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Sociology department suspends graduate school admissions in response to COVID-19

<h6>Wallace Hall, home of the sociology department.</h6>
<h6>Courtesy of the <a href="https://sociology.princeton.edu/contact" target="_self">Department of Sociology</a></h6>
Wallace Hall, home of the sociology department.
Courtesy of the Department of Sociology

The University’s Department of Sociology will not accept graduate school applications during the 2021 admissions cycle, according to an announcement on the department’s website.

“The decision to eliminate a cohort of future students was not an easy one, but we have decided that our priority during these unsettled times is to take care of those who are already matriculated in the department,” the announcement states. “We look forward to reading applications again in the fall of 2021 for the 2022 cohort.”

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The Department of Sociology is the first department to announce such a decision, based on information from the Graduate School website

In a note to graduate students in the department, Department Chair Mitchell Duneier and Director of Graduate Studies Dalton Conley wrote that the decision came from a faculty department vote. Duneier and Conley thanked other members of the Graduate Committee and the administration of the Graduate School, which they say “worked with us to bring this plan to fruition.”

“Ultimately, given the department-based nature of graduate education, each Department is deciding on its own approach to the funding and enrollment needs of its students,“ University spokesperson Ben Chang noted in a statement to The Daily Princetonian.

“A tailored approach is required since the impact on students’ ability to make research progress at this time is variable and highly dependent on a student’s discipline and project,” Chang added.

The admissions policy change was followed by a change in the funding policy for current graduate students. While students had previously been guaranteed five years of funding upon admission, the department has now formally extended the program to guarantee six years of funding, “regardless of whether a student can clearly demonstrate an explicit Covid-19-related reason for staying longer.”

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This decision follows advocacy by graduate student groups for enrollment status extensions, in line with those measures adopted for junior faculty under “stop the clock” — which extended the tenure clock by one year for assistant professors at the University.

Duneier and Conley clarified that continuing into the sixth year will require students to meet certain program requirements and conditions for funding, but noted that some of the specific eligibility requirements “are likely to be temporarily relaxed in the face of the pandemic.”

“But the other requirements for sixth-year funding, including attending our funding workshop, applying for outside funding, and making progress on the dissertation, will apply to all fifth-year students as well as those of you in years G1-G4 who have reached your fifth year and need sixth year funding going forward,” they wrote.

Another distinguishing feature of the plan is the possibility for a seventh year of funding, contingent on demonstrating a need for additional time as a result of the pandemic, according to Professor of Sociology Viviana Zelizer in an email to the ‘Prince.’ 

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“While we expect that most students will still complete the program in five to six years, the Graduate School will allow us to use the funds freed up by skipping a whole admissions cohort to extend the program,” wrote Duneier and Conley to students. “This extension to a seventh year will involve a combination of funding and precepting and apply to those currently enrolled G3-G5 students who reach their sixth year and have fallen behind due to pandemic-related disruptions to their course of study.”

They added that because canceling admissions for 2021 and extending program timelines “are historically unprecedented steps for this department,” it may take until the fall to finalize all of the changes. In the meantime, they intend to meet with individual cohorts to hear questions and discuss implementation plans.

Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs Paul Starr — a member of the committee that developed the proposal — told the ‘Prince’ that he supports this policy, given that many current graduate students “will need an additional year of financial support to be able to complete their degree.”

“These include students whose field work in communities around the world has become impossible; some may need to find a different dissertation topic,” Starr wrote. “Others may confront new challenges in their families as a result of Covid-19.”

“Our students are women, young mothers, people with disabilities, people who are taking care of children… we considered all that as we made our decision,” said Professor of Sociology Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, also a member of the committee.

According to Professor of Sociology Kim Lane Scheppele, the fact that her department is the only one thus far to eliminate an entire cohort is “a function of the fact that so many of our current graduate students were affected by the pandemic.” 

The department “will take the financing that would have gone to newly admitted students and spread it among the current graduate students whose work has been delayed through no fault of their own,” according to Starr.

He noted that while the option of reducing admissions across multiple years was also considered, the faculty ultimately chose against it. The current first-year cohort contains nine students of the total 66 in the department.

“We could have spread the reduction in admissions over two years, but the result would have been two very small cohorts of graduate students,” Starr noted. “We decided it was better to take the ‘hit’ all at once.”

Scheppele explained in an email to the ‘Prince’ that “rather than have two very small graduate cohorts in a row, cutting some places from each class to meet the needs we anticipated, we opted to have a more substantial class two years from now and to forego a class altogether for 2021.”

Zelizer clarified, however, that the decision was not “just a matter of splitting our admissions between two small 5 student cohorts or making the cut all at once as if they were equivalent choices.” 

“Because of the uncertainty created by the crisis, it is vital to note that our current plan allows us to save more resources than we would even with the minimum of 5 admits,” she wrote.

Chang confirmed that the Department of Sociology is the only department to make such a decision. However, he added in a statement that “Many other departments may be accepting fewer applicants than usual.” 

The Electrical Engineering and Near Eastern Studies departments had previously suspended admissions for certain programs, but these decisions “have been posted for some time and are unrelated to COVID or the Sociology Department’s decision” according to Chang.

While supporting this decision for the sociology department, Starr noted that he does not “expect other departments necessarily to follow the same policy.”

“Every department confronts a distinctive situation. Some departments have large endowments of their own and can tap those endowments to provide more support to graduate students,” he wrote of other departments within the University. “Sociology was not in this position.”

Starr added that peer departments “may consider this a great opportunity,” since they traditionally “lose their best prospects” to the sociology department and “will not face that competition” in 2021.

“In the meantime, anyone who wants to do graduate work in Sociology will know that the Princeton department stood up for its graduate students in a time of need,” he wrote. “That ought to do us good in the long run.”

This story is breaking and will be updated as more information becomes available.

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