Ensuring the Success of STEM Graduate Education during the COVID-19 Crisis and in the Future

In spring of 2020, institutional leaders faced a daunting challenge when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered normal college and university life. This research project documents the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to STEM graduate education and illuminates strategies the institutions used to respond to those challenges. Our research, composed of a series of expert interviews and a comprehensive national survey followed by a virtual convening, paints a detailed picture of actions taken by U.S. graduate schools as they worked to ensure the academic and research progress and overall well-being of STEM graduate students, and to sustain graduate programs through the pandemic.

Traditionally, U.S. graduate schools have been regarded as bastions of academic conservatism. This study suggests COVID-19 turned many of them into laboratories for innovation. Graduate schools employed many strategies in response to the crisis—some enabled by technology, some involving policy changes, and some reflecting new practices or processes.

This project not only identified and documented the challenges faced by graduate STEM programs in coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. It also explored the innovations universities enacted during the crisis that:

  • Stimulated the success of current and future STEM graduate students
  • Sustained STEM graduate programs during and after the crisis
  • Transformed and improved future graduate STEM education

After conducting qualitative interviews with four graduate school deans from diverse institutions to inform the development of the survey instrument, NORC designed, administered, and analyzed an online cross-sectional survey of graduate school deans from 300 STEM-producing doctoral- and master's-level institutions in the United States. More than two-thirds of the institutions participated (70%). The survey focused on impacts and innovations across three key areas of inquiry:

  1. Graduate student academic and research progress
  2. Graduate student health and well-being
  3. Graduate program continuity and sustainability

Quantitative and qualitative data from the surveys has been coded and organized into these three key areas of inquiry.

The initial findings were presented and discussed with graduate deans and other STEM graduate education stakeholders in a virtual convening (September 29 and 30, 2020). The updated report has been disseminated to STEM graduate programs throughout the country.