Person tittar ut genom ett fönster
Photo: Jens Olof Lasthein


Doctoral students belong to a particularly vulnerable group during the pandemic. For this reason, a survey study was conducted this autumn aimed at investigating the psychosocial work environment of doctoral students in the field of science. I asked Simon Larsson, a doctoral student at the Department of Physical Geography, a few questions about how he sees the situation. He believes that everyday life has become monotonous and that his doctoral studies have been influenced by the pandemic in ways both large and small.

“I would like to emphasise to every single doctoral student who experiences problems in the pandemic that it’s not their fault, and that they are not alone. Getting a PhD is stressful and mentally exhausting enough as it is, so anyone who’s now stuck sitting at home and struggling with a lack of motivation must remember that it’s okay that things are going badly right now,” he says.

The pandemic has affected the quality of doctoral studies

Of course, it comes as no surprise that the pandemic has affected the situation of doctoral students. Three quarters of respondents felt that the pandemic had affected the quality of their doctoral studies somewhat or to a great extent, and almost 80% had experienced stress during the period. 

“Many people have experienced purely practical problems that involve work delays, or at worst that parts of their project have had to be completely cancelled,” says Simon. 

Many doctoral students rely on fieldwork to obtain results, and travel restrictions have caused problems. The transition to working from home and distance learning also entails a major adjustment, and not everyone has access to the necessary equipment or the ability to arrange a good work environment at home. 


Maintaining contact solely through digital platforms can of course affect the quality of doctoral studies, and many students attest that contact with their research group and colleagues has suffered. However, three quarters of respondents felt that online supervision had been very helpful, and half of the doctoral students had enjoyed good contact with their supervisors during the period. Unfortunately, for a third of them the contact and the quality of supervision had been negatively affected. 

“Many people find it harder to maintain motivation and work ethic when all interactions in the workplace have disappeared or been replaced with Zoom. In the end, you sit there and feel like you only work for your computer,” says Simon. “There's something about all those little things that gives you a connection and a community in the workplace, and it’s obviously necessary to our well-being.” 

Lessons for the future

Porträttbild på Simon Larsson
Simon Larsson

Although there have been many difficult challenges during the pandemic, the survey also revealed some bright spots. For example, there are more interesting seminars in which to participate, because everything is now available online. Digital media have also enabled other types of collaborations and social activities that would not have happened otherwise. 

“Some conferences have been held digitally, and I think that can be something that’s different in the future. It may no longer be as necessary to travel to present one’s results or to share with others, and that would be good for the environment. On the other hand, the social aspect of conferences is perhaps a little more difficult to replace so far,” says Simon.

Simon has one year left of his research studies. He hopes to finish in time, even if not everything has gone as planned. Many of his fellow doctoral students are concerned about finishing their thesis in time and want to see an extension of the doctoral studentships, which may be necessary and granted in some cases. An annex to the individual study plan is now available, where students can document how the pandemic has affected their plans for their doctoral studies. During the summer, Simon Larsson took a month’s leave in order to give his project a little chance to “catch up”. Other doctoral students confirm that their summer holidays were adversely affected by the pandemic, something that the departments should take into account and monitor, as this may be a warning sign for future stress and sick leave. 

In general, doctoral students who believe that their supervisor has demonstrated understanding and who say that they have received good help from their department in terms of information and home office equipment have not felt that their doctoral studies have been affected as much as others. The departments should therefore provide help so that the students have the necessary equipment to work remotely. Another simple measure to counteract and prevent future stress is to provide information about resources available to doctoral students via student health services, such as occupational health care. 

“Hopefully there are things to learn from it all. Until then, you just have to do what you can to keep your project going — but more importantly, do whatever it takes to stay healthy,” Simon concludes. 

The survey

The survey was conducted in early autumn 2020. A questionnaire was sent to all doctoral students in the field of science who were active in spring 2020 — 651 students in all. Of these, 347 people responded, for a response rate of just over 53%. Answers were received from all departments and centres within the faculty that have doctoral students. 

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