PhD admissions
Smaller PhD cohorts are expected in the US in 2021. Source: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Aspiring doctoral students who want to pursue their PhD in the US might want to delay their plans — dozens of US universities are temporarily hitting the pause button for PhD admissions amid COVID-19. The Wall Street Journal reports that over 140 doctoral programmes across dozens of schools said they would not be admitting new students for fall 2021. Still, school administrators are confident about reopening admissions for the fall 2022 class, though cohorts are expected to be smaller moving forward.

PhD admissions at seven Ivy League schools are suspended. Those at University of Chicago, University of Minnesota and University of Washington too. WSJ notes that the tally of programmes comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education and reports from other schools not included there. Instead of enrolling new doctoral students, PhD programmes are extending funding to current students whose studies or job searches were disrupted. 

In light of disruptions to PhD admissions, administrators are revamping their curricula. This includes trying to shorten the time it takes to earn degrees and ensuring coursework prepares students for careers both inside and outside academia.

PhD admissions: Which disciplines are hit hardest?

Humanities and social science fields such as American studies, art history, English and sociology, are the worst affected. In these fields, PhD students are funded by their universities while hard sciences and engineering, where students’ expenses are largely paid for by external grants, remain untouched. The latter usually have better employment prospects. 

Rice University’s School of Humanities has paused all five of its PhD programmes for the fall 2021 admissions. Brown University is also suspending admissions for some 14 programmes in the humanities and social sciences for fall 2021. The university, however, is allowing current PhD students to apply for an extra year of funding if their research was disrupted. In October, The Brown Daily Herald, Brown’s student newspaper, said budget constraints and logistical challenges motivated several departments to suspend PhD admissions for the 2021-22 academic year. 

PhD admissions pause allows unis to focus on current doctoral students

The suspension of PhD admissions, along with budget cuts within religious studies departments and across the university, allows them to bolster support for current PhD candidates. Brown’s Associate Professor of Religious Studies Stephen Bush was quoted saying, “It’s a matter of devoting resources, both time and financial resources, to our existing students.” Providing funding for seventh-year graduate students will also help to offset some of the financial burdens for graduates entering a “decimated academic job market.”

Despite pausing admissions, Brown is committed to helping students who are facing reduced employment opportunities under several initiatives, including creating 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. Provost Richard Locke told WSJ that it was “unethical to bring in a new cohort when our existing students didn’t have any job prospects.” Brown has also been encouraging its PhD students to earn a master’s in a related subject, at no cost, to help them become more marketable.