American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
May/June 2020

Pandemic, Pandemonium, and Plight for Graduate Students

Britany Gatewood, PhD (2020), Howard University
Emily McDonald, PhD candidate, George Mason University

Personal experiences and anecdotal accounts from others have demonstrated to us that departments are frequently ill-equipped to provide adequate resources, support, and mentorship for graduate students. Current graduate students often feel that tenured professors are out of touch with increasing demands on graduate students. Publishing, classes, assistantships, internships, conference presentations, and association leadership roles are expected. The strain of managing these demands with low pay, multiple jobs, caregiving, and other difficult contextual factors is hard under normal circumstances. It is greatly exacerbated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Graduate students wear many hats during the school year: teaching and research assistants, adjunct professors, students, parents, caregivers, and employees. Within the current pandemic, it is clear that these roles can be irreconcilable, and the stress can be overwhelming. The transition to online learning, job security uncertainty, and family hardships have caused instability in the already hectic lives of graduate students.

Campus closures have moved graduate courses online and reduced access to vital resources. Many are taking virtual classes for the first time, and group discussions, often central to graduate classes, are difficult to recreate via video. Campuses provide a plethora of resources not virtually accessible. Students may not have access to computers, reliable internet, software, or equipment. This physical barrier is likely to inhibit coursework and/or research progress. Mentorship and advising is difficult due to new constraints on professors’ time, including juggling the many needs of their undergraduate students. And, many universities have not given graduate students the options of pass/fail, late withdrawals, or tuition refunds. Graduate students are simultaneously adapting to virtual teaching. TAs do not get faculty benefits but are expected to share the same burdens. Professors often rely on TAs to help with the online transition, especially when they lack the requisite technical skills themselves. While student-adjuncts take on much of the same supportive labor as their tenure-track or tenured colleagues, they likely lack experience with teaching online and problem-solving with students. 

Graduate students frequently piece together income. Assistantship wages, often at or below the poverty line, make living and supporting dependents nearly impossible. Part- or even full-time work outside of the university has been potentially lost or drastically cut. Expected dissertation financial support moving forward is unknown. Multiple layers of loss and uncertainty leave students to make difficult decisions that could significantly impact their matriculation and livelihoods. 

Looking ahead to post-graduation, today’s emerging scholars will shape their careers amidst two recessions and significant precarity. The job market anxieties existent before the pandemic are now compounding. One need look no further than the Chronicle of Higher Education’s homepage, with stories about hiring freezes and canceled contracts, to prompt concern. For those pursuing careers outside of academia, there is much unknown about where the “bottom” of this crisis may be in the business and non-profit sectors and how far the inevitable ripple effects may reach. 

While we navigate moving into virtual professional and interpersonal relationships, the reality of our domestic labor responsibilities and personal lives are made explicit. Graduate students who have family, childcare, personal health, and/or immigration-related burdens are feeling even greater weight under this pandemic. One’s social identities, particularly race and class, influence their likelihood of contracting COVID-19. Black and Brown students and those from working and underclass families are at a higher risk due to historic resource deprivation in healthcare, housing, and criminal justice sectors. 

First-generation students often carry burdens for whole communities. Grappling with their own mortality and the pandemic affecting their social networks is a constant worry. Students are also juggling their own self-care. Recent studies show graduate students have depression and anxiety rates six times higher than the general population. This is especially challenging  in a time of crisis when productivity and motivation feel nearly impossible. Additionally, campus counseling centers are adjusting to virtual sessions and higher demand, which has led to a gap in services. 

The current moment demands public sociology, of and for sociologists. Social identities, interpersonal relationships, and professional roles affect how students are personally experiencing the pandemic. Graduate students often feel alienated,  wedged between roles as student and teacher, advisee and advisor, beginner and expert, and experience significant uncertainty and anxiety. Sociologists have studied structural inequalities for decades, yet often fail to critically examine the structures and practices of our own departments. We must use our sociological skills to foster honest dialogue and address pre-existing inadequacies in resources, support, and mentorship. Graduate students push the discipline forward through innovative research and pedagogy. Robust and informed support for diverse graduate students, especially in this time of crisis, is support for a more critically informed future sociology.