Graduate Schools Respond to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic presented the crisis of a lifetime for most graduate school leaders and their institutions, including campus shut-downs, research disruption, and critical concerns about student well-being and safety. As challenging as the situation was, when considered against decades of calls for improving graduate education, the pandemic also introduced an unparalleled climate for innovation and experimentation.

Funded by a rapid response (RAPID) research grant from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Graduate Education (Directorate of Education and Human Resources), the study documented the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic to graduate education and illuminated strategies institutions used to respond to those challenges. The project included three main activities:

  1. A web-based national survey administered in summer 2020 that collected data from graduate deans at 208 leading institutions awarding graduate STEM degrees, including 191 of the largest doctoral institutions and 17 of the largest master’s institutions (among which there were 52 minority-serving institutions);
  2. A virtual convening of 120 senior officials in graduate education and research in September 2020, to discuss preliminary results and promising practices; and
  3. A multipronged dissemination of project results to assist institutions in addressing ongoing COVID-19 challenges

In addition to documenting the very real human and institutional costs triggered by COVID-19, our study revealed that COVID-19 turned many graduate schools – traditionally regarded as bastions of academic conservatism – into laboratories for innovation and change. 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.

Key innovations included:

  • Expanded use of holistic admissions practices: 40 percent of graduate schools expanded their use of holistic review during the admissions process (in addition to the 40 percent who had already adopted this process prior to COVID-19).
  • Permanent expansion of online and hybrid courses: 94 percent of survey respondents reported that after the effects of COVID-19 have passed, their institutions would likely increase the number of classes offered in a “hybrid” format; 83 percent would likely increase the number of courses conducted solely online.
  • Proliferation of entire graduate degree programs conducted wholly online or in hybrid formats: More than three-quarters (82 percent) of institutions anticipated expanding the number of entire graduate programs offered in a hybrid format; more than one-half (54 percent) anticipated expanding the number of entire graduate programs offered solely online after the pandemic has passed.
  • Development of new positions for graduate students: Several graduate schools designed and adopted new types of assistantships to help with remote course design and delivery (e.g., “technical teaching assistantship” and “remote course facilitators”).
  • Nearly universal adoption of online process for key academic milestones: Nearly all graduate programs authorized and used online processes for dissertation proposals (99 percent); dissertation defenses (99 percent); thesis defenses (98 percent); doctoral exams (97 percent); and qualifying exams (94 percent). Each of these practices had been used by less than one in five graduate schools before the pandemic. In addition, the virtual participation of external dissertation committee members became standard.
  • Increased efforts to connect with graduate students: Efforts implemented by at least three-quarters of all institutions during the pandemic included coordinating meetings about wellness (78 percent); increasing the frequency of communications (77 percent); and hosting virtual academic meetings (75 percent).
  • Expanding notions of research and curricula: New, creative thinking emerged around what constitutes research in STEM, with a new emphasis on systematic review and meta-analysis. Multiple institutions noted the pandemic forced them to review and reform their curricula and some made a conscientious effort to expand use of universal design for learning principals.

Results of the project were featured in leading news outlets, including the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. In February 2021, NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan specifically highlighted this project in his address to the National Science Board, noting its potential to “help graduate programs rethink relations between teaching methods and technology to better support students.”