Enrolling This Fall? Here’s What You Should Be Doing This Summer

Summer’s just around the corner and we want you to make the most of yours!

Whether you’re graduating from college or working in the real world (where summer breaks aren’t a thing anymore), you’re surely aware that summer is right around the corner. Summer means longer days, shorter nights, and that fall (aka Back-to-School season) is also on the horizon. There’s no shortage of ways and places to spend it, but here are a few things you SHOULD be doing this summer.

And so the [grad school] adventure begins

Here are 7 things you should do this summer to make starting grad school in a few months fun, exciting, and easy. 

Or at least easier – grad school isn’t supposed to be easy.

1. Stop for a moment to celebrate your accomplishments.
Take time to acknowledge your achievements and thank the people who helped you get where you are, including those who helped you get into grad school. If you just finished undergrad, use some of your newly-found free time to reconnect with friends and family (before free time is a distant memory). Make time to give thanks to your recommenders and advisors over coffee or write thank you notes (by hand). You’re about to set off in the noble pursuit of knowledge and it’s important to reflect on how you got to this point.

Celebrate your achievements

2. Take a break and be selfish.
Exercise, catch up on your favorite show (or ours), or spend time learning or perfecting your hobbies. You’re going to need good outlets for the stress that comes from being back in school and this is where healthy habits and hobbies will come in really handy. Now’s a great time to get your mind and body right for what will surely be a big transition.

3. Spend time outside.
Whether that’s at home or on vacation somewhere, enjoy the great outdoors. Depending on your degree of choice, you may be looking forward to a lot of time in the lab or in the library and you’re definitely going to need some memories of the time in your life when being outside didn’t make you feel guilty. (Plus, you’re going to need some #TBT material for those days when your current situation isn’t so great). Jokes aside, it’s incredibly important and beneficial to unplug and spend time outside. #ThisIsYourBrainOnNature

Get outside and explore!

4. Meet your classmates.
If you’re going into a bigger program, there’s a chance you’re not the only one from your city. Organize a happy hour at one of your favorite restaurants and get to know some of the people with whom you’ll be spending the next few years. You’ll be so happy you did once you need a study buddy or someone to vent to about #GradSchoolProblems.

5. Explore your new city.
If you’re moving for grad school, you may want to get there early. At the very least, visit once before school’s in session. You won’t have much time to figure everything out before you need to know it (e.g. where to study when you need a break from your cohort, where to go for late night eats after an all-nighter in the library, where to get your car fixed, or even where you’ll buy your groceries). More than that though, you should get to know what makes your town special! You won’t get to uncover these unique gems when you’re facing deadlines and cramming for tests and you’ll be able to better enjoy the city for what it is before the stress and assignments begin. Make technology work for you and start exploring!

Get to know your new city.

6. Read for fun.
And enjoy that freedom while you can because soon you will be inundated with articles and books that you won’t exactly get to choose. If you’ve forgotten what “reading for fun” is, here’s a list to get you started (which happens to include my favorite, A Man’s Search for Meaning)DO NOT try to get a jump start on your grad school reading! You’ll only burn yourself out before the hard work even begins and you’re going to need all that enthusiasm and stamina to get you through the hard days.

7. Get all the real life, adult stuff out of the way.
Ya, this one’s not so fun, but I wish someone had told me this before grad school. It’s a pain in the butt to find all new doctors, optometrists, dentists, mechanics, etc, in a new place and you won’t want to wait until it’s “do or die”. Make sure your finances are in order and that you’ll be able to bank from wherever you’re headed. If you’re taking a car, make sure your insurance covers you in your new city/state or start the process of getting new insurance. Do all of these things before you take off. I promise it will make your life in a new place THAT much easier.

Adulting is hard, we know.

Bonus: if you already know where you’re going to live, schedule your utilities/cable start date and set up mail forwarding so you have one less thing to worry about. #ResponsibleAdulting

Drop us a line (or two or three) and let us know what your plans are for the summer and where you’re heading to school. We’ll air high-five you from Atlanta and we may even have a celebratory drink on your behalf. 😉


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!



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.


From Insights to Action: How To Develop A Recruiting Action Plan

Wondering why you need an action plan? Having data is great, but using it is far more valuable.

Collecting data is only half the battle; it’s what you do with it that really matters. In the words of McKinsey’s big data specialists, “Data is meaningless unless it helps make decisions that have measurable impact...Generating value from [data] is a matter of connecting data to insights to action in a fast, repeatable way.”  (Source: Forbes).  Long story short: collect data and use it to inform your strategy and subsequent action plan.

Your Dashboard provides the data you'll need for your Action Plan
Your Dashboard provides the data you’ll need for your Action Plan

Our new Dashboard tool has the first half covered, but it’s up to you to complete the second half. Continue reading for all the tools you’ll need to put your insights to work.

