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Open Letter to Students Regarding SGSSS response to Covid-19

Dear SGSSS students 

Like everyone, the SGSSS team has for the last two months found ourselves frantically trying to adapt to new ways of working, whilst digesting the impact of the pandemic on our families, our friends and our work. We have a small committed team and I wanted to take the time to write and tell you some of the steps we have taken in order to do what we can to support your PhD experience.  

We have greatly appreciated your patience as we’ve adapted to the new situation. We are also very grateful for all of the lovely feedback and helpful suggestions we’ve received in response to the various messages, initiatives and events that we have circulated. Please continue to keep in touch! 

Rachel is keeping communication as simple as possible for you so information regarding training, wellbeing and collaboration initiatives are generally included in the Friday digest or promoted via Twitter. If something is targeted at a specific group (e.g. Final Year Programme, ESRC Extension processes), you will also receive an email from team@sgsss.ac.uk 

For ESRC-funded students, your university admin leads are also kept up to date with relevant information and you may receive emails from them about your PhD funding.   

Finally, our website has a comprehensive set of FAQs, which are updated regularly. 

Understanding the Implications of Covid-19 for PhD students 

The SGSSS Implications of Covid-19 survey collected information from ESRC-funded students regarding both the immediate and anticipated impacts on your studentship. We used this to provide evidence to the ESRC on how you have been affected and where the impacts are particularly severeWe also shared the results across our partner universities so they can better understand the challenges you are facing. 

The survey completed by 195 ESRC-funded students demonstrated that students at all stages of their PhDs have encountered challenges reorienting their work. The major themes were as follows: 

  1. Fieldwork: cancellation or postponement of fieldwork or data collection is challenging for many students, in particular 2nd years, where 74% of respondents were affected.  
  2. Caring Responsibilities: approximately 20% of all respondents have a caring responsibility that is impacting on their work. 
  3. Reduced productivity due to general anxiety and altered working patterns: 84% of all respondents have had to develop new approaches to their working schedules that have created disruption to their research timetable. 

Despite the challenging circumstances, it was pleasing to hear about the reflective and pragmatic conversations taking place with supervisors and other key stakeholders. For many you, this is resulting in novel approaches to mitigating the risks and challenges posed by the current situation. 

Training 

Over the last two months, Nicola has been leading the charge to move online what we can. We recognise this isn’t possible for everything and we also know that for some of you, the type of training you need may have changed and/or your circumstances may make it difficult for you to join live sessions. Below is a summary of the training running online and how you can access it. If there is anything you would like to see added to this, please let us know.  

  • Spring into Methods: 3 of our 6 interdisciplinary events were able to move online and 2 others have provided materials available on Social (see below for more information). 
  • Final year programme: This will be happening in June with a strong emphasis on taking the next steps in your career. This includes online strategies for performing at viva and in job interviews and has contributions from academic and non-academic colleagues.  
  • Advanced Training: It has been fabulous to see colleagues support us to move advanced training online and there are a series of sessions focusing on working online and with secondary data. We are fast moving to provide an online repository of material, and links to materials on Social that you can access when it suits you. Watch this space! 
  • Summer School: We are delighted to be hosting 21 ‘live’ sessions and a number of pre-recorded events at our Summer School on 9-11th June. We have a strong methods stream as well as wellbeing and employability sessions.  
  • Weekly wellbeing themes: As we have tried to personally adjust we have used Twitter, and now Social to consider what our priorities are; how to define productivity now? Over the next few months? How do we move to Plan B with our research? We see this as an interactive space where the ’we’ is the entire social science community. Please let us know what you want more of! 
  • Student-Led Training Fund: We have just launched the next SLTF round, where we are  particularly interested in online training that promotes digital data collection and analysis. Rather than providing funding to cover catering, travel etc., we will pay you for design and delivery of the session. 

If a student took all of the opportunities we have scheduled between now and September (and took bank holidays and weekends off), they’d be in training for 2 months! We certainly don’t expect you to do that. But do let us know if there is anything missing.  

Collaboration and Impact 

Unfortunately, the situation has meant that most of you who were awarded an internship in the Spring have had these postponed to the autumn. Anna-Marie is continuing to work with our internship partners (and in developing new partnerships) so that both existing and new opportunities will be available going forward. 

