Applying to Graduate School During a Pandemic

applying to grad school during a pandemic
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Let’s get one fact out of the way: Applying to graduate school is stressful. Even without the looming threat of a pandemic, it’s an administrative juggling act full of tests, essays, and forms performed while somehow balancing school and work. And now, you may feel even more lost while universities venture into uncharted territory in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

We’re here to help guide you through the many coronavirus-related changes to graduate school applications.

Social distance disruptions: The bad news

Universities are adapting to new public health guidelines, both for new applicants and for current students. Research labs in chemistry and chemical engineering have been closed for months, and the labs that have reopened are operating below capacity with strict occupancy limits. Currently, many universities around the world are undecided about whether to keep classes online for Fall 2020. The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking the reopening of 1200 colleges. According to its database, as of July 30, about 24% of U.S. universities have committed to distance learning for the entire 2020-21 academic year.

Converting classes into video deliveries, interactive seminars into webinars, and in-person meetings into Zoom events may be inconvenient, but administrators say that the COVID-19 economic effects on graduate education are even more severe. Universities — both public and private — predict budget cuts to ripple into graduate school admissions.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Ana-Rita Mayol is the Associate Director of the Masters of Chemical Sciences program. Mayol says that Masters offerings in chemistry or chemical engineering might be more resilient to COVID-19 economic effects than Ph.D.s because M.S. tracks are typically funded by the student, rather than depending on grants, fellowships, or state budgets. Universities generally cover science doctoral students’ tuition costs and provide them with stipends of around $30,000 per year.

Graduate research assistantship funding can also come from external grants or fellowships, which may not be affected by the pandemic. But teaching assistantships often rely on university funds.

“We’re expecting that up to half of the incoming class is going to defer to the following year,” says Brian Gibney, a professor at Brooklyn College, a part of the City University of New York system. For a variety of reasons, such as uncertainty about safety and funding, many incoming Fall 2020 students are waiting a full year to begin graduate school. That mass deferral means fewer spots remain for the next class of students. This will likely make it more competitive for students applying for the 2021-22 school year.

Admissions may also become more competitive if more students apply. The positive correlation between graduate school applications and economic recessions is well-documented. In weak economic periods, unemployment can rise and job creation tends to drop in many industries. Faced with such difficult job prospects, many in the U.S. have historically sought advanced degrees to endure a recession and become more marketable to employers.

Changes to graduate school application and recruiting are significant too. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers GRE and TOEFL, announced at-home versions of its exams. Because of the pandemic, some universities, such as schools in the California State University network, have even waived their GRE requirements. Many graduate programs have dropped GRE requirements altogether, citing the exam’s role as a barrier to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

How schools are accommodating applicants

Schools know that the students should not have to shoulder the burden of a pandemic. On the economic side of things, many schools will waive application fees for some prospective students. And many are trying to be as accommodating as possible when judging applicants. “They’re going to be nice to students in the sense that they understand it was a hard spring semester,” Mayol says.

Many admissions committees, including those at the University of California, Los Angeles, won’t penalize applications for a “pass” grade in a course that suddenly became graded as pass/fail. Universities are also aware that students may have missed out on valuable lab time and internships because of the pandemic. Mayol and Gibney told inChemistry that admissions committees may even focus more on personal statements, letters of recommendation, and research experience than on grades. These components of the application give you a chance to highlight your scientific contributions before, and academic abilities despite, the pandemic.

If a professor can vouch for your academic skills, that will strengthen your application. When requesting letters of recommendation, consider asking your recommender to speak as specifically as possible to your research and academic abilities. Provide them with a list of accomplishments so they have specific projects and achievements to mention.

If an institution offers a virtual grad school visit, take advantage of it. Learn about the research they have available and find out what life is like in that part of the world, suggests Mayol.

Video tours of apartments, photos of daily life, and graduate student Q&As help paint a more complete picture. Helena Keller, a materials science graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, served on her department’s recruiting team, which used virtual visits this spring. “I think the Zoom Q&A with current grads was the most helpful for people,” Keller says. “But what we thought would be the most important was making the effort.” She says video lab tours would also be helpful for future virtual visits.

