When the COVID-19 pandemic struck Stanford in March 2020, it meant the end of a years-long doctoral research project for Chiara Giovanni, then a third-year Ph.D. student in comparative literature.
Prior to the pandemic, Giovanni had set aside 18 months to study, learn and engage with Dominican social dance through communities in the Dominican Republic and New York City. But with Stanford clearing the campus laboratories and research spaces of all non-essential researchers, and with social gatherings rendered taboo by California’s shelter-in-place order, it became clear to Giovanni that her research conflicted with the unique constraints posed by a global airborne virus.
With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, Giovanni made a tough decision — she would begin anew with an entirely different doctoral project, scrapping most of her previous research in the process.
“That is quite a big deal to do in your fourth year of graduate school,” Giovanni said, now a fifth-year Ph.D. student. “It’s like changing your major in senior year.”
Giovanni made COVID-19 central to her new project, studying how people negotiate with desire and care to remain intimate with each other during the pandemic. But while Giovanni’s shift in focus is unusual among Ph.D. students, many of whom have continued with their original research even in the face of COVID-19, the challenges she faced are representative of a larger trend among Stanford’s doctoral student community. Giovanni said that part of her motivation for her project comes from the lack of space provided by the University for graduate students to fully grapple with the consequences of COVID-19.
“The same aggressive productivity that is demanded of people in the American economy was very much demanded of Ph.D. students at Stanford,” Giovanni said. “There’s been no time for graduate students to grieve and process.”
For many graduate students, conducting research during the pandemic took an emotional and academic toll. One graduate student within the School of Medicine, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from the University, described the first six months of the pandemic as being incredibly isolating, with the lack of in-person interaction posing a major obstacle to their work in neuroscience.
“It’s not like you log onto Zoom and suddenly talk about problems,” the student said. “A lot of the ideas come about organically when you’re hanging out with people and talking in the office with each other.”
Stanford was able to resume most on-campus research only a “few months into the pandemic,” said University spokesperson E.J. Miranda. Miranda added that the swift return to research was possible due to the Stanford community’s commitment to following public health guidance. Miranda also acknowledged the ongoing effects of the pandemic on graduate students, writing that the “University is working to support students whose research was delayed due to COVID-19.”
For many graduate students, however, institutional support from the University has been lacking. Instead, the bulk of COVID-19 relief has come from individual departments according to Alexa Russo, a fourth-year anthropology Ph.D. student. Russo said her program adviser’s help was crucial in adapting her research to the challenges of the pandemic.
Abandoning her plans for preliminary field work, Russo pivoted to holding Zoom meetings and writing grants for her research in sustainable agricultural cooperatives.
“I sometimes think I won the lottery with my adviser,” Russo said. “And I say that because the system is set up in a way that you need to luck out in order to receive support.”
Comparing her experience to those of her colleagues in different graduate departments, Russo said that the anthropology department has emerged as a bright spot on a campus where support for graduate students sometimes seems like the exception rather than the rule. Russo specifically raised the topic of summer research funding, which the University began offering to Ph.D. students this school year. Before 2021, not every department provided summer funding — an especially important resource amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Stanford’s commitment to summer funding came as a rare victory for graduate students, who advocated heavily for the policy during the summer months of the pandemic in 2020. Multiple graduate students said that the University has met other organized student efforts to receive COVID-19 support with silence.
“One [other] coordinated action was a big petition that thousands of students signed at the beginning of the pandemic to get funding extensions,” Giovanni said. “There was no response to that petition.”
Russo echoed Giovanni’s comments and said she also did not remember the University responding to the student petition. Russo additionally noted that most graduate student work goes on “behind the scenes,” pointing out the University’s failure to acknowledge the efforts of student advocates even in announcing its 2021 commitment to summer funding.
“One of Stanford’s strongest tactics in responding to student voices is to ignore our existence,” Russo said. “Even when we win.”
According to Miranda, Stanford made additional funding available to doctoral students through the pandemic primarily “in the form of teaching assistantships and dissertation fellowships, as well as the expansion of several University-wide doctoral fellowships.” Miranda also wrote that many of Stanford’s “schools and programs have tapped into reserve funds to support students who experienced pandemic-related disruptions.” He did not comment on the University’s response to the student petition for funding extensions.
While the fight for increased institutional support has been widespread, the medical student noted that even if the University had offered additional financial support, there was little anyone could do to make up for the lost productivity during the pandemic.
“The biggest thing was the time [lost], not the money,” the student said. “In a way, the University had their hands tied behind their back with the county regulations closing the labs and everything.”
When institutional support is insufficient or unable to offset the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate student ingenuity and adaptability become indispensable, Giovanni said.
“If the University is not going to support us financially or structurally, we need to find ways to improvise around that,” she said. “We need to do research that is going to push for the things that we want to see in the world.”