Making the Most of Your Graduate School Journey: How to Choose The Right Program After You’ve Been Accepted

No one wants to make the wrong choice, right?

Maybe not, but most people don’t know when they’re making the wrong choice.

Many grad school applicants don’t take this decision seriously enough, or realize how much will be affected by choosing the right (or wrong) program; the difference between good, better, and best is much more than just a few different experiences and a different friend group.

All programs can lead you to a degree, but not all programs will provide you a pleasant graduate experience, lead you to your dream career or take you down the right life path. 

Whether you consider this decision big or small, the truth is choosing the right graduate program will have a HUGE impact on your life.

Allow me to illustrate this point further. The difference between a pretty good choice and a GREAT choice could mean:

  • Entering a cohort of people you can tolerate in small doses vs. becoming part of a group of people you enjoy personally and grow with professionally
  • Struggling through a program that just meets your criteria vs. feeling supported and thriving in a program that feels tailored to your goals and aspirations
  • Spending frustrating years working on furthering someone else’s research vs. building a foundation of research skills you’ll need for a successful career after graduate school.

Choosing a program may feel like a multiple choice question where any of the answers could be right, but this is sadly not the case. Though two schools may not look very different on paper (or on websites that all start to look eerily similar), they definitely are in practice.

You might wonder why you should listen to me (and it’s good to be skeptical about these things).

I graduated from the University of Michigan in 2016 with an MBA and a Masters in Science after applying to ten graduate programs. Yes. TEN. So, you can probably imagine how hard it was for me to make my final choice.

I read every blog post available and talked to anyone that would listen. I found a lot of things I read to be unhelpful, and I think they were all missing the things I’ve outlined below. And to be perfectly transparent, I LOVED my time in grad school and I wouldn’t trade my three years in Ann Arbor for anything.

But, first things first – a HUGE congratulations is in order!

You’ll have to excuse me, I forgot my manners for a second. Getting accepted to a program you’ve worked SO hard to apply to feels amazing, so make sure to savor that for a minute. Go ahead and do that, even if you’ve already celebrated it. (Don’t worry, I’ll be ready with some advice for you when you’re done).

We raise our glass to you, newly-accepted applicant!

 

Now that you (and Leo) have adequately celebrated this momentous occasion, it’s time to get down to making your big decision. The sad truth is that 25% of current graduate students are unhappy with their choice. You worked tirelessly to apply and get in and made a big choice to improve your future, but did you ever consider that this could actually make you UNhappy? No one really tells you that it might not work out the way you had hoped, so I want to help you think this through properly.

Spoiler alert: this will not be a traditional “how to decide on a grad program” blog post.

I won’t outline how to think about cost, location, etc in a very logistical way in this post (there are enough of those out there). We’re here to help you think through some things that the sad 25% probably overlooked in making their choice.

No pressure, though. We’ve got your back. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you make your big decision.

1. Location and cost matter, but only to a certain extent.

We’ll start off with the more obvious factors here. The location of a program definitely matters since it will affect the next 2-7 years of your life (depending on your degree of choice).

If you’re a California native moving to notoriously wintery Michigan (Go Blue!) in pursuit of your graduate education, you may have to learn a few new life skills (like I did). Of course my choice to live in Michigan for three years shaped my graduate experience, from learning to drive in the snow to picking up new (indoor) hobbies to buying a much more winter-friendly wardrobe. I made sure before going there, though, that it would not necessarily affect my post-grad school aspirations in terms of geographic location.

Before enrolling (and moving my life across the country to “The Mitten”), I spoke with current students, graduates, and the career services office to make sure that the alumni network and recruiting opportunities spanned the entire country (and globe). So yes, where you go matters in terms of how you will experience graduate school, but it does not necessarily mean you’ll need to spend the rest of your career (and life) in that location.

On the other hand, if you’re hoping to move into a very niche industry or hoping to start a career in a new location, attending a program  in that place or near the epicenter of that industry can be a great choice. If you’re looking for a city experience, it may not make much sense to consider programs in more rural areas or college towns, and vice versa. If you HATE snow and it would ruin every day for you, consider a program in the southern half of the country.

Likewise, although the cost of your program will impact your extracurricular activities (and your relative level of stress throughout your studies), resist the urge to make your decision solely based on finances

Going to graduate school is an investment in yourself, and one you should ONLY make if you feel that it will benefit your future net worth (otherwise you’re giving up a few years of potential income AND paying tuition for no future benefit). Thinking of this as an investment in yourself that will pay off in the future, it’s OKAY to pick a program that isn’t offering you the best financial package if you think it’s the one that will lead you to the best career opportunities. That might be an unpopular, but you’re (likely) only going to grad school once and it’s important to make the most of your experience.

