More Doctoral Programs Suspend Admissions. That Could Have Lasting Effects on Graduate Education

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tags: academia, graduate study

More than 50 doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences won’t be admitting new students in the fall of 2021 — a response to the pandemic and ensuing economic turmoil. It’s a sort of financial triage to help the programs devote funding to their current students, many of whom will be delayed in completing their degrees because of the disruptions. Suspending admissions for a year, some administrators say, will also allow them to reimagine their doctoral curricula to account for the flagging Ph.D. job market.

Princeton University’s sociology department was among the first to announce its decision, in mid-May, and other programs followed throughout the summer. More dominoes fell this month — and entire graduate divisions opted for universal pauses — as the University of Pennsylvania decided to suspend all school-funded admissions in its School of Arts and Sciences, and most programs in Columbia University’s social-sciences and humanities departments said they’d do the same. Nearly all cited the desire to support existing students.

That decision was a unanimous one for faculty members in Princeton’s sociology department, Dalton Conley, the director of graduate studies, said in May. Not only were many of the department’s students forced to halt in-person research — like ethnographic interviewing — or book a hasty return to the United States from their field-work sites as borders closed, but some, as parents, also confronted immediate child-care needs.

“We did a lot of careful analysis, as a social-science department, about the systemwide effects going forward and came to the conclusion that regular studies might be disrupted for quite some time,” Conley told The Chronicle. “We needed to take a bold and aggressive action to make sure that we could support our students that we already had matriculated.”


Andrew Needham, director of graduate studies for New York University’s history department, which also suspended admissions, said his department reasoned that admitting a smaller cohort would also diminish the students’ experience.

“Almost all faculty thought that a cohort that was shrunk by half or two-thirds would come at such intellectual cost to those students that forgoing admissions was, pragmatically but also pedagogically, the thing that made the most sense,” Needham said in June. “My perspective was always, I feel a much greater obligation to these actual people rather than to to these imagined people that could be here.”

In deciding whether to suspend admissions, Needham reached out to a former adviser in the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor’s history department, which once paused admissions for a year after more students than expected accepted admissions offers the previous year. Michigan’s history department, Needham’s adviser told him, hadn’t suffered any reputational costs as a result.

Thus far, that observation has been borne out in Needham’s communications with prospective applicants, who he said “seem a combination of disappointed but also impressed” by the department’s decision to support its current students — NYU will offer students in their second through fifth years a funding extension of either one semester or one year, with every student in a particular cohort receiving the same extension.

Departmental responses to the pandemic, Needham said, could become a barometer of a program’s commitment to its doctoral students. “‘What did your department do during the Covid pandemic?’ should be a question that the prospective applicants ask now for the next decade,” he said.

Read entire article at Chronicle of Higher Education

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