Education
Illustration by Kalle Wolters

PhDs delayed but not extended

Waiting & rushing

Illustration by Kalle Wolters
Hundreds of PhD candidates have had their PhD tracks extended because of the Covid-19 pandemic. But many more did not get an extension due to the strict rules. ‘It’s causing me stress every single day.’
16 November om 16:28 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 November 2021
om 16:28 uur.
November 16 at 16:28 PM.
Last modified on November 16, 2021
at 16:28 PM.

Door Laura Nederveen

16 November om 16:28 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 16 November 2021
om 16:28 uur.

By Laura Nederveen

November 16 at 16:28 PM.
Last modified on November 16, 2021
at 16:28 PM.

Laura Nederveen

‘For me it was a year of… nothing. Searching for alternatives? For me that just did not apply.’ Henrique Bravo is a tropical marine biologist. His research required him to go to the tropics. He’d only been working on his PhD for six months and his first field trip had been planned for April 2020. He was going to the Bahamas. Unfortunately, the travel restrictions got in the way of that. 

Bravo is one of hundreds of PhDs whose work was delayed, but he hasn’t got an extension yet. That is a problem, both for him and for the other PhDs in the same boat. 

Postponed

According to PhD organisation GRIN, 224 extensions were granted during a first round, but only to candidates who were in the last six months of their PhD track. The rules were slightly relaxed for the second round, but the number for that haven’t been released yet.

My trip to the Bahamas was postponed four or five times. I still haven’t been

‘At first, this did not seem like a big problem, there were still things I could be working on’, says Bravo. But then his next trip was postponed, too. As well as the next one. ‘My trip to the Bahamas was postponed four or five times. I still haven’t been there.’ 

In the meantime, he tried to find something to do. ‘I tried to come up with other work’, he says. ‘I wrote a review about a related topic, but that did not put me any closer to finishing my PhD because I’m still going to need my data chapters. Until recently I had no samples, no data, nothing to work with.’

Different location

In the end, Bravo was able to take a trip in April of 2021, albeit to a different location than he’d originally planned. But he can’t just make up for lost time. All the steps he has to go through are still the same and they’ll take just as much time: processing the samples he collected, analysing the data, etc. ‘My delay is of at least one year’, he says.

But he doesn’t know if he’ll be getting an extension. There have been two application rounds so far, but they only applied to PhD candidates in their third or fourth year. During the last round, Bravo hadn’t quite started his third year yet. 

Recently, his supervisor told him he might not qualify for an extension in the next round, either. People might consider the review he wrote an alternative output, while other candidates were stuck doing nothing. Grants at the Faculty of Science and Engineering were also scarce.

Courses

On top of that, the extensions that have been granted so far haven’t been longer than three months, which is much too short for Bravo. ‘Some extra months would help, but it’s not the same as one year., he says. But Bravo has resigned himself to the reality of his situation. ‘At least now I have some samples to work with.’

Jelle Brouwer recognises that sense of resignation. ‘You can’t be stressed out all the time. It’ll wear you down’, he says. 

Brouwer’s PhD research is on bilingualism and ageing at the Faculty of Arts. He studies the effect of learning new things on the well-being and mental capacity of elderly people. 

I won’t be able to collect the amount of data we were expecting

His test subjects are taking language and music courses. But these fell through because of the pandemic. ‘Everyone was over sixty-five, and they were supposed to get together in a single location’, says Brouwer. Due to the pandemic, this became impossible. 

‘Since the restrictions looked like they were going to be temporary, we decided to wait and see.’ In the end, they were forced to switch to doing things online. Being in limbo for so long cost him a lot of time. He couldn’t start recruiting candidates until the decision had been made. This delay will affect his entire PhD track, since he’ll be following the participants for a while. That means he won’t be able to make up for lost time. 

All the difference

‘I won’t be able to collect the amount of data we were expecting when we were designing the study’, says Brouwer. ‘I would need more data to write a proper thesis.’ Three extra months would allow him to study another course group, which he thinks would make all the difference.

Brouwer estimates that he’s suffered a six-month delay. He’s hoping for an extension, but just like Bravo, he was just shy of his third year during the last round of applications.

Bravo and Brouwer might be resigned to their situation, but for Héctor Gallego González, the delay is ‘a daily source of anxiety’. As part of the arts and cognition group at the Faculty of Arts, he studies how people experience art and music, combining research methods from the fields of psychology, neurology, and humanities.

Brain scans

He was supposed to use test subjects and take physical measurements from them, like brain scans and measuring their heartbeat. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to do so. Instead, he’s had to do qualitative research using online questionnaires. ‘At least I’m getting some data’, Gallegos González puts his own misery into perspective. But his research can no longer be called multidisciplinary.

An extension would give me peace of mind

To remedy that, Gallegos González hopes to take part of the physical measurements before Christmas, but it’ll be tight. He’s starting his last year soon, and he’d have to do all his measurements, analyses, and writing in that time. The insecurity of whether he’ll be able to pull it off, as well as figuring out which experiments to, is causing him a lot of stress, he says.

However, he’s not been able to apply for an extension. ‘The appeal for extensions in our faculty has been sent to scholarship and employee students, but I’m externally funded.’ The Mexican institute that funds him might grant him an extension, but he can’t count on that, either. Especially since he can’t apply for it until six months before the original end date of his track.

Peace of mind

But the point is that he needs to plan things now, and that he has some difficult choices to make regarding data collection. Gallegos González: ‘An extension would really help me out, it would give me peace of mind and I’d be able to perform my experiments without having to do everything at the same time.’

Another issue is that Gallegos González is from outside the EU, which means he can’t just keep working once his contract ends. This is another source of stress for him.

Jonne Thomassen, PhD candidate at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, also has to wait until she’s six months from the end of her track before she can apply for an extension. She, too, was unable to collect research data. She uses confidential population data abroad, which she’s only allowed to access and analyse on a local computer.

Temporary

‘The original plan was to fly down there a couple of times for a few weeks’, says Thomassen. But it turned out to not be that easy. ‘The weekend I was supposed to fly there for four weeks was when they announced the lockdowns.’

Like the others, she thought the restrictions would only be temporary. However, she hasn’t been able to work on her project for the past two years. The university abroad has only recently started allowing foreign researchers in again. 

Time is running out for Thomassen: ‘I have a little less than a year left. That might just be enough to write the two chapters on the foreign data, but only if nothing goes wrong. And then I still need to write the introduction, conclusion, and discussion for my thesis. It’s pretty stressful. Time is against me, and the end date on my contract won’t be changing any time soon.’

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