Ph.D. Admissions Tighter as Applications Rise, Fellowships Stagnate

Droves of applicants are jockeying for graduate school admission in hopes of avoiding the job crunch during this economic recession. But the nation’s top universities say that they are unable to open up more spots for Ph.D. students, since their hard-hit endowments cannot fund additional graduate student fellowships.

Stanford and Northwestern are even planning to reduce next year’s class size for their incoming Ph.D. students by 5 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

This reduction may last beyond the economic recession, according to the dean of Northwestern University’s graduate school, Andrew B. Wachtel ’81.

“This is in part due to immediate economic concerns (these students are expensive),” he wrote in an e-mailed statement, “but also to longer term questions about our ability to place these students if our peer universities decide to downsize faculty over the next few years and/or if our older colleagues decide not to retire.”

For Stanford, a reduction in Ph.D. students may deal a blow to the school.

“The university just won’t be quite as productive,” said Richard P. Saller, Stanford’s dean of the School of Humanities and Sciences.

Meanwhile, applications are piling up at the gates of these institutions.

Ph.D. applications have increased by 16 percent at Northwestern, 7 percent at Michigan, 8 percent at Dartmouth, and 12 percent at Johns Hopkins. Overall applications for graduate study—most of which are for Ph.D.s—are up by 15 percent at Duke, 9 percent at Dartmouth, 5 percent at Stanford, 9 percent at Yale, and 9.5 percent at Princeton, according to deans at those universities.

These increases are dramatically higher than the 3 percent average annual increase in graduate school applications over the last decade, noted in a 2007 report by the Council of Graduate Schools.

And these numbers are likely to mushroom next year.

Stuart Heiser, the Council of Graduate Schools’ manager of government relations and external affairs, wrote in an e-mail that the last recession in 2001 proved graduate school applications are “a lagging indicator of the economic cycle.”

Graduate school applications increased by 6 percent in 2001. But in the following year, they rose by 13 percent, Heiser said.

Despite the increased interest, most of the nation’s top graduate schools do not have the funds available to support expanded graduate programs.

The graduate schools at Yale, Princeton, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins, Berkeley, Duke, the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, UCLA, and Dartmouth will be accepting approximately the same number of students that they admitted last year, according to high-level officials at those schools.

MORE APPLICANTS, FEWER FUNDS

Harvard’s Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Allan M. Brandt declined to comment on application numbers and how the financial crisis might affect Ph.D. admissions.

Although Princeton is increasing funds for graduate student fellowships by 3 percent to help students cope with the financial crisis—Princeton’s endowment has been relatively less hard-hit than Harvard’s, losing 11 percent of its value as Harvard lost 22 percent—next year’s Ph.D. class size will remain the same, according to the university’s graduate school associate dean, David N. Redman.

As the number of Ph.D. applicants rises, the popularity of masters degree programs remains uncertain.

The associate dean of graduate academic programs and research at the University of Virginia’s Graduate School of the Arts and Sciences, Aaron L. Mills, surmised that the financial crisis may reduce the number of masters degree applicants, even as the Ph.D. applications flow in.

“Because most of our terminal masters people are unsupported,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement, “it may be that the economy would reduce the affordability of graduate education.”

Wachtel, the dean at Northwestern, wrote that if masters degree applicants cannot find loans, then the number of masters students may decline. But in areas where students would view a masters degree as a wise long-term investment, graduate school may appear as “a temporary ‘safe haven,’” Wachtel wrote.

While most masters degree students receive little financial aid, most Ph.D. programs at selective private research universities fully fund students for the first five years.

Many of the nation’s top graduate schools say that they remain committed to meeting current students’ financial needs.

“We are determined to uphold our commitment to existing Ph.D. students; that is to guarantee full funding for the first five years of their program,” said Jo Rae Wright, the dean of Duke’s graduate school, in an e-mailed statement. “Our primary allegiance is, of course, to our current students.”

Harvard students who applied to graduate school this year said these concerns may well bear on their future plans.

Lin Cong ’09, who applied to Ph.D. programs in physics and economics, said that he would need to rely almost entirely on a university for funding. Since he is an international student and therefore does not qualify for most fellowships, Cong said financial aid offerings will be important in his choice of school.

B. Robert Owens ’09, who applied to several Ph.D. programs in intellectual history, said that if he is accepted to one of his ideal graduate schools, he would not be deterred by a reduced financial aid package. He added that if the acceptance letters don’t arrive, he might spend a year or two as a high school teacher or a librarian.

—Staff writer Bonnie J. Kavoussi can be reached at kavoussi@fas.harvard.edu.