Gradschoolmatch is to guidance like the microwave is to cooking

radarange_so_newI’m not only old enough to remember the first microwave ovens, I’m old enough to remember that they were called radar ranges. Ack! But these machines have been on my mind since the early days of the Gradschoolmatch project.

Our goal was to do what we have done: create a space where guidance happens. The conceptual premise is based upon observations that interactions with someone knowledgeable is how most people end up choosing where to attend graduate school.

At one early point we were advised by an insightful businessman that in Gradschoolmatch we may have another microwave oven story on our hands.

Briefly, in the early days, people were reticent to adopt the microwave because they had perfectly good stoves and ovens with which to accomplish the same result. Sales only grew after the microwave manufacturers were able to convince consumers that microwave cooking could be effective, not to mention quick and convenient.

A similar friction probably exists in the graduate school recruiting space. The old way of doing things is to hope enough applications fly in over the transom and that enough of them are good. At the same time, everybody agrees the status quo is crappy. Really good prospects struggle to find the right place and need our help. Many of them end up in the wrong programs. Meanwhile, seats in really good programs go unfilled.

All of the evidence indicates that one-to-one engagement with prospective students is the driver of better matriculation rates. Still, there is a lot of skepticism that something novel and innovative, like Gradschoolmatch–which promotes one-to-one engagement between programs and prospects–can be a solution.

Here are the most common reactions we get from people, and our responses.

“I don’t know how to recruit.”

You don’t have to. Just offer guidance to someone considering an advanced degree in you specialty. That’s actually very effective recruiting because you know everything about what they are looking for.

“We have a perfectly good program website.”

Great program websites are only useful when the prospects you want find them. Still, they are no replacement for the human touch.

“We have plenty of applications.”

Matriculates are more important than applications. Meanwhile, how many do you lose to other programs in your specialty?

“I don’t have enough time.”

Think of guidance as immunization against dropoutitis. You’ll spend far more time on dealing with the latter.

“Our faculty won’t get involved in recruiting.”

Did they ever have a tool that makes engagement with prospects and offering guidance so easy?

“We just buy email lists.”

The people receiving your spam don’t like spam any more than you like spam.

“Does it work?”

Absolutely. When used the way it is designed.


You Should Know This to Write Your Best Grad School Application

things to know for the grad school applicationAre you applying to graduate school soon? Getting inside the mind of an admissions committee prior to writing up your grad school application can really help present yourself in the best possible light.

Speaking from a lot of direct experience I can distill the admissions committee mind as being pre-occupied mostly by only 3 problems. Address these questions proactively and you’ll make their job easier. Which means they’ll probably like you better. Use this insight in your narrative section, to better provide your value proposition to the committee.

Is the applicant qualified?

For most graduate programs the qualifications boil down to academic background, standardized exam scores, and relevant experiences. These take on different weights given the specialty and the level of degree. But most programs are “full packagers” or “holistic” and so all of them are important. Truly.

There is no getting around the fact that past accomplishments testify to future ability. Therefore, grades and test scores are used to evaluate if you can handle a rigorous curriculum. Work experience is used to assess how well you understand what you are about to start, your motivation, and the expertise you can bring to the table to enhance the overall program culture.

Perfect candidates have the the right undergraduate majors and coursework, high GPA’s in a challenging curriculum, high performance on the standardized exam, and have experiences that clearly express a passion for their chosen graduate specialization.

Everybody program wants the perfect candidate, but most applicants are not perfect.

Therefore, the narrative sections of your grad school application should deal head on with where you underperformed. Bad grades? Explain how you’ve grown responsible through your post-bac work experiences. Crappy exam score? Point out how hard you worked to earn your good grades. Don’t make excuses. Describe how you’ve learned and grown from mistakes.

Is the program a good fit for the applicant?

A surprising number of grad school applications are, in fact, misapplications. The application got to the right address, but the applicant doesn’t realize the program is a poor fit for them.