Despite having to cancel our 2020 Collaboration Showcase in the beautiful Dundee V&A, our impact competition went ahead, and we were delighted to share those results last week including video presentations and posters. Congratulations to all shortlisted, in particular our winner Jenn Glinski and two runners up Lynn Wilson and Oliver Hamlet. We encourage you to take a look and be inspired by the impact our student body is making within society. We look forward to being able to acknowledge these fantastic achievements in person at the 2021 event. 

Outlining a process and support for applying for Extensions 

If you receive funding from the SGSSS then you will have received a number of communications from us and from UKRI relating to extensions and we are aware that this may have felt a little overwhelming. Jared, supported by Rachel, is rapidly developing new processes for extensions and ensuring everyone is being kept up to date. If you have any questions, do reach out to them at team@sgsss.ac.uk. 

 Here we set out a brief summary of the current situation and deadlines. We have also communicated this in our Q&A sessions and in our most recent Moving to Plan B online sessions for both finalists and those at other stages.  In these we have shared a series of vignettes which we hope can help you to get a sense of how best to work out how to capture the impacts of COVID-19 on your thesis whilst aiming to finish as close to the original deadline as possible. These are illustrative rather than exhaustive; we have developed these in response to your queries and will continue to do so as necessary.  

One-month extension associated with reorienting to new ways of working (eligibility: all students who have commenced their PhD and who are within the funded part of their studies): The vast majority of you demonstrated a need for this immediate reassurance. These have either been or are in the process of being awarded. 

Longer Term Extensions 

Details about longer terms extensions have been emailed to you and information is also in our FAQs – it differs depending on your stage of studies. 

Extensions for final year students (funding end date between 1 March 2020 and 31 March 2021) up to 6 months: All students in this category have been contacted and are expected to submit a half-page case to SGSSS by 22nd May. This will need to be signed off by supervisors and submitted via team@sgsss.ac.uk. 

Extensions for all students in years 1 and 2 (or P/T equivalent): Extensions may be granted on a case-by-case basis for students whose work has been affected by the pandemic. It will be considered by members of the SGSSS Directorate and your University’s SGSSS Deans’ Group representative, where required. Applications will only be reviewed during specific windows. The first of these is 31st August – 30th September 2020 and the second is 29th January – 26th February 2021 (we will introduce further windows depending on how the situation with COVID-19 evolves). 

We hope that you can work with your supervisory team over the summer to reflect on the impact of the situation on existing plans in their totality, investigate mitigation strategies and decide an appropriate route forward. We would encourage you to keep a log of the impacts experienced in order to help prepare for submission of the extension form. 

Mitigation will likely take many forms but could include a narrowing of research questions if no further data collection is possible for current second years, or considering alternative methods such as online data collection, secondary data analysis or systematic literature review approaches. In very few cases would we anticipate wholesale re-writing of existing literature chapters and research proposals. 

Students undertaking a 1+3 programme: We have been working with partner universities to gather the relevant information to understand any disruption in masters programmes. Based on this, SGSSS will consider extensions to the PhD on a case-by-case basis necessitated by your individual circumstances (for example, where you obtain an extension to the dissertation submission date because of individual circumstances). 

Community 

For some time now, Ross has been thinking of ways to allow members of our community to connect and find other researchers with similar interests. The initial plan had been to develop an online intranet which would be piloted with our new incoming cohort of ESRC funded students. With Covid-19, he’s accelerated plans and is working hard to release something that can benefit the whole SGSSS community sooner. 

As such, Social has just been launched and we are piloting it as a communication/discussion platform around upcoming online events including Spring into Methods and Summer School. We’re still very much experimenting with it and we hope you will help us by engaging with the platform (as well as being patient when it struggles!) and thinking about what features will make it most useful to you, both now and in the future.  

In conclusion, we know this has been a difficult time for everyone and we’re trying to be as tailored and transparent as we can in all that we are doing to support you. We won’t get everything right and if you see something you think we could do differently, please let us know.  

With best wishes, 

Diane, Jamie, Jo and Mhairi on behalf of the whole SGSSS team 

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