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By Susan Carter

The DoctoralWriting SIG has had a few posts on what was so huge and different about 2020, churning over what has happened to us all, how we might best handle it, and how kindness to each other is one very positive response to something that is generally frightening, depressing and worrying: a global pandemic.  I’m sure that you will have your own experience of how COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdowns have affected the doctoral writers you know. We all know that we’ve lived through something extraordinary.

There are some pretty impressive empirical studies investigating the effect of the pandemic on the academic community, and on early career researchers in particular, and on doctoral researchers to be precise. One early analysis comes from Vitae working in conjunction with SMaRteN, the UK’s student mental health research network. With data from just under 6,000 doctoral students, Byrom (2020) reports:

We found that more than three-quarters of respondents were experiencing a negative impact of the lockdown on their ability to collect data, discuss ideas and findings with colleagues, and disseminate research findings. More than half also identified a negative impact on data analysis, writing, and working on grant or fellowship applications. In addition, almost a third of respondents identified that they had reduced or no access to the software that they needed for research…(np.)

The big doctoral writing question that the 2020 pandemic raises is whether doctoral candidates should describe how the pandemic affected their research, and if they do write about this, how they would do so. Is the thesis a place where the COVID-19 pandemic should be present?

This question challenges a central assumption that a candidate’s life outside of their research project is irrelevant to what goes into a thesis. Doctoral examiners are asked to check that methods, methodology, literature review, data analysis, critical analysis are all appropriate within a thesis. They are not asked to consider personal difficulties or challenges when they mull over whether expectations are met, whether the original contribution weighs in, and whether limitations are reasonable. In fact, examiners generally declared that they were not influenced by content in thesis acknowledgements even when the researchers showed this was unlikely (Kumar & Sanderson, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown light on how much life circumstance affects doctoral research, though, and maybe it is time that the circumstances of life need to be considered when they are extreme. I’d recommend that doctoral writers do write about the pandemic if it affected them negatively. There’s structural impacts relating to lockdown, and personal effects relating to the pandemic. Will writing about any of this be seen as seeking a sympathy dispensation, or is it a sound approach to something significant that should be mentioned?

For doctoral writers now, considering whether to write about the pandemic in work they submit for examination may mean that they are stretching the boundaries of what is done in their disciplines. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine just not mentioning something as significant. So, how do we advise and support doctoral writers considering the possibilities they have?

Here are some options:

The objective ‘insurance claim’ list: It would be possible to itemise what affected the research, such as restricted access to equipment, gear, and data sources. Cultures might die in locked up laboratories; the lockdown may mean not being able to get out in the field for data. Most of the research coming through suggests that doctoral candidates have generally been satisfied with the support their institutions have given them, but lockdown conditions cause somepractical obstructions to completing research.

The psychology report: Data from Byrom’s study shows widespread anxiety, stress, and depression amongst doctoral candidates. When participant rates had reached almost 6,000, data showed that 75% of them suffered in terms of mental well-being due to the pandemic (Byrom, 2020). Such stress might be something that current candidates have in common for ever, and mention in happier future times; right now, though, it’s a factor that may affect how much research was successfully accomplished within the time frame of a doctorate. Discipline epistemology is likely to guide whether it is reasonable to mention psychological obstacles to progress or not.  

The longitudinal observation: Would it be wise for a candidate to point out that they have been short-changed by the happenstance that a pandemic settled in during the few rare and formative years of their doctorate? One article speculated that ‘Of those affected, early-career researchers, including PhD students and postdocs, perhaps bear the brunt of the blow, as crucial timetables in their career development are disrupted’ (Cheng & Song, 2020, [my italics]). This one is risky, I think, to write into the thesis, as it draws attention to the fact that perhaps the writer has not reached full independent researcher capability.

Silence: Silence has the benefit of showing that a candidate knows the traditional premises of doctoral work, that any personal experiences unrelated to the research question do not belong in a thesis. But silence also could be read as a lack of interest in the academic community’s current dilemma, a lack of confidence and supervisory support and a failure to show interest in the wider assumptions of how research and examination ought to work. Then, quite simply, examiners might want to know how the pandemic affected the research. Is this time when we might welcome change?

Of course, disciplines affect how to write—silence about personal factors is foundational in STEM subjects, whereas it has been challenged in Social Science. In Social Science, it is expected that an author needs to position herself within her research writing as an act of integrity. Readers can best assess claims when they know what it is that the researcher herself brings into the study.

It’s common in any discipline, though, to write about changes in the research project due to factors beyond the researcher’s control. Seasonal change that affects habitats can limit the ability to study the natural world. Social changes can mean that access to participants is unexpectedly withdrawn. When there are unavoidable changes to research, that usually makes a story somewhere in the introduction, discussion and the conclusion. The story goes: ‘Initially, the research design included…. However, circumstances beyond my control called for a change of plan. The circumstances were….. To compensate for this…. A limitation of the new design is that….’. Somehow in there too, I think perhaps a case should be made for how response shows learning: ‘Yet, my response has demonstrated flexibility, a quality that, arguably, is an essential skill in an experienced researcher….’

I’d love to hear from you if you have thoughts on this topic. The pandemic is something new to the world of doctoral writing, and it would be great if we could mull over how to respond to it in the thesis together.

References

Byrom, N. (2020). “COVID-19 and the Research Community: The challenges of lockdown for early-career researchers.” eLife 9, no page numbers. DOI https://elifesciences.org/articles/59634

Cheng, C. & Song, S. (2020). How early-career researchers are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Mol Plant. 2020 Sep 7; 13(9): 1229–1230. Published online 2020 Jul 27. doi: 10.1016/j.molp.2020.07.018

Kumar, V. & Sanderson, L. J. (2020). The effects of acknowledgements in doctoral theses on examiners, Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 57:3, 285-295,

DOI: 10.1080/14703297.2019.1620625