Stockholm university logo, link to start page

Report on second survey on COVID-effects on PhD education



During the autumn of 2020 a survey was sent out to all PhD students of the Faculty of Science at Stockholm University. The survey, initiated by Områdesnämnden, was aimed at determining the effect the COVID-19 pandemic had on the PhD studies, and it was constructed by a working group consisting of members of Forskarutbildningsberedningen and PhD representatives appointed by the student board. The survey was sent out to 651 PhD students on October 9 2020, and 347 (53%) responses were received after some reminders. A report summarizing the outcome of the survey was written by the working group and delivered to Områdesnämnden in early November 2020. The report (including results from the first survey) is attached to the current document.

The pandemic continued and during the late spring of 2021 it was decided by Forskarutbildningsberedningen to conduct a second identical survey to study changes of the different effects on the PhD education now that the pandemic had continued much longer.



In order to allow for direct comparison with the first survey, and also to minimize additional work, it was decided to use exactly the same survey. This second survey was sent out to 753 PhD students. This list of students included all students who received the first survey (out of which some by this time had finished their PhD studies!), and to this PhD students registered during the first half of 2021 were added. The second survey was sent out on August 31, 2021.

The reason for sending the second survey also to PhD students who had completed their PhD after the first survey was that even though they had finished they were affected by the pandemic during the studies, and the reason for sending out to new PhD students is that also those enrolling during the academic year 2020/2021 may very well have been affected by the pandemic.

For the second survey, 293 (39%) responses were received after some reminders. This is substantially lower than the 53% of the first survey, and part of the explanation is most likely that some of the PhD students who had already finished did not receive the survey or did not bother to respond to it. Another partial explanation may be that a bigger fraction of current PhD students did not bother to respond a second time. It is of course hard to know how the bias from not everyone responding has affected the results, but it seems likely that PhD students that have suffered much from the pandemic are more likely to respond to the survey, so we don’t expect the “true” overall effects (i.e. including also non- respondents) to be more negative than what comes out of the new report.

During the last year the Faculty board has also introduced an attachment to all Individual Study Plans (ISP) commenting specifically on the effects of COVID-19 on the PhD studies, based on a suggestion from the working group mentioned above. In this ISP-attachment one question, just like in the current survey, concerns how much delay in the PhD education the pandemic has caused (if any). During the spring Områdesnämnden decided on a procedure for requesting prolongation of the PhD education due to COVID-19. Up to date some 15 PhD students from the Faculty of Science have requested such prolongation, and for these 15 PhD students paid prolongations between 0 to 6 months (financed by the separate departments) have been decided by a group chaired by the Dean of the Faculty. The average prolongation has been 2.5 months.


Survey results and comparison with first report

The first four survey question concerned the subject of the PhD, whether the research topic was theoretical or experimental, gender and how far into the PhD studies the students are. The answers are very similar to the 2020 survey except that more respondents were in their last year or later in the 2021 survey, supporting that some respondents had in fact finished their PhD studies. There were answers from all departments, with numbers corresponding roughly to the size of the departments.

Below we give the responses to the remaining survey questions both from the 2020 and 2021 survey to simplify comparisons. After each survey question we give short comments to the responses, with a focus on differences between the two surveys. Of course the actual responses to questions having similar outcome in the two surveys are also important, but here we only comment briefly in such cases and refer to the earlier report for further comments. For each question we first show the 2020 outcome, and below that the 2021 outcome.

5. In your opinion, how much was the quality of your PhD studies impacted overall by the pandemic and its effects?

  2020 2021
Not at all 0.6% (2) 1.0 % (3)
Very little 13.3 % (46) 8.5 % (25)
Somewhat 42.7 % (148) 44.0 % (129)
Rather much 33.7 % (117) 34.5 % (101)
Quite severely 9.8 % (34) 11.9 % (35)
Total 100 % (347) 100 % (293)

The most common answer is still that the PhD studies have been affected somewhat. Compared to the 2020 survey a few more feel that they have been affected rather much or quite severely. This slight increase could be due to a bias in who responded to the survey, but it could clearly also be a true effect of challenges accumulating over time.

