Doctoral studies: an extension and suspension boom

I supervise a few Doctoral candidates at NTU and I have been witnessing how the pandemic has affected the work of these candidates, their supervisory teams, and the university’s management of doctoral studies overall. I was also invited to attend and participate in the conference ‘Academia in Focus: The Impact of Covid-19 on Postgraduate Studies’ organised by colleagues from the University of Turku in Finland and the University of Limerick in Ireland. The conference took place in late March 2021. The challenges that doctoral candidates faced during the pandemic were emphasised there and made me realise even more the scope of the impact that the pandemic had on doctoral studies.

The pandemic made it obvious that some candidates cannot carry on their research and need a suspension from their studies (intending to return later), and that those who have funding may need to get an extension. I have obtained some data from NTU Doctoral School and with their permission use some of those data below to illustrate how the pandemic made many doctoral candidates pause their research.

You can see on the diagram below how the number of suspension requests has grown in the pandemic at NTU.


The first lockdown in the UK was announced on the 23rd of March 2020 and since then NTU has received a similar number of suspension requests to those pre-pandemic over a period of time which is almost twice as long – between June 2018 and Mar 2020.

Taking a closer look at the suspensions last year, duringthe pandemic, of the whole doctoral cohort suspensions were granted to 10.6% of the candidates.

The chart below shows us data about funding extensions in the pandemic for the candidates that have funding for their doctoral studies.


These funding extensions have been granted on the basis of the following main reasons: interruption of data collection or fieldwork, lack of access to resources and facilities, increased caring responsibilities and sickness (Covid).

Doctoral candidates have requested and received on average 3.4-month extensions to their funding. Three months is just over a quarter of a year which is a quarter of the time that the UK has spent in and between lockdowns. The fact that these extensions were not sought for the whole duration of the past disruptive year suggests that doctoral candidates and supervisors have been working to find ways to adapt and carry on with doctoral studies, despite the spontaneity and disruptions that we have lived with, and are still expecting for the foreseeable future.

The data presented above illustrate a small example, and just a fraction of the challenges that the pandemic has created for doctoral candidates, their supervisors and universities’ departments that coordinate and support doctoral work. A further perusing of the nuances of these challenges, particularly for different marginalised groups amongst the doctoral cohorts, is key for the higher education community in the UK and beyond to tailor the support for doctoral candidates in the difficult times.

Iryna Kushnir

You can purchase a copy of Iryna’s latest book here.

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