Collapse in the PhD applicant pool?


Even though I am not a humanities student, I came across some indications that the applicant pools in the humanities and the social sciences (thank you, “that-girl-that-once-crossed-WUSTL-off-her-list-because-of-riots-in-Saint-Louis”) have dwindled. Although direct discouragement was not used to the same extent in humanities as it was in law (at least in common law jurisdictions, since direct discouragement was not used in Quebec, a civil law jurisdiction, in the context of legal education), it appears that poor job prospects of advanced degrees in the humanities and the social sciences could have scared away some people who would otherwise have considered such advanced degrees. Enter the exhibits (however, these indications should not be taken as data or conclusive evidence):

Exhibit 1: an undisclosed history graduate program has seen the transnational history segment of its applicant pool decrease by half (from 22 to 11)

Exhibit 2 (Daily Nous): an undisclosed philosophy graduate program has noticed a marked drop in the applications

Exhibit 3 (Rutgers English department): The deadline was extended by a week, from Dec. 15 to Dec. 22, although the two-part application system, in which one has to wait 24 hours after the preliminary information is entered to upload supporting materials, may have also played a role

Exhibit 4 (Fordham): The application fee for its masters program was reduced to $35 (originally $70), likely in an attempt to bolster its flagging English MA applicant pool

Exhibit 5 (Northwestern): The applicant pool for English has steadily declined in the past 5 years at NWU unless the 2014 data (not yet released) suggests otherwise

However, that is not to say that, despite the economic recovery (still fragile, I know) the applicant pool for graduate programs in STEM disciplines may not have collapsed the same way it did in the humanities. In fact, I would not expect the physics graduate applicant pool to have collapsed, given the ballooning numbers of physics graduates since the past ~10-15 years or so, per APS statistics. And the preliminary information for 2014 indicate that there were ~7,000 bachelors degrees awarded domestically in the US.

Now, if the median for these 7,000 were around 3.0 (a little on the high side but since some depts seem to grade more generously the more advanced the coursework, it could be true) this means about 3,500 of them can actually contemplate graduate study under any shape or form. Plus, so many of them will branch out afterward. Some will try their hands at law school (Vanderbilt always seems to have at least one pre-law in its physics graduates), others at med school (Minnesota seems to encourage physics majors to try med school more than the national average), others still will try to break into engineering or economics. On the other hand, one could say that the majority of those with actual research experience in undergrad will either aim for a PhD (even if said PhD was not in physics) or for med school (after all, research experience is valued by medical admissions committees) and, now that it’s made easier than never before, domestically the applicant pool could at least be maintained.

If you come in from other fields, please chime in as to whether you think your field has seen a downturn in its applicant pool or not.


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