By studying the individual comments (not included here in order to preserve anonymity) it can be seen that as in the previous survey many aspects of the PhD education were impacted, such as experiments (due to failed collaborations, lack of access to e.g. machines or chemicals, or restrictions in the laboratory), fieldwork (requiring travel) and course work (cancelled courses or online courses with reduced quality). Many PhD students also mention how the quality of studies was negatively affected by the lack of physical meetings and communication at the departments and at conferences, as well as by the stressful situation in general.

Finally, it is still not clear to many students what the eventual effects on the quality of the studies and the thesis will be.

6. Do you expect to have to make changes to your research project due to the corona pandemic?

  2020 2021
Yes, I will have to make significant changes 13.9 % (48) 17.4 % (51)
Yes, I will have to make minor changes 35.3 % (122) 38.9 % (114)
No, I will not have to make changes  37.6 % (130) 36.2 % (106)
Don't know 13.3 % (46) 7.5 % (22)
Total 100 % (346) 100 % (293)

There are no big differences between the two surveys with regards to this question except that a few more now know if they need to make changes to their research project (i.e. fewer answers of "don’t' know"). The percentage answering that they will have to make significant changes has increased somewhat, but as before the most common answers are that they either have to make small or no changes to their projects.

The individual comments likewise show that many students have been able to continue the studies either as planned, or could just change the order of research or course work, e.g. postponing fieldwork to later. However, there are also many reports of more substantial changes that were necessary, as well as statements to the effect that the scope of some of the intended studies had to be reduced, in both cases negatively affecting the quality of the final thesis.

7. To learn for the future, we also want to hear about good examples of how the quality of the PhD education can be upheld during a pandemic (or other similar circumstances). Do you agree with any of these statements?

  2020 2021
I met my supervisor(s) online frequently in a helpful way 71.6 % (222) 80.3 % (196)
My team met online in ways that helped uphold the quality of education 43.9 % (136) 46.7 % (114)
My team divided up work in ways that helped ensure that goals were met while minimizing the number of people being at the department at the same time 19.4 % (60) 20.5 % (50)
PhD students received helpful information about the pandemic (e.g. restrictions from authorities) from the department 61.0 % (189) 54.1 % (132)
Total 195.5 % (607) 201.6 % (492)

There are no big differences between the first and second survey. It seems as if contacts with the supervisor (virtually) usually have worked quite well whereas team activities have been a bit harder to keep at high quality.

By studying the individual comments it can be seen that although online supervision and groups meeting often worked well, this was by no means always true, and again it is not a full substitute for everyday interactions and physical meetings. The result that only 54% answered that they received helpful information from their departments (down from 61% in the previous survey) is reflected in the comments, where some students feel they have been given excellent and helpful information and some state they have been given no help at all. Clearly this is an area which could be improved for the future.

8. In your own estimation, how much have your PhD studies been delayed so far by the effects of the pandemic, relative to your plans in the ISP?

  2020 2021
Not at all or less than a month (in full time equivalents) 20.9 % (72) 20.2 % (58) 
There was some delay relative to the ISP, but I will be able to make up for it later during my studies 15.1 % (52) 12.5 % (36)
1-2 months 29.3 % (101) 20.9 % (60)
3-4 months 24.6 % (85) 28.6 % (82)
More than 4 months 10.1 % (35) 17.8 % (51)
Total 100 % (345) 100 % (287)

Regarding delays the 2021 survey gives at hand that the estimated delays have increased by about one month compared to the 2020 survey, presumably as an effect of delays accumulating over time.

In the individual comments it can also be seen that many students find it hard to judge the length of the delays, or don't yet know the final outcome. Many also state that they have not been able to work as efficiently during the pandemic, either because of specific reasons and/or more general mental health related reasons.

9. What are the reasons for any such delay or loss of quality in the education? (More than one option possible; and comment if you have other reasons)

  2020 2021
Not applicable, I could follow my PhD education as planned 14.1 % (48) 14.9 % (43)
Course work could not be done as planned, because of cancelled/postponed courses or restrictions 22.9 % (78) 21.9 % (63)
Laboratory studies could not be performed as planned, due to restrictions 28.2 % (96) 27.4 % (79)
Field studies, clinical work or similar could not be performed as planned, due to restrictions 13.5 % (46) 17 % (49)
Collaboration with external partners (e.g. private companies or public organizations) has been hindered 29.6 % (101) 37.5 % (108)
Visits to other universities have been cancelled or postponed 34.9 % (119) 36.5 % (105)
Teaching duties have taken up more time than planned due to it being online 24.0 % (82) 29.9 % (86)
Worries about the situation impacted my work 55.4 % (189) 52.4 % (151)
I worked from home at least part of the time (for any reason, see next two questions) and it was not possible to perform my studies as planned (or as well) during these circumstances 59.5 % (203) 60.1 % (173)
Total 282.1 % (962) 297.6 % (857)

