With the coronavirus decimating university budgets and halting most in-person research, some graduate students and faculty at Penn worry that without support pandemic could cause many budding scholars to completely abandon careers in academia.
Social distancing and travel restrictions have forced in-person fieldwork and research to a standstill, and universities' nationwide hiring freezes are making it harder to secure a job in academia. Students and faculty alike are calling for Penn to increase the monetary support for graduate students during the pandemic.
A petition calling for an extension of funding by one year for all graduate students has been signed by over 600 Penn grad students, staff, and faculty.
"Given that graduate students face even greater financial and professional precarity than junior faculty, the University should provide an extension to all current PhD students of one year of additional funding in the form of a renewed stipend, benefits, and tuition waiver," the petition reads. "Providing another year’s funding (including summer, fall, and spring) will give PhD students the time and resources necessary to complete the research we committed to when joining the Penn community."
One hundred eighty-two faculty members also penned a letter to Provost Wendell Pritchett and Vice Provost Beth Winkelstein, imploring the University to "extend fellowship packages for all students, and to provide relief funds for students supported by internal and external funds of various sorts."
English professor Paul Saint-Amour, one of those who signed the letter, agrees that extra support for graduate students is vital during this difficult time. He believes that additional fellowship support, summer funding, and increased post-doc fellowship offerings are crucial to prevent vulnerable students from potentially leaving academia for good.
"They are the future of our professions," Saint-Amour said. "They are the future of our discipline. My worry is that we will lose a whole generation of emerging scholars, of young academics, to this pandemic."
History and Sociology of Science second-year grad student Koyna Tomar said she and many of her peers are reluctantly beginning to plan for the potential necessity of pursuing a career outside of academia.
"We should maybe all think about other kinds of things that we could do [besides academia]," she said.
Tomar is also behind in her research now that they do not have access to labs, libraries, and other vital materials.
Without access to various texts within Penn's libraries, she has been unable to make any progress on her research project and feels as though everything has been pushed back a year. Tomar also explained that she will be unable to travel to India this summer as she initially planned to engage in research to help narrow down her dissertation topic.
Despite these setbacks, she is still planning to continue with her third year of studies in the fall. She is currently unsure of how she will make up for the work she was unable to complete this year and the loss of summer opportunities. She believes Penn should offer more assistance to help graduate students stay on track, such as additional grants and funding.
"I’m hoping that the university will come up with some kind of measures to deal with all of this,” Tomar said.
In addition to these academic constraints, grad students are also struggling with personal obstacles to completing their work.
Philosophy first-year graduate student Maja Sidzinska said that being a parent has made it difficult to complete her work given her now full-time child care responsibilities. She explained she decided to come to Penn in part because of their strong support of students with children, such as specific grants the University sets aside for them, but Sidzinska has been disappointed with their assistance during the pandemic.
"Although certain professors have offered flexibility, there's nothing on an institutional level addressing the particular population of grad student parents," Sidzinska said.
Sidzinska acknowledges that implementing institutional support for graduate students will be difficult in these unprecedented times, she believes it is vital to their eventual success in the field.
In hopes of preventing this loss of new academics, Saint-Amour believes that Penn must be willing to dip into its funding reserves to ensure the strength of its departments and to provide vital support to its students.
"Endowments should be at the service of the people who make up institutions, not the other way around," Saint-Amour said.