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Credit: Isabel Liang

With the COVID-19 pandemic preventing some Ph.D. students from completing research abroad, several have been forced to alter their dissertations or postpone their expected graduation date — prompting financial concerns for students who may require additional semesters of funding.

Travel restrictions and safety concerns have posed significant challenges for doctoral students whose dissertations require research conducted abroad. The setback is another challenge faced by graduate students, who, in the midst of the pandemic, have been lobbying the University for a one-year universal funding extension, as some sources of grants have implemented funding freezes.

Members of Graduate Employees Together - University of Pennsylvania, a graduate student union, wrote an op-ed published in October in The Daily Pennsylvanian demanding that Penn extend doctoral funding for one year after the University announced that it would offer $1,200 in stipend funds for graduate students for the 2020-2021 academic year.

Students studying the humanities and social sciences are likely to face particular difficulty amid the pandemic, History professor and Ph.D. advisor Sophia Rosenfeld said, because of the need to conduct field work, which often takes place abroad. Rosenfeld noted that students who are unable to take additional semesters, in many cases for financial reasons, are being forced to alter or limit their research.

Paige Pendarvis, a fourth-year history Ph.D. candidate, had originally intended to travel to France in the fall and spend a year conducting research for her dissertation on modern European history. She opted not to travel abroad due to concerns about contracting the virus and the possibility that archives may close.

Pendarvis said she was lucky that the French National Library offers a “robust collection of digitized sources,” and added that she has made use of materials from Penn Libraries to work as best as she could from home. But to make significant progress on her dissertation, she said she needs access to physical records.

“I’m trying the best I can to make progress, but I’m really at a stage where I think I need to get into the archives again and see what’s around," Pendarvis said. "It’s hard for me to use research money to request archival documents to be scanned because I don’t necessarily know exactly what I’m looking for." 

Limited in what work she is able to complete this year, Pendarvis now estimates that she will take seven years instead of six to complete her Ph.D. She added that many of her colleagues’ Ph.D. completion tracks have also been delayed. 

"I’m at this really weird moment where I have colleagues who are in their fifth year, whereas I’m in my fourth year, and so they’ve been able to write some chapters of their dissertation with research they had already done, but [I'm not],” Pendarvis said. 

Atenea Rosado-Viurques, a third-year joint education, culture, and society and anthropology Ph.D. candidate focusing on immigration, said she will have to alter the focus of her dissertation in order to complete her Ph.D. studies on time. 

“I have had to readjust my ambition in ethnography, [and] I’ve had to include more historical sources and more archival sources than what I had expected," she said. "So, with a different dissertation, I still can make it on time."

While she has been able to conduct research in Mexico during the pandemic because her status as a citizen has enabled her to more easily enter the country despite restrictions, she has had to make several sacrifices — she canceled research plans at an immigrant detention center for fear of bringing COVID-19 in and limited her ethnographic research to safer areas with lower chances of exposing high-risk individuals to the virus.

Rosado-Viurques said she has had to dip into her personal stipend funds for her research abroad, as some of her grants cannot be used for travel.

Despite difficulties prompted by the pandemic, Rosado-Viurques is still planning on completing her dissertation by 2023. 

“I think that there’s a lot of intersection with gender, with age, and I personally don’t feel like I am in a position to wait," Rosado-Viurques said. "Ph.D. students who are women and who are in their 30s, who are thinking of having a family or also have to support a family, do not have the privilege [of waiting]."

Seventh-year history Ph.D. student Rolf Siverson, who is studying state-building in postcolonial North and South Korea, however, is considering pushing back his graduation date.

His hopes of conducting additional research at the National Archives and the Library of Congress were dashed when both institutions closed last year, as were plans of further study of North Korea after his advisor told him to focus on the research he had already conducted on South Korea. 

Rather than wait for COVID-19 to pass, he elected to take the work he had and the resources he could still access — such as Korea’s Institute of National History, which had digitized copies of necessary materials — and finish writing. He said he was lucky to have completed the bulk of his research before the pandemic, having spent two years in Asia studying archives. 

Although COVID-19 has not impacted his research as severely as it has for his colleagues, he said it has exacerbated an already highly competitive job market. Having not yet secured a job, Siverson said he may push his graduation date back from this spring to the summer. Though he is very close to completing his Ph.D., he said he feels a lack of motivation to finish his dissertation more quickly because of the uncertainty surrounding post-graduation opportunities.

For some Ph.D. students in the midst of conducting research abroad, COVID-19 forced them to come home early. Fifth-year music and anthropology Ph.D. candidate Elizabeth Bynum was conducting ethnographic research on noise pollution in Mexico City in March 2020 when she had to return home.

Bynum had hoped to complete 12 more months of fieldwork, but she returned to the United States with less than half of her dissertation research completed. The online presence of her sources has helped her to remain productive at home — a luxury not afforded to many other students, she said.

"I am in a better position than some of my colleagues because so many of the people who I have to talk to for my research are really well connected digitally," Bynum said. "But I think for a lot of my colleagues, who are maybe studying communities that are more remote or less digitally connected, being at home means that they’re really not able to keep in touch with their research contacts."

Still, she has not been able to access some of the archives needed for her research, and while Bynum hopes to graduate in her originally planned six years, she said this will now be more difficult. 

Bynum said she is also experiencing some funding uncertainty. She had previously secured a 12-month external grant, but said she can only use the money if she is traveling for her research — which she is not currently able to do. She added that she is not sure when she will be able to safely return to Mexico and if the grant funding will still be available.

Rosenfeld said she hopes that graduate student research will be able to return to normal by the fall, given the struggles of the past year. 

“We’re ... really hoping that travel resumes by [the fall]," she said. "It will have been a year and a half for many people in the middle of their graduate studies that they weren’t able to do that work.” 

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