Long story short: location and cost will affect your experience, but these factors should be considered as a means to break ties between programs, NOT as a first filter.

2. Don’t treat the decision like you’re picking your undergrad program.

Grad school is not College 2.0. Your school selection should be hyper-focused on your particular program. Unlike college, this isn’t a time to explore your options so make sure the programs you are considering excel in your area of focus and will lead you to your dream career.

Realistically, you won’t have much time to enjoy many of the things that make your school a great undergrad institution (think sports, on-campus events, etc) since you’ll be in a grad school bubble with your own jam-packed agenda. Think about what makes it a great grad program specifically, like resources and funding available to graduate students, annual events or conferences in your field, a supportive learning environment, accessible professors, strong connections with potential employers or great on-campus recruiting opportunities etc. If you can make it to a big sporting event while you’re there, great, but don’t let the university as a whole sway your decision about your specific program.

3. Know the difference between what you want and what you think you should want.

Repeat after me: rankings aren’t everything.

Not only are they not everything, they all use VERY different, often subjective methodologies to compare schools that may be very different than your own. Additionally, these rankings often represent programs on the broadest levels and don’t take into account how a specific program performs in your particular area of interest (because, remember, you’re hyper-focused this time around). For example, the best program in the country for Physics may not be the best program in the country for Astrophysics.

You know yourself better than anyone — listen to what your heart is telling you. In making my final choice of graduate schools, a lot of people tried to tell me to choose the Ivy League program to which I was accepted. By certain standards, that’s what I SHOULD have wanted. But, I got to the bottom of many pages of “Pros and Cons” lists only to realize that, at the end of the day, this decision was MY experience and I had to listen to my gut and acknowledge what I REALLY wanted.

4. Ask yourself how a program treated you and made you feel while they were trying to woo you because that was “their best foot forward”.

Things could go from bad to worse.

Without getting too fluffy and unacademic, think back on how different programs made you feel. Remember that graduate programs do not exist without graduate students in them (read: they should be making you feel wanted once they’ve accepted you). Whether you’ve visited in person or just spoken with professors or students via email, different programs will likely give you different vibes. Though not quite as tangible, this X factor IS worth paying attention to; programs likely put their best foot forward to attract you to their program. So, if their best wasn’t that great, it may only get worse in terms of the attention and resources they provide you if you enroll.

5. Lastly, don’t be afraid to NOT choose.

No one likes choosing between bad and not-much-better, so don’t. Seriously. Imagine you’re on the finale of the The Bachelor (or Bachelorette) left with two options you don’t love – would you still choose one of them just because you had invested so much effort and time in getting to that point?

NO! No, no, no. You would not sign up for a lifetime of unhappiness because of sunk costs. And Brad Womack broke all the cardinal rules of The Bachelor just to prove it to us in Season 11. If at the end of the whole process you don’t love your options, you don’t have to go to grad school this year!

 

You can reapply next year or the following and end up much better off. (And yes, Brad also proved this by coming back in Season 15 to give it another shot).  

All (Bachelor) jokes aside, you REALLY do not have to pick between two bad options. This is a huge life investment of both time and money, and if at the end of the process you don’t feel any of your options are the right one, just say “No” and consider reapplying in the future.

At the end of the day, there are a million ways to look at your options. We know this list is by no means exhaustive, but we hope it helps you frame your decision and make the best one for you. We wish you all the best!

 

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How many people go to graduate school and a few other questions

Here are a few snapshots of graduate school enrollment data I’ve been playing. All of this comes from 12 month (unique head count) enrollment data (IPEDs) and US Census population estimates by age.

First, when it comes to grad school, the real college towns are cities and their suburbs.  No surprise there, because that’s where 80% of people in the US live and work. Still, although millennials in general may or may not be drifting away from urban areas, the millennials who seek advanced degrees are certainly not.

In 2015 just under 4.5% of US millennials were enrolled in graduate school someplace. That’s been a stable fraction of 20-39 year-old people enrolled in grad school since 2010.

Prior to that, the fraction of people in that age range who are in grad school has been growing steadily over the past several decades (because of the increasing popularity of the master’s degree). More and more people were going to grad school. But not anymore.

