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Graduate students have faced the impact of the pandemic, with canceled applications and reduced research.

February 28, 2021

As Grad Students Struggle through COVID-19 Repercussions, History Department Suspends Grad School Applications

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With a heavy financial toll of COVID-19 on universities across the board, graduate programs are altering their operations, and some are not accepting students this year. 

Following a trend of similar decisions across college campuses, Cornell’s history department decided to suspend graduate student admissions for the 2021-2022 academic year. 

The main reason for the suspension, according to Prof. Claudia Verhoeven, director of graduate studies of the history department, was to save financial packages normally used for new admits to support current graduate students during the pandemic.

“It was both sad and tragic to have to push back admissions, but I think people generally found it more of a priority to support those in the department first,” said Manuel Berduc, grad. 

Last April, Cornell’s history graduate students sent the department a collective letter, according to Benedetta Luciana Sara Carnaghi, grad. In it, the students voiced the ways in which the pandemic had impacted them and called on the department to support them.  

Unlike his friends in other departments who have not been as lucky, the extra funding has benefited Berduc and his classmates in ways he had not expected. Historians, according to Berduc, are generally expected to do fieldwork in archives, often located abroad, which has proven to be difficult during the pandemic. 

The admissions policy change has given the department flexibility to move financial packages around, replacing travel grants with support funds to finish their research projects and write their dissertations. 

Berduc was forced to alter his course because of social distancing requirements. Unable to access many of the books required for his original research topic, he significantly modified his research focus around the few books within his reach. Last summer, he also had to complete his A Exam, comprehensive exams for PhD students, without access to library resources. 

The history department plans to resume applications next year, hoping to bounce back from the decision Verhoeven referred to as an “emergency measure.”

According to Verhoeven, there hasn’t been back-lash from prospective students. She said that many prospective students are postponing their studies for a year so they can still plan to come to Cornell. Current students seem to be happy with this decision, as they are able to get the financial support they need during the pandemic.  

In other departments, the pandemic has simply meant axing in-person events. Dnyanesh Kulkarni, grad, said that many STEM applicants have been unable to benefit from welcome events that traditionally allow them to “shop around” for graduate school programs in normal years — the physics department, where Kulkarni is pursuing his PhD, had to cancel its flagship “Visitor Weekend” for incoming students.

While the pandemic has impacted current graduate students, it also affected admissions for prospective students. 

Logan Hoffman-Smith is one of many students who has applied to a Cornell graduate school during the pandemic. Seeking a spot in Cornell’s Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, they are currently on the waitlist.

Applying during a pandemic presented several challenges, including difficulty connecting with other writers, but it allowed more time for them to refine work and complete applications. 

“I actually think applying was an easier process because I had so much more time on my hands,” Hoffman-Smith said.

They noted that the waiting period between applications and acceptances looks different this year, since many schools changed their deadlines and requirements.

Kulkarni expressed the privilege that graduate students have enjoyed from a broader societal perspective, as they continued to work, research and earn a living in their chosen course of study. 

“There are wrinkles that have affected all of us,” he said. “But by and large, I feel grateful.”

Correction, Mar. 1, 10:21 a.m.: A previous version of this article inaccurately stated Prof. Raymond Craib suspended graduate applications. While he motioned for the change, it was ultimately the decision of the entire department.