Sunday, February 21, 2021

Grad school admissions this year

Based on conversations with my colleagues at my institution and across the US, graduate program application rates in the US seem to be up quite a bit this year, including in physics and astronomy.  This is happening at the same time that many graduate programs are still working to handle the exceptional circumstances that arose due to the pandemic.  These include: 

  • lower graduation rates (as students are slower to graduate when there is increased uncertainty in the post-degree employment market, academic or otherwise); 
  • continued visa challenges with international students (e.g., students who have enrolled remotely from outside the US in fall '20 but have not yet been able to get here, and therefore may well need extra time to affiliate with a research advisor once they get to the US, presumably in the late spring or summer); 
  • restricted budgets to support existing and incoming students (especially at some public universities whose finances have been hardest hit by the pandemic-related economic fallout)
This whole mess increases the stress on graduate applicants by making an already fraught process even more competitive, in the sense of more people vying for fewer openings.  Graduate admissions is a complicated process driven very strongly by detailed needs that are often not visible to the applicant (e.g., if researchers in an area don't have a need for more students in a given year, something that may not be clear until January, admissions offers in that area are going to be limited).  I hope people know this, but it's worth stating explicitly:  Not getting admitted to a program is about the fit at the time between the needs of the program and the particular profile of the applicant, not a vote on anyone's worth as a scientist or person.  

For additional reference, here is the post I made last year about choosing a graduate program.


pcs said...

I think that this is a post that deserves to be yelled loudly so everyone hears it. Very, very important for the mental health of applicants.

Thank you for saying this in such a clear way.

Anonymous said...

As a recommender/mentor/advisor, it's horrible to watch and honestly makes me regret suggesting physics/applied physics as a career to some. I'm seeing multiple best-in-their-cohort type applicants getting shut out of 15-20 programs. It's difficult to tell them to wait 'til next year, either- this may end up just simply being a lost generation of potential physicists.

On the other hand, mid-tier programs willing to take on the same or more students than normal will have ridiculously high-quality entering classes...

Douglas Natelson said...

pcs, please distribute far and wide. Anon, I hear you, and it is really a lousy set of circumstances.