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What Graduate Students Should Know About the Sequester

Admissions criteria will change at some schools because of sequestration.

The number of students admitted for graduate school will decrease because of the sequester.

The number of students admitted for graduate school will decrease because of the sequester.

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Research universities and graduate assistants across the nation are starting to feel the sequester's impact. The across-the-board, $85 billion in discretionary spending cuts began just one month ago.

"My NIH grant has already been affected. Our budget has been altered because of it," says Thomas Brown, a professor and vice chair of research for the Department of Neuroscience, Biology and Physiology at Wright State University.

Brown is using a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to research pregnancy-associated disorders, such as preeclampsia, and figure out how to treat them. This year he has seven people working with him. Because of the sequester, his budget has shrunk.

"We've already done this math and we're going to have to go from seven to five. At least for the foreseeable next six months or so," he says.

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In his lab, and the hundreds of other labs at research universities in the U.S., many of the employees are graduate school students who serve as teaching or research assistants. Much of their salaries, and their ability to study topics within science, technology, math and engineering (STEM), come from federal grants.

"Right now it's sort of the termites in the wall rather than the tornado that comes in and destroys the home," says Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs for the Association of American Universities, when discussing the sequester's impact. "It's going to gradually eat away at these universities' capabilities to carry out this research."

Universities in the United States perform 31 percent of the nation's research, according to a 2011 report from the association.

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No one can accurately predict the sequester's long-term effects, but graduate students with research positions, and those planning to enter master's and Ph.D. programs dependent on federal financing, should expect short-term changes to their industry.

One of the most apparent changes will be in admissions rates for some schools.

"Vanderbilt University is reducing the number of graduate students that are going to gain admission next year," says Sandra Rosenthal, who leads select research initiatives at the school. "With fewer grant dollars there are fewer stipends. There's gonna be less money to support research assistants."

Robert Duncan, vice chancellor for research at the University of Missouri, echoes Rosenthal's beliefs.

"Future students will be added to a research grant at a much, much slower rate," he says.

The university has about 3,500 grants and contracts active at any one time and most are federally funded, Duncan says.

"If sequestration stays on track," he continues, "we'll be able to fund and support many fewer student than we do today."

The reaction from graduate students is a little more varied.

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Renee Albers, a 24-year-old graduate teaching assistant at Wright State, is optimistic that her research opportunities as a student and employment options once she graduates will not be marred by the sequester.

"When you're really motivated by your research, you're more focused on that" instead of the budgetary concerns, she says. "I have a sufficient amount of training that I should be able to still acquire a job."

Corrected 4/2/13: A previous version of this article misstated Thomas Brown’s title.