For a lot of reasons, I think that 4.5% is the key number to watch, rather than absolute enrollment numbers. Why has it plateaued? Is graduate school too expensive? Too much student debt? Has the Great Recession fundamentally changed this in some way? Will graduate schools be able to increase further the percentage of baccalaureates who go on to get an advanced degree? Or is this 4.5% a “hard” cap?

I have a sneaky suspicion that most universities are built on an enrollment growth model…which is to say that attracting a growing percentage of college grads has been key to keeping tuition rates lower than they’d be otherwise. Yikes!

Individual graduate schools will struggle to hit their enrollment targets if that 4.5% fraction remains stable. Because that means competition for students will stiffen and pressures to raise tuition revenue will become stronger.

The last, if not most, remarkable story is what I like to call the privatization issue. Graduate school enrollment at private universities has caught–and clearly surpassed–that in public institutions. This turnabout is kinda stunning. The graph shows that the growth in the percentage of people enrolled in grad school over the past 15 years can be attributed mostly to private universities.

I think there are two explanations for this trend.

First, public institutions don’t spend nearly the same on student recruitment as do private institutions. This is certainly the case at the undergrad level where privates outspend the publics at a rate of about 4 to 1 in terms of recruiting one student. So there is that institutional ethos in putting some effort into marketing that differs.

But at the graduate level, recruitment is so Balkanized finding “typical” recruitment costs is difficult. The spend per student recruited is almost certainly much lower than for undergrad recruitment at both public and private institutions. That’s mostly because nobody is really in charge of it in graduate school. Graduate school deans expect programs to fend for themselves whereas programs assume the deans are helping them out with marketing and recruitment.

When on the phone with recruiters at a public university on several occasions I’ve heard something along the lines of, “And of course I’m at a public university so I have no recruiting budget.” Of course.

That’s just not something we hear a lot when chatting with private university recruiters.

A second reason for privatization is that as the cost of attending a public university has grown, the price advantage they once had over private schools has diminished, if not evaporated completely.

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What the heck is going on at Harvard?

Two recent announcements from Harvard University have generated a lot of press. Both provide important insights into the overall state of graduate education everywhere.

Announcement 1: Harvard’s Graduate College of Arts and Sciences is reducing the number of slots for new graduate students by 4.4%. Funds are tight and something has to give. They explain it is better to cut new class sizes than to cut benefits and services for existing students.

Announcement 2: Harvard’s law school will now accept GRE scores in lieu of the LSAT. Harvard said, in effect, that the LSAT is an unnecessary barrier to entry for the types of applicants it would like to attract.

People are astounded that an institution with a multi-billion dollar endowment, albeit an underperforming one, is resource-constrained. Or that one of the most prestigious law schools in the country sees fit to lower barriers to entry. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t accept at face value the stated reasons for these changes. 

Harvard is among a cluster of super-large graduate schools…there are only about a dozen universities that award more advanced degrees than Harvard. Their graduate enrollment is the size of a small town, with an intake of close to 6000 students recently. They spend a LOT of money on new grad students because they have a lot students.

Harvard’s endowment revenue supports a large number of these students, particularly the research doctorates, for at least their first two years. Most of these students are weaned off institutional money after their second year, transitioning to support by external grants, the bulk of which are federal.

The real story here is that Harvard has actually peeked around the corner to assess how available external funding will be as these students progress through the programs. Like everybody else in academia, they see some dark clouds. The admissions cut is fiscally prudent for the near term, but I think this move is mostly a hedge against the possibility of a downturn in federal support of university research, which will make it difficult to fund all the students they have already.

As for dropping the LSAT requirement, I thought it was a brilliant move by the University of Arizona when they led the way last year, and applaud Harvard for coming around to it, too.

As with the enrollment cuts, a lot of people seem to be missing the point. This has much less to do with saving students a couple of hundred bucks or the cost of a fist full of #2 pencils. This is about stimulating more applications by reducing unnecessary (and archaic) barriers to entry.

Law school enrollment is falling. The prospect pool of LSAT takers continues to shrink and with it the depth of quality. By accepting the GRE, Harvard automatically widens its prospect pool.

Harvard is seeking out non-traditionally-minded prospects. The law firm/associate model is busted and is likely not to come back, but the demand for sophisticated legal services is growing. In particular, there is a need for lawyers with backgrounds in finance, cyber, engineering, “global” and health care backgrounds. Those people are swimming in the GRE pool. And one presumes people with strong backgrounds in these areas plus a Harvard Law degree will be in good shape for employment. 

