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Should You Defer Grad School if Classes are Online?

Sheena Daree Miller profile image

Sheena Daree Miller

empty chairs in a lecture hall

Many universities are proceeding with plans to return to on-campus instruction this fall, but the feasibility of these plans is quickly coming into question—and some schools have already reversed plans for in-person classes. This article outlines factors to consider as you determine whether to enroll in grad school as an online student or defer until in-person instruction resumes.

Factors to consider

As you weigh the pros and cons of completing a graduate degree online, you’ll want to think about what led you to want to study in the first place and how you feel about online learning. Some guiding questions to begin with include: 

  • Is deferring even an option or will you have to reapply? Consult the university’s COVID-19 page or reach out to the admissions team. Many graduate programs do not typically offer deferrals and instead require students to reapply, meaning there is some chance you will lose your seat if you reapply. If the official policy doesn’t allow for deferring, it’s still worth your while to reach out and see if an exception can be made. As many schools worry about declining enrollments, they may be willing to work with you, so that they don’t risk losing you as a student altogether.  
  • Are there location-based services you’re hoping to access? If a part of your program involves a field placement working directly with communities or clients, you’ll want to figure out what this engagement looks like remotely. Will the online substitution be as effective as the original plan for both you and the agency you’ll be serving? If there are archives, labs, performance spaces, or other in-person resources integral to your course work, look into whether a sufficient amount of materials are available digitally. 
  • Are there other in-person experiences or things that can’t be recreated online? Think about the roles you’ll apply for in the future and try to imagine answering an interview question about your study and involvement as a graduate student. Do you suspect your answers will vary greatly depending on whether you’ve studied online or in person? Revisit your personal statement or anything else that shows why you applied to this particular program. Are there any expectations you bring that cannot be met in an online realm? On the other hand, flexibility is an oft-cited perk of online study—are there other benefits to studying online?      
  • What kind of learning environment do you need to thrive? Are you self-directed or do you benefit from the nudge of a faculty member to stay on track? If a close-knit community is important to you, consider how you feel about holding study hours over Zoom instead of at the library or a coffee shop. Reflect on whether you’ve experienced screen fatigue this spring and ask if it’s realistic for you to imagine spending even more time in front of your computer. Contact the department to learn whether your course meetings will require everyone to participate virtually in class at a set time together or if they will be asynchronous, allowing students to complete modules on their own time. Remember, online is no better or worse than face-to-face instruction, but it is different. 
  • What are the financial implications and opportunity costs of your decision? Have you checked whether your scholarship or funding package can be deferred? Recent graduates who are hoping to maintain student status may want to ring their student loan providers to see how deferring or losing enrolled status impacts their payment plans. Leaving a full-time job to become a full-time student? What could an additional year’s earnings mean for you? How will you spend the year if not in school? 
  • Are you truly ready for graduate school? You’ve already thought long and hard about this, but if you’re experiencing doubt it’s important to determine where it’s coming from. How do you feel when you consider alternatives to graduate study? 

Steps to take as you decide

Before you pay your deposit, ask for a deferral or decide not to enroll altogether, there are a few things you should do: 

  • Gain an inside perspective. Ask to be connected with a current student to learn about their experience in the program. Be sure to ask how the faculty handled this spring’s emergency transition to remote teaching. Were their learning expectations met? Were there parts of the program that got lost? Was there anything they felt didn’t translate to the digital space? Bear in mind that an instructor’s unplanned response to the pandemic does not reflect how they will deliberately design and plan their online courses, now that they have a chance to do so. 
  • Talk with admissions about any concerns. As noted above, many schools fret that enrollments will decline this fall, and admissions may be eager to address your worries and find a compromise. 
  • Reach out to the faculty you were excited to study with. You may already be in touch with many faculty members—so see what they think and what they’re planning for their courses. 
  • Flip a coin. Heads means you’ll study online for now. Tails means you’ll defer until it’s possible to study face-to-face. Ready? Go. Now, notice how you respond once the coin lands. Are you relieved or disappointed? Often this reaction tells us what we need to know. 

Worried you’ll make the wrong decision? Here’s how to keep perspective

It’s absolutely understandable if you’re worried about making the wrong decision. To keep focus and stay calm, imagine all of the people doing the kind of work you hope to do. Then visualize the myriad routes those people took to get to where they are today. If it helps, have a look at their LinkedIn profiles and online bios. What stands out? 

Yes, the profession you’re interested in may require a certain degree or training, but you’ll likely find that a lot of people have taken nonlinear routes to get where they are now. Some completed their master’s degree right after receiving their bachelor’s degree, while others started their programs with over a decade of work experience. Some probably even studied online. A year or semester may feel like a small eternity right now, but in the grand scheme of things it isn’t very much time at all, and you’ll figure out how you want to spend it. Journal, meditate, talk to people you trust and breathe. 

And remember: you already managed to get accepted into a program that excites you; you’ll definitely figure this out too. Congratulations!


Are you starting grad school this year? Are you in support of online courses? Tell us about it on Facebook.

Sheena Daree Miller profile image

Sheena Daree Miller

Sheena Daree Miller is based in Brooklyn and divides her time between working in faculty development at a university and managing a black heritage center at a library. She is committed to promoting equity, with an emphasis on supporting graduating students and career changers.

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