Silver lining: 6 ways STEM grad programs are innovating

'As damaging as this experience has been, our research suggests a potential silver lining'
By: | January 28, 2021
(GettyImages/Malte Mueller)

COVID’s disruptions will produce some long-lasting innovations in one lofty corner of higher education: graduate-level STEM programs.

First, a look at the impact: Universities reported that more than two-thirds of STEM research projects were delayed or discontinued by the pandemic, according to a study by NORC, a research institution at the University of Chicago.

Deans at nearly half of the 200-plus institutions surveyed for the report said they were only “marginally or somewhat” prepared to shift to online learning.

Mentoring and advising also suffered: Leaders at less than a quarter of institutions said graduate students received consistent advising from faculty.


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Students at minority-serving institutions, meanwhile, were far more likely to report technological challenges.

And deans at nearly half the schools said their international students faced large financial impacts while over three-quarters of institutions expected a large or moderate decrease in international graduate student retention.

On the financial front, 67% of institutions expect to make budget cuts, 32% anticipate a drop in domestic student retention, and many deans have heightened concerns about their graduates finding jobs.

“As damaging as this experience has been, our research suggests a potential silver lining. Innovations are underway as graduate schools struggle to meet their students’ needs,” said Debra W. Stewart, senior fellow at the NORC’s Higher Education Analytics Center.

“Some of these innovations, ranging from broader use of digital technology to new research laboratory practices, will definitely strengthen the graduate student experience across STEM fields,” Stewart wrote

A look on the bright side: Graduate school innovations

The survey also found several spots in the innovations developed by graduate schools:

  • Proliferation of online and hybrid graduate programs: More 80% of institutions except to expand the number of entire graduate programs offered in a hybrid format post-COVID; more than half anticipate increasing the number of graduate programs offered solely online.
  • Expanded use of holistic review strategies for admissions: 40% of graduate schools increased their use of this approach (in addition to the 40% who had adopted this process pre-COVID).
  • Increased efforts to connect with graduate students: At least three-quarters of institutions met with students about wellness; increased the frequency of communications; and hosted virtual academic meetings.
  • Expanding notions of research and curricula: Multiple schools reported that the pandemic forced leaders to review and reform their curricula, and some expanded use of universal design for learning.
  • Adoption of online processes for academic milestones: Nearly all graduate programs used online processes for dissertation proposals, dissertation defenses, thesis defenses,  doctoral exams and qualifying exams. Pre-COVID, less than one in five schools conducted these activities online.
  • Development of new positions for graduate students: Several schools created new types of assistantships to help with remote course design and delivery.

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