The Intersection

Where Are the Grad Students?

In a recession, there’s supposed to be an inverse relationship between the economy’s performance and graduate school enrollments. The theory is simple: In economic downturns, young people go back to school to shield themselves from the unpredictable labor marketplace and prepare for greater career advancement down the road.

There’s just one problem–it doesn’t appear to be happening this time around. My latest Science Progress column explores this mystery, which doesn’t bode well either for those wishing to become students themselves or for the future of our scientific workforce. As I put it:

…today’s economic downturn comes as the United States is scrambling to remake its energy system and deploy the clean technologies necessary avert the worst effects of climate change–a project for which we’ll need plenty of well-educated scientists, engineers, and other technical workers. Whether we’ll have them, though, remains to be seen. Certainly we can’t assume that the recession, like a bolt from the blue, will be the source of their delivery.

You can read the full column here.


  1. #1 Coturnix
    December 17, 2008

    Perhaps it’s too early? Let’s watch next Fall applications as a lagging indicator of the current recession – remember that most people in the usual candidate sub-population for grad school were not really ‘hit’ by the economic downturn until about the last 2-3 months.

    Another option may be entrepreneurship – college students/graduates trying to make something cool on the Web or in computers, instead of grad school.

  2. #2 Greg Laden
    December 17, 2008

    I’m not sure this is happening. I run admissions for a specialized research based undergrad program, but I also see what happens in other undergrad programs in our college. People are flocking to us big time. In the mean time, I’m involved career wise with some dozen of my grad student in early career running from just out of college and about to apply to grad school through in jr. positions for a year or two and looking at lateral or vertical moves. I think that the lack of GRE ‘starts’ may be students pulling back and reconsidering which direction to go in, and working on getting more prep. Like one of my best students ever, gradauted at top of class and was about to go to the Ivy Leagues to study an esoteric subject, but decided instead to take some more hard science courses and apply for a different grad program that would be more likely to lead to a job.

    I think we are just seeing a delayed reaction.

  3. #3 Walker
    December 17, 2008

    So I don’t get this. From your article:

    Stewart, of the Council of Graduate Schools, can think of three possibilities. Perhaps, she says, the credit crunch has hit the ability of students to obtain educational loans

    No one obtains a loan for a PhD program in science. They are always funded. Are you counting Masters programs as well (which are not always funded)?

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    December 17, 2008

    Walker: That is a gross overstatement. It requires that we define “science” by what is “funded” As a scientist who more or less put myself through school (well, I had an NSF scholarship, but that did not cover everything by a long shot) because I chose to study in an area not funded by the NIH or big Pharm or whatever, I’d rather see a more realistic view maintained.

  5. #5 Chris C. Mooney
    December 17, 2008

    Folks, I agree it’s a “lagging indicator” and that to some extent the jury is still out…but the folks at the Council of Graduate Schools were pretty clear that as of now, what we’re seeing is not what they would expect. Hence the column….

  6. #6 Lorax
    December 18, 2008

    At last in the sciences, where we pay our students a living wage and benefits (including tuition), we may not see increased enrollments. The fact of the matter is that students cost the mentors a large amount of money (not far from starting post-docs in my institution once benefits are factored in), put this in light of drastically reduced funding rates and reduced funding that has happened over the last 6 years. The situation is many if not most mentors have uncertain funding and cannot take on the risk of and for a graduate student for five years. I expect to see fewer enrollments in the sciences, at least the biomedical sciences, which I am most familiar with, as fewer offers are made.

  7. #7 skeptical
    December 18, 2008

    Maybe the “charming nugget of pop wisdom” is, in fact, simply a straw man that has been so often repeated that people have begun to believe it to be true. It is difficult to be convinced of anything by one person’s recounting of an “informal survey” that shows “no apparent trend.”

    Maybe the GREs are not an accurate indicator of whether or not graduate school applications are on the rise. There are, after all, other forms of graduate education that don’t require GREs (Law schools, Medical schools, Business schools, educational programs, …).

    An article in the Daily Bruin suggests that interest in graduate school might be up:
    “Test preparatory giant Kaplan reported as much as a 45 percent rise in interest in law, business and graduate school programs since Sept. 1.”

    Maybe, just maybe, this is simply a fabricated problem to give people something to talk about.

  8. #8 Dano
    December 18, 2008

    I’m thinking of going back for a PhD., as my reading of the future economy might make a course correction a good idea.

    The issue today is that part-time jobs for students might be hard to come by…



  9. #9 Jonathan
    December 18, 2008

    Can you blame them? Having a PhD these days is hardly helpful in finding a job. I don’t think I could advise anyone in good concience to go waste their time getting a PhD over leaving school and finding a real job.

  10. #10 Ashutosh
    December 18, 2008

    On the other hand, consider the scores of PhDs who are not landing jobs because they are overqualified.

  11. #11 jon
    December 18, 2008

    Lorax, that may be true. But in general, it’s not that students are overpaid — postdocs are severely underpaid in many fields.

  12. #12 jon
    December 18, 2008

    Looking at the article, they seem to be measuring things by how many people take the GRE. Those scores are typically good for 5 years.

    Application deadlines are around now for many schools, though, so it’s rather premature to claim that applications are down.

New comments have been disabled.