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Musanna Galib, a PhD fellow at UBC from the batch of 2020

PhD candidates’ commitment levels in early pandemic set new records

More than 90 per cent of 9,894 students who started in 2020 stuck with their PhD programs

By Ayesha Haq , in City , on February 23, 2023

Musanna Galib was thrilled to begin his journey as a PhD research fellow in mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia in 2020, just when the world began transitioning to the new normal because of the global pandemic.  

Even though he had two mentally challenging online semesters, Galib is still on track to graduate on time.

“The 13-hour time difference between Bangladesh and Canada, zero contact with my classmates and the lingering fear of my family being exposed to coronavirus made it a lot more depressing. However, this fellowship was a much better option than all others I had [in Bangladesh] because I wanted to travel to a new place and learn new skills,” he said.

Musanna Galib working at an examination centre on campus

Galib is not the only student who remains optimistic about completing his PhD within the standard five-year period despite beginning his studies amidst the outbreak of COVID-19.

A recent report published by Statistics Canada indicates that the academic year from 2019 to 2020 witnessed the highest number of doctoral-degree students in the entry cohort than has been seen in more than a decade: 9,894. It also documents that 93.1 per cent of the same batch continued on past the first year, showing record-high commitment levels.

A PhD candidate is expected to collect data and run experiments to produce original research work within five to seven years.

Experts believe that one of the reasons for the documented increase is the availability of funding.

“PhD programs are usually funded. During a financial, social or economic crisis, it makes sense if PhD students stick to the program to get paid,” said Marshia Akbar, a senior research associate at Toronto Metropolitan University who came to Canada as an international student in 2007.

But Sameh Al Natour,  associate director of the Ted Rogers School of Information Management at Toronto Metropolitan University, pointed out that the report does not distinguish between the statistics for international and local students. He believes that international students may have accounted more for the increase because of some amended government policies in 2020 that made immigration easier. 

“My guess is that the increase is mainly coming from international students. During the pandemic, many international students were able to enrol and study while being in their home countries. This made it a lot cheaper for them. The government made immigration through express entry easier,” said Natour.

International students accounted for 36.69 per cent of the total student body in doctoral programs in 2020. Early on in the pandemic, the government issued a notification declaring remote students eligible for postgraduate work permits.

Rahim Jafari, a current PhD candidate and the chairperson of the Northern B.C. Graduate Students’ Society, which is affiliated with the B.C. Federation of Students, suggested that the government’s 2019 PhD graduate immigration stream might also be a driving factor. The nominee program is exclusively for doctoral students.

“It allows the PhD candidates to apply for permanentresident status. This encourages them [international students] to apply for and remain in the [doctoral] program so that they can start building their residency applications,” said Jafari.  

These numbers reflect the impact of stable funding resources and friendlier immigration policies upon students’ motivation levels when it comes to opting for and remaining in doctoral programs.