Wait, I can’t apply to PhD programs this year?

Let’s hear the collective “dammit” from the Fall 2020 applicants!  Here’s the rub: a number of institutions across the country have put a moratorium on new applicants for the 2020-2021 cycle. What does this mean for you?  Well, if you were planning to apply to PhD programs in Fall 2020 (the September-December cycle), you might have to wait.  This decision is not universal.  It affects each university, division, and department differently. You have to look at department and division websites to see if they have posted any information on the delay. And many places have yet to do so. Don’t be surprised if October rolls around and the department you thought was taking apps has suddenly decided not to take them this cycle.

Why is this happening (to me!)?

COVID-19. Higher grad stipends. Too many admitted students last year. Division funds cut. Meh-let’s-just-wait-and-see.

Take your pick. Any and all of these could be the reason why some programs will not be taking applications. COVID-19 is providing a reasonable explanation for universities to hide behind. “Oh, it’s for safety reasons.” “Oh, we just want to make sure you have an actual on-campus experience in your first year.” “Oh, we don’t know what the travel and housing restrictions will be in the coming year.” Okay, okay, all of these are fine reasons. But the reality of it has a lot more to do with the fact that many programs are financially strapped because of the higher and longer-termed stipends guaranteed for current cohorts. In the last two or three years, we have seen universities start to take baby steps toward paying their students livable wages (still a long way to go!). Yay. But on the flip side, more $$$ for current students means divisions and departments will fund fewer and fewer students in future. And one way to accomplish this is to have rotational admissions, meaning departments will take students every other year or lower admittance rates to just 1 or 2 students a year. Was this inevitable? No. But the more universities corporatize, the more they will seem corporate (i.e. money will not be dispensed to departments and their lowly grad students; it will be spread among the college masters and bigwigs).

What to do in the meantime? 

Don’t let this (and potential next) academic year go to waste. If you had your heart set on UChicago’s NELC, Princeton’s Sociology, Cornell’s History, or any of the other hundreds of programs not taking students, here are some suggestions of what you might do:  

– Apply elsewhere: The obvious answer is to look at comparable programs at other universities. We’ve been trained to think that going to UChicago, Princeton, or Harvard are our only options, but (speaking as someone in academia) other “less prestigious” institutions have programs that are just as good or often better than programs at prestigious schools. Also, if there is a faculty member with whom you really want to work at a program that isn’t admitting students, apply elsewhere and keep working with that faculty member from afar. You can keep in touch with faculty at other universities and, when the time comes, even put them on your dissertation committee in an official capacity. They can advise you, mentor you, and help you through your program, despite being a faculty member at a different university.

– Perfect your application: If you have been waiting to get your CV, personal statements, or writing samples up to par, this is the time to focus on them!  Some of you might look at your CV and think that you don’t have enough items listed under “Presentations” or “Workshops.”  Why not take the writing sample you’re going to submit next year and workshop it at one of the many student-run workshops across the country? Since everything is online at the moment, you can contact department assistants, find out who runs the workshop, and ask them to put you on the schedule. You won’t have to travel to another city or state because it will be run through Zoom or some equivalent virtual program.  This is a great way to keep your name out there, better your work, AND make new contacts with graduate students and faculty.

– Learn a new language or improve the one you already know: If your field requires foreign languages, now would be the time to set up a schedule for yourself. Those of you who already know a language that you want to improve probably know which texts to use or what the resources are for learning more advanced grammar. But if you’re starting fresh and don’t know which text to use because the market is saturated with them, find out what textbooks universities use or just send me an email through The Contacts, and I’ll give you some suggestions.

– Cultivate relationships with faculty: Just because you can’t apply to be a specific faculty member’s student this year does not mean you should neglect being in constant communication with them. Use this time to email different faculty members, send them your work for comment, read their work and ask them questions, and Zoom with them.  You might come to find out that you don’t want to work with that specific person for your degree. You might find that you really want to work with that specific person for your degree. You might find that a less prestigious but more rigorous university is where you’ll thrive. This will be a period of discovery for you (says the fortune cookie).  

– Take an “applicable” degree or certification: After realizing that getting into a PhD program might not be feasible, this might be the time to consider taking on another Master’s degree or entering a cert program (i.e. not pursuing a PhD in the future). There ARE tons of jobs right now that need filling, but they require very specific Master’s degrees. You might look into a Master’s of Social Work, a Master’s of Library and Information Sciences, a Master’s of Computer Science, or cert programs like K-12 education, information technologies, or student counseling. This is easier said than done, considering you need money for most of these programs. But, hey, maybe your uncle is loaded.

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