Research spending by universities is picking up the slack…for now

Most graduate schools are places where a lot of research happens, and with it research spending. It’s pretty interesting to poke around in the HERD data from time to time to take the temperature of the overall ecosystem. HERD is the National Science Foundation’s survey of University R&D activity, and is something the NSF has tracked since before the days of Sputnik. #timeseries

In 2015 over 900 institutions in the US reported a collective Science and Engineering R&D spend of just over $65 billion, the highest ever. (I’m graphing only S&E R&D spending, rather than all R&D spending, because its a longer time series and because it dwarfs (by about 20-fold) the non-S&E research that happens at universities….NTTAWWT.)

Three things jump out at me from that graph. First, research spending at universities has increased almost 10 times since the early 80’s to the present. That’s a lot. I mean, these universities are very, very different organizations compared to when the parents of today’s graduate students were in college.

Second, federal dollars are the lion’s share of university R&D spending and always have been. The running average over the last several decades is 63% of university research spending is on federally-funded projects. That’s a lot.

Third, some leveraging is going on here, in one direction or the other. Either the federal dollars are leveraged to drive other sources for research spending, or the latter are leveraged to attract more federal dollars. My money is on the latter.

Although the total R&D spend at universities is higher then ever, the spending of federally-sourced dollars by universities continues its unprecedented slide from a peak in 2011, where it was over $3 billion higher than in 2015. This is worrisome trend, and more worrisome given the chaos in Washington today.

Given these big decrements in the federal money source, what explains peak research spending in 2015? Institutional funds within universities! Meaning, yes, those big endowments are being put to good use.

In 2015 universities financed a higher fraction of their R&D cost than they ever have before, more than accounting for the loss of federal funding.

In 2015 over 25% of R&D spending was actually from institutional money. That’s a full 8 points higher than their running average contribution of ~17%. Meanwhile, at a 56% share, spending of federal dollars at universities hasn’t been this low since…before the days of Sputnik.

It’s also worth pointing out, almost as an aside but not really, the comparitively low fraction of R&D spending at universities attributable to state funds and to corporate activities. Simply put, state governments and corporations are not major investors in university R&D activities.

In various conversations I’ve found that business people are shocked by this, and typically assume the opposite is true…that states spend too much of their taxes on universities, and that corporations fund universities deeply.

Neither is true. Our universities are federal institutions.

I presume the relationship between federal and institutional research spending is less about taking control of one’s house, and more reflects an age-old pattern of hunt and parry, as Steinbeck might say. Institutional funds seem to function as a buffer mechanism.

University institutional spending looks a lot like it rises and falls against the waning and waxing of federal funds. Universities need to run on more predictable budgets than allowed for by a strict dependence upon the sometimes helter skelter pattern of federal funding. Internal funds pick up the slack when necessary.

Over almost 6 decades, it is almost as if universities have operated with every right to expect it will always be done this way. The only questions are how long can universities sustain a waning federal support for their research mission? Will this plug-the-gap mechanism handle a catastrophic reduction in federal research dollars?

This may be tested shortly.

 

 

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How to Stand Out as a Memorable Candidate for Grad School

Contrary to popular belief, high test scores and a perfect GPA do not make for a memorable candidate. At least, not on their own. Sure, having test scores in the 99th percentile and a perfect GPA in challenging and relevant coursework are fantastic. But by their very definition, very few people have those numbers. Graduate schools everywhere would surely shrivel up and die on the vine if numbers were all it took to stand out and be a memorable candidate.

We chatted not too long ago with a professor who runs a PhD “program” that, in fact, holds such lofty standards. As a result, they have not enrolled a new student in the past 5 years. If the program is empty is it still a program? I’m not so sure.

For most programs though – and we mean the real kind with actual students here – numbers mostly serve as thresholds. Every program decides their own thresholds based on what they think is a good indicator of potential success in their program.Two neighboring programs at the same institution could have widely different thresholds. Think of these numbers as a way to get your foot in the door: the better the numbers, the more doors you can open (generally speaking).  

What often matters most is what happens once you are “in the room”, so to speak. Your numbers may put you into the consideration set, but most people would be surprised to learn that numbers are rarely what makes someone stand out and be a memorable candidate. Once you are in the room, your due diligence as an applicant and other less quantitative qualities are what matter most.

If not the numbers, what REALLY counts?

So what is it exactly about certain applicants that makes them stand out? Over the years, I’ve become VERY familiar with the student application process and what makes some candidates very memorable while others fade from memory soon after their interview. I’ve reviewed hundreds of applications, interviewed scores of students, and spent countless hours in admissions committee meetings for a handful of our graduate programs at Emory University, including our pharmacology and our MD/PhD programs, which typically have acceptance rates of 10% or less. Since starting Gradschoolmatch, I’ve been even more immersed in these issues, speaking with many people who run programs at other universities and identifying what types of student profiles stand out, so I know that what I’m sharing with you isn’t just my personal opinion – it’s a fact.