In order to fill inevitable gaps in research experience, you may consider contributing to scientific research remotely. With restrictions on time in the lab, some researchers are shifting their focus to literature reviews. You may have luck reaching out to professors or graduate students for an opportunity to contribute. These reviews are essential in academic research, and helping to write one can deepen your knowledge of a particular field.

The time you spend digesting recent studies will also come in handy for writing grants and research statements. According to Mayol, some current graduate students are making the same adjustments as incoming grad students, and some may also add computational chemistry side projects to their thesis work in order to advance their degrees from home. Students also have many opportunities to network from a distance. ACS and other societies regularly host virtual conferences, webinar series, and journal clubs.

The core process remains unchanged

All of these changes may seem like a lot to deal with on top of the pandemic, but the core principle of applying to graduate school remains exactly the same: it is a journey that begins with self-reflection. “As you prepare to make that commitment, you have to understand why you’re doing it,” Gibney says.

Take the time to ask yourself why you want to go to graduate school. Depending on your answer, you will have a better idea of whether an M.S, Ph.D., or P.S.M. is right for you, as well as what you hope to get out of graduate school. For example, if your dream is to manage chemistry operations at a technology company, then you may choose an M.S. or P.S.M. over a Ph.D. If you enjoy the process of research and want to lead investigations of your own one day—whether in academia, industry, or national labs—then a Ph.D. may fit better. Note that neither of these examples is prescriptive. Students use their advanced education to pursue a wide variety of paths.

Examine whether you have adequately prepared for graduate school, and consider what more you can do in the time remaining before you apply. Remember that every program is different. Pandemic or not, you should dedicate ample time to studying each university’s graduate program, and know that you are not restricted to the same field as your undergraduate major. Your reflection may also lead you to conclude that you don’t want to go to graduate school. Rest assured that there is nothing wrong with that.

For those interested in graduate school, Gibney advises students to be as proactive as possible. Reach out to program directors and learn all that you can about programs to make a wise decision.

Self-reflection also stands out in personal statements. Admissions committee members reading hundreds of essays want to get a feel for the applicant’s passions, motivations, and commitment to graduate education. Knowing what you want and why a school is right for you makes your application stronger, and could even motivate you more. 

Andrea Armani, the Ray Irani Chair in Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the University of Southern California, recommends calling schools and professors rather than relying on websites that may be out-of-date. She also suggests asking about whether a department requires GRE scores and whether they expect to have research funding. You may also want to ask about a lab’s safety measures and accommodations. Armani and Gibney agree that, for Ph.D. programs, this level of diligence is also critical for choosing a research advisor. “If you choose well, you have a mentor for life,” says Gibney.

A new normal

Some coronavirus-related adjustments may even catalyze permanent change in academia.

Even before the pandemic, more universities began admitting students based on “Holistic Review,” which focuses less attention on test scores and transcripts and more on experiences and attributes.

Another aspect of a “new normal” will be the role of distance learning in graduate education. How will factors like effectiveness, accessibility, socioeconomic equity, and public health affect permanent adoption of online courses? This issue is still an open question, but tides began shifting even before the pandemic.

In January, Armani and several colleagues from other universities hosted the inaugural Photonics Online Meetup, a free, remote scientific conference. She’s encouraged by the turnout of more than 1000 people from 37 countries, and thinks that graduate schools have more of an opportunity to dismantle diversity and accessibility barriers. For instance, if a college broadcasts a panel with insider tips on writing personal statements, then aspiring scientists anywhere in the world can benefit. This otherwise exclusive information could immediately open doors for students from other universities, community colleges, and all parts of the world.

“I’m hoping that, with more of these free online events, the hidden rules will become less hidden,” Armani says. “The more of these events that happen, the more of these secrets will come out.”

For those overwhelmed by the lingering effects of the coronavirus pandemic, Gibney offers some evergreen advice. “I look at the Ph.D. as a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. “This is a long-term goal. You have to keep your eyes on the prize.”

About the Author
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Max G. Levy is a freelance science journalist based in Los Angeles, California. He has a PhD in chemical engineering, and writes stories about public health, the environment, and technology.