Blog: The Covid-19 Pandemic and its Impact on Academic Research

News | Posted on Friday 18 June 2021

PhD Students Joseph Gascoigne, Alankrita Anand, and Young-Gil Kim outline their challenging experiences during the Covid-19 Pandemic as researchers and reflect on lessons learned for the future.

Students social distancing in a lecture theatre wearing face masks
"Futuros médicos al rescate / Physicians-to-be to the rescue" by Eneas is licensed under CC BY 2.0

By Joseph Gascoigne, Alankrita Anand, and Young-Gil Kim

Overview 

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused harm and suffering to millions. The necessary public health measures have brought difficulties and complexities of their own and affected everyone in new and complicated ways. One group to be uniquely challenged by the pandemic is the academic community, especially PhD students who have a limited time span in which to complete projects. Of course, problems faced by students are nothing compared to the hardship endured by millions around the world, particularly those in developing states and healthcare professionals. But as an often disjointed community, postgraduate researchers have been united in the past year by a common set of challenges that have revealed similar experiences and flaws shared across disciplines and institutions. This blog post outlines a few of these experiences as perceived by three doctoral students at the University of York and addresses some lessons that may be learned for the future. 

Doing Research 

One of the most obvious challenges has been the closure of research institutions. As a history student, much of Joseph's research requires extensive analysis of material held by The National Archives (TNA) in the UK. Since March 2020, TNA has been closed or offering restricted service. Following the latest easing of restrictions in May 2021, research at TNA was made more possible but still highly encumbered. As of June, restrictions include reduced opening times; a limited number of desks available; a need to book your slot on a first-come-first-served basis; and a cap of twelve documents a day. 

While it is brilliant the archive is open at all, these restrictions have made research at TNA more inconvenient, more restricted, and more expensive. It has also made research less adventurous as restrictions force researchers to prioritise documents known to be useful - this often means looking at well-used and well-catalogued material and neglecting less-analysed and previously ignored sources. This goes against current efforts to decolonise research and give greater recognition to previously marginalised voices. But when students only have a restricted amount of time to see a limited number of documents, dedicating one of twelve slots to a poorly catalogued source can be an expensive gamble. 

Even when research is a relatively private activity, in the early stages of desk-based work, for instance, the lack of a sense of community can be isolating for many. This experience may be exacerbated for students on remote research arrangements, within the UK or overseas. For Alankrita, all the required research resources could be accessed online or in-person in her location in India, but seemingly small things like being in a different time zone and not having seen the university she’d begun a degree at were a dampener on the overall experience of doing research.

Doing Fieldwork 

Fieldwork requires detailed planning, which is made difficult by the uncertainty of the pandemic. Alankrita was organising fieldwork in India, corresponding with local NGOs, when the pandemic took a devastating turn in the country, putting all planning on hold. Since research timelines are tightly regulated and related to funding and visas, researchers often have to think of alternative ways of doing fieldwork, which may not be as favourable as the original plan for the subject, the participants, and the researcher themselves.

Researching the regional Covid-19 situation and the government’s public health and travel policies have become yet another requirement for conducting fieldwork. To assess regional variability Young-Gil Kim, PhD Student in Global Development, contacted development practitioners - his former colleagues - in the developing world. Interview results confirm inconsistency in public health policy, such as mask-wearing, between Asian countries like Afghanistan, Vietnam and Cambodia or African countries like Cameroon, Rwanda and Tanzania. While this complicates fieldwork, this variability highlights the importance of recognizing differences in culture and capacity when it comes to public health, particularly for those conducting fieldwork as this may affect results. For example, wearing a face-covering in a community where such a behaviour is unfamiliar and seen as odd may influence how participants respond to that researcher.

On the other hand, the pandemic has seen an increased use of online platforms such as Zoom video conferencing and digital survey software such as Qualtrics. These enable researchers to reach a large and diverse pool of participants without the economic and environmental costs of travel or health concerns. However, this only applies where participants are literate, have the use of a computer or mobile device, and have a stable internet connection. So while increased use of online platforms can be useful, it is not a substitute for actual fieldwork which remains at best encumbered and at worst impossible because of the pandemic. 

Going Forward 

Though the pandemic has certainly hindered research, there are some positives to consider. Firstly, the past year has seen in-person events replaced by virtual meetings, conferences, and lectures. While we presume there is empirical evidence out there to support or counter this claim, the three of us feel this has boosted participation in extracurricular activities. Between us, we have joined events ranging from a Dante lecture series in the USA to India in Transition series at the Centre for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. This would not have been possible if these were in-person events because of time constraints and the cost of travel. Moreover, for some the online platform provides greater accessibility because travelling to a physical meeting, walking into a room full of one's peers, and engaging in physical discussions can be a daunting and inhibiting physical and psychological effort.

In terms of fieldwork, the pandemic has forced a greater appreciation of local customs and cultures with regard to personal hygiene. Such as mask-wearing and use of hand sanitiser. While these things are now conventional in the UK they may be seen differently in other cultures - for instance, the use of hand sanitiser greeting someone may be interpreted as a sign of disrespect. While these things should not be abandoned (the researcher's safety is always a priority) those doing fieldwork should consult with local partners to find out about local customs. The researcher can then take the necessary steps to put participants at ease, such as explaining the rationale behind mask-wearing. Such consultation and engagement is an important feature of inclusive research and should be built into all good research projects. 

While the pandemic has been a collective experience, it has also shone a spotlight on the struggles individuals go through every day and the unique ways people respond to different events. The pandemic and lockdowns have increased the salience of things like mental health and loneliness in public rhetoric and institutional practice. Hopefully, this recognition will not dissipate and both student societies and university administrative bodies will maintain, if not improve, their current appreciation of the individuality and variability of the student experience. 

Young-Gil Kim would like to thank his former colleagues for participating in his casual interview.

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
igdc@york.ac.uk
01904 321042
Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
@York_IGDC

Contact us

Interdisciplinary Global Development Centre
igdc@york.ac.uk
01904 321042
Department of Politics, University of York, Heslington, York, YO10 5DD, UK
@York_IGDC