UC Berkeley study reveals obstacles for graduate students amid COVID-19 pandemic

Infographic about obstacles that may delay graduate student degrees
Quynh Truong/Staff

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A survey published by UC Berkeley’s Student Experience in the Research University, or SERU, Consortium took a closer look at how the COVID-19 pandemic may hinder graduate and professional students from completing their degrees on time.

The study, conducted from May to July 2020, surveyed 15,346 graduate and professional students at 10 public universities, and it found that 24% expected the pandemic to delay their graduation. Some difficulties included limited access to research and labs, distractions at home and inability to attend professional conferences, according to Krista Soria, SERU assistant director of research.

“It is important to understand that there are disparities in students’ obstacles to degree completion so that institutional leaders, faculty, and staff can respond by providing targeted resources to students who need them the most,” Soria said in an email. “The time it takes graduate and professional students to complete their degrees is important given the expense of graduate/professional education.”

Certain demographics are particularly disadvantaged, the survey found. Transgender and nonbinary students, low-income and working-class students, students with disabilities and those in caregiver roles were all more likely to lack access to a suitable workspace.

Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Native Alaskan and multiracial students reported similar obstacles to their studies at higher rates than students of other ethnicities.

Alden Moss, campus Ph.D. candidate in bioengineering, said he was unsure whether the pandemic would delay his graduation, with 35% of surveyed students agreeing. According to Moss, when shelter-in-place orders first went into effect in early 2020, he was unable to work in the lab until June.

“I think the biggest challenge is that I have found it harder to focus at times when working from home, even though I rarely had trouble focusing on days that I worked from home pre-pandemic,” Moss said in an email. “I think this is due to a combination of all the uncertainty in the world and research just generally moving slower.”

Soria recommended that universities be more flexible with the research components of students’ degree requirements, particularly for students who have not been able to conduct research. She added that universities should offer safe study spaces on campus for their students and asynchronous classes for those who may have other responsibilities during the pandemic.

Marcel Moran, campus Ph.D. student in city and regional planning, said he expects to graduate when he originally intended to, noting that his faculty have supported him during the pandemic. Moran added, however, that the lack of time spent discussing work with students and faculty has been challenging for him, and he is eager to resume in-person classes.

“Cal as an institution is remarkable when we are all there in person,” Moran said in an email. “That’s what allows for the dynamism and exchange of ideas.”

Contact Amudha Sairam and Emma Taila at [email protected].