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How COVID-19 May Affect Your Graduate Education

Grad school admission and programs are looking very different this year with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Here's what graduate students need to know.

Whether you’ve already selected a graduate school or are just starting your research, there’s no escaping the impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on all of higher education. Grad school is already very different than undergrad—but now, it looks even more different than it would during a typical year. Just how will COVID-19 affect your grad school planning and search process? Here are some changes to expect, along with practical tips for dealing with them.

More online learning

Probably the biggest change the pandemic is bringing to higher education is a new emphasis on distance learning. This may not affect you at all if you had already planned to earn your graduate degree online. But in response to the need to keep people physically separated, most campuses have greatly expanded their online class offerings—some have even shifted to 100% remote learning, at least temporarily. One plus is the added flexibility it will likely bring to your graduate studies. While it’ll still be necessary to meet deadlines, with online classes, you’ll be freed from the demands of attending classes in person. You can complete the majority of your work on your own schedule, working around other commitments or interests.

With the lack of a regular schedule of class attendance, good organizational and time management skills are more important than ever. “If you’re intent on attending graduate school during COVID-19, get serious about time management,” says Grant Aldrich, CEO of Audit your free time and reduce or cut out time-wasting activities; also manage your non-school activities and schedule your days and weeks. “It's time to start getting organized so you can make the best use of the time you have in each day,” Aldrich says.

Communication challenges

With limited face-to-face contact, new variations of interpersonal communication can be expected to arise. "How you communicate with faculty, staff, and administrators will be different," says Andrea Aiello, Associate Dean of Academic and Student Services for Clark University’s School of Management. "The most prepared graduate students will spend time practicing communication skills, both in front of a camera and with writing clear, concise emails." For the latter, take time to write out sentences and re-read them before sending, eliminating all slang and shortcuts often used in texting. “This will help when you’re emailing classmates, teammates, faculty, or staff,” Aiello says. 

Sojourner White, a 2020 master’s degree graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, notes that social connections will also be different. “Orientations, welcome weeks, and all those fun orientation festivities will probably not be as interactive this year as they have been in years past,” she says. Also, “There may not be as many [in-person] networking opportunities to connect with other students or future employers.” This means it’ll be more important than ever to take advantage of social media platforms such as LinkedIn. Now and in the near future, the virtual world will offer the best opportunities to build community and support and to get to know other graduate students. 

Related: 4 Easy Networking Strategies for Online Students 

Adjustments in travel and living arrangements

With the emphasis on social distancing, getting to campus for any in-person classes that might be held may be more problematic, especially for commuting students who depend on public transportation. Bus and train schedules are likely to be less convenient, and the experience of traveling with others will offer its own set of challenges. The same will be true of air travel for those traveling longer distances to campus destinations. Similarly, if you plan to move for graduate school, expect apartment sharing and other group living arrangements to be more restrictive than in the past, whether by university policy or individual choice.

At a minimum, giving added consideration to personal protection when making housing choices is smart. In the process, be sure to choose a living environment that will be conducive to studying, advises Chioma Iwunze-Ibiam, a master’s degree student at Cornell University. “With more classes online, you'll find that you have to spend most of your time in your apartment.” This means avoiding noisy roommates and choosing a well-ventilated apartment that allows sunlight into your space. “You'll feel depressed if you’re forced to spend your days in a room that doesn't have adequate natural light,” Iwunze-Ibiam says.

Testing alternatives

Early in the pandemic, many exam sites were closed and test administrations were canceled. But providers of exams such as the GRE, GMAT, and LSAT have developed some new alternatives for prospective grad students. Options such as at-home and remotely proctored testing are helping students stay on track with their plans to apply to grad school. “It's important to note that we haven’t heard that any graduate school, business school, or law school will evaluate applicants who take the at-home versions any differently from applicants who took the traditional forms of the exams,” says Jeff Thomas, Executive Director of Admissions Programs for Kaplan. He encourages students to visit the tests’ websites on a regular basis for updates since some specifics, such as dates, may change as circumstances evolve.

Related: What Grad School Tests Should You Take (or Not)?

Questions and more questions

As the impact and situations related to COVID-19 continue to evolve, a lot of questions are bound to arise. D. Antonio Cantù—Associate Dean and Director of the Department of Education, Counseling, and Leadership at Bradley University—suggests asking admission representatives plenty of questions when considering any school or program, such as: 

  • What type of restrictions are being placed on graduate student research and travel? 
  • What steps are being taken to ensure that internships and clinical experiences can still be planned, coordinated, and facilitated? 
  • Will instructional delivery for graduate courses be face-to-face, hybrid/blended, or fully online? 
  • What type of support, including academic advising, will be provided to grad students if courses are offered in an online or hybrid/blended model?

New opportunities

Despite the very real problems students are now facing, there is a silver lining: some new advantages and opportunities can be anticipated. For example, if it's relevant to your goals, be on the lookout for opportunities to participate in pandemic-related research projects as a research assistant, suggests Robin Neuhaus, a PhD student at New York University. She notes that in recent months, increased funding has been authorized for new coronavirus-related research projects. This support should lead to new projects with a demand for research assistants. “Whether you're studying law, economics, psychology, or another field, the connections you make with professors through research assistantships can be valuable steppingstones to future opportunities,” Neuhaus says.

Related: Unexpected Pandemic Takeaways for Aspiring Nurses 

Of course, the challenges posed by the pandemic are many, and it would be misleading to focus too much on new opportunities and the benefits of online learning. Still, the grad school option remains as valid as ever, as university faculty and leaders keep working hard to provide a positive experience for students to gain a quality education—efforts that will only work to everyone’s advantage.

Have you found your best-fit grad program yet? Use our Graduate School Search tool! While you’re there, you can also check out other helpful articles and advice about being a grad student.

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