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Several departments suspend PhD admissions for 2021-22 academic year amid pandemic

Budget constraints and logistical challenges motivated the decision to suspend admissions

By
Staff Writer
Monday, October 19, 2020

PhD student admissions in several departments, including the history department, have been suspended for the 2021-2022 academic year due to logistical challenges and budget constraints related to the COVID-19 crisis.

Several departments have suspended doctoral admissions for the 2021-22 academic year, the University announced Oct. 7. The decision comes amid budget constraints and logistical challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Graduate School leaders will direct their attention and resources to supporting students already enrolled in University PhD programs as the global health crisis continues to unfold.

Departments that receive the majority of their funding from the University’s central budget will be halting their admissions, according to the announcement from Provost Richard Locke P’18 and Dean of the Graduate School Andrew Campbell. Most of the affected departments fall under the humanities and social sciences, whereas an assortment of grant-funded programs in the life and physical sciences still plan to keep their admissions open for the next academic year. Brown is one of several peer institutions that are enacting graduate admissions suspensions in light of the ongoing pandemic, including Columbia, Princeton, Yale and Harvard.

While the University enacted the suspension across programs, many departmental chairs supported the move and had “independently voiced concern for current students whose work has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Campbell said. After further conversations with departmental chairs as well as center and institute directors, all of whom work closely with graduate students, Campbell said it became clear that support for an admissions suspension was widespread. 

Linford Fisher, director of graduate studies for the history department, said his department had already begun discussing an admissions halt over the summer. The history department announced that it would be suspending PhD admissions Aug. 27, prior to many other departments, after considering obstacles posed by the pandemic.

“There’s this larger context of a global pandemic and a collapsing job market and libraries and archives and research institutions being shut down and travel bans by the University and by the state departments,” Fisher said. “We have PhD students who need to travel the world for specific on-site archival research, and when you can’t do that, you either have to really rethink your program and your dissertation or you have to find other ways to build in buffers until things open up again.”

In light of these obstacles, the history department plans to financially sponsor students after their sixth year, extending funding beyond the last possible year graduate students can usually receive a stipend from the University, Fisher said. The pandemic also requires the provision of more robust emotional and intellectual support within the department. Fisher noted that last year’s admissions cycle resulted in an over-yield by six students, a consideration he said the department factored into its decision to opt for a suspension.

Other departments also chose to suspend their own programs before the University’s Oct. 7 announcement. Associate Professor of Religious Studies Stephen Bush said that his department decided to suspend its PhD admissions a few days prior to the University’s announcement of the broader pause. 

Given budget cuts within religious studies and across the University, suspending admissions allows the department to enhance its networks of support for current PhD candidates, Bush explained: “It’s a matter of devoting resources, both time and financial resources, to our existing students.” Providing funding for seventh-year graduate students will help to offset some of the financial burden for graduates entering a “decimated academic job market.”

Beyond the admissions pause, the Grad School has committed itself to a number of initiatives to help students who are facing reduced employment opportunities. One such initiative is the expansion of the Deans’ Faculty Fellows program, which is sponsored by the Grad School and the Office of the Dean of the Faculty. DFF creates additional teaching positions at the University for recent PhD graduates, who will hold the title of Visiting Assistant Professor and serve in teaching and possibly administrative roles for the fall and spring semesters.

“The DFF program aims to equip graduates with additional skills which help to make them more attractive candidates when they enter what we hope will be improved job markets in the near future, in and outside of higher education,” Campbell said. 

While narrowed employment opportunities are a major consideration for many of the programs implementing the admissions pause, some departments, like the department of economics, are less preoccupied with this particular concern. 

Graduate Admissions Director for the Department of Economics Andrew Foster noted that providing economics PhD students with opportunities for employment within the University is not necessarily the most compelling option for fifth- and sixth-year graduate students. “The kind of skills that economists have are actually quite valuable in the current market,” he said. “Most of our students will get jobs this year, and I think most of them will in the following year, as well, and some of them will get very competitive jobs. It’s hard to pay a graduate student assistant when they’re getting a job offer from Amazon for three or four times as much.”

Foster does not find that suspending admissions for PhD students allows his department to better support its existing students; he emphasized that since the department’s budget is being cut alongside the admissions pause, there is not necessarily more funding available for each current student. “The issue is our budget is being cut at the same time our number of students is being cut, so I think the existing students are being supported as well as they could be,” he said.

Foster is also concerned that an admissions suspension could hamper the department’s ability to supply undergraduate economics classes with graduate teaching assistants in the coming years. “We’re a little concerned that having 15 fewer teaching assistants in two years is going to be a problem in terms of our undergraduate classes,” he said.

Fisher and Bush do not foresee issues with finding a sufficient number of teaching assistants for undergraduates in their departments. In fact, the religious studies department has encountered the opposite problem: it has proved challenging to find teaching assignments for many of its graduate students, as a consequence of various course cancellations this fall.

According to Campbell, the admissions pause has allowed the University to provide new kinds of support to current graduate students, in addition to the expansion of programs like DFF. The dean noted that the pause allows the Graduate School to improve the alignment of job training to market opportunities. “It also provides time and opportunities to improve our diversity efforts, emphasizing student retention and support rather than narrowly focusing on recruitment,” he added.

Foster, on the other hand, expressed concern about the potential effect of an admissions pause on his department’s diversity efforts. “Over the last two or three years, we’ve been quite successful in attracting students to the graduate program that we were less successful with in the past,” he said. “We’re bringing in more U.S.-based students. We’ve had success with bringing in women for a department that was pretty heavily male for a while. We’ve made some progress in historically underrepresented groups,” he explained. “I’m a little concerned that taking a year off would lose some of that momentum.”

Campbell, along with Foster, does not predict the admissions suspension will have much of an impact on Brown’s graduate program rankings in the years ahead. “The decision is driven by the need to support our students and thereby our program strength,” Campbell said.

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  1. This is a good time for universities to pare down useless graduate degrees.

  2. Not all degrees are worthless. Some PhDs in the social science command salaries (sometimes well) above 100k upon graduation. If a few other departments that compete with Brown for top students are suspending admission this year, it would have been a unique opportunity for Brown to recruit students that are better than average and more diverse this year. If financial constraints are too severe, how about admitting half the cohort size this year and half next year if the department wants to go ahead? The average student quality would be substantially higher… and Brown could pull up in the rankings when their job placements down the line are better than their competitors’. Even if the admin only cares about undergraduates, this is suboptimal. With economics being one of the largest concentrations at Brown, an undersupply of TA support for 6 years or so will negatively impact the undergraduate experience. Very suboptimal and nearsighted policy by the university admin once again – conditions are not the same in all humanities and social sciences .

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