To turn the corner and become relevant again law schools will need to establish two things. First, that their degrees have some value in the employment market. Second, they will need to compete in wider market for prospects, where their competition is not just other law schools, but other academic specializations potential grad students are contemplating. Harvard’s GRE move is a step to accomplish both of these.

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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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Top Places to Attend Graduate School Sorted by Congressional Districts

Several factors are weighed into deciding where to attend graduate school. The two biggest are academic specialty and place.

With an election on the horizon I thought it would be interesting to come up with the top places to attend graduate school as indexed by US Congressional districts.

Most Congressional districts have several institutions of higher education. Here, I’m working only with a list of institutions that award degrees beyond the baccalaureate. Given the right mix of institutions and locale, these Congressional districts can act as microclusters of learning, research and living. In short, they can be very attractive places.

Here is a list of the top 25 Congressional districts as measured by the total annual spending by the universities within their districts. I’ve also added the number of graduate students enrolled at all of the universities within each district.

As a general rule, universities with the highest spending do so because of their research activity and/or because of affiliated hospitals. As a result, they tend to have higher numbers of graduate students compared to other institutions.

Philadelphia’s PA02 is ranked first by a substantial margin with over $10B in annual spending. Although PA02 has 17 universities offering graduate degrees within its boundaries, just three –the University of Pennsylvania ($5.9B), Temple University ($2.6B), and Drexel University ($0.89B)– account for over 90% of the university spending in the district.

There are 417 US Congressional districts with universities that have graduate programs. Total university spending within each ranges from just under $1 million (AZ06) to over $10 billion (PA02). University spending exceeds $1B in 115 of the 417 district.

These top 25 also account for just under 29% of all university spending in the US, and about 19% of all graduate student enrollment.

Why are spending and enrollment important metrics? These districts are the real hotbeds of knowledge creation and innovation. They serve as magnets attracting thousands of highly intelligent and motivated people each year into their graduate programs. They are important economic engines.

The data are for the year 2014 and derived from the US Department of Education (IPEDS).

Top 25 Congressional Districts by University Spending
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The Privatization of Public Universities

Maureen Downey, a reporter and editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution with expertise in education policy, was kind enough to invite me to write an opinion piece for her blog. You can read it here.

In essence, the argument is that as states fund less and less of the overall operation of their public universities, these institutions look –and act– more and more like private universities.

The index I used to make this argument is the ratio of state subsidies to net tuition. Net tuition is tuition minus allowances (ie, various scholarships, etc). To measure privatization of public universities, this index is a nice first level, across-the-board way to quickly check how much and how rapidly things are changing.

I had been thinking about this issue for a while mostly in the context of graduate schools. The national trend is a steady reduction in enrollment in public universities that has been offset by private university enrollment. Beyond the politics, why is this enrollment trend happening?

Given that graduate enrollment is mostly demand-driven, my sense is that public universities have simply lost the low tuition advantage they once enjoyed over the private schools. The playing field has been leveled, and to compete effectively the public institutions are going to have to operate more and more as if they are private.

But this is a pretty complex issue. Universities are dynamic places. There are a lot of moving parts over time in how they adapt to a variety of different forces. The erosion of state support is just one such force.

The Georgia Institute of Technology, which is the focus of my article on Maureen’s blog, is adapting by leveraging its superlative reputation as an engineering school to construct a highly selective admissions process. Georgia Tech is laying the ground work now for when the day arrives that it is fully private, for all intents and purposes.

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Graduate School Enrollment is Higher in Private than in Public Universities and Colleges

public v private

Just a quick observation. Graduate school enrollment in public universities has been dropping since the early 90’s, while enrollment in private (not-profit) universities has been steadily rising.

It is hard not to imaging a steal effect going on there, where the privates get students who might have otherwise enrolled in the publics. But I’m certain the causes and the effects are much more complicated than simple competition between schools.

Some responsible forces off the top of my head range from reduced state support of the publics, narrowing tuition rates between the two, to endowment growth at the privates to relative successes in growing research infrastructure and the graduate enrollment that research will drive.

Of course, ultimately these numbers reflect where students choose to attend. This just relfects the evolving marketplace for the Master’s degree. If the students hold the cards–in the end, nobody can force a student to attend someplace they don’t wish to attend–what the graduate students seem to be saying is that the graduate school value proposition at private universities and colleges exceeds that of the public institutions.

If you add the private for-profit graduate school enrollment to that of the private non-profits, you get the inset result: Graduate school enrollment is higher now in private than in public colleges and universities. The inflection point actually occurred in 2008 and it is really difficult to see how this trend will ever be reversed.

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