An Interview with the Founder of Gradschoolmatch

Brian Clark, Camila España and TJ Murphy
Brian Clark, Camila España and TJ Murphy

Gradschoolmatch launched in beta a few years ago with precisely zero users. Today, the platform has over 425,000 prospective graduate student users and is used by almost 1,400 (and growing) graduate programs at over 140 (and growing) universities. The platform has helped tens of thousands of students find their graduate school match.

Camila España is a recent addition to the Gradschoolmatch team. She grew up in California and recently settled in Atlanta after receiving a dual-degree (MBA/MS) from the University of Michigan. Through her work on several marketing, innovation and strategy products, she’s developed an affinity for startup environments such as ours. She reached out to us after a presentation that Brian Clark, President and Co-Founder, gave at Switchyards Downtown Club (Atlanta’s only B2C startup incubator). As someone who has been through the process recently “the old-fashioned way”, she’s excited to play a key role in revolutionizing the way people approach graduate school in their career journey.

Camila recently sat down for something like an orientation chat with Gradschoolmatch Founder TJ Murphy, who asked her to come up with a list of questions as a way to get up to speed on what Gradschoolmatch is all about. The conversation was so enlightening we thought it was worth sharing with you.

Let’s start at the very beginning. What were you doing before Gradschoolmatch?

Before Gradschoolmatch I was just a regular university professor minding my own business, running a small biomedical research group, training students, lecturing on medicines and statistics, yada, yada yada.

How did the idea come to you? Do you remember the moment when you thought of Gradschoolmatch?

Sort of. One day, I listened as a friend discussed a small internet company he knew of that connects high school athletes with college coaches. I must have put two and two together later while sleeping that night because I awoke with the idea for Gradschoolmatch the next morning, so we’ll credit it to a dream, I guess.

How did you know this was an idea worth pursuing?

Well, this seemed like a good idea, and most of my job as a scientist was about making decisions about ideas to follow up. For years, I’d participated in shepherding students into our PhD programs at Emory. I had actually reflected a lot on that very personal process and how crazy it can be. Attracting the right students can be a frustrating experience for a program. You know they’re out there. You just wait and hope enough good people apply every year. Then you select the best and try to convince them to come to your program and not go somewhere else. It’s mostly a reactive system that would work better for all parties involved if it were far more proactive. At some point, you just have to reject the status quo and create something that actually solves the problems everybody admits we have.

What do you mean by that? That everybody admits we have these problems?

Every university writes a strategic plan and puts it online. So I looked up a bunch of them as a sample (around 50 or so chosen at random) to read what they had to say about their graduate students and programs. Doing that, I only found one school that didn’t declare it was important to improve the quality of their graduate students and/or their enrollment numbers. One. All the rest admitted they had problems.

Which one was that?

The University of Southern California (USC), which makes sense if you look at their numbers. They seem to be doing really well out there. 

So where did you go after having this great idea? What did you do to validate your concept after conceiving it?

Lots of data analysis, such as reading those strategic plans, digging up enrollment and outcome data. Concept validation is a continuous process. Early on, for example, a big moment of validation is when I told Brian (Clark) about the idea. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He wanted to get going on the spot. After that, he and I spoke with a lot of people and not a single one said it was a dumb idea. So one day, we realized we couldn’t do much more talking and decided to go ahead and build a beta site.

It sounds like a great idea, but there’s always a difference between great ideas in theory and reality. How did you go about testing the beta site and attracting users initially?

Right after launching beta, we did an email promotion through an academic honor society. Basically, they sent their members an email with a link to Gradschoolmatch. Our beta site got a lot of traffic over the next few days and over 40% of the visitors signed up! That’s a unicorn-scale signup rate for any website. That told us there is a lot of demand on the student side and that was concrete validation for us. Even now, we continue to get very high signup rates (just under 20%). 

Wow 40%, that is pretty unheard of and a great proof of concept. So how does Gradschoolmatch actually work? Could you describe how Gradschoolmatch addresses the problem you first discovered?

There are actually two problems. One is the difficulty students face in finding the right graduate program. The other is the difficulty graduate programs face in being discovered by the right students. Our solution is a simple bidirectional space, where they can meet and greet each other with really high precision.

Tell me about the student side. How do students typically go about their search and how does Gradschoolmatch change the process?

Students have always operated on the basis of word-of-mouth, rankings and recommendations, which makes tons of sense if you stop to think about it. They tend to focus on a very small set of programs beginning with those that someone has recommended. We think they self-limit like that because as soon as they scratch the surface they see way too many options, and they have no idea where to start, so instead they lean on people they can trust. I like to call those people an applicant’s “influence network”.

Gradschoolmatch helps in two ways. First, we make it very easy for people from the graduate programs, who are the real experts when it comes to their program and detecting a fit, to connect with students and offer guidance directly. We often hear from students who’ve been discovered by programs just how helpful that guidance has been. Second, our match algorithm helps narrow down their options to a more digestible number of programs to focus upon. Those matches usually open their eyes to possibilities they hadn’t previously considered. Together, those two processes become a very efficient way for people to explore their options and make better decisions.

