Graduate student researchers see major changes under COVID-19

Some students at the University of Minnesota say they are concerned about completing their research given new restrictions.

Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

Illustration by Hailee Schievelbein

Andrew Hong

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, graduate students at the University of Minnesota are uncertain and concerned about the future of their research. 

After the increased spread of COVID-19, the University is following safety measures to ensure safety for members of the community. The protocol follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that recommend higher education institutions to limit, postpone or adapt research-related activities, including study recruitment or participation and access to a lab. Graduate students said their research is especially important to them and their careers and said these recent changes have created worry. 

“A key component of our institution-wide plan to respond to a possible public health emergency such as COVID-19 includes preparing and possibly executing plans for reduced research operations, said Vice President for Research Christopher Cramer in a recent email to graduate students.

Cramer emphasized that individual laboratories and research sites should prepare for “possible disruption” and consider lab hibernation or shutdown when needed.

Kriti Agarwal is a Ph.D. candidate in the electrical engineering department and president of the Council of Graduate Students. She said her research has been heavily affected by the outbreak and that the situation is a setback for her academic career and future job plan. 

“… What happens to the 10 years of college that I’ve put in?” she said. 

Agarwal’s research has slowed down significantly — making her unable to complete it before she graduates in May. Because of this, another graduate student will have to later complete the research after she graduates, meaning she will not be the first author listed on the research. 

“So that gets to be kind of disappointing when you know you’ve spent such a long time. And because everything is very slowed down now, there is no possible way I’m going to be able to finish everything,” Agarwal said. 

COGS plans to hold virtual events throughout the semester to ease pressures for students, and students can express concern through a form on COGS’ website. 

Because research is important not only to students but also for the University, some are still encouraged to come to work, said Tae Joon Byun, a doctoral student in computer science.  This happens in instances of research that is funded by private or public agencies, meaning that if the research is disrupted, funding may be lost. For that reason, some students feel pressured to continue the research. 

Many graduate students participate in numerous academic events other than research. Agarwal is conducting research in collaboration with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and was set to visit the lab, which is a rare opportunity, she said. 

“It was going to be [a] once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me … I would never get that opportunity again in my life probably,” Agarwal said. 

Similarly, academic conferences are heavily affected by the virus, which students say are major milestones for graduate students. At conferences, students can share their research, get feedback and network with professionals. 

Byun said the cancellation of these conferences is a disappointment because not all students have the opportunity to attend them.

“Some of the exceptional conferences have lower acceptance rates than others. Some go below 10% while other fine conferences have that of 20%. So you need to write three to four applications to get you into those better ones. It is [the students’] work of an entire year,” Byun said. 

Anushree Ramanath, a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate in the electrical and computer engineering department, was expecting to attend a conference in New Orleans that was canceled because of the virus. The conference is one of the largest in her field of study and participants were expected to attend from around the world, she said. 

“I still remember my first conference as a graduate student. I made a really good friend there and we are still connected. So the connections last pretty long,” she said. 

Another concern for graduate students is upcoming exams. Doctoral students in their final stage of completing the degree have to take an oral examination. The exam or presentation requires candidates to defend their theses in front of five faculty members and public audiences. However, due to the circumstance, the exam has been moved online. 

Some students say they feel anxious about the transition. 

“Sometimes when you’re in person you can kind of see their expressions and tune in your talk accordingly, but you can’t do this on a virtual meeting. It’s really complicated,” Agarwal said. “You also invite the public audience to your defense and their engagement with you kind of promotes that ‘Hey this is a good student. This is a student [that] should be passed.’ But now, you don’t have that audience support anymore.”