Universities suspend doctoral programs amid COVID-19 outbreak

Harper Library at the University of Chicago. The university has suspended several doctoral programs in the humanities due to COVID-19. Photo by Rick Seidel/Flickr

By Claudia Chiappa
BU News Service 

Beyond the campus closures and remote classes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education is seeing another set of victims: doctoral candidates whose programs have been put on hold in many universities around the country. 

More than 50 such programs, ranging from english to history and sociology, have been suspended for the next academic year according to an article published on The Chronicle of Higher Education. 

The same article includes a partial list of doctoral programs that suspended admission, which is mainly made up of programs in the humanities and social sciences fields. Institutions on the list included Rice University’s School of Humanities, University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences, Princeton University’s Sociology Department, Yale University’s History of Art Department, and many others.

The decision may have long-term consequences even when the programs are revived. 

“Students graduate with their bachelor’s degree and because they can’t get into the program of their choosing they choose a different path,” said Katherine Hazelrigg, a spokesperson for the Council of Graduate Schools. “When that happens, they are unlikely to come back to graduate school. They lose the connection with the universities.” 

Hazelrigg said several factors forced universities to suspend their programs, including uncertainty about the ability of international students to get visas because of travel restrictions. She said there are also fears that the suspension will likely affect the recruitment of students from underrepresented groups, such as first-generation students, low-income students, or students from racially and ethnically marginalized groups.

“Although this was a difficult decision to make, it will help us prioritize supporting students who have already matriculated in these programs,” said Gerald McSwiggan, assistant director for public affairs at the University of Chicago, in an email. The University of Chicago suspended several doctoral programs in humanities.

“We encourage prospective PhD students for these departments to consider applying in autumn of 2021,” McSwiggan said.  

Decisions were often made at the departmental level, said Lynne Kiorpes, vice dean of New York University’s Graduate School of Arts and Science, where programs in seven departments were put on hold. 

“In many cases, current graduate students have been impacted in terms of their research as well as academic pursuits and thus delayed in their degree progress,” Kiorpes said. “However, the extent and impact of the delay varies across departments and disciplines, as well as an individual’s position in their degree program.”

Amy E. Ferrer, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, said that suspending many doctoral programs in one field could affect the job market, particularly if the suspension of programs drags on beyond 2021.

“If the return to pre-COVID levels of admissions and funding does not happen for several years, it will be a major loss for the field,” she said. “A generation of philosophers with great potential could leave the discipline behind.”

Ferrer also warned that a long-term closure could limit the attempts of schools to increase diversity in their programs.

“It would be particularly concerning if those leaving the discipline were disproportionately from underrepresented groups, since many in philosophy have been working hard to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field,” she said.

Janek Juarez is a recent May 2020 graduate from Houston who attended Coe College in Iowa. She is applying for doctoral programs in clinical psychology and has experienced firsthand some of the consequences of COVID-19 and these administrative decisions.

Juarez said that she ran across a few programs that, while not suspended entirely, had fewer faculty members available to work with students. She said she pulled away from these programs because she knows having a mentor is essential for her field of study and research. 

“I think the decision to suspend programs is unfair to students who have been working on their application materials and are currently working on their program, but overall the best,” Juarez said. “The way I see it, if the university made the decision to suspend the program it’s because they either had a lack of available professors or the impact of COVID meant that their program would not be up to the standards that graduate students deserve.”

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