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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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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Getting a PhD is still a good idea, despite what you have heard

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).

employment_chart_001

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.

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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.

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Recessions Drive Rising Tuition and Privatization of Public Universities

effect of recession on net tuition
from State Higher Education Executive Officers Association SHEF FY2015 Report

The university system in the US struggles. After a prolonged period of rising enrollments, the tide seems to have turned. After peaking in 2011 both undergraduate and graduate enrollment are both on the decline. This is not a waning demographic bubble. Something else is going on.

This is especially problematic since, as a general rule, the costs of education delivery are largely fixed. The university solution is to distribute these costs across many students, some who pay very little in tuition and some who pay full retail, with many gradations between due to various scholarships. The net tuition is the sum of all tuition actually collected from students.

To the extent a university’s costs increase–for whatever reason–they are offset by the rising tuition paid by some students, and/or by increasing student enrollment. Yet, both of those solutions are now pretty much constrained. Rising tuition may have hit a ceiling.

Indeed, the current enrollment drop could be a signal from potential students to universities that they fail to see a value proposition.

Whereas private non-profit universities predominantly rely upon tuition revenue to offset educational costs, public universities do have the additional stream of state subsidies.

Yet these same public institutions have faced a decades-long pattern of diminishing state support. As a consequence, they’ve had no choice but to rely more and more upon rising tuition revenue to cover their costs of education.

I call this trend the “privatization” of public universities. Simply, as state support erodes the cost and behavior of public universities is more and more like that of private universities.

The rising tuition rates at public schools leaves some people costed out of higher education completely. For others who previously would have only considered public universities, private institutions become more attractive.

Second, public university recruitment and admissions practices become more selective, much like those at private schools. For example, many public universities develop programs to recruit higher paying out-of-state students, who sometimes end up in seats that would have otherwise been occupied by state residents. To digress briefly, this is self-defeating in the long run since it diminishes the political will within a state to support higher education.

The net effect from the student perspective is that the value proposition advantage that public universities once enjoyed is reduced. Indeed, the fact that more graduate students are now enrolled in private universities than in public universities pretty much establishes this case.

The big question is what fundamental force drives this privatization trend? I was struck by the figure above when reading the 2015 State Higher Education Finance report (pdf) which is produced by the  State Higher Education Executive Officers association. The data show quite dramatically how economic recessions drive public university privatization.

What’s truly remarkable is the episodic aspect of this pattern, repeated cycles of revenue disruption followed by periods of relative homeostasis.

It appears to work something like this: During recessions, state legislatures withdraw subsidies for higher education, presumably because state tax revenues are down. But lets not underestimate the degree to which the political climate drives the funding decisions and how this is enabled by the will of the electorate.

The public universities adjust by increasing tuition revenue. As the economy improves, the state legislators fail to return university subsidies to pre-recession levels of support, and thus the rising tuition matrix is embedded permanently in the overall university revenue structure.

A period of relative homeostasis ensues….until the next recession occurs and the cycle repeats.

To me, this doesn’t look like a pattern of out of control costs, nor does it look like a pattern of recklessly rising tuition and sticking it on students.

It looks to me, instead, like public universities making adjustments–and holding the line–to and against forces that they have little control over. When state legislatures withhold support, universities have no choice but to cost shift to students. Between recessions they appear to make a good effort to maintain a status quo by ensuring that they maintain net tuition revenue at a reasonably constant level.

However, peeking around the corner, if the pattern is not broken, these SHEEO data predict that we’re about 3 or 4 economic cycles from the point where public higher education in the US becomes, for all intents and purposes, completely privatized.
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An Economic Analysis of Student Loans

Here’s a well thought out piece on student loan policy by Susan Dynarski at Brookings. Bottom line:

If we want to increase college-going by lowering its price, evidence shows that grants and lower tuition are the right policy tools.[v] Cutting interest rates on student loans won’t get more students into college, and siphons off revenue from the grants than can do this important job.

If we want to reduce distress and default among student-loan borrowers, cutting interest rates is also the wrong policy. It does little for distressed borrowers while providing windfall gains to those having no trouble repaying their loans. A well-designed, income-based repayment plan allows borrowers to pay back their loans when and if they are able and is the best route to reducing default and distress.[vi]

 

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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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