Why would people spend their valuable time and good money chasing after a slot in a program that doesn’t fit? Good question.

Sometimes it comes from shallow research (eg, thoughtlessly using someones “ranking” index as an application guide). Just not enough due diligence. Other times its more complex. For example, situations where a student feels obligated or even under pressure from others to pursue a degree that the program experts can clearly see the applicant really doesn’t want.

One important duty of the admissions committee is to figure that out for you. As a general rule, admissions committees at graduate programs attempt to avoid compounding a misapplication error by committing a misplacement error. But the system is far from perfect. About a quarter of all graduate students admit they ended up in the wrong programs. That’s a lot of mistakes.

When you are convinced you are a great fit, then you need to be prepared to state your case directly. Point out your qualifications explicitly. Demonstrate you’ve researched the program deeply. Describe how that program is important for the career trajectory you’ve mapped out for yourself. Be assertive. The less arrogant, naive, cliche or canned any of this reads, the better chance it comes off in your favor.

Will the applicant enroll if offered a slot?

Programs are generally careful in handing out admissions offers because graduate students actually cost money to educate. Most programs avoid over-subscribing, less they get in trouble with the university budget demons.

They have to balance that caution against making sure they get the students that they really want. Programs know that their best applicants often have other options.

Meanwhile, students hold off making decisions hoping to have all of their cards on the table before pulling the trigger.

Oftentimes, even the thought of this can lead to quirky, guessing game decision making. What I like to call “You go down there” moments; absurdities driven by uncertainty.

For example, a program may convince itself that you won’t enroll if offered, even though they want you, but they don’t make you an offer fearing it might be “wasted”. Meanwhile, they’ve misread you. You’re more open to going there than they realize…

Look, everybody should just play straight up. As an applicant, be honest about where you are leaning. Somewhere, someone anonymous on the internet wrongly advises this is a great time to play coy. Honestly, it really isn’t.

Remember, in musical chairs, there aren’t enough seats for everybody after the music stops. After you’ve started to get offers, keep in touch with the program to let them know where you stand. Send everybody your decision as soon as possible.


The Right Match

Please click here to go to Diverse Issues in Higher Education, to read Jamaal Abdul-Alim’s excellent article on the role Gradschoolmatch played in helping Alyssa Rodriguez find her fit at Vanderbilt University.

Trust me, this is a worthwhile read, whether you are looking for grad programs or for grad students.

Because this is how its done.


Find students and engage them on Gradschoolmatch

The Gradschoolmatch Director’s control panel

Most students have an influence network and start their graduate program search on the basis of word-of-mouth. That’s always been our key insight. As a result, Gradschoolmatch operates on two very simple premises. First, people in graduate programs are in the best position to guide prospects because they have incredible expertise to offer. Second, prospects benefit greatly when receiving expert guidance.

If word-of-mouth is how they find programs, the most effective way for graduate programs to recruit new students is to join their influence network. Simply find those with the proper backgrounds and interests for your program and offer them some guidance. Recruiting success lies on the human scale.

This is not at all complicated. Take these four simple steps to do that on Gradschoolmatch.

Step 1: Edit Your Profile

Why? Our search engine reads everything that you enter into your graduate program profile. Sure, you want prospects reading all of that. But we take your profile information and turn it into a sophisticated search query. Running automagically in the background, this delivers continuously to your program the prospects who fit best. That saves you from having to run search queries over and over.

How? Click on ‘Edit Profiles‘, then click on the green buttons with white pencils for each section. Fill out everything, find a save button and click it. Most especially, be sure to select a dozen or so academic fields to describe what your program offers. Do the same for the academic fields you like to see in your prospect’s backgrounds.

Step 2: Find Students

Why? Well, it seems obvious, but which is better? Hoping students discover your program, or finding students you’d like to see in your program?

How? After you’ve completed step 1, click on ‘Find Students‘. The students on this list are the output from that sophisticated, running-all-the-time search query I mentioned above.