To develop your program’s tailored (and well-informed) plan, follow these four steps:

1. Figure out where you stand

The first step in deciding on a realistic plan of action is figuring out where you are today. Take a look around and be honest. From 90,000 feet, what do you see? Look over your recruiting results over the past few years – how close are you to where you’d like to be?

Consider the answers to questions like the following to get the full picture:

  • How do your incoming Bookmarks compare to your outgoing Bookmarks?
  • What percentage of your total Matches from 2016 became applicants? Is this a number you’d like to increase? If so, by how much? (Remember, Gradschoolmatch acts as a funnel to deliver your best Matches, but like any funnel, nothing will come out if nothing goes in!)
  • Are your Collaborators bookmarking prospects, responding to incoming Bookmarks and, most importantly, engaging with Matches through personal messages? If not, who could you add as Collaborators to be more effective – current graduate students, faculty, admin, etc – based on the type of questions you’ve gotten from prospects?

Asking yourself these questions will help you analyze your success in different areas of recruiting.

2. Decide where you want to go 

Imagine your action plan as the keys to hitting a bullseye this year.
Set your targets for the year and keep your eye on the prize.

From a bird’s eye view, you might see many possible paths to take, but you’ll need to decide which direction to go. You may choose to address your biggest weakness or you may choose to support a larger initiative your program has already decided to undertake. The point here is to be specific in what you’re trying to achieve THIS year and to limit your scope.

3. Plan your path forward

With your destination in mind, it’s time to plan your route. As a first step, consider which of these three categories you fall into based on your answer to the questions in Step 1 about your Bookmarking performance.

Did you find that your program:

A) Had an equal number of outgoing and incoming Bookmarks,

B) Received more Bookmarks than you sent (incoming>outgoing) or

C) Sent more Bookmarks than you received (incoming<outgoing)?

Your Action Plan should ultimately get you from your starting point to your desired destination.
Map out your starting point and destination and develop an Action Plan that will get you from Point A to Point B.

No matter which category you fall into, you are not stuck there, nor are you guaranteed to stay there. The process of developing an Action Plan is your first step to improving your success.

A few quick suggestions depending on where you ranked (before we move on to the nitty gritty):

  • If your Bookmark counts were equal, that’s great! It probably means you like everybody who likes your program. Go through the Stop-Continue-Start framework (below) to make sure this year is at least as good as last year. Analyze how many of these Matches became applicants (and how many of those were accepted, and subsequently enrolled). To increase the number of applicants and subsequent enrollees you’ll need to increase your engagement with the Matches you have, or generate more. Bookmark a few more prospects each month and follow up with personal messages explaining what about their profile caught your eye, and be specific. Schedule phone calls. Make yourself available to answer any questions they have. Your expertise is your greatest recruiting asset.
  • If your incoming Bookmarks exceeded your outgoing Bookmarks – you are probably missing out on great students! Your program is getting a lot of attention that is going unreciprocated, and if that’s not intentional (as in, they are not students you are interested in), your recruiting funnel has a leak! Consider adding more Collaborators who can review incoming Bookmarks and potentially send a Bookmark (and a message) back, and schedule those phone calls! You’ll definitely want to make the most of students seeking YOU out since they’ve already expressed interest on their end.
  • If your outgoing Bookmarks exceeded your incoming Bookmarks, analyze why your outgoing Bookmarks may not be reciprocated. Is your profile page missing information that may attract students? Are you following up Bookmarks with a warm, personal message to students to tell them why you are interested in them specifically? If not, you may be missing out on making quality connections (students may think you are blanket Bookmarking anyone who fits your criteria). Could your program benefit from having more collaborators engaging with Bookmarked students?

You may also consider using the Stop-Continue-Start framework to connect the dots from your current state to your ideal state.

Stop: Identify activities or initiatives that were unsuccessful or not as productive as you had hoped. If you’re not getting engagement with group messaging, stop sending them. Did you try something new that didn’t work out the way you thought they would? These are the types of things that should be stopped, as the time you spend on these things could be better used in the future (e.g. on the activities you will be continuing or starting).

Continue: Identify areas of strength and past success. What has your team done that has produced great results? Are these initiatives repeatable or scalable? List those activities in this category, as these are the types of initiatives you should definitely continue to leverage (and scale, if possible) to achieve recruiting success. Note: This category can also include activities that may not have been hugely successful, but can be modified to produce better results.

Start: Identify a few tactics you’d like to start this year. These may be things you have seen other programs do with great results or just new ideas you’d like to test. Based on what you decided in Step 2, specify a few tactics that will help you better achieve your stated goals.

