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Grad Applications During COVID

Recently, I was asked to lead a workshop for MA students preparing to apply for PhD programs. The obvious issue is that several PhD programs are not accepting students for the 2021 academic year, due to COVID-related cutbacks. For anyone interested, The Chronicle of Higher Education is keeping track of which programs have announced their intention not to accept new PhD applicants for the upcoming year.

One of the hardest decisions applicants have to make is whether or not to apply this year or wait until next year when they will have more options. Truthfully, there are upsides and downsides to both options. For example, if a current MA student chooses not to apply this year, they will be in a stronger position next year having already finished their MA; they will get a break from academia and possibly get some additional experience; they can perhaps take time to improve relevant skills or "plug" notable gaps or weaknesses; they will have an entire year to research programs and professors. On the other hand, there is no certainty as to when applications will reopen; available spots will almost certainly be reduced due to ongoing financial straits; there will be two or more years' worth of students vying for the same, reduced spots; there is no guarantee that taking time off will result in getting a job or being able to keep working on skills; next year's funding may be cut.

One way or the other, though, everyone will be in the same boat, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. At the very least, applicants will not necessarily be dealing with unique pressures compared to their peers.

So, what can be done now?

  1. Reach out to potential advisors to ask if they are accepting students this year. Even if the program is, it's possible the person you want to work with is not. Provide them with a CV, discuss your research interests, and talk about why you want to work with them. Even if they can't accept you this year, this could be the start of a good exchange you could reference when you reach out again the following you. They might also refer you to other departments or even other universities they think would be a good fit for you.

  2. See what programs are available this year and whether they are a good match for you. Remember that PhD programs are major commitments at any point, and picking one just because you can apply to it this year may not be a good choice if it's one you wouldn't otherwise be interested in. Remember the poor state of the job market and the possibility you will not be accepted to a PhD program, or that you won’t find a university job upon graduating. These are realities that should influence your decisions.

  3. Formulate a backup plan. Even if your dream program is accepting applicants this year, you should consider what your alternatives would be if either that doesn't work out, or if you decide to take some time off. Keep in mind potential travel restrictions with COVID, both for your backup plan and for starting a new program.

  4. Stay connected with your field. One positive result from the pandemic is that conferences and talks are often being broadcast online, which means that it is relatively easy to stay connected to and fresh with recent scholarship. Join relevant mailing lists, keep searching databases for articles and books related to your research (you may still have access to library resources through your alumni account).

  5. Use the extra time to prepare your application. There is a lot of strategy that goes into preparing an application, and it can take a long time to make a short list for preferred programs. Use this time to refine your list and materials. Consider reaching out to colleagues and professors to ask them to look over your application materials or talk over potential programs.

  6. Finish your current degree. Whether you decide to apply for PhD programs now or later, you want to be sure that you don't lose track of what you are currently doing. If you are in a BA or MA program now, try not to lose your momentum. While research and writing may be more difficult without access to on-campus resources or meeting with your peers, try to keep going to finish on schedule.

Some possibilities for the time off:

Even without COVID, many applicants apply multiple times before being successful. Consider ways to keep using/improving your skills while waiting for the next application cycle.

  • Language Programs

  • Teaching overseas

  • Tutoring

  • Working or volunteering at an area-related institution/museum

  • Translating/Interpreting

  • Being a Research Assistant

  • Working at a college/university, school, library, research institute

Try to keep on top of annual and local conferences as well as important publications. This can help you stay connected to your field during what will hopefully end up being a short detour that will ultimately provide you with additional experience and skills.

Finally, try to be flexible and be understanding both with yourself and the situation. Your academic dreams and career goals may be delayed, but that does not mean that they are over. Many PhD students have had to apply to programs multiple years in a row before they were accepted, even in the best of times. It is not uncommon to be rejected for purely external factors, such as funding or your potential advisor retiring, or insufficient spots for the most qualified candidates. Like those applicants, this is an external factor that you can't control.