The following is a message that Provost Sally Kornbluth sent to Ph.D. students on July 16.
Dear PhD Students,
I write to provide an overview of policies that we are developing in response to the negative impacts of the COVID-19 global pandemic on Duke PhD students. Let me begin by reflecting on what we have heard from all of you.
Since the pandemic hit the United States in earnest this past March, our doctoral students have confronted significant disruptions to their academic progress and mounting obstacles in their day-to-day lives: lost access to labs and libraries, canceled conferences and workshops, uncertainty about visas, exacerbated challenges for those with disabilities, childcare and homeschooling responsibilities, social isolation, anxiety, depression, and financial strains. At the same time, we were all harshly reminded of the structural racial inequities in American society through witnessing violence against African Americans and the subsequent national conversation that is still evolving.
Over the past several months, you have demonstrated incredible resilience and adaptability in adjusting to these difficult conditions. Like our faculty, you have deepened your familiarity with digital modes of research and teaching. You have further embraced opportunities for professional development that can be accomplished remotely and have creatively reordered the sequence of your research plans. You have also continued to play key roles in Duke’s teaching and research mission.
The university’s responses to this unprecedented moment reflect the extensive input we have received from doctoral students, especially through program-level surveys; individual communications to DGSs, chairs, and deans; open letters from graduate student groups; and discussions in the Graduate and Professional Student Advisory Board that was created to provide student input for fall planning. These discussions have informed our efforts in three areas, summarized next and discussed in detail following:
- We will create a mechanism to provide tuition, fee, and stipend support to students who have reached the end of their guaranteed funding package and whose progress toward their degree has been significantly slowed by protracted pandemic-related impediments;
- We will continue to urge flexibility in deadlines and modes of achieving key milestones, such as preliminary examinations, and PhD students with teaching responsibilities will have a choice about their teaching modality during the pandemic, given health and safety concerns; and
- We will intensify our efforts to foster a supportive and actively inclusive climate for PhD education, excellent mentoring and advising for PhD students, and accessible mental health services.
Perhaps no pandemic-related issue has generated more concern among PhD students than the potential financial burdens created by delays resulting from curtailed access to research materials and venues. Here is what Duke has done and plans to do to help address those concerns.
Summer funding: This summer, Duke identified funding and employment opportunities for every PhD student who sought it, including those past their sixth year. We plan to continue this next summer should COVID-19 pose continuing problems with off-site internships and professional development opportunities that prepare students for diverse careers.
Tuition-and-fee scholarship for 7th-year students: Currently, The Graduate School’s guaranteed PhD funding package covers tuition and mandatory fees for students in years 1-5, and students are eligible for a tuition scholarship in year 6 (which will also cover mandatory fees starting in fall 2020) as long as they have made an effort to apply for external or departmental tuition coverage.
In light of the pandemic, we are working on a framework to allow students in year 7 whose progress is being seriously affected by the pandemic in the 2020-21 academic year to apply for a scholarship that would cover tuition and mandatory fees for either a semester or a full year, depending on the severity of the delay. This would apply to students who will be in their seventh year in the 2020-21 academic year and have faced significant delays in completion due to the pandemic.
Stipend extension for 6th-year students: Currently, PhD students are guaranteed a stipend for years 1-5. As part of our COVID-19 response, students who will be in their sixth year in the 2020-21 academic year will be able to apply for an extension in compensatory stipend, in the form of a TA-ship or RA-ship, for either a semester or a full year, depending on the severity of the delay. (Sixth-year students already receive coverage for their tuition and mandatory fees).
Students in years 2-5: PhD students who will be in years 2-5 during 2020-21 will be eligible to apply for the stipend extension and the tuition-and-fee scholarship as they approach their sixth and seventh years, respectively. Students should ensure that their advisors and thesis committee have an accurate and ongoing picture of the effects of the COVID shutdown on their research. Students should also document any pandemic-related effects on their progress in their 2019-20 annual reports. If such reports have already been filed for this year, it will be important to amend the current reports to include details of COVID-induced delays. This documentation will be important for any later applications for extension of financial support once students reach their sixth year.
Details on the funding extensions, including application instructions and deadlines, are posted at gradschool.duke.edu/covid19funding. Students will need to provide a clear and compelling explanation of how COVID-19 has substantially delayed progress toward the degree. They will also need to obtain approval from their advisor and director of graduate studies.
Flexibility on Deadlines and Modes of Completing Program Milestones
The Graduate School has already extended the deadline for completing preliminary examinations (or portfolios, in the case of some departments) by a full semester, and demonstrated significant flexibility around the timing of thesis defenses. Preliminary examinations and thesis defenses also may now occur remotely. We will continue to adjust deadlines, should shifting circumstances associated with the pandemic warrant.
PhD students with instructional responsibilities, whether as instructors of record or discussion section leaders, will be able to choose whether they teach online or in person based on their individual health concerns or personal circumstances. This is similar to the latitude that Duke faculty members have in choosing their mode of holding class.
Program Climate, Advising/Mentoring, and Mental Health
I have asked each of our schools with PhD programs to reexamine how they will ensure a positive environment and effective advising and mentoring structures for PhD students. Many schools had already embarked on these matters in response to the 2018 report of the Re-imagining Doctoral Education (RiDE) Committee, but the pandemic requires renewed attention and greater dedication to these efforts.
Importantly, as we proceed with responses to the pandemic, we must also redouble our efforts to eliminate bias and racism from our graduate programs. In the coming months we will roll out, among other actions, revised Responsible Conduct of Research trainings that address racism in the research environment, anti-racism programming and, in each school, curricular revisions that address issues of systemic racism.
Some initial school-based responses, to be augmented as the summer and fall progress, include the following:
- Arts & Sciences Dean Valerie Ashby has charged every PhD program in Trinity to create standards for good advising/mentoring and mechanisms of accountability associated with those standards, as well as to assess the quality of its intellectual and social climate. She has appointed the first A&S dean of graduate education, Neil McWilliam, to focus on these issues and coordinate program-level action.
- The School of Medicine has reorganized the Office of Biomedical Graduate Education, revamped a coordinated first-year curriculum with a greater focus on professional development, wellness, community building through OBGE Gateway Groups, and implemented mentoring training for Gateway Group faculty leaders.
- The Nicholas School of the Environment, in partnership with its Graduate Student Association, has embarked on a school-wide effort to assess the frequency of negligent or abusive advising and develop policies and practices to eliminate that behavior.
- The new executive director of the Duke Career Center, Greg Victory, is working with The Graduate School and the individual schools to improve coordination of career advising for PhD students.
- Maria Wisdom, director of interdisciplinary advising and engagement, has expanded the group coaching that she offers to humanities and social science PhD students.
All of these steps have the goal of more consistently providing Duke graduate students with strong advising and mentoring, which have only become more pivotal amid our current conditions, and which, more than ever, work best when graduate students can count on a team of complementary advisors.
Finally, Student Affairs has engaged Blue Devils Care, a free service that gives all Duke students access to mental health providers at any time, as well as expanded options for scheduling counseling sessions.
In closing, I wish to emphasize that our PhD programs represent a crucial dimension of Duke’s core mission to expand the frontiers of knowledge. We will continue to work with faculty and staff to support your efforts as researchers and instructors, and to improve our structures for training amid these challenging times. I wish you a safe, healthy, and productive remainder of the summer.
Sally Kornbluth, Provost