These prospects in our system best match your program, from top to bottom. We think. If you don’t like who you see, go back and edit your profile until you start seeing the kinds of students you like. To search for others, click on the green button on the top right labeled ‘Search for specific criteria‘.

Step 3: Bookmark Students

Why? Now that you’ve found them, you want them to see you. Bookmark does that. To Bookmark a prospect is to say, “Hi, my program is interested in you!” Students notice that.

How? Open a student’s profile by clicking on their name. If you like who you see, click the big green ‘Bookmark‘ button. Two things follow that. First, Gradschoolmatch delivers an email notifying the student of your interest. Second, their profile automagically transports to your ‘My Prospects page‘, where you can track, sort and rate everybody you’ve Bookmarked…and who has Bookmarked you.

Some student profiles don’t have a lot of information. That just means they haven’t signed in. But they see those emails come in and open a lot of them. A Bookmark from you might be all it takes to get an engagement started.

The data are very clear. Bookmarking generates interest. The programs that pro-actively Bookmark prospects draw the most interest from prospects on the site. Passive programs receive less interest.
Step 4: Message Students

Why? Remember the part about word-of-mouth? Here’s where that really happens.

How? Click on ‘Message‘ on a student’s profile. Type your message and–after giving the Golden Rule some thought–hit the send button.

About that Golden Rule. Do you like spam? Neither do they. So please omit the canned, copy-and-pasted marketing message. Nobody reads that.

Just be yourself, which is undoubtedly personal, friendly, helpful, encouraging, sophisticated and even humorous. And if that is not your personality, then ask one of your grad students who has some to help out!

Provide some quick and to-the-point guidance, and please be sure to key off of something that impressed you in their profile. Then ask for a phone call, or a Skype, or for more information. That’s engagement.

And good grief, if you see enough information that you’d like to see their application, then tell them so!

Please remember that you’re offering to join their influence network. That’s a privileged space.


Choosing a grad school program is a classic forked-path problem

I’ve just returned from a long overdue break out west, spent in part on the streams and trails of the spectacular Absaroka wilderness area in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest. I intended to unplug from the grid completely and not consider work at all, but the mind doesn’t always cooperate.

On trail one day a thought suddenly struck me: Choosing a grad school program, at one level, is the same problem a traveler in unfamiliar territory faces running into a forked path.

I admit this metaphor is not particularly novel. But it serves as a handy launching point to think through the extraordinary problem students and graduate programs face every application cycle.

How do you go about choosing a grad school program that is right for you?

The decision on the trail is pretty simple compared to what our future graduate students face. On the trail, typically only two options are at hand…left or right.

Still, there is always a sense of apprehension and uncertainty. Left might take you up a hillside occupied by a momma grizzly bear lording over the valley with her cubs, whereas right might take you down to that cool stream full of big trout.

The only possible error is one of commission–choosing the wrong path under the worst case could take you to a very large unwelcoming bear, or under the best case to a missed fishing opportunity.

In a couple of key aspects prospective graduate students are faced with a far more challenging problem than a hiker. Far too many make errors of commission. But the main problem is the sheer scale of options. For a given academic specialization, a solid prospect could find anywhere from several dozen to hundreds of different graduate programs that would make sense.

That’s a lot of possible paths. Too many.

Their set size is so large that students can’t possibly consider them all. In fact, they miss knowing about nearly all the programs that would fit them well.

Instead they end up focusing on only a handful of programs, constructed partly on the basis of guidance from people they know, many of whom have no particular direct expertise in advising which programs might be better for them.

These students are making a second type of error, one of omission. Omission errors are so large that they are far more likely to completely miss the right program than they are to apply to the wrong one.

Consider a student that might be expected to fit, logically, within 100 different programs. The typical student will only research 8% of them, and then apply to only 4%.

They overlook 92% of the programs that would otherwise fit.