The list you just created will allow you to see clearly where your energy is best spent and how to trim the fat. From this list, write out a specific Action Plan that outlines particular goals. These goals should be realistic and quantifiable, and can include things like:

  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to send each month (outgoing)
  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to receive each month (incoming)
  • How many Bookmarks you’d like to send to prospects who meet certain criteria (e.g. URM, particular background or experience, etc).
  • How many candidates you’d like to send personal messages to
  • How many prospects you’d like to schedule calls with
  • How many active collaborators you’d like to have (Pro Tip: Set up different kinds of users – faculty, current students, admin, etc – as Collaborators so that interested students are getting all of the information and attention they need and deserve. More is usually better, but definitely prioritize quality over quantity)

Using the S.M.A.R.T. goal format, try to structure your goals as follows: Reach out (actionable) to ________ (specific, measurable, agreed-upon) students using Gradschoolmatch by _________ (time-based).

3. Go forth and prosper!

This step will take a little longer than others, as you probably guessed. This is when you put your plan to work, where the rubber meets the road. Leverage your team’s strengths to implement your Action Plan – divide and conquer, if you will. Using your Gradschoolmatch account, identify students who would be a great fit for your program(s) and make a personal connection early on. Refer back to your Action Plan to make sure you are staying on track, from time to time.

4. Don’t forget the feedback loop

Rinse and repeat AKA review your action plan and make a new one.
No Action Plan is foolproof or universal so make sure to revisit it every year to make necessary changes based on the outcomes you achieved.

This is the “rinse and repeat” portion of the activity. You must revisit your plan after each recruiting cycle for this process to work well. Refer back to your S.M.A.R.T. goals to see how your results stacked up. Go back through the Start-Stop-Continue framework and adjust your goals for the following year.

Need help collecting insights from your dashboard or developing an Action Plan based on what you’re seeing? Contact us! We’d love to help you make the most of your account using our new Dashboard tool and get you set up for a successful 2017!


Psychology Graduate Program Specializes in Rural Mental Health Care

Gradschoolmatch sat down to hold a Skype chat recently with Dr. Mike Nielsen, Ph.D, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Psychology at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia. His department uses Gradschoolmatch to identify and guide prospects who might be interested in their MS and Psy.D. human psychology graduate programs.

The Georgia Southern University Psy.D. program, in particular, caught our eye because the niche it fulfills struck us as one that is very unique in the overall space of psychology graduate programs. Georgia Southern University offers many graduate programs but the Psy.D. has a strong focus on mental health care problems and needs in a rural setting.

If you’re anything like us, as soon as you read that you’re struck by how obvious the need must be for psychology graduate programs specializing in that niche. But until now, like us, you may never before have considered the possibility a university department exists to offer graduate programs that ensure the specialization is fulfilled.

Finding the right graduate program is a path of discovery. Many people often don’t quite know what they are looking for until they see it for the first time. If you’re looking for psychology graduate programs and like the idea of living and working in rural areas, this just may be your match.

What follows is the transcript of our chat session.

TJ Murphy: Hi Michael. Thank you for joining us. As we’re chatting, the mid-Atlantic is getting slammed by the blizzard of the century. How is the weather in Statesboro?

Mike Nielsen: We are getting rain at the moment, with a 50% chance of snow tonight.  In the 23 years I’ve lived here we have had snow only twice, so this is a rare event!

TJ Murphy: We’ve had a bit more than that in Atlanta but not by much. I think the (relative) absence of winter weather in the south is one of the best reasons to live here.

Mike Nielsen: Yes, I prefer to watch pictures of people shoveling snow, rather than shovel snow myself.

TJ Murphy: Indeed. So how about beginning with a my big question. Psychology is one of the largest undergraduate majors that we see on Gradschoolmatch, #3 behind business and education majors. There is a ton of interest in psychology graduate programs, too.  Why are so many people attracted to the field?

Mike Nielsen: I think that there are many reasons but at the core is the fact that we are self-reflective beings.  We wonder why we ourselves do things, and we wonder why other people do things.  Psychology offers tools or methods that help us begin to understand these kinds of basic questions about ourselves.  Plus, psychology is a useful area of study.  Psychology helps us understand what motivates people, and gives us pointers on how best to interact with family, friends, and coworkers.

TJ Murphy: That’s interesting. So what I think you are saying is that students of psychology are students of other people. They are people persons. It seems to me a good people person could go in a lot of directions.

Mike Nielsen: Yes, absolutely!  Of course, psychologists study many different species, but the great majority of our work at Georgia Southern is with people. What we are really interested in is, Why do we do, think, or feel what  we do?  And there are many different perspectives from which we can answer that question. With that knowledge of why we do/think/feel what  we do, then we can begin to work with people to modify their actions, thoughts, and feelings so that they accomplish their goals, increase their happiness, and so on.

TJ Murphy: Where do Georgia Southern’s psychology graduate programs fit into that point of view? You seem to say that generating new knowledge about psychology through research and applying knowledge are both important. Is that what you’re trying to accomplish