Some graduate students report impact of pauses to in-person research, one year after NUGW May Day sit-in


Illustration by Meher Yeda

Graduate workers are experiencing varying degrees of delays to research.

Rayna Song, Senior Staffer

For many humanities graduate students, the pandemic meant pauses to in-person research, delayed plans for graduation and disrupted career prospects.

On May 1, 2020, Northwestern University Graduate Workers hosted an International Workers’ Day sit-in to advocate for #universal1yr, an additional year of funding for all graduate workers at Northwestern.

Now, about a year after the NUGW action, graduate workers are experiencing varying degrees of delays to research, NUGW co-chair and Ph.D. candidate Charlotte Rosen said. 

“Everyone’s experience is probably a little bit different, and some people have slowed down more than others,” Rosen said. “I think it’s pretty safe to say that the majority of graduate workers have experienced some kind of a slowdown.”

According to the NUGW COVID-19 Impact Survey conducted in April, over 40 percent of respondents “expect a delay in their time to graduation as a result of the pandemic.” Among them, more than 25 percent indicated they are “not confident at all” in securing funding.

The University announced extended milestone deadlines in July, giving graduate students more time to complete benchmarks. But this policy is not helpful when students may not have the extra funding to complement the extension, Rosen said.

“Everybody would benefit from getting an extra year of funding,” Ph.D. candidate Arturo Chang said. “(NU) is invested in producing high quality research and invested (in) innovative academics. That won’t happen if the University restricts people to finish work.”

Chang, whose research is archive-based, said he has been affected by travel restrictions and archive closures. His dissertation on Indigenous and Black insurgency movements requires traveling to Latin America but his travel plans were canceled because of the pandemic. 

Even though many archives in the U.S. are digitized, the same does not apply for those in Latin America, Chang said. 

Chang has been very fortunate compared to some of his peers, he said. He has fellowship funding, which means he has the time to reevaluate his dissertation timeline when the archives closed. However, many graduate students have been negatively impacted by the pandemic and cannot finish their dissertation in the way they had intended.

Ph.D. candidate Kumar Ramanathan said certain kinds of research are more challenging to conduct remotely. Similar to Chang, primary source documents play an important role in his dissertation on the construction of a civil rights agenda in the United States from 1940s to 1960s. 

Ramanathan added that almost all of the documents he needs are physical archives scattered around the country. If not for the pandemic, he would be traveling to these archives and taking  images of relevant documents. 

Many archives closed at the start of the pandemic, and although some archivists are now able to take certain photographs for researchers, this document collection process is less efficient, he said. 

“You have to sort of guess which folder contains the document that you need, and then they have a lot of requests,” Ramanathan said. “It’s very different from the process of going there and really being able to review all the documents that are contained in the relevant collection.”

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Twitter @RaynaYu_Song 

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