What all of this means for graduate programs is not all that complicated. To create a stronger applicant pool will involve getting more of the right people who don’t know about your program to take a look at it. And then offering them a touch of expert guidance while you have their attention.

That’s where real opportunity to move the needle lies.

The Gradschoolmatch solution

First, we simplify the exploration set for students while equipping programs, for the first time, with the ability to seek out the kinds of prospects they prefer for their program. We show the right programs to the right students. And vice-versa.

Our match algorithm suggests the right programs for students to consider, while also creating lists of prospective students for programs. This is all on the basis of the information each puts into their Gradschoolmatch profiles. The better the information each provides, the higher quality fits that we are able to generate for you and them.

That’s precision.

Next, our communication functions offer prospects and programs alike a way to express interest in each other.

Programs perform the essential task of informing those who they see as the the right students that that their program exists.

Meanwhile, students can express interest in programs to see if they are a fit. The exchange of interests is bidirectional. For programs and students alike all of this happens with a single click of button.

That’s simple.

Perhaps the most common feedback we hear from student users is their surprise to discover good programs they had not previously considered in places they weren’t looking. Going further, these programs can offer guidance to prospects.

How? Rather than composing a canned marketing message, try something powerful in its simplicity.

Send a message such as: “Here’s my program, take a look because your background and interests seems like we might be a good fit for you. And please let me know if you have any questions.”

That’s human. That’s word-of-mouth. And that’s something that happens all of the time in the hallway, on an elevator or out in the courtyard.

Now it can happen on the internet.

That’s effective.

Guiding prospects, not marketing to them, is the secret to recruiting success

When contemplating a proactive recruitment strategy here’s a few things worth knowing about your target.

Future graduate students are about to make a huge decision. They’ve arrived to a point in their lives where they are staking their career trajectories on this graduate school choice. What they don’t know makes them apprehensive. They struggle with the decision. They don’t want to make a mistake. And they are leery of being exploited.

Also, it should go without mentioning that their appetite for intrusive banner ads, blinking sidebars and spam is no greater than yours. In fact, millennials use ad blocker software at higher rates than any other demographic.

Finally, they use a variety of specialized apps to find information and communicate in myriad ways.

Rather than wasting your resources on inefficient and impersonal advertising, or barging into their social spaces, you should consider ways to leverage your expertise in your academic specialty and graduate program culture.

The students who you want in your program are doing a lot of homework, grinding over a big decision, and slowly discovering that’s the help they are looking looking for! Guidance is something of value that only you can offer them.

Spotting the right prospects and offering guidance is a distinguishing feature of Gradschoolmatch.

Alyssa’s simple but powerful story is one of successful guidance, not marketing.

She found her perfect match at Vanderbilt University in no small part because Dr. Beth Bowman was there, on Gradschoolmatch, at the other end to not only spot Alyssa but also offer her the guidance she needed and deserved.

By the way, while in the Wyoming wilds we managed to take the correct path each and every time.

Not because we were lucky.

We had hired a local guide whose knowledge of the trails was so deep, he probably could have led us blind-folded. He may very well have. I was lagging too far behind most of the time to see him.


We are not producing too many research doctorates

For those considering joining the ranks of people who hold research doctorates there are two recent, and fundamentally negative, articles you should read.  One focuses on the low probabilities of landing a job as a professor once you have your PhD. The second article focuses the many problems of culture and practice that afflict academic research and those who perform said.

By all means, step into your degree program with your eyes wide open. Read those two articles if you are considering applying to research doctoral programs. There’s no question most of those problems exist. But both articles largely omit that most of those same problems have existed for decades.

I want to address one point that neither of the articles really focuses upon, yet each side-swipes in their own way. That’s the economic issue of whether our society is producing too many research doctorates. Both articles lead one to believe there is an over-supply of PhDs, who have no value outside of academe.

I want to share a couple of data points that strongly argue against that.

First, there is no PhD “Bubble”

A good way to look at this question is via time trends. If we are producing too many research doctorates, we’d expect to see an ever rising production rate, or at least a big bubble.

