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It's the Economy, Student: In a tight budget climate, the graduate school curbs costs to preserve successful programs

February 2009--On a sunny day this past January, two dozen prospective graduate students sat down to a buffet lunch with a group of first- and second-year students. The applicants had just completed an intensive round of interviews with faculty in the Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology (BCMB) program, and they seemed happy to unwind.

Newspaper headlines that morning had proclaimed more bleak economic news: a plummeting stock market, the loss of 70,000 jobs in the past week. But in this room, the mood was upbeat, hopeful and determined. “I’m a science nerd, and I want to go to a place where there are other science nerds,” one young woman asserted. “I love science.” The faltering economy, said many of these aspiring scientists, had not deterred them.

The same cannot be said of the school’s graduate program directors and admissions officers. Each year, they keep fingers crossed that the number of applicants who accept offers of admission equals the number of slots available. It’s always a tricky calculation, but this year the admissions process is especially stressful, says Carolyn Machamer, director of the BCMB program.

The number of applicants to Hopkins graduate programs is about the same this year as it was last. However, says Machamer, “the mood is apprehensive. It’s not so much in our worry of whether we can attract applicants, but the concern of whether we can financially support these students.”

That anxiety is widespread. “We’re holding the number of slots low,” says Professor of Physiology Rajini Rao. “We’re trying to keep our enthusiasm in check and trying not to overextend ourselves.”

Faced with a budget deficit, school of medicine leaders and faculty have searched for new cost-cutting strategies. Graduate enrollment, which grew in the flush years of NIH funding from 311 students in 1993 to its current 845 students, may need to plateau, say school leaders. And an increase in the graduate-student stipend is now uncertain, says Rich Grossi, Johns Hopkins Medicine chief financial officer.

Faculty and program directors are also devising a policy that would require mentors and departments to explain, before a grad student is accepted into a lab, how that student would be funded. The policy might also include a contingency plan outlining the steps a mentor and department would take in the unlikely event that the mentor loses that funding source.

Although the school’s financial difficulties are driving the current changes, grad program directors and faculty mentors for the past six years have been dealing with stagnant NIH research funding. As NIH grants became scarcer, faculty, who rely heavily on the funds to support graduate students, have had to become more resourceful.

Three years ago, Machamer lost a major NIH grant, which funded her research on coronaviruses and accounted for about half of her lab’s funding. She was forced to shrink the size of her lab. Instead of five graduate students, she now has four, and when two of them complete their degrees, she is not sure she will replace them.

Machamer has been rebuilding her funding base through nongovernmental sources of funding, such as the American Heart Association, and a second NIH grant that is more modest than the one she lost. She has also helped two of her students apply to and win predoctoral fellowships, one from the AHA and the other from the Ford Foundation. Altogether, the new funding has helped her retain her current four students, although it is still significantly less than the amount the large NIH grant had provided.

But some faculty members have also decided not to mentor students. “I’ve stopped taking students altogether, and I used to have a lot of students,” says Gerald Hart, director of Biological Chemistry. Postdocs, he says, are more productive, and with competition for grants fiercer than it was, productivity is more important. Still, some faculty find reason for optimism about the future of graduate education. They are hopeful that the next annual federal budget will provide a significant increase for research funding.

Perhaps the most important viewpoint is that of the aspiring scientists who will make up the next generation of researchers. Fourth-year student Meghan Seltzer, president of the Graduate Student Association, says fiscal reality has sobered her hopes slightly. While she continues to want a research career, she no longer wants to direct a lab. “I see on a day-to-day basis the current funding environment.

I’m too nervous. It takes some of the joy out of science for me.”

—Melissa Hendricks

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