Graduate Applications and the Economy

By Julianne Dalcanton | January 9, 2009 1:06 pm

Having been involved in graduate admissions for about a decade, I’ve been verrrry curious as to how the tanking economy would affect the number of applications to graduate school. Back during the tech boom, applications to our department went notably down, as potential applicants made the completely rational decision that earning 100K/yr (while being supplied with free soda and gym memberships) was more appealing than 5+ years at a quarter of the salary. When the tech bubble crashed, applications went right back up again.

If I were graduating from college this year, I’d look at my job prospects and decide that laying low in graduate school for a few years might not be a bad decision. You could build up credentials while avoiding the likely possibility of winding up living back in your parents’ basement. This would argue for an increase in the number of applications. On the other hand, in a time of great economic uncertainty, I wouldn’t think that investing years of education in something as peculiar as astronomy would seem that sensible. Astronomy is not going to be the high demand career of the 21st century, nor will it be big part of the stimulus package. This would argue for a decrease in the number of applications.

So, our admissions deadline recently closed, and we’re down about 15%. Anyone else willing to weigh in on where they’re at?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia, Science and Society
  • J Beals

    I work in the Educational Technology field and it’s going to be an interesting time for our sector in general. We see a lot of hurry up and wait from our projects. There is a real desire to push forward but not necessarily an impetus yet. To be honest those people that are not passionate about going for their graduate work may instead tackle a second bachelors or something a little more aligned with a more classic sector such as manufacturing or technology.

    Now I wanted to get in an application for my own graduate program in Ed Tech this year but didn’t get my GRE work done in time. My personal situation may be an indicator as well of others situation and we might not see graduate applications rise till the following year (2010 – 2011).

  • Yvette

    As someone putting the final touches on her last astrophysics grad school applications, I’m all ears… Almost relieved to hear the numbers are down actually, I was banking on them being much higher this year.

  • Sam

    It sounds like the phenomenon noted at PhD Comics:

  • Shane

    John List at the University of Chicago sees the opposite with economics applications, although I saw a report that said the number of people taking the general GRE was down.

  • CL

    Went up ~ 10% at Stanford physics.

  • Unofficial Info

    Unofficially I was told that Stanford Physics had a record number of applications this year. Are applicants mindlessly queuing up at so-called ‘top’ schools?

  • Unofficial Info

    @CL I shouldn’t walk away from my computer before hitting submit next time! = P

  • Ali

    What is the mean fluctuation in graduate school applicants number usually? I dont think 10-15% increase would be meaningful without knowing the usual fluctuations. By the way, 15% increase doesnt change the “order of magnitude” of the admission chance (Well! As an astronomy student I am used to be worried about order of magnitudes!)

  • DrEvil

    Went up by ~10% at OSU astronomy, but that was also the case last year.

  • Michael

    Taught Astronomy for 23 years.

    Have been preparing tax returns for 15.

    Guess which has made me the most money the fastest.

  • Julianne

    We’ve also been wondering how we were affected by Anne Kinney leaving us out of her recent citation analysis. That’s a variable that affects just UW astronomy.

    For the record, we would have done really well, had we been included!

  • Lab Lemming

    “Taught Astronomy for 23 years.
    Have been preparing tax returns for 15.”

    Does that mean that as an astronomer, there were 8 years where your income was too low to require filing?

  • Richard E

    Grad school — the snooze button on the alarm clock of life…

  • Gary

    “Does that mean that as an astronomer, there were 8 years where your income was too low to require filing?”

    Naw. That was the year in between.

    I’d rather be teaching, but I’d rather be able to pay the bills and then some.

  • Jeff

    Academic physics/astrophysics is recession-proof… the job market is terrible regardless of the economy!

  • Luke

    Julianne – Seattle has a reputation as being a cool, hip city that a lot of young people would like to move to if they had a chance. Do you think that that reputation encourages undergraduates to apply to UW?

  • Gary

    I’m a Portland native.

    Seattle has always been considered unnaturally weird.

    The state of Washington has always been the collapsed commie function.

  • Julianne

    Luke — I think it does encourage a certain kind of student to apply. We get a higher than average (I think) share of hiker/kayaker/climber/skier types applying, as well as a very high fraction of returning and/or non-traditional students. The flip side is that I think a fair number of people self-select out, assuming that because we’re enjoying life that we’re not sufficiently hard core about our science. Not true of course — it’s very much a work hard then play hard environment, and compared to where I went to grad school (princeton), there are a far higher fraction of our graduates working in astronomy long term. But self-selection out is fine — we never have a problem selecting a class of kick-ass students!

  • DrEvil

    “But self-selection out is fine — we never have a problem selecting a class of kick-ass students!”

    So they can kick ass, but can they also do astrophysics? Just kidding.

  • Pingback: 11 January 2009 « blueollie()

  • Charon

    “earning 100K/yr… was more appealing than 5+ years at a quarter of the salary”

    Julianne, please ask some of your students on RA/TA what they make. Hint: it’s not $25K, even in 2009 (let alone in 2000).

  • Brad H

    UCLA astronomy is down about 12% (although thats only about 1 sigma) in the domestic applications column. Having waded through about 2/3 of the applications
    so far though, it seems as though the number of really good applicants has increased.
    So thats good at least.

  • PI

    What does this mean for all those poor PhDs who started in 2001-2003 to avoid the *last* recession? Arg!


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