Choosing a Graduate School in an Era of Budget Cuts

By Jenni Schelble

If you’re in the process of choosing a graduate program, you are probably using a list to help you decide where to apply. Your list might include categories such as research interests, teaching opportunities, and funding availability. These are all important things to consider. However, in the current economy and the resulting wave of budget cuts at many universities, you may want to add a few more categories to your list.

In response to demands from legislators to decrease university budgets, some university presidents are choosing to eliminate entire departments and programs, instead of trimming the budgets of every department. This means that a graduate program you are accepted to this year could be closed next year. What that means for students depends on the university, but it could affect research opportunities (if faculty members are laid off and/or labs are closed), teaching opportunities (if the class you teach will no longer be offered), and your own coursework (if the faculty members who teach your courses are laid off). It could also affect your ability to continue on to a Ph.D. program if you are still in a masters program. While it’s likely that the university will make accommodations for students currently enrolled in a closed program, it’s very unlikely that your graduate school experience will be unaffected by the program closure. You may have to take alternate courses, do your research in a different lab, or even switch advisors.

During my third year of graduate school, my graduate program was closed due to university-wide budget cuts. Despite meeting with administrators, contacting the media, and holding on-campus protests, my fellow graduate students and I were unable to keep our program open. We lost outstanding faculty members, promising students, and a research lab. No new students can be admitted to the program. Those of us already enrolled in the program will be allowed to finish our degrees, but our graduate school experience has been notably impacted by the program closure. Many students may face a similar experience to mine, so consider the following points.

Consideration #1: Stability of the program.

If you are applying to a program at a college or university that is facing budget cuts, as a prospective student, it’s important to find out whether the program is in danger of being closed. This doesn’t mean you should call the college dean and demand a copy of the new budget or that you should panic if the program you’ve been accepted to is in a college that is facing cuts. Talk with your temporary advisor, or if you’re still in the application stage, the graduate admissions coordinator, about how budget cuts may affect their graduate program. Keep in mind that if budget cuts are not final yet, faculty members may not be able to give you definite answers. However, they should have some idea of whether their program is on the chopping block, at least enough to tell you, “Yes, we probably are facing cuts and may lose some faculty” or, “No, we don’t anticipate having to close our program or lay off faculty.”

Consideration #2: Job stability of your advisor.

If you’ve chosen a graduate program because you want to work with a specific faculty member, it’s especially important for you to be aware of how budget cuts could affect your department. Faculty members who do not have tenure may be laid off before tenured faculty members, so if your advisor (or the person you hope to have as your advisor) does not have tenure and the university is making budget cuts, you should ask if faculty layoffs are included as part of the cuts. If your advisor could face a layoff, you should decide whether you would still want to attend that university if she/he were no longer there. Is there another faculty member you’re interested in working with? Is that person accepting graduate students? Switching advisors midstream can be a challenge, particularly if you end up with a faculty member who does not share your research interests. However, job stability is a delicate topic, one that faculty members may not be comfortable discussing with graduate students. If a program you’re interested in is facing budget cuts, and if faculty layoffs are part of the planned cuts, simply finding out whether your future advisor has tenure may be helpful. This is not a foolproof method: Universities may move faculty to other departments instead of laying them off, and those without tenure are not necessarily the first to be fired.

Consideration #3: Continued availability of teaching opportunities.

If a program is reduced or closed, the courses taught by faculty and graduate students in that program may be reduced, eliminated, or transferred to another department. If you are offered a teaching assistantship, it’s (always) important to ask if you are guaranteed funding (i.e., a teaching position) in the future. If the department is unsure about whether the course you teach will be offered again, ask if there are other funding opportunities available.

How can I possibly know whether my program is facing budget cuts? Who can I ask?

If you are already enrolled in a graduate program and you are worried about how budget cuts may affect you, talk to your advisor. Explain that you’ve heard there may be cuts, and you’re wondering whether it will affect your ability to successfully finish your degree.

If you have been accepted to a graduate program and are considering whether to attend, you can politely discuss your concerns with the graduate student coordinator. This does NOT mean that you should call every program you’ve applied to and ask if they’re facing budget cuts—many programs have funding that is unaffected by state budgets (e.g., if you’re applying to a private university, budget cuts may not be an issue). Do some research on your own first (e.g., read the news, look around the university website, etc.) to see if budget cuts are something you should even worry about. If you do find evidence that your university is facing budget cuts, you can ask the graduate admissions coordinator questions such as:

  • Is laying off faculty part of the university’s budget cutting plan?
  • Are certain programs more likely to face cuts than others? Is your program one of them?
  • Do you think that budget cuts will affect teaching opportunities for graduate students?
  • Could budget cuts affect which graduate courses are taught in the future?

Although this may seem overwhelming, researching the stability of graduate programs helps guarantee that you have the most productive, pleasant graduate school experience possible. Don’t get discouraged! Considering program stability now may save you from being impacted by a program closure in the future.

Jenni Schelble is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida. Her research focuses on the influence of working memory capacity on strategy use during problem solving and other cognitive tasks. Jenni can be reached at