PhD candidates in trouble: no money for Covid delays after all (CORRECTION)

PhD candidates who experienced delays during the first half of their PhD programme due to the coronavirus pandemic are not entitled to funding for an extension. However, this was not clear beforehand, according to some PhD councils. Now, some are at risk of facing difficulties. 

PhD candidate Marieke requested an extension of her PhD in October 2023. She had started three years earlier, in the middle of the Covid pandemic, and still had a year to go. She asked for an additional three months because the archive for her source research had been closed for some time due to Covid.

She was told that, according to the regular procedure, she could apply for an extension six months before the end of her PhD programme. But in April, before her final six months had even begun, she read the announcement that the budget for pandemic-related PhD extensions had been exhausted.

‘That came as quite a shock to me’, she says. ‘It was maybe presumptuous to assume I would receive such a grant, but I feel like the graduate school and the faculty heavily insinuated that this grant would be available for all PhDs affected by the pandemic in some way.’

Second half

The Groningen Graduate Interest Network (GRIN), the advocacy group for PhD candidates, dealt with a few similar cases. These involved people that didn’t discover until quite late in the process that only PhD candidates who were in the second half of their programme at the time of the pandemic were eligible for the Covid budget, says secretary Björn de Kruijf.

Ingo Bousema, a former member of the PhD council at spatial sciences, also raised the issue with GRIN. ‘I found it very odd that no consideration was given to compensation for early-stage PhD candidates’, he says. ‘They had to get to know the organisation and build a social safety net during the pandemic, which simply took more time.’

In October 2021, he spoke on behalf of the PhD council, asking whether the Covid extension would also be made available to early-stage PhD candidates. The faculty council decided not to do so. If this group still wanted to claim an extension, they could use the regular procedure for extensions.

Insufficient funds

At Campus Fryslân, philosophy, and science and engineering, a lack of clear communication also led to confusion, although this did not necessarily result in problems everywhere. ‘As far as I can see, eighteen extension requests were submitted, and all of them were granted’, says Gerd Weitkamp, director of the graduate school of spatial sciences.

The decision to allocate the funds only to advanced PhD candidates was made because the funds from the government were insufficient for every PhD candidate, says Petra Rudolf, dean of the graduate schools. ‘I have repeatedly pointed out to the PhD councils that they should not expect extensions for those who started during the pandemic.’

An alternative route was devised for them, says De Kruijf. ‘Supervisors were supposed to urge PhD candidates to adjust their plans in time to minimise delays.’ Literature research in the archives or laboratory work that could not be carried out was partially to be replaced by work that could be conducted during the pandemic.

‘Such information is quite crucial, but the graduate schools did not communicate this properly to the PhD candidates’, says De Kruijf. ‘As a result, stories took on a life of their own.’

Not informed

Marieke did not receive this information, either, and was unaware of the special conditions. In the newsletters from the graduate school of humanities, which coordinates PhD programmes in arts, extensions due to general Covid delays were mentioned, but not which group of PhD candidates this applied to.

GRIN has also urged the graduate schools to provide clear, central communication stating all the rules, says De Kruijf. ‘But that didn’t happen. Often, emails were only sent to those eligible for an extension, and not to those in the earlier stages of a PhD programme.’

And because it is common in many faculties, according to De Kruijf, to apply for an extension only in the last six months of a PhD programme, ‘people run into problems when they then find out that the money is gone’.

Other funding

Nevertheless, not all PhD candidates were caught off guard by the lack of budget for them. ‘There are also PhD candidates whose supervisors were able to contribute funds in addition to the Covid funds. And in some faculties, PhD candidates could apply for an extension a year before the end of the project’, says De Kruijf.

For Marieke, it’s a more difficult situation. Now, a few months before the end of her PhD, she is forced to look for other funding sources to complete her research. ‘I will apply for a regular extension, but I don’t have high hopes for my chances.’

Postscript editors: An earlier version also mentioned the PhD council of the Faculty of Law. This turns out to be incorrect. The law PhD council says: ‘We are not aware of any cases of PhD students who were delayed as a result of the Covid pandemic and did not receive an extension. On the contrary: as far as we know, all PhD students who were delayed due to Covid were compensated for this. Nor did we receive any complaints about communication about this to PhD students. The Groningen Graduate School of Law, for example, has in several newsletters alerted PhD students to the possibility of obtaining extensions on these grounds. The Faculty of Law has also made funds available for this.’

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