – these invisible, personal things that are affecting everyone [but] that can be hard to account for.”

“[I was at the lab] until probably 11:30 at night, the day they shut down the university, because I was like, ‘If I don’t finish this now, I might never get to finish this.’”

Without knowing when she would be allowed back into the laboratory, Kwong made the difficult decision to cut half of the anticipated lab work from her thesis.

COVID-19 research curtailment has led to consequences for the personal well-being and productivity of graduate students like Kwong. While both institutional and student-run surveys have reported these challenges, recurring patterns of experience have brought pre-existing inequalities in academia into the spotlight.

Work–life (un)balance(d)

Trends in survey responses conducted for faculty, graduate students and individual departments showed that frequently reported symptoms of stress for researchers were general anxiety and decreased productivity.

According to one unpublished wellness survey within the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, half of the graduate students and research staff surveyed reported worsened mental health after the onset of the pandemic.

Following her transition to working from home, Kwong noticed a steep decline in her work–life balance. Prior to the curtailment, she structured her work hours strictly and kept weekends and evenings open. Now that her workday seems less productive, she feels obligated to work into the evening.

“[I feel like] I need to work longer ... I end up standing in front of my computer until nine o’clock and then it’s just a vicious cycle of [not feeling productive and pushing further],” said Kwong.

Master’s student ‘Alex,’ who asked to remain anonymous to protect their gender identity, found it difficult to engage with institutional resources after a reimbursement issue with Aspiria and the AMS/GSS Health and Dental Plan.

“You get emails where [the university is] saying, ‘take care of your mental wellness’ ... and all of those things, but how much of that is actually helping you really?” they said.

Crunching the numbers

With the high cost of living in Vancouver, graduate students at UBC are particularly susceptible to financial burdens impacting their quality of life.

Kwong, who ultimately cut her lab work short to prevent extending her degree by a year and half, had also held part-time jobs throughout her PhD. As a consequence, she was ineligible for student loans.

“A lot of my friends have struggled with it, you just can’t live off of [the stipend]. You need a line of credit, you need student loans or you need to have another job. It’s not realistic.”

An August report by the Graduate Student Society (GSS) investigated the experiences of graduate students during the pandemic, and found that 72 per cent of respondents reported concern about their graduation timelines, and 73 per cent of international respondents reported concern about receiving their stipends and payments.

The report noted that housing and food insecurity did not appear to increase during the pandemic for graduate students.

Dr. Susan Porter, dean and vice-provost of graduate and postdoctoral studies, said in a written statement that the university “[continues] to work persistently to identify challenges brought by the pandemic and to devise and implement strategies to help in their alleviation.”

The faculty of graduate and postdoctoral studies, according to Porter, has worked to support students financially by creating additional teaching assistant positions, introducing a policy to waive certain fees for course-based graduate programs, launching the President’s Academic Excellence Initiative award for PhD students four months earlier than planned and establishing an enhanced emergency bursary system for graduate students.

But students described financial burdens that exist regardless of the pandemic.

While a family member completing graduate studies in Hamilton, Ontario was paying $500 in rent, Kwong was paying $1,200 to live in Vancouver.

“Your tuition is still the same price. How much you’re getting paid, how much you’re eligible for a student loan if you actually get it – all of those things do not account for the cost of living at all,” said Kwong.

Alex explained that fewer scholarship opportunities exist for them compared to PhD students. They noted that the application process is intense, with multiple deadlines, reference requests and complex forms required.

“If I’m honest, when COVID happened, I completely lost track of any of those [deadlines], because I was very concentrated on making sure I was mentally healthy and I was doing alright – which I wasn’t,” they said.

Dependent(s) as a variable

While most graduate students experienced research-related challenges, students with dependents were left juggling multiple roles with few options.

“[Students with children] just have zero support right now,” said Kwong, noting the parents in her cohort.

“You can’t even have a parent come take care of your kid while you’re trying to write a thesis.”

A survey conducted on UBC tenure-track faculty revealed that 57 per cent of respondents found their role as a caregiver hindered their ability to work during the pandemic.

In a written statement, Dr. Helen Burt, former associate vice-president for research and innovation (VPRI), acknowledged the “profound impact” of the pandemic on all researchers, with those who are also “caregivers, women, racialized faculty ... postdoctoral fellows and early-career researchers” being particularly impacted.

She explained that the VPRI is dedicated to investigating trends in inequality, holding town halls and organizing working groups to address themes of concern. In addition, she noted that UBC is involved in a pilot project through the federal Dimensions program with “the goal of developing a plan to address systemic barriers faced by historically underserved, marginalized or excluded people in the UBC research community.”

Accounting for the invisible

As institutions continue to assess the impact of the COVID-19 research curtailment on graduate students and research staff, more information about impacts to researchers of marginalized identities are expected to emerge.

While preliminary data has identified significant challenges faced by researchers, presently available surveys, such as those conducted by the university, the GSS and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research, have noted limitations in demographics data.

Both student-driven campus groups and institutional working groups, such as those under the VPRI portfolio, continue to work on projects supporting equity and diversity in academia.

These initiatives aim to uncover the nuances of inequality in STEM – a difficult task, according to Alex, due to an inherent quality of being marginalized.

“I just feel like for a lot of people, even when we try and get to these marginalized identities, they’re still personal – these invisible, personal things that are affecting everyone [but] that can be hard to account for.”