Graduate students navigate COVID-19-era research, education

With fewer in-person course offerings and more hybrid or distance-only classes amid COVID-19 campus precautions, some classrooms sit empty on campus. (Archive photo by Kaylie McLaughlin | Collegian Media Group)

COVID-19 created numerous challenges when it forced Kansas State to pivot online. Faculty and staff scrambled to figure out how to conduct university business and teach classes in an online environment. However, it also created problems for another subset of the campus population — graduate students.

More than 4,000 graduate students nationwide expressed concerns about food, housing, mental health, changes in career plans and delays in degree completion as obstacles throughout the pandemic, according to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Hannah Shear, doctoral candidate in agricultural economics, said she was lucky because COVID-19 hit at the end of her third year, giving her a before-and-after perspective of the graduate experience. Shear said she saw immediate differences when the campus flipped after spring break last year.

Shear said graduate cohorts in her experience are tight, both physically and academically. They hold study sessions to work on the heavy math-based coursework that is not easily done through Zoom or over email.

“Immediately that kind of support system was gone,” Shear said, “and I think that impacted a lot of our graduate students, both academically with their grades, as well as … mental health, of just not feeling like anyone else was kind of suffering with you.”

Kayln Hoppe, doctoral student in curriculum and instruction, said she already felt isolated because her doctoral program is mostly online, but COVID-19 isolated her more than usual.

“Working on your Ph.D. during the pandemic, when you are not allowed to go anywhere basically … it’s extremely lonely,” Hoppe said.

Deans and department heads also acknowledge graduate students’ pandemic isolation. Debbie Mercer, dean of the College of Education, said her graduate students did not struggle with the switch to technology — they struggled with their mental health.

“It was a huge shift for us to go from people interaction on a daily basis to those feelings of isolation that often came from being at home,” Mercer said.

Allen Featherstone, head of the department of agricultural economics, said COVID-19 isolated graduate students and impacted course work and one-on-one research with faculty. In addition, it affected students who were not in the program before the pandemic.

“They’ve never been able to experience the networking and the seminar experience in a way that I think is best,” Featherstone said.

Mike Day, head of animal sciences and industry, said graduate programs are isolating by nature, but COVID-19 furthered student isolation. Day said students from other states and countries often became most vulnerable to feelings of isolation.

“Their social interaction would be through the lab and through the group and through the discipline within the department, and that wasn’t happening … except via Zoom,” Day said.

Zoom presents issues when graduate students attempt to engage in their own coursework. Hoppe said her current synchronous class is ineffective because there are no prepared materials, just an open forum for student questions and discussion.

“Sometimes we don’t have any questions, or we don’t have anything to discuss, so it’s kind of a waste of time,” Hoppe said. “From that experience, I’ve learned if you’re going to require synchronous Zoom sessions, you need to be prepared. You need to have talking points prepared or discussions or whatever because you don’t want to waste people’s time.”

Both Day and Featherstone agree Zoom is a solution for teaching. However, it cannot substitute the face-to-face interaction so vital to the graduate experience.

“Certainly Zoom and the electronic communication are good, but … it’s easy to be distracted on Zoom,” Featherstone said. “It’s harder to be distracted when you’re in a seminar face-to-face or when you’re meeting with your faculty face-to-face.”

Day said networking is another important area impacted by COVID and the switch to Zoom.

“The capacity for them to be able to go to meetings and present their results and interact with people across the country — they’ve lost, at least, the face-to-face part of that,” Day said. “And those relationships are critical as they look for the next step in their career.”

Hoppe said COVID-19 affected her ability to network and present at scheduled conferences, as well as her teaching role.

“We were not only there for them academically, but we were also checking in on them to make sure their mental health was okay and just making sure that they were okay, and they were handling it well,” Hoppe said. “A lot of them, if they didn’t get to go home, they were stuck here by themselves. So we were their support outside of just the academics, which I think was really important.”

Shear said she felt lucky when classes pivoted because her online teaching experience at another university gave her the knowledge to adapt quickly. However, others in her department lacked the same experience, placing extra work on her as she helped them shift to the online platform.

“I was hosting my own personal Zoom sessions and showing them different platforms they could use,” Shear said.

Students not on campus often lacked access to necessary equipment and technology.

Shear said facilitating her own course and technology needs with those of the graduate students was challenging, but when faculty also came to her for assistance, she faced an even greater challenge.

“I got pulled in a lot of different directions to try to help with that,” Shear said. “Thankfully, K-State’s Teaching and Learning Center helped a lot with that, so there were resources, but when you have to pivot, and you’re given a week’s notice of like, ‘Figure it out,’ it was tough. So, trying to meet everyone’s questions and needs was not fun there for about five months.”

Graduate students encountered more obstacles as research facilities, state and federal agencies, laboratories and other necessary resources closed or put up other restrictions.

Shear’s research halted when the Economic Research Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture located in Kansas City, Kansas, closed because of COVID-19. She said the data set used in her research is a protected data set and could only be viewed at the facility. As a result, she shifted her research focus and will not submit her dissertation until the summer.

Day said some students could not move forward with their laboratory research. As a result, the department pulled back on how they handled state funds in case students need support for an extra semester or two.

“They’re here,” Day said. “We’re committed to them when they’re here. We’re gonna get them done. It’s not their fault that they couldn’t get into the lab.”

Ernie Minton, dean of the College of Agriculture and director of K-State Research and Extension, said he hopes fewer students feel the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 as the university moves forward, especially international students unable to travel during the pandemic. Travel restrictions decreased graduate applications from students living overseas, Minton said.

Though he said he believes lingering effects are possible moving into the fall — with some countries still experiencing high COVID-19 positivity rates — Minton said enrollment numbers will come back.

Hoppe said she looks forward to the return of traditional classroom teaching and learning when K-State moves to in-person classes this fall, but is also grateful for the experience of the past year.

“I know it was challenging to try to tackle that during the pandemic, with switching to online learning and all that stuff,” Hoppe said, “but I’m just really grateful because … this experience has kept me in the teaching field. I still get to do what I love, but I get to work with big kids instead of little kids.”