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How the Coronavirus Will — or Should — Transform Graduate Education

Graduate workers all over the country are organizing against a fresh wave of austerity that will affect both public and private institutions. At our own university, Brown, the graduate union has released a five-point plan highlighting the most urgent needs, such as extending funding, protecting international-student visas, and guaranteeing no-cost medical treatment for students who contract Covid-19. Graduate workers have made similar demands at many private and public universities, including Emory, Princeton, and Purdue Universities, and the University of North Carolina.

Like it or not, the coronavirus crisis will transform graduate education. University administrations have the power now to move toward greater equity — or to amplify inequality even further. Choosing the path of equity will require democratizing university governance. Otherwise, graduate education will survive but only at the expense of graduate students.

For doctoral students, already facing uncertain futures while surviving on stipends that rarely reflect the cost of living in major cities or college towns, the pandemic and imminent recession have accelerated an ongoing decline. As at many institutions, graduate students at Brown are confronting widespread disruption of research and professionalization, sudden shifts in immigration status, and overnight shuffling of care responsibilities. Students have reported having to return from the field after only one month of research and postponing their dissertation progress indefinitely as funding clocks run out. Others have found it difficult to continue making progress with relatives hospitalized or children at home full time.

Graduate students everywhere are spending more time developing lesson plans for remote teaching without additional compensation or resources. Like faculty members, graduate students are also helping their students navigate disruptions to their own lives. All of these challenges are intensified by the fact that graduate-student stipends were insufficient even before the crisis. What was once a fight for sustainable conditions has become a struggle against impossible ones.

In many disciplines, departments already admit incoming classes much larger than they are able to place in jobs and postdoctoral appointments. As university after university announces hiring freezes, academic-job prospects for graduate students will go from bleak to nonexistent. The polite fiction of graduate school as an apprenticeship for a future academic career, which has been under strain for many years, now faces obliteration. In most cases graduate school is a fixed term of employment offering substantial benefits both to departments, which gain highly motivated and engaged young researchers as well as committed instructors, and to graduate students themselves, who pursue advanced knowledge and original research.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education