Impact of COVID-19 on aspirations of PhD students – summary of an early investigation

In this blog post, I will briefly share the findings of a recently published journal article in the Journal of Experimental Political Science [1].  In this article [1], the authors were primarily concerned with investigating how COVID-19 affected
current lower and senior year PhD students’ career aspirations, perceived career preparation and support, and professional development.  In particular, they constructed the following hypotheses and examined them with the responses collected from a survey of over 750 participants between March 2nd, 2020 and May 5th, 2020. Due to the timing of the survey, they were able to collect responses prior to and following the coverage of COVID-19  in the media.

Hypothesis 1. COVID-19 will make Ph.D. students more receptive to nonacademic careers and will lead them to invest more heavily in non-academic skills.

Hypothesis 2. COVID-19 will make Ph.D. students less optimistic about their chances of obtaining an academic position and/or more desirous of non-academic job characteristics that provide financial security.

Hypothesis 3. COVID-19 will make Ph.D. students more likely to report that they have difficulties managing stress and to express greater uncertainty in the direction of their post-graduation career.

Hypothesis 4. COVID-19 will lead Ph.D. students to express greater dissatisfaction with their academic department’s support and preparation for their desired post-graduate career.

Hypothesis 5. COVID-19 effects will be greater among 5th-year students, and among those from comparatively more advantaged social groups.

Surprisingly, they found that COVID-19 did not significantly alter Ph.D. students’ aspirations and priorities. But they do mention that they found limited evidence that Ph.D. students became more desirous of non-academic jobs with senior Ph.D. students more willing to change their career paths to non-academic jobs compared to junior Ph.D. Students. The survey also revealed that respondents felt that their departments are better meeting their needs and that they are better able to manage stress, following the pandemic outbreak.  They also make the following key remarks and explanations for their findings that I found were very interesting:

“…it is possible that COVID-19 was an insufficient shock to students’ commitment to an academic career.”

“… the efforts of departments and universities to blunt some of the worst consequences of the pandemic were effective at reducing students’ concerns.”

“…pandemic may have reaffirmed some students’ commitment to academia.”

“… the cutoffs we consider were too early to capture more substantial effects. It is possible that students were still processing the consequences of COVID-19, and that they would have offered more pessimistic opinions had we surveyed them later.”

[1] Haas, N., Gureghian, A., Jusino Díaz, C., & Williams, A. (2020). Through Their Own Eyes: The Implications of COVID-19 for PhD Students. Journal of Experimental Political Science, 1-21. doi:10.1017/XPS.2020.34

2 Replies to “Impact of COVID-19 on aspirations of PhD students – summary of an early investigation”

  1. What an interesting study! I am glad to see that the outcomes were mostly favorable. As a third year doctoral student in a 4-year program, I have definitely been having talks with peers about the crumbling job market as a result of the pandemic. I recently read an article about doctoral programs suspending admissions for Fall 2021 (https://www.chronicle.com/article/more-doctoral-programs-suspend-admissions-that-could-have-lasting-effects-on-graduate-education). At first glance this is eerie news, but as I read the article I was beginning to see the economic benefits in this decision, particularly benefits for current doctoral students. Institutions were prioritizing the financial needs of current students over future students. As a current student, it was affirming to know that administrators are centering current students’ needs. I think this relates directly to the finding that students felt mostly supported by their departments during COVID-19.

    1. Thank you for your response, Stephanie. It is really encouraging to see that the administrators are considering the needs of current students benefit as a priority.

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