US PhD admissions pause ‘may hamper diversity progress’

Several institutions will not be enrolling doctoral students in autumn 2021 because of the pandemic

October 7, 2020
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A rising number of US doctoral programmes have announced a pause in admissions for next autumn, but there are conflicting views about whether the move will help or hinder efforts to improve diversity.

Figures collected by The Chronicle of Higher Education show that more than 80 PhD programmes in the humanities and social sciences across 22 research-intensive universities will not be admitting new students in autumn 2021 in response to pandemic-related funding issues.

University departments said the one-year hiatus would enable them to devote existing funding and support to current students, many of whom will take longer to complete their degrees because of the disruptions of Covid-19.

Suzanne Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, said the number of programmes suspending admissions was rising and she expected it to increase further “as the budget situation at universities becomes clarified”.

She said the pause was “responsible” and would also give departments an opportunity to change doctoral curricula to better respond to the job market.

However, Dr Ortega said, there was “a danger” that the move would hamper universities’ progress on improving the diversity of PhD candidates.

“Our undergraduate students…are more diverse than students currently at graduate school. That means our efforts to continue to promote broad and inclusive access are stymied for a year, and the question is how will we make sure it’s a year and not five years or a decade,” she said.

She added that institutions pausing admissions must “think through important and effective strategies for remaining connected” with students who are in the process of deciding whether to apply for a PhD.

“If they decide to go ahead and apply, we need to give them our most informed, thoughtful information so that they understand the level of competition and how they could best be prepared for that environment. And if they decide to postpone, we simply must develop a system for staying in touch with them to encourage them…to not abandon their plans but to come back when the time is more appropriate,” she said.

“If we do these things and we do them smartly, I am not worried about the long-term consequences. If we just keep going along and treat it as ‘2021 will be different but we’ll be back to normal in 2022’, we will be doing a huge disservice to the enterprise and to our students.”

But Andrew Campbell, dean of the Graduate School at Brown University, which has a handful of programmes that have paused admissions, said the hiatus in general might be good for diversity because it would provide an opportunity for institutions, which tend to focus on recruitment as a way of tackling inclusion, to pivot towards strengthening support for minority students to complete their degrees.

“As a black person, I would worry to hear that a programme said: ‘We need this class for our diversity.’ I would worry because if success of a programme’s diversity efforts really hinges on a single admissions season, then there are probably other things you might want to look at, such as climate, that would need attention.”

Philip Altbach, research professor and founding director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said the admissions hiatus may “further morale issues” of students wanting to pursue a PhD in the humanities and social sciences.

“It may reduce the incoming pipeline going forward,” he said.

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Reader's comments (1)

There is also the practical issue: a student graduating now who might consider applying to a doctoral program will have to find something else to do to provide an income. If they're of a level to be a potential doctoral candidate, they are likely to be able to obtain a well-paid graduate position... and may not wish to take a cut in salary later on to pursue a doctorate. If you're of the opinion that people from ethnic minoritories tend to be from lower income families the pressure to seek the cash is only accentuated so it's likely that they'll be lost for good.


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