Post Covid-19, mental health of research scholars takes toll
The Covid-19 pandemic has not only delayed the work of research scholars in science and technology institutes but also led to severe anxiety over deadlines and career prospects.
Over the past year, research scholars have been complaining of delays in disbursal of fellowships. The pandemic also made laboratories and institutions inaccessible to researchers. Although the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) has allowed a year-long extension to deadlines for PhD completion, many scholars said pressures were high. Mental health has taken a toll. In the past few weeks there have been two instances of PhD students dying by suicide and one attempting suicide at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
“Research scholars across the country, particularly those in the late stage and nearing completion, are under immense pressure. While delay in stipend and fellowships have marred our personal expenses, the delays were more pronounced during the pandemic,” said Priyank Samagra Jain, a PhD student at the Ashank Desai Centre for Policy Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay.
When Covid-19 led to a shutdown of almost all educational institutes, many scholars could not complete their PhD work on time or meet deadlines. During this time, the Democratic Research Scholars’ Organisation (DRSO)—a national group of research scholars from across sectors—demanded an extension in the deadline for PhD from CSIR.
“During the Covid-19 first and second waves, we at DRSO did campaigns on extension and also other issues including fellowship, infrastructure, employment. From May 2020, we held signature campaigns, sent memorandum and conducted an all India convention. Several state and institution level conventions and campaigns are ongoing,” said Arghya Das, a post-doctoral fellow at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Hyderabad, and one of the convenors of DRSO.
Dibyasankar Das, a PhD scholar at the TIFR Mumbai, said, “The cause of degradation of mental health in academia is, according to me, that our system promises so much but provides so little - both financially and intellectually. Financially speaking, a 25-year-old needs to be financially independent, but the scholarship they get barely fulfil their daily requirements. There are scholars who are getting only Rs8,000 a month and they have to do other work in the lab to help the principal investigator also apart from their own PhD work. Even those who get Rs35,000 a month soon realise funding to labs is very limited and being cut day by day. So even if you have ideas, you can’t perform those in labs due to lack of infrastructure.”
In the past five years, the number of applications for junior research fellowships of CSIR has gone up from 2.8 lakh in 2015-16 to 3.79 lakh in 2019-20. Scholars said that even as the number of applications and selected candidates go up, the career prospects are not enough.
“The jobs, especially as faculty or postdoctoral fellows at various institutes, are not commensurate with the number of research scholars coming in for PhD every year,” said Jain.
A grievance portal was launched by CSIR to take note of the problems faced by research scholars over delayed disbursal of fellowships. On October 10, CSIR kicked off a series of career guidance sessions with research scholars to understand and address grievances. Anjan Ray, head, CSIR-Human Resource Development Group, addressed around 500 research scholars and took note of the problems faced by CSIR.
“We have been hearing from students that analytical tools are not available to them especially since campuses are shut. Scholars can use the AnalytiCSIR tool, which is a network of 35 laboratories, 1,434 equipment and 1,993 test services. Scholars can look up equipment at any of the 35 labs, book a test and send samples to the lab and download a lab report using AnalytiCSIR,” said Ray.
Through the career guidance sessions, CSIR will help scholars match their work to theme areas where jobs are available, Ray added.
However, deteriorating mental health remains a prime concern for many research scholars. “The education system of our country is such that by the time one comes to do a PhD, our ability to ask questions is gone completely. It is frustrating, because you have so many tools, but no question to address. Above this, the environment at research institutes/universities are not intellectually intriguing. There is no place for exchanging ideas openly, debating on something and so on.”
“When we came into an institute for PhD, we had a community to converse with, various interpersonal relationships. These were stress busters. Working from home, we miss those dynamics and communities,” Jain added.
Arghya said that DRSO is trying to build a national-level mental health support initiative for research scholars. “However, we realise that only counselling and voicing for a mental health support mechanism in campuses are far from enough. The entire research ecosystem and the outlook towards research and researchers (a rather complicated matter), the massive uncertainty of future post PhD, which is much more acute after Covid-19, a general lack of communication and understanding among research sector with our lives in the broader society, all these significantly factor in,” he added.
Dibyasankar added, “We should always fight for our hike in salary, or funding in fundamental research, but at the end of the day we don’t have much power to implement that. What is in our hands is that we research scholars can create our campuses as vibrant as possible by having different clubs, cultural activities, open debates, outreach activities, which, I think, will solve a significant portion of mental health issues in academia.”
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