Life in the Lab

Supporting Ph.D. students in the time of COVID-19

Marina  K. Holz
July 17, 2020

In the best of times, pursuing a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences takes incredible grit, as students are tested not only intellectually, but also mentally, emotionally and sometimes physically as they spend long hours at the bench or computer. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified all of the challenges and created new ones.

Mentors and advisers must be aware of the unique hardships imposed on graduate students by the pandemic and by the gradual return to campuses and labs.

Separation from family

Many graduate students attend institutions in locations away from their families and partners. Now, with mandatory quarantines and self-isolation, traveling even short distances is risky. Visiting family abroad is in most cases impossible. In addition to many state-mandated quarantines, such as the one in the New York region, nations around the world are barring entry, including return of their own citizens. Meanwhile, visa restrictions by the United States add to the confusion and uncertainty about the feasibility of traveling home. Experiencing this separation, without a clear end in sight, is difficult and painful.

Sick family members

Some students have family members and friends sickened or even killed by COVID-19. Sadly, they’ve been unable to attend funerals or grieve surrounded by family. We must also be aware that students are often the main caregivers to sick and vulnerable family members, responsible for running errands, taking care of family businesses, looking after younger siblings and putting food on the table. These challenges and health disparities are even more pronounced in the Black and Latino communities, as they continue to struggle with discrimination and racism.

Students with children

Staying productive while also taking care of children is a difficult task for every working parent. While some universities and research labs are reopening, students are required to resume work. In the meantime, many summer camps are severely restricted and safe childcare options are scarce, making return to work difficult for parents. The challenges are glaring for students who are parents, especially women, who shoulder the majority of the domestic responsibilities.

Students with health conditions

Graduate students may suffer from physical and mental illnesses that (due to privacy concerns) they have not disclosed. It is vital for mentors and advisers to keep in mind that students may be affected by conditions that are further exacerbated by the pandemic or make them feel unsafe to come to campus.

Mental exhaustion

Advisers need to realize that not everyone can easily cope with difficult circumstances and maintain the same level of productivity. Graduate students suffer from anxiety and depression at higher rates than the general population, and those challenges are amplified during the pandemic.

Access to resources

Students may not have dedicated home offices, reliable internet access or even updated laptops. Without the ability to work in libraries and coffee shops, some students are confined to their homes that may lack many amenities, such as air conditioning. Some live in unsafe homes and share apartments with many roommates, making work from home challenging. Living in confined conditions during the pandemic has been shown to lead to increased instances of domestic violence, to which graduate students are not immune.

What can you do to support your graduate students?

  • Keep open lines of communication, but do not demand that students divulge specific information or details — they may not be ready to share the particulars of their personal struggles.
  • Be flexible when it comes to scheduling, workload or the timeline for deliverables. Students’ priorities at this time may be different than your own.
  • Be mindful about the ability of students to be productive at home, and be vigilant about signs of domestic abuse.
  • Provide support, but be prepared to take a step back and don’t be intrusive. Your well-intentioned offer of help may be more of a burden than a solution at this time.
  • Most importantly, remember that this crisis will end, but your students will always remember your kindness and support during this time.
Marina  K. Holz

Marina K. Holz is the dean of the Graduate School of Basic Medical Sciences and professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College and a member of the Women in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Committee of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

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