The Quiet Crisis of PhDs – Not so Quiet Anymore!

The paper I co-wrote with Coleman, Batten, Hallsworth and Spencer called “The Quiet Crisis of PhDs and COVID-19: Reaching the financial tipping point” has attracted some good media coverage this last week. The media coverage has seen over 3,400 people view the pre-print from 9th-19th July 2020, and the story was widely shared on social media.

Nature released an article titled “Bleak financial outlook for PhD students in Australia” on 9th July. The author Chris Woolston, quotes me:

“Johnson says that the pandemic has exposed the already precarious situation of Australian PhD students, and made it worse. She notes that although some students receive modest government-funded scholarships, most have to take on extra work to support themselves.”

From Nature Article: “The University of Sydney, where a survey by and of PhD students has revealed financial concerns.Credit: Zhencong Chen/Alamy”

The Guardian released an article titled “Almost half of Australian PhD students considering disengaging from studies due to pandemic” on 10th July. The story trended strongly on social media and was re-broadcast on several news platforms including Yahoo News and MSN. The author Naaman Zhou says:

“The study’s lead author, Rebecca Johnson, from the University of Sydney’s faculty of science, said that this had the potential of “gentrifying” university degrees and locking out students from lower socio-economic backgrounds.”

Even national mainstream radio picked up the story with Triple M and HIT including the story in their 7am and 9am national news bulletins. Here is the soundclip, the story is from 58 seconds in: Triple M national news bulletin.

The Thesis Whisperer, Assoc. Prof. Inger Mewburn from Australian National University covered the work in her very popular blog on July 8th in a post titled “How not to be an academic asshole during COVID”. In this very honest post she speaks frankly about some people needing to quit their PhD at this time. Mewburn’s blog post was liked nearly 700 times in the first week. Mewburn reports the post had over 22,000 in the first half day.

These stories caused quite a Twitter storm with the Guardian story trending in the top 4 in both Adelaide and Canberra on the night of 10th July. Even former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull retweeted the story. The viral spread across social media is hard to map in full (Kyle Sheldrik’s post alone was retweeted over 500 times) but the Guardian Facebook page saw 1.2K likes and 311 comments on their post of the story. The story moved across Reddit and the Nature article was shared across multiple news platforms.

The highly engaged discussion and comments in repsonse to the movement of the story across the web shows deep interest in the topic. I found it very interesting to read responses from across the world.

The story was also covered by Wade Zaglas in the Campus review on 15th July, titled The ‘quiet crisis’: how COVID-19 could be turning away our future researchers. Three days after release it had over 1,000 views.

A piece titled 1 in 5 PhD students could drop out. Here are some tips for how to keep going appeared in The Conversation on July 15th. It was written by academics at UTS, CQ University, and Australian Catholic University. That article was shared 500 times on Facebook and 50 times on Twitter in the first five days.

A good thing that came out of this was that I was contacted by graduate students from the UK and Canada doing similar work. From Canada I met Farah Qaiser of the Toronto Science Policy Network; and from the UK, Ross Goldstone of Cardiff University. I am now in discussions with these PhD students about a possible collaborative piece looking at all three of those commonwealth countries. A Nature senior editor has already expressed interest in covering collaborative work on this topic.

It was quite amazing to watch news of our work travel through the media over the last week. Whilst we still have a way to go to effect change, I feel I can confidently say this week, the work had


Update 25th August 2020:

We are still waiting for journal acceptance, but in the meantime the pre-print has had over 4,060 views. The work has also been noted in the August newsletter of the Australian Academy of Science. The work was also mentioned in a Swiss association of scientific staff Actionuni der Schweizer Mittelbau.

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