Fewer Grad Students, No Spring Recess

Harvard continues to change with the coronavirus.

Photograph of Emma Dench, dean of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Emma Dench, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
Photograph coutresy of Harvard University

Harvard will admit fewer graduate students for the 2021-2022 academic year (and will begin a comprehensive review of Ph.D. education), and undergraduates who are permitted to return to campus for this coming spring semester (a cohort yet to be determined) will proceed on the normal academic calendar—but without a conventional spring recess. Both decisions, made under pressure of the continuing coronavirus pandemic, were announced to Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) members today.

Graduate Admissions: Current Constraints, Longer-Term Reassessment

“[T]his year’s admissions targets will be conservative and will take into account the likelihood that continuing students will need additional advising and that, in some fields, their progress will be hampered by reduced access to materials, resources, and spaces,” FAS dean Claudine Gay, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) dean Emma Dench, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences dean Francis J. Doyle, and the FAS divisional deans wrote in a message to faculty members. They continued (emphasis added), “In numerous fields, too—particularly those heavily dependent on the academic job market—employment outcomes that were already challenging before the COVID-19 crisis are now severely affected. We consider it our ethical responsibility not to exacerbate these problems by taking a full cohort of new students: In a few cases, cohorts will be heavily reduced or even paused.”

The news probably was not wholly surprising. The Chronicle of Higher Education has for several weeks maintained a running list of U.S. doctoral programs that have suspended admissions in light of delays in students’ progress caused by the pandemic, financial pressure on the institutions, and related factors. Among them, with suspensions ranging from a few programs to dozens, are: Brown, Columbia, Chicago, Berkeley, Yale, and Penn (“school-funded admissions in most programs in the School of Arts and Sciences”). But it is nonetheless disheartening evidence of the pandemic’s effect on students’ progress, schools’ financial resources, and, ultimately, future cohorts of scholars.

In today’s announcement, Gay and the other Harvard leaders note that:

[M]any of our peer institutions have announced pauses on graduate student admissions for fall 2021, citing the ongoing consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of supporting their continuing students. In recent months, GSAS, SEAS, and FAS leadership have heard from many faculty members who are deeply concerned that Harvard’s research mission and the intellectual life of individual departments would be compromised if a similar decision was announced for GSAS graduate programs. After careful consideration, we have resolved to take a more balanced approach to admissions than some of our peers, one that aims to preserve our research and intellectual goals as much as possible, while keeping our focus on the many ways we can all continue to support our current students.

Thus, Harvard will apparently not impose an across-the-board reduction in admissions. Rather, the 58 graduate-degree programs involved (in FAS and virtually all other Harvard schools) will receive individual admissions allotments toward the end of the year, when such decisions are typically made. (A typical annual admissions cohort numbers 750 to 850 students.) But some clearly face a year with no new entering degree candidates.

Looking beyond current constraints, Gay, Dench, et al. are laying out a more comprehensive review of graduate education. In introducing a “forward-looking approach,” they write: 

Even as we determine how best to support our students, the current crisis has exacerbated several existing and fundamental concerns about Ph.D. curricula, the well-being of students, and their employment outcomes. These issues are not specific to Harvard but pertain to graduate education as a whole. As a leader in higher education, Harvard has a responsibility to do better for our students and faculty, for our programs, and, through the impact our graduates have, for the world. Rather than table these concerns for the future, we believe that now is the time to turn a crisis into an opportunity, to step back and address graduate admissions in the spirit of a reset that will ensure that the reputation and student experience of our research degrees go from strength to strength in the 21st century.

Accordingly, they are initiating an approach that looks beyond past practice (“graduate admissions targets have been grounded in the belief that more is better: that increasing cohort size is the goal. This has created a less than optimal environment for some of our students, increasing time to degree, decreasing advising effectiveness, and narrowing the evaluation of prospective students’ excellence and potential”). Over the next year, seeking to address these “shortfalls,” GSAS will “work with programs to further encourage best practices in admissions that will help faculty recruit the most promising students and ensure that each student will be supported in reaching their full potential.” Guiding criteria will include assessing advising, diversity, and outcomes—which will, in turn, be embedded in “an extended conversation about what a Ph.D. should be in the 21st century and how curricula, training, and professional development should reflect these goals.”

The approach appears rigorous and unsentimental. Thus:

  • Advising: “As you know, advising the talented graduate students we admit and setting them up for success is a privilege. Our goal as advisors is to provide them with the guidance they need to successfully navigate their academic training, graduate in a timely manner, and enter the profession of their choosing with confidence and support.” Accordingly, “Admissions targets in the longer term will be determined in part by program advising quality.” Do professors provide timely feedback? Are all faculty in a program engaged, or do only a few manage most advisees? Is there a structured approach to advising? Do students consider themselves well supported?
  • Diversity: “An over-credentialed candidate may not hold the same potential as an applicant with fewer accomplishments but who shows outstanding promise. Cohorts should reflect multiple, broad perspectives that augment the learning happening in the classroom or lab. In rankings, more emphasis should be placed on this potential than is currently the practice.” Accordingly, programs will be evaluated on how well they build diverse cohorts. Are departments looking broadly for applicants? Are students coming from a broad number of undergraduate institutions? And so on.
  • Outcomes: “Students come to Harvard to develop and finalize their ideas, graduate, and successfully find a job in the profession of their choosing. In some fields, this process runs smoothly. In others, students may find few opportunities to pursue their career goals. GSAS has collected employment data for new graduates and graduates 10 years out to track these career outcomes and inform the decisions made by the admissions committee.” Accordingly, in setting admissions targets, programs will be reviewed to determine how well they prepare students for a successful outcome in the context of their discipline, the time to degree, and, importantly: “How have past graduates fared in the job market? How does the job market currently look?”

This is a major, and potentially transformative, look at doctoral education at the University.

The Spring-Term Calendar

Separately, Dean Gay wrote to colleagues that although final decisions on who may attend the College in residence next spring will be announced in December (as previously indicated), the FAS spring semester itself will:

  • follow the regular academic calendar, with classes beginning January 25 and ending April 28—thus aligning with other Harvard schools); but
  • the traditional spring recess week will instead be “re-allocated across the semester as scheduled wellness days, providing one day off from remote teaching and learning approximately every other week.” (The schedule is now published here.)

Similar changes in academic calendars have already been announced by other institutions. Eliminating a spring break minimizes travel and student exposure to the coronavirus away from campus (and vice versa, once students on break return to campus). This parallels the fall-semester plan to end classes before Thanksgiving: students will leave campus by November 22, and complete reading period and examinations remotely, to minimize travel and viral exposure.

As Gay noted, “[T]he question of when undergraduate students who will be learning in residence would arrive on campus is related but independent of the academic timeline.” She emphasized that “While there is much more work ahead of us, we are on track to share the outcome of that planning early in December.” (Other Harvard schools’ spring plans are reported here.)

Although fall has proceeded well, she continued, planning for spring must take place “against a backdrop of deteriorating public-health conditions” nationwide.











Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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