Grad admit policy challenges some depts

A sustained reduction in the number of students admitted to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences this year may prove harmful to some departments more than others.

The Graduate School cut its offers to incoming Ph.D students by 16 percent last year because of a drop in the University’s endowment, and will admit about as many students again this year. Some administrators who work in departments that consist of many different subfields said the cuts can be particularly harmful to the health of the program since only a few students enter the already small subfields each year. Graduate School Dean Thomas Pollard said it is not clear when admissions will return to their former volume.

“There’s a great deal of education and intellectual stimulation that comes from graduate students working together,” said Susan Nolen-Hoeksema ’82, director of graduate studies for the Psychology Department.

Before the financial crisis, Nolen-Hoeksema said, her department admitted about 22 students each year and about 15 matriculated. But last year, she said, the department offered spots to 18 applicants and only 11 chose to attend. The decrease is distributed across five different “areas” within the Psychology Department. One area, developmental psychology, had only one student in last year’s incoming class and a total of 11 in the subfield.

Nolen-Hoeksema said that if the incoming class remains at the current level for longer than one more year, her programs will suffer significantly.

“If you’re the only one, you don’t have anyone else to talk to and share ideas with,” Nolen-Hoeksema said.

Pollard said he is not sure when the number of admits can rise again, adding that long-term plans for the admission caps depend on the recovery of the endowment.

In the meantime, department administrators said they are doing what they can to work within the new constraints.

Eckart Frahm, director of graduate studies for the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations department, said he can “live with” the reductions, but added that they may pose a problem in his department because it consists of three distinct areas. This year, he said, the department is aiming to enroll three students — down from four in past years. Frahm said the size of his program’s student population is so important that he would prefer that the University lower its financial support of graduate students to allow for a larger incoming class.

The Graduate School currently guarantees full financial support to all Ph.D students for five years, Pollard said, and he does not expect that to change.

But the Graduate School could see other changes to its admissions policy by the end of the year. Pollard said he is in the middle of a detailed analysis of all graduate programs, but added that he will not make any decisions or policy changes until he speaks with faculty, trustees and the Graduate School Assembly, the student government for the Graduate School.

For the Religious Studies Department — which consists of ten different areas, admitted 12 students last year and enrolled only eight — the current admissions policy works well.

Carlos Eire GRD ’79, director of graduate studies for the Religious Studies Department, said having a small cohort is ideal. He said each area should have only one or two students per year because it reduces competition for jobs among graduating Ph.Ds.

Two of three psychology graduate students interviewed acknowledged that less diverse discussion results from admitting fewer students, but two also said working in a small group creates a tight connection that might not form in a larger class.

“I’ve enjoyed having only three students in my Clinical [Psychology] cohort,” said Sunny Dutra GRD ’16, “and we’ve become very close as a result of having just a few of us in our clinical classes.”

Nolen-Hoeksema said she hopes to provide opportunities for students to meet peers at different stages of study in the same area, in part to help compensate for the small cohorts. This year she has instituted a series of panel discussions on career development.

“After the talks, the department typically caters lunches, which have helped me to learn students’ names, faces, personalities and research interests,” said Kevin Callender GRD ’16.

In 2010, 416 Ph.D students matriculated to the Graduate School under the school’s new policy, down from 496 the year before.

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