The reasons for the delay have hardly changed at all between the two surveys. Worries and problems with working from home are the two main reasons for the delay. This is also well reflected in the individual comments, together with various examples of specific reasons for delays and loss of quality involving (lack of) international travel, conferences and collaborations. The two main reasons for delay/loss in quality of education are subjective as well as hard to quantify, but are still important to consider, e.g. when considering prolongations.

10. (Optional, see above) Why did you work from home? (Several options possible)

  2020 2021
I had to because it was not possible to socially distance at work 29.4 % (89) 28.4 % (73)
I wanted to avoid public transport 56.8 % (172) 52.9 % (136)
I followed the general recommendation to work from home if possible or if I showed any possible symptoms 93.7 % (284) 93.4 % (240)
I was worried and wanted to isolate myself as much as possible 44.9 % (136) 33.1 % (85)
Total 224.8 % (681) 207.8 % (534)

The general worries seem to have dropped a little bit in the 2021 survey compared to the year before, and a vast majority still followed the general recommendations to work from home.

11. (Optional) If you indicated above that it was not possible to follow your education as well from home, why was that? (More than one option possible; and comment if you have other reasons)

  2020 2021
Supervision failed to some extent (see also questions 11-12) 36.5 % (72) 38.5 % (67)
Activity in the research team declined 43.7 % (86) 47.7 % (83)
I did not have proper equipment 47.2 % (93) 44.8 % (78)
I lacked good access to academic materials (e.g. books, journals, computer clusters) 24.4 % (48) 19.0 % (33)
I did not have a good internet connection 17.3 % (34) 19.0 % (33)
My family situation impacted on my PhD work (e.g. crowded environment, kids at home) 41.1 % (81) 49.4 % (86)
Total 210.2 % (414) 218.4 % (380)

The reasons for having problems to work from home have not changed much between the two studies. The main reasons are still: family members at home, lack of equipment, lower team activity and less supervision.

Many of the individual comments also indicate that it was harder to structure the work and to stay motivated when working from home, lacking the everyday input from colleagues and the research environment. The comments also show that the lack of social contact with colleagues has affected the students research and mental health. For example, several report feeling isolated and miss casual conversations regarding research, which can help brainstorming solutions and solving small issues quickly.

12. To what extent has the corona pandemic outbreak impacted your access to supervision?

  2020 2021
Strong negative impact 3.5 % (12) 6.9 % (20)
Negative impact 28.7 % (98) 31.3 % (91)
Neither positive nor negative impact 55.6 % (190) 48.8 % (142)
Positive impact 5.3 % (18) 5.5 % (16)
Strong positive impact 0.6 % (2) 0.3 % (1)
Don't know 6.4 % (22) 7.2 % (21)
Total 100 % (342) 100 % (291)

We note a small increase in the number of PhD students who experienced negative impact on supervision access, perhaps due to such effects accumulating over time, but most PhD students still did not experience any impact (negative or positive).

13. To what extent has the corona pandemic impacted the quality of your supervision?

  2020 2021
Strong negative impact 2.9 % (10) 4.1 % (12)
Negative impact 24.9 % (85) 31.6 % (92)
Neither positive nor negative impact 59.6 % (204) 52.9 % (154)
Positive impact 5.3 % (18) 3.4 % (10)
Strong positive impact 0.3 % (1) 0 % (0)
Don't know 7.0 % (24) 7.9 % (23)
Total 100 % (342) 100 % (291)

Also when it comes to quality in supervision a few more PhD students have now experienced a negative effect, but "no effect" remains the most common experience.

14. Did your group manage to have regular meetings during the pandemic?

  2020 2021
Yes, as before or more frequently 44.6 % (154) 43.6 % (127)
Yes, but less frequently  37.4 % (129) 40.2 % (117)
No 7.8 % (27) 6.2 % (18)
Not applicable, we did not have regular meetings before the pandemic 10.1 % (35) 10.0 % (29)
Total 100 % (345) 100 % (291)

As for group meetings, not much has happened as compared to the 2020 survey. There are still quite a lot of students which have experienced less frequent group meetings.

