Let’s get one fact out of the way: Applying to graduate school is stressful. Even without the looming threat of a pandemic, it’s an administrative juggling act full of tests, essays, and forms performed while somehow balancing school and work. And now, you may feel even more lost while universities venture into uncharted territory in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
We’re here to help guide you through the many coronavirus-related changes to graduate school applications.
Social distance disruptions: The bad news
Universities are adapting to new public health guidelines, both for new applicants and for current students. Research labs in chemistry and chemical engineering have been closed for months, and the labs that have reopened are operating below capacity with strict occupancy limits. Currently, many universities around the world are undecided about whether to keep classes online for Fall 2020. The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking the reopening of 1200 colleges. According to its database, as of July 30, about 24% of U.S. universities have committed to distance learning for the entire 2020-21 academic year.
Converting classes into video deliveries, interactive seminars into webinars, and in-person meetings into Zoom events may be inconvenient, but administrators say that the COVID-19 economic effects on graduate education are even more severe. Universities — both public and private — predict budget cuts to ripple into graduate school admissions.
At the University of Pennsylvania, Ana-Rita Mayol is the Associate Director of the Masters of Chemical Sciences program. Mayol says that Masters offerings in chemistry or chemical engineering might be more resilient to COVID-19 economic effects than Ph.D.s because M.S. tracks are typically funded by the student, rather than depending on grants, fellowships, or state budgets. Universities generally cover science doctoral students’ tuition costs and provide them with stipends of around $30,000 per year.
Graduate research assistantship funding can also come from external grants or fellowships, which may not be affected by the pandemic. But teaching assistantships often rely on university funds.
“We’re expecting that up to half of the incoming class is going to defer to the following year,” says Brian Gibney, a professor at Brooklyn College, a part of the City University of New York system. For a variety of reasons, such as uncertainty about safety and funding, many incoming Fall 2020 students are waiting a full year to begin graduate school. That mass deferral means fewer spots remain for the next class of students. This will likely make it more competitive for students applying for the 2021-22 school year.