When I plot out the numbers of research doctorates awarded each year since 1957, what I see is, basically, a flat line running back to the 1970’s. You’ll see a flat line when you normalize the data correctly, here, in terms of overall population. Thus, the rate of PhD production per million US population is flat and has been for several decades.

annual new doc awards us

Second, PhD’s are among the most employed people in the economy

If we are producing too many research doctorates then we would expect to see high rates of unemployment and low wages for people with PhDs. In fact, Bureau of Labor Statistics data show just the opposite. PhD’s have an unemployment rate and wages that are almost the same as people with professional doctorates (eg, MD’s, JD’s).


As hierarchical institutions, universities are inherently biased towards the exploitative. Mentor-protege relationships are very tricky and can become unstable. Grad school, and academic life, have had a hellish aspect for a long time.

Finally, for some perspective, it’s been difficult, but not impossible, to land a tenure track academic job and government research grants since the mid-70’s.

I’m certainly not an apologist for the system. More like a realist. Anybody considering one of these doctoral degree programs needs to understand the pitfalls and be on the alert for red flags.

I only say this to point out there is nothing really new in either of those two articles. Earning a research doctorate is extremely challenging. But that experience can be as rewarding. It will probably pay dividends throughout ones career.


Clinton’s Free College Tuition Proposal Would Cost $65 Billion

US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has just proposed a free college tuition plan. Numbers on the cost of the proposal have not come with the announcement. But they are easy to estimate. I’ve run a quick calculation and find her plan would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $65 billion per year.

We’ll see what the real experts come up with, but my guess is that’s the ballpark cost for what it will take to completely unburden students.

A nice overview of the plan written by Doug Lederman can be read at Inside Higher Ed. There is, for example, a means testing component. But it would benefit the vast majority of college students.

The bottom line is not really all that complicated. For a plan such as this to work for colleges it would, minimally, need to replace all of the tuition revenue they collect.

To arrive at my estimate I simply summed the amount of net tuition US public post-secondary institutions collected, using data in the IPEDs database. These are most of the < 2yr, 2yr, and 4+yr institutions. The number arrived at represents tuition revenue at just under 1900 public institutions across the US and territories that enroll students after high school, including community colleges. Collectively, they report net tuition revenue of $65.552 billion in 2014.

Net tuition is, basically, the tuition actually collected from students after various scholarships and discounts. Net tuition has been rising as states have slashed budgets, shifting higher proportions of their costs to students. The burden puts even public colleges out of reach for an increasing number of students. Those who do attend are saddled with higher levels of debt, a burden that becomes extreme for those who never graduate.

Meanwhile, public colleges–too frequently characterized as the bad actors– are victims of a sort, too. Their enrollment has been steadily declining as they lose the cost advantage they once enjoyed over private colleges. This worsens their fiscal position, and they are under threat of becoming trapped in a vicious cycle of chasing higher tuition rates while losing students.

Is free college tuition affordable?
Federal spending. Image from the National Priorities Project.
Federal spending. Image from the National Priorities Project.

The Federal budget of $3.8 trillion is broken into two pieces, about $2.5 trillion is mandatory spending. Since mandatory spending is mostly on social security and health care, think of it as the fixed insurance obligation of the federal government.

Another $1.1 trillion is discretionary spending, the second piece, which includes everything else the federal government does. Because over half of discretionary spending is on the military, Noble economist Paul Krugman dryly refers to the government as an insurance company with an army, navy and air force.

Education spending is within the relatively small slice of the budget that is not mandatory or military spending.

All things being equal, Secretary Clinton’s proposal would increase the education component of the budget to just under $170 billion, or from 3% to 4.3% of the overall budget.

That doesn’t strike me as a large amount of money given the overall spending matrix. Perhaps most importantly, if you set out to invest an additional 1.3% of your budget on something, it is hard to imagine how you’d get a better long term payoff than putting that into higher education.