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Due to the outbreak of Covid-19, it is possible that the economy will enter a recession. As more people will want to get into grad school, will it be more difficult to get a Ph.D. position?

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  • This might vary somewhat by country. Where are you asking about?
    – Buffy
    Mar 27, 2020 at 19:21
  • I think it will also be dependent on the field. At the same time, I don't think anyone can really give a useful answer at this point.
    – Bernhard
    Mar 27, 2020 at 19:35
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    Actually, @Bernhard, there is probably historical information on such things, such as on university enrollments during the 2008 recession. I don't have the time for a search, but it is probably readily available. I'd expect doctoral positions to be highly correlated with undergraduate admissions in US (need for TAs).
    – Buffy
    Mar 27, 2020 at 19:46
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    The simple answer is that, generally over the last 40 years, if the economy is bad the number if grad school applications goes up. Makes sense because if there aren’t lots of jobs students think about going on in school.
    – Jon Custer
    Mar 27, 2020 at 19:46
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    There's no way we can answer this question now, we just have no idea what's happening, and would just be guessing. Maybe ask again in several months? Mar 27, 2020 at 20:51

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An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the overall enrollment picture for undergraduate education was only mildly effected by the 2008 recession.

However, many of those students chose community colleges rather than traditional four year colleges. This might suggest a downward pressure on doctoral admissions as there might be a lesser need for TAs in such a situation. This might affect admissions in such fields as mathematics that depend heavily on TAs for undergraduate teaching and teaching support.

Of course there is more to the picture. Research needs go on and it might matter more whether governments (the NSF, say) can maintain funding for doctoral students. If a recession is mild or short lived, expect small effects, though more negative than positive. But it also depends on the attitude of those in congress who provide the funding levels for such things.

Moreover, if there are fewer positions open for doctoral education, and more applicants, the competition might increase and it might be harder for any given individual to find a slot. Unfunded slots are probably easier to come by, of course, since the student helps fund the education to a greater degree than one who is grant or university funded.

But in this case there are effects beyond the economic ones. In a pandemic it is hard to predict what might come. Some pandemics (bubonic plague and the arrival of Europeans in the Americas) have been devastating.

Finally, the outlook for graduates of doctoral programs might be clouded in such a complex situation. But, the economy is cyclic in any case and some of us graduated into terrible academic economy conditions and others not. It is hard to predict what will happen over a five to seven year period.

Your own field is probably a good one to be in, since many trends seem to imply an increase in the need for non-fossil energy production and storage. And in general, the effects can vary tremendously by field.

But competent government helps.

But all of the above is crystal ball gazing with not a lot of hard evidence. A deeper plunge into the question will likely reveal some research on the topic. But with the caveat that things that seem the same might be quite different. There are a lot of variables.

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    "Finally, the outlook for graduates of doctoral programs might be clouded in such a complex situation." Indeed. I think nobody really knows right now. Mar 27, 2020 at 21:24
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    @WolfgangBangerth, the future will only be revealed when we get there.
    – Buffy
    Mar 27, 2020 at 21:55
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    It's hard to predict, in particular the future :-) Mar 27, 2020 at 23:10
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Recessions with elevated unemployment increase the number of applicants for each PhD position (and any other position that pays or has opportunity cost). This makes it harder to get a position.

All other factors (undergraduate enrollment, subsidies, grants) are relatively minor and slow to respond.

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  • Well, in the case of my university, the availability of state funding (which is a significant source of grad student funding) is "responding" pretty quickly, in a negative direction. Aug 25, 2020 at 1:00
  • @NateEldredge Many universities no longer get much state funding, so it can't be cut. Aug 25, 2020 at 1:15
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Just to be clear: in the U.S., given the bad handling of The 19, there is awful uncertainty about many things... in particular, about the economics related to universities. It's not literally about "if the US economy enters a recession": I think it is worse than that.

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    I think that it is truly an unprecedented situation.
    – Mehta
    Aug 25, 2020 at 4:50

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