Alanna Cooney in the lab


Alanna Cooney, a graduate student in Mechanical Engineering, calmly explains the challenge of remotely managing the construction of her custom-built experimental rig for her research on thermal energy storage devices. Because lab distancing measures due to COVID-19 require lab technicians to work independently and apart, Alanna wasn’t able to direct the manufacturing lab techs in person to explain and demonstrate what she needed. Instead, she had to anticipate questions and provide technical drawings, measurements, and specifications at a much higher level of detail than is typical. This was on top of her work this summer as a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) working with students on the difficult concepts of thermodynamics.

With campus off limits for most students and faculty, this new fall semester will be different for students’ academic and social interactions in countless ways. For Alanna — who was able to pivot from research to a GSI position until she was able to gain access to the lab — the valuable experience she gained through summer GSI training will enable her to be an even better mentor and teacher to undergraduates this term. And she’s excited to have access again to her lab, as of September 1st, to continue her research on her newly built rig.

“Being a graduate student during COVID has come with a lot of personal and professional challenges, but I have also gained a lot of new skills in teaching and communication that I believe will help me in my career in academia. I’m sure this semester will be full of unforeseen challenges and setbacks that will force me to adapt in my research but I’m hopeful that my network of friends, labmates, and mentors will get me through it!”

Alanna has not left the Berkeley area since shelter-in-place began. She, like many graduate students, considers this her home. Alanna is currently local and accessing campus 1-2 times a week, but what will this new semester look like for the majority of the 11,000+ graduate students pursuing their academic goals across campus? A new survey conducted in August helps us get a better picture of the graduate community for this semester:

  • Most graduate students — 97% — are continuing with their academic programs for this year. Newly admitted graduate student numbers remain relatively steady with a small 1-2% drop in number of students, most of those incoming international students.
  • Of the 11,000+ graduate students enrolled, 76% are residing in the Bay Area, 17% elsewhere in the United States, and 7.5% will be outside the U.S.
  • Most graduate students will continue their scholarly pursuits remotely with 64% coming to campus not at all or less than once per week. The remaining students will be safely accessing laboratories or areas of research following strict protocols.
  • The overarching factor that is concerning to graduate students about their ability to stay on track with their academic pursuits is the stress of sheltering in place. The majority of students have reliable internet connections and are able to find a quiet place to study and focus, however, there are many graduate students who are experiencing difficulties around these issues.  Wifi hotspots and other resources are available through the STEP program for students who need support for their online studies.

While the university has put many plans in place to be able to open up campus as soon as local public health orders permit, it is still likely that most classes will be taught remotely for the remainder of the academic year. The ongoing uncertainties and the need to be able to access campus resources, such as libraries, labs, and areas to conduct remote instruction, and the desire to connect in person with their cohorts remain a source of frustration for students.

The Graduate Division continues to develop ways to help support the many needs of the graduate student population, from fellowships and financial support, to tools, training and guidance for graduate student instructors, to support for student parents and caregivers, and policy changes to accommodate the added burden limited campus access and social distancing has caused. Our goal is to ensure that every student has the means and the support to thrive in their graduate studies at Berkeley.