Do you think most students end up in the right place through the old not-so-scientific method? What about that process strikes you as especially problematic?

What’s bad is that reactive recruiting is actually incredibly costly. We actually have survey data that show 1 in 4 students ends up in the WRONG place.  That’s over a quarter million people each year who find out too late they’ve made a mistake in choosing a graduate program. That almost surely drives attrition. That wastes the time and money of students, while burning resources at universities that are in no position to be throwing good money after bad.

Wow, 1 in 4? Sounds like a market ripe for disruption, and one that could benefit from a more efficient system. How about from the program’s perspective – what do they stand to gain by using Gradschoolmatch?

Graduate programs just want the best possible, most engaged students. They want people who will add value to their specialized program, and eventually become a great alumnus they can point to proudly. That fit is something that goes well beyond the numbers. It’s very nebulous but the bottom line is that a program can spot a good fit more easily than a student who’s researching options. In the end, what programs gain by using Gradschoolmatch is the ability to proactively shape their applicant stream.

It sounds like you’re delivering a great value to both sides. Are both groups of users charged for the service?

What we provide students on Gradschoolmatch right now is free and always will be. We’re structured in a way that the cost for programs can be as little as a few dollars per program per month when they join in clusters. The basic premise from the beginning has always been to provide a service that every graduate program can afford to use, because breadth makes our concept work better. Besides, we don’t want it to be so expensive that programs would need to steal from the grad student pizza budget to pay for Gradschoolmatch.

What percentage of the US population goes to grad school, just to get a better idea of the market size?

I’m not sure about percentage, but the really shocking statistic is that HALF of all baccalaureates go on to earn an advanced degree. That surprises most people; it surprised me when I first ran the numbers. When you’re in a program or on a campus you tend not to “feel” the thousands of other grad students around you. The programs and people are dispersed all over campus. Most graduate programs operate on a very small scale – the average program class size is only 6 students, which is hardly noticeable individually, but collectively they are a big part of most universities.

Do any direct competitors or substitutes currently serve either audience?

There are a lot of click bait sites and/or email address re-marketers. We don’t do that. If anything, we have to fight against the poor track record of these techniques because they breed a lot of skepticism among our prospective users. It’s hard to overstate how ill-suited graduate programs and students are for what traditional advertising delivers. We’re not a traditional marketing service, we’re probably not even a marketing service. We’re a platform for like-minded parties.

How has being a user yourself shaped your company strategy and the platform itself?

Brian was just telling me the other day that my feedback as a program user has been as important as anything else I’ve done for Gradschoolmatch. I don’t know if that’s a compliment or a criticism. Also, as I’ve experimented with various ways to engage prospects for my program at Emory, I’ve been able to share those insights and tips with other program users. And going back to what you asked earlier, the feedback I hear from my prospects has validated the whole project.

What have you learned since starting it that you wish you knew before?

I wish I knew building a startup was so creative and challenging. It’s been just like running the lab in terms of coming up with hypotheses and testing ideas, solving problems, all of what science is. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been very rewarding to see this idea take flight and see all the people who we’re helping. I was just so naive about business when we started…I just never paid it much attention. Had I known science and business were so similar, I might have started a business sooner in my life.

How do you define success for Gradschoolmatch? Where do you see the company going in the next 5 or 10 years?

Success is solving our users’ problems, for programs and students alike. That’s all I really care about. I have a lot of empathy for both sides and I think universities and the highly-educated specialists they produce are incredibly important. If we do that well, the long term will take care of itself.

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Perhaps medical illustration is your graduate school niche?

Almost everybody who begins to explore their graduate school options eventually discovers the incredible diversity that exists out there. Graduate degrees are niche. Specializations exist that span a wide and colorful spectrum of opportunities. A world of options exist. People thinking about graduate school typically only apply to programs when they find ones that offer a match to their interests. Often times, they don’t know a niche even exists until they see it for the first time.

I recently exchanged a few emails with Professor John Daugherty, director of a graduate program in Biomedical Visualization at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His program recently renewed its subscription on Gradschoolmatch for another year with hopes of finding and attracting just the right students. That’s a problem every graduate program faces, irrespective of their niche.

And that’s exactly the problem Gradschoolmatch is designed to solve. Our aim is to reduce the friction out there for programs and students alike, to make it easier to find each other and then have an intelligent, high level exchange to decide on fit.

By coincidence, just today I ran across a great article in The Atlantic that describes the field of study in medical illustration and the work one can do. If you are someone with an aptitude for both art and biology, you should take a look at the article and then sign in on Gradschoolmatch to give Professor Daugherty a shout.

In fact, the article features Meredith Osborn, a graduate of UIC’s Master’s in Biomedical Visualization program. Here’s some examples the work by students in the program:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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