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Dozens of Ph.D. programs are suspending admissions

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A student in a face mask studies outside the closed Wilson Library on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Aug. 18.

A student in a face mask studies outside the closed Wilson Library on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Aug. 18. Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

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A pandemic is turning out to be a poor time to get a doctorate degree in the humanities or the social sciences. 

Dozens of Ph.D. programs at schools nationwide have announced that they won’t be admitting any new students for the next academic year. This temporary pause could have long-lasting effects.

Colleges and universities have a lot of additional costs these days: personal protective equipment, remote learning infrastructure, COVID-19 tests. And with fewer students on campus, they have less money coming in. So schools are “making sure they can fulfill their commitment financially to the students who have already matriculated,” said Carla Hickman of EAB, an education consulting company.

One way they can do that is by not admitting new students. Princeton University sociologist Dalton Conley said that’s the decision his department made in regards to Ph.D. students.

“It made more sense to suspend admissions for one year and have those resources than to be killed by 1,000 little cuts,” he said. 

But students from poorer backgrounds may not be able to wait for schools to restart admissions, so they’ll pursue other careers. Suzanne Ortega with the Council of Graduate Schools said that’s bad for diversity.

“We’re disrupting the flow from a more diverse undergraduate student pipeline to a less diverse student pipeline,” she said.

Even undergraduates are likely to feel the effects, said Gwen Chodur with the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students, especially at big state universities.

“Where the graduate students do the majority or close to the majority of the instruction of the undergrads, this might make it very challenging to continue to provide the same quality of education,” Chodur said. 

But this pause could also give graduate programs time to change. Conley said with field research suspended, “we have to rethink, we have to develop courses and curriculum in, for example, virtual ethnography.”

And that, too, will take resources. 

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