A ‘Radical’ Plan to Rethink Doctoral Admissions in the Wake of Covid-19

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By Russ Castronovo and Susan Gillman

Over and over we hear: Don’t waste this global crisis. In sectors of American life as disparate as health care and traffic management, Covid-19 is prompting loud calls for reform. Those of us in doctoral education in the humanities need to join that chorus.

The humanities were in crisis long before Covid-19 became a pandemic. Now there’s every sign that a bad situation is about to get worse, as colleges and universities announce revenue shortfalls that will very likely lead to furloughs, layoffs, and the shuttering of academic programs. But while there’s ample reason for despair, our current situation also presents an opportunity for some radical rethinking of doctoral education and graduate-student support. (Join a webinar discussion today at 2 p.m. on Graduate Admissions During the Crisis.)

We have one such proposal: What if public and private universities got together to coordinate, instead of compete, and agreed to admit new graduate classes only every other year? Not as an austerity measure, but as a creative way to rethink graduate admissions, cohort sizes, and pipelines, and extend the timeline for candidates competing for a dearth of tenure-track jobs.

When austerity strikes, it is often the most vulnerable employees who pay the price first. In addition to the precarious position of contingent faculty members, graduate students are facing the possibility of reduced funding packages and the certainty of a grim academic job market. In a March essay, Chris Newfield, a professor of literature and American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara, captured the sense of dread when he wrote that administrators “are now getting set to wreck another academic generation, having failed to rebuild the public university employment base after the last big crisis in 2008.”

It doesn’t have to go that way.

First and foremost, biennial admissions would enhance the ability of universities to stand by their commitments to current graduate students. Instead of departments moving Ph.D. students to the finish line to free up funding for next year’s set of new racers, biennial admissions would allow for more structured budgeting of graduate support, more flexible timelines to the degree, and smarter training of graduate students.

A severe economic recession in the wake of Covid-19 will lead students to delay finishing their dissertations. Even candidates who are on track might have second thoughts about rushing to file at a moment when the U.S. unemployment rate is forecast to reach 15 percent. A coordinated approach to graduate admissions could help ensure that time-to-degree and other metrics of “progress” do not force students arbitrarily out of doctoral programs.

Another benefit of biennial admissions: First-year doctoral cohorts might return to robust levels. In recent years — heeding the call to limit the size of entering classes — many humanities doctoral programs scaled back from admitting, say, 20 new graduate students to admitting half as many. That was a responsible move, but, depending on how many students actually accepted a doctoral program’s admissions offers, it might end up with only four new students, which isn’t much of a cohort.

Biennial admissions could allow universities to slightly increase the size of each first-year cohort, adding to the diversity of ideas and research interests that are the lifeblood of graduate study. An added bonus: Recruiting faculty members to teach that rite of passage known as the proseminar might become easier if the course were taught every other year.

Moving away from yearly admissions won’t solve the problems of the academic job market, but it would offer flexibility that might alleviate the situation. A staggered approach to graduate admissions would help regulate the flow of job candidates by spacing them out over time. Graduate students are essential to the running of the university, and by opening and closing the admissions pipeline periodically, Ph.D. programs could make that resource more sustainable. At the same time, those programs would have to reorient themselves toward training Ph.D.s for multiple career paths.

How might this work in practice? To answer that, we’ve used our respective conferences — the Pac-12 and the Big Ten — as models.

Imagine that the Universities of Maryland at College Park, Washington, Wisconsin at Madison, and the 23 other members of those two conferences agreed to work together for the common good of sustainable graduate education. Adding in the eight other campuses of the University of California system would bring the group to 34 world-renowned universities. Each year, then, 17 of those institutions would accept applications from prospective graduate students while the remaining 17 would wait a year. The off year would allow each university to marshal its resources, think concertedly about which areas to emphasize in admissions, and, most important, concentrate financial support on the Ph.D. students already enrolled.

Such a plan is already in place for college football. The Big Ten splits teams into east and west divisions, and the Pac-12 does the same with its north and south divisions, to ensure that teams are not scheduled to play one another every year. While it may seem heretical to turn to college football for inspiration about restructuring Ph.D. admissions, we would note that athletics conferences made those changes to better manage resources and increase revenues.

This model might prove especially beneficial for programs that cross disciplines. Universities could use this system as an opportunity to recruit students in specific clusters for an interdisciplinary program — for example, the History of Consciousness program at UC-Santa Cruz or the Bridge program between English and Afro-American studies at UW-Madison.

A formidable hurdle would be leveling the playing field in terms of graduate-student support across different campuses. We’re all too familiar with the disparities in funding packages at private versus public universities, not to mention the big gap between financial support for STEM doctoral students versus their counterparts in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. It would be lovely but impractical to envision a full-on redistribution of admissions income within this new graduate-admissions consortium. (While college-football conferences do share some revenues, no one in their right mind would look there for a model of the equitable redistribution of resources.)

With a biennial admissions system, most likely, funding packages would generally remain the province of individual campuses — with one exception. The university consortium could offer a collective fellowship program, perhaps focused on a different subfield each year and supported on a sliding scale by each campus.

Pooling intellectual resources would be even easier — and definitely more exciting to envision — than sharing financial resources. Universities with a strong interdisciplinary program in medieval studies or environmental studies, for example, could decide to recruit cooperatively in those areas during a given admissions year. Prospective students could apply to a common pool, and the possibilities for joint programming — intercampus research centers, scholarly conferences, shared online courses — are intriguing. The regional strengths of individual graduate programs would be enhanced, and this approach might be a special advantage for such small fields as classics (long-established) and Islamic studies (emerging).

Yet there’s ample room for caution. Would the U.S. Justice Department view this consortium as an illegal restraint of trade? Would large disciplines dominate the admissions process and the consortium? What would biennial admissions mean for small area programs? It would be tragic were this proposal taken up in ways that would gut graduate education in less-traveled fields. Certainly not every field would benefit from this academic hydroxychloroquine.

Our point here is not to answer every question this approach would raise, and resolve every problem, but to show how the Covid-19 crisis — with its many, many downsides — also represents an opportunity for graduate programs in the humanities to finally do something real about doctoral training and career paths for our Ph.D.s.

We as a profession should use this moment to make graduate education more friendly to multiple career paths and more attractive — not to mention more accessible to a different demographic from the usual pool of prospective students with their elite pedigrees.

Amid talk of a “moratorium on admissions to graduate programs,” our immodest proposal aspires to the broadest possible framework for graduate education, post-Covid-19. Public research universities like our own, in particular, have a critical role to play in turning doctoral education toward serving the public good and enhancing access.

Rather than choose the path of austerity and cut graduate programs even further, or the path of excess and expand them, we advocate this swerve at this moment. Let’s not waste another crisis.

Russ Castronovo is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, former chair of its English department, and now director of the Center for the Humanities, Susan Gillman is a professor of literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz and its former director of graduate studies in literature.

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