15. Did you miss planned opportunities for presenting your work at conferences/meetings?

  2020 2021
No 26.8 % (92) 25.8 % (75)
Yes, but it can probably be done later during my studies 46.4 % (159) 43.0 % (125)
Yes, and I’m too late in my studies to do it later 26.8 % (92) 31.3 % (91)
Total 100 % (343) 100 % (291)

There are no big differences in response to effects on oral presentations. The vast majority of students have done this less during the pandemic and slightly less than half of them do not think they can make up for this during the remainder of the PhD training.

16. Do you have a VISA or residence permit that you risk losing if you do not finish in time?

  2020 2021
Yes 15.6 % (54) 16.8 % (49)
No 84.4 % (292) 83.2 % (243)
Total 100 % (346) 100 % (292)

About 15% of the PhD students have a VISA that they risk losing due to COVID, a number which has not changed since 2020.

17. Have you been on sick leave due to Covid-19?

  2020 2021
Yes, and I was diagnosed with Covid-19 and/or have had a positive antibody test 3.2 % (11) 10.6 % (31)
Yes, because I had symptoms consistent with Covid-19 16.2 % (56) 19.9 % (58)
No 80.6 % (278) 69.5 % (203)
Total 100 % (345) 100 % (292)

The number of PhD students that have been on sick leave due to Covid have increased (quite naturally) and is now at about 30% with confirmed or suspected Covid.

18. Has the pandemic negatively affected your recuperation periods (vacation) this year?

  2020 2021
Yes, to a large degree 39.6 % (137) 29.9 % (87)
Yes, to some degree 29.5 % (102) 33.7 % (98)
No 30.9 % (107) 36.4 % (106)
Total 100 % (346) 100 % (291)

When it comes to recuperation the situation has slightly improved. Still over 60% have been affected, but fewer to a large extent, perhaps because they were able to have vacation during the summer of 2021.

19. How much do you agree with the following statement? During the pandemic I have experienced one or more of the following symptoms usually related to stress: Difficulty sleeping, mood swings, headaches, difficulty focusing, trouble with memory, palpitations (or other stress symptoms).

  2020 2021
Strongly agree 39.2 % (136) 40.9 % (119)
Agree 38.9 % (135) 37.1 % (108)
Neither agree nor disagree 11.2 % (39) 12.0 % (35)
Disagree 7.2 % (25) 6.2 % (18)
Strongly disagree 3.5 % (12) 3.8 % (11)
Total 100 % (347) 100 % (291)

There is no big difference between the two surveys when it comes to stress symptoms. About 80% have had clear symptoms. Many individual comments also mention mental health problems due to the pandemic and working from home. The recommended action from the 2020 report was to communicate the student health resources to the PhD students. Perhaps additional actions can improve the situation.

20. Anything else you would like to add? Did you experience any other issues that were not covered in this servey, but you wish to bring to our attention? Please elaborate here.

As in the previous survey there were many valuable answers given to this question. It is clear that the experience of students vary considerably at the level of individual students as well as among research groups and departments, both regarding how the PhD studies have been affected and whether they are of the opinion that they have been given good support from their supervisors, departments, faculty and the university. A frequent comment is that the students lack support and information from the department/faculty/university regarding, for example prolongation. A suggestion is to send an e-mail explaining the prolongation situation to all PhD students at the Faculty. The comments also give at hand that international students are at increased risk of suffering from lack of social contact and lack of normal vacation, since they might not have a network outside work and have not been able to travel to their home countries.


General Conclusions

From both surveys it is clear that the PhD program was negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. In particular, the pandemic has caused worries among many PhD students, and various group activities and lab work has suffered from the pandemic whereas contacts with supervisors have still worked quite well.

A few things have become slightly worse one year longer into the pandemic, but the overall picture is that the situation is about the same as a year earlier.


Tom Britton (chair), Nadia Flodgren (student representative) and Sören Nylin, with support from Ulrika Kaby at the Faculty office



More on the subject

Report from the Task group on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on the quality of PhD education

How are the doctoral students faring in the wake of the pandemic?