Data collection interrupted
Doctoral researcher Federica Previtali’s data collection was interrupted by the coronavirus situation, and she now faces an uncertain future.
Previtali, an Italian working on her PhD thesis at the Tampere University, is researching workplace ageism and was supposed to receive videos of job interviews from a Milan-based recruitment company, to be added to her research data.
When business ground to a halt in Italy, recruitment stopped as well.
“It was very hard for the company to manage this transformation from a face-to-face business into an online business. Of course, collaboration with a researcher was the last thing on their list when they had to go through an emergency. So, they were not in contact with me anymore even though I tried to reach out to them”, Previtali says.
Italy has now eased restrictions and the company has contacted her again, but Previtali is still unsure when she will receive the data. At the moment, she is working on other data which was collected from performance appraisal interviews last year.
The situation is difficult for the young researcher, whose three-year contract is set to expire at the end of August next year. Previtali is working on her thesis in a research and doctorate training network named Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks (ITN) EuroAgeism. She is fairly certain her PhD will not be finished by August next year and hopes extended funding can be arranged.
Just before the coronavirus crisis escalated in March, Previtali was on a three-month exchange at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe in Geneva, Switzerland. She decided to return to Finland halfway through the exchange but was able to finish it working remotely from Tampere.
“When Finland called back their long-term residents and citizens in March, I also got these text messages saying we are closing the borders so if you want to come back, you should do it as soon as possible.”
Along with her academic challenges, Previtali has had to worry about family and friends. She is from Bergamo, Northern Italy, where everyone has been touched by the crisis in one way or another.
“All of us have lost at least one relative or at least one person we know. I know many people who have got sick and people who died. A very close friend of mine has been in the hospital for almost two months. Luckily my parents and my sisters, my close family, are fine, and now the situation in Italy is improving.”
Previtali is not alone with her problems.
“This is a difficult situation for many young researchers, nearly all of whom are on a temporary contract. If they are unable to collect data, they might also not be able to publish their results”, says Tommi Kokkonen, postdoctoral researcher at the Helsinki University and chairman of the Helsinki University Association of Researchers and Teachers.
For young researchers already struggling with uncertainty, these exceptional times have been a source of further concern. Kokkonen was part of a working group that carried out a survey for young researchers by The Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers (FUURT) in 2017. The resulting report indicated that 73 percent of the responders experienced concern about the future of their career. 72 percent had had two or more funding sources during their PhD thesis projects. 30 percent had been unemployed while working on their PhDs, and many were stressed by the disproportionately low wages for the level of education.
Kokkonen himself is a young researcher in the field of physics. Until August next year, he will be part of an Academy of Finland project and was unable to collect data this spring, with his research visit also being cancelled. The four-year project studies the teaching and learning of scientific information at university and upper secondary school. Kokkonen was meant to carry out a teaching experiment on an upper secondary school electromagnetism course in April and May.
Kokkonen is collaborating with researchers working in Switzerland, who were intended to carry out the same experiment. Kokkonen would have spent time in Switzerland in May and June to analyse the data and write an article.
“We might manage to collect the data next year, but then we won’t have enough time to publish the results before the contract runs out. The Academy has said that projects ending this year may be extended if there’s money left over from the projects. They will not grant extra funding, and I doubt many will be able to continue.”
While the cancellation of the experiment was a setback, Kokkonen still considers himself lucky for having signed a contract for three and a half years. Many others are allowed far shorter stints.
Researchers are in trouble elsewhere in the world, too. According to a British survey carried out in April, the work of doctoral researchers and early-career researchers has suffered due to the coronavirus.
The survey for approximately 4 800 doctoral researchers and early-career staff was carried out jointly by the Student Mental Health Research Network (SMaRteN) and non-profit programme Vitae.
The respondents consistently reported the lockdown had caused them difficulties in continuing their research. Three quarters of young researchers stated the situation had affected activities such as data collection and discussions with colleagues. More than half stated there had been a negative impact on data analysis, writing papers, and applying for funding.
Networking is important to young researchers, and it too is slowed by the cancellation of several conferences this year.
Federica Previtali had been planning to participate in conferences in the UK and Iceland. The EuroAgeism network had a training school in Krakow organised and scheduled for June. It was cancelled, with a possible rescheduling date in October. Previtali’s programme also includes a second mandatory exchange, taking place in Brussels in October if the situation allows. According to Previtali, the ongoing second year of the project would be vital for networking because researchers would already have something to present at the conferences.
“It would definitely be a crucial moment to network with people you are interested in and who might be interested in your work. Next year is the last year of our funding and we are going to be under pressure and have a lot to write, so it is not the best time.”
Text: Terhi Hautamäki
Translation: Three Voices Media
This article has been originally published in Acatiimi magazine 3/2020