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New Survey of Top STEM Graduate Programs Finds Innovations May Be Here to Stay

Press Release

Senior officers from 208 of the top producing STEM master’s and doctoral programs completed a survey on the challenges they faced during COVID-19 pandemic and how they responded to it.

CHICAGO, January 28, 2021 — COVID-19 emerged as the crisis of a lifetime for most institutions, but the pandemic created an unparalleled climate for innovation that offered the opportunity, and in some instances, required meaningful reform in master’s and doctoral education. NORC at the University of Chicago conducted a study in summer 2020 to identify challenges the COVID-19 pandemic poses to graduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs at leading universities around the United States. This study also collected information on innovative strategies that institutions are employing during the crisis.  These strategies attempted to ensure that graduate students made academic and research progress and remained physically and mentally healthy, and that the graduate program survived in the face of this pandemic.

The survey found that the use of some innovative practices during the pandemic are likely to stay. Notable findings from the survey include: 

  • 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 entiregraduate 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.
  • Expanded use of holistic review strategies or practices for admissions applications: 40 percent of graduate schools expanded their use of holistic review processes during the admissions process (in addition to the 40 percent who had already adopted this process prior to COVID-19).
  • 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. For example, 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.
  • The survey found several areas of concerns and challenges for graduate students, particularly:
    • International students experienced both financial and travel restrictions.
    • Students with family responsibilities were especially challenged.
    • Students with disabilities lost access to community services.
    • Most institutions reported fewer job placements for graduates.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on graduate students and their graduate programs. Our research both documents that disruption and highlights a host of strategies undertaken in response,” said Debra W. Stewart, senior fellow, Higher Education Analytics Center at NORC, and president emerita, Council of Graduate Schools. “As damaging as this experience has been, our research suggests a potential silver lining. Innovations are underway as graduate schools struggle to meet their students’ needs. Some of these innovations, ranging from broader use of digital technology to new research laboratory practices, will definitely strengthen the graduate student experience across STEM fields."

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted not only classroom learning, but also laboratory and field research:

  • On average, 67 percent of STEM research was delayed or discontinued due to COVID-19.
  • Just 7 percent of institutions reported that all laboratories remained open during COVID-19 with or without enhanced safety measures.
  • Most institutions (79 percent) had some of their STEM laboratories open in some capacity, while 14 percent reported that all laboratories and lab activity closed when the campus closed.

The study, Stewart and Ann Kearns Davoren, NORC senior research scientist, is funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant supported three main activities:

  1. Web-based national survey of graduate deans in summer 2020
  2. Virtual convening on September 29 and 30, 2020, to refine results and identify promising practices
  3. Multipronged dissemination of project results to assist institutions addressing ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic

Moving to online learning was a primary challenge as just 18 percent of institutions were fully capable of supporting online/distance learning. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, over 2.1 million graduate students on U.S. campuses were enrolled in on-campus, in-person classes. As the 2020-2021 academic year began, there was a wholesale transition of graduate education to online formats.

For more information and to view videos from the September virtual convening, please visit the project webpage

“The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on graduate students and their graduate programs.”

Debra W. Stewart

Senior Fellow

“The COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc on graduate students and their graduate programs.”

About NORC at the University of Chicago

NORC at the University of Chicago conducts research and analysis that decision-makers trust. As a nonpartisan research organization and a pioneer in measuring and understanding the world, we have studied almost every aspect of the human experience and every major news event for more than eight decades. Today, we partner with government, corporate, and nonprofit clients around the world to provide the objectivity and expertise necessary to inform the critical decisions facing society.

Contact: For more information, please contact Eric Young at NORC at or (703) 217-6814 (cell).