Speaking from our joint experiences, standout candidates have the following characteristics in common.

Being a memorable candidate means being a red gummy bear in a sea of white gummy bears.
Stand out in a GOOD way.

A memorable candidate has:

  • A strong background and experiences in an area relevant to what she wants to study
  • Clear insights about his/her core motivations
  • An overarching vision that connects the dots from his/her academic and work history to grad school to future career plans
  • Evaluated the program structure carefully to understand its various strengths and weaknesses relative to his/her own interests and goal
  • Reviewed the program people and understands the scope of their specializations
  • An ability to articulate how well his/her own interests aligns with what the program offers and what he/she can uniquely bring to the program

There is much more that could and should be said on this subject, but the bottom line is that it is not some je ne sais quois. It really is not complicated at all: numbers allow you to be considered, but it is EVERYTHING else that makes you a unique applicant with the ability to stand out. Through due diligence and preparation, a memorable candidate demonstrates clearly that he/she is familiar with what it takes to excel and how he/she can contribute to a program. They stand out because, through self-reflection and researching programs thoroughly, they can make a strong case that they belong.

So you want to be a memorable candidate? Make sure you can honestly and thoroughly answer the following questions.

  1. What about your background (educational or professional experience) has prepared you for an advanced degree in this field?
  2. Why are you interested in pursuing further education in this field?
  3. What do you intend to get out of graduate schools and how does that relate to your future career aspirations? How does this particular program fit into that vision?
  4. Why are you specifically interested in this program out of all of those in the same field? Which of the program’s strengths lend themselves well to your goals? Which professors or courses particularly interested you?
  5. Why is now the right time for you to pursue a graduate degree?
  6. What is it that you (and only you) can bring to the program?

If you’re able to articulate the answers to those questions, you have a much higher chance of standing out from the pack (in a good way). Lastly, it may go without saying, but they don’t want uninteresting or rude intellectuals milling about their campus; they are looking for people they would want to be around and work with, so don’t leave your manners or conversational skills at home.

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Advertising is bad manners

Graduate programs shouldn’t advertise.

The alternative?

Ask someone if they’d like some guidance, then just be yourself.

As Doc Searls says

All that should stand between any two entities on the Net are manners, permission and convenience. Any company and any customer should be able to connect with any other, without an intermediary, any time and in any way they both want — provided agreements and methods for doing that are worked out.

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Data Take the Wheel: Your New Dashboard and How to Use It

As academics ourselves, we know we don’t have to sell you on the importance of data and the value of data-based decision-making. With that (and your feedback) in mind, we recently designed and launched a Program Dashboard to help you monitor your Programs’ performance at a glance (see our example below).

Dashboard insights are a powerful way to: 

  • Assess program performance in real-time by analyzing the number of ingoing and outgoing bookmarks. Ideally, your programs are receiving a good number of incoming bookmarks as well as proactively bookmarking prospective students.
  • Identify best practices and opportunities for improvement with programs that are not using the platform to its full potential. Find out what the successful programs are doing well and how others can learn from them.  
  • Develop benchmarks and an action plan for the coming year based on admission goals. Decide on target numbers for the coming year and stay tuned for our next post on how to turn your Dashboard insights into action.

We envisioned the Dashboard as a place for program users to gather all the insights you need to take action and make the most of your subscription. Here, you can monitor the programs in your account and make changes immediately. Let’s take a closer look by clicking on one of the Programs (Architecture, in this case).

The dashboard allows you to quickly monitor three key metrics.Using the Dashboard, you can easily keep tabs on three key metrics (called out in the above image):

  1. Program Profile completion – Is your profile complete and does it provide prospects with all pertinent information? Your goal here is 100% completion.
  2. Engagement with prospective students  – Is your program receiving more interest from students than your Collaborators can handle? Together, these numbers are a key indicator of how much interest a program is generating. Your target number here depends on your program size, but you should strive to maximize the number of bookmarks your program receives.
  3. Usage by Collaborators – Who are your top Collaborators? Are all of your Collaborators connecting with prospective students? Ideally, you’ve selected different kinds of Collaborators (faculty, staff and students) to answer different kinds of questions and they have all learned how to use the platform.

We built the dashboard with you (our Program users) in mind, and we hope you find it really useful. We think the new Dashboard will enhance the program user experience by making Gradschoolmatch easier to do the things you need to do to be successful. And like we said, stay tuned for our step-by-step post on how to build an action plan using the new Dashboard.

If we can help you maximize the data from this new tool, or if you have any feedback on it, please don’t hesitate to contact us . We would love to hear from you!

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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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