Uncertainty for doctoral programs as some suspend admissions

In an effort to maximize support for current graduate students, more than 50 of the nation’s doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences have decided to suspend admissions for fall 2021. While saying the pauses make sense given current circumstances, experts and college administrators interviewed by The Chronicle of Higher Education expressed both optimism and concern about long-term implications. 

On the one hand, the inflection point offers a chance to maximize scarce resources, rethink curricula, and make needed changes. On the other, it could constrict the graduate school pipeline in a way that compromises gains in graduate student diversity.

Directing limited resources toward degree completion 

Most institutions making the decision not to admit new doctoral students have cited a need to use limited financial resources to support students who have already matriculated and had their education upended by the pandemic. “We needed to take a bold and aggressive action,” said Dalton Conley, the director of graduate studies for Princeton’s sociology department, which was among the nation’s first to pause admissions. Conley noted that students are not only contending with research disruptions but also unforeseen child care needs. 

At the University of Pennsylvania, which paused school-funded admissions across its doctoral programs in the School of Arts of Sciences, administrators are prioritizing emergency aid and other grants to help offset technological, health care, and child care costs for current students. “We’ve made a commitment to train them as scholars,” Beth S. Wenger, the school’s associate dean of graduate studies, told The Chronicle. “We made that commitment before we saw any global pandemic coming down the line, but now we have to make good on it.”

New York University, whose history department also suspended admissions, is offering second- through fifth-year students funding extensions ranging from one semester to one year. Columbia University, where most social sciences and humanities departments have paused doctoral admissions, is working to provide more teaching fellowships for sixth-year students and postdoctoral lectureships for students completing Ph.D.s in 2021.

Administrators hope the additional support will help students complete their degrees. “If they don’t finish and if they don’t find a way into a profession that is meaningful for them, we haven’t succeeded,” said Kathleen Canning, dean of Rice University’s School of the Humanities, where all five doctoral programs will suspend admissions.

Long-term implications a mixed bag

Canning and other administrators interviewed by The Chronicle said the admissions disruption could open the door to a deeper reimagining of doctoral education and career preparation, especially amid a softening Ph.D. job market. 

However, it also could “squeez[e] the pipeline into graduate school” at a time when international students are facing visa uncertainties and underrepresented students are experiencing unprecedented strain, said Suzanne T. Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools. Ortega told The Chronicle that the students most likely to postpone their doctoral education are those essential to “creating a really dynamic, culturally, demographically diverse student body.”    

“How do we make sure that if students do decide to postpone going to graduate school for a year, we don’t lose contact with them and we continue to remain connected and to encourage them to enter graduate programs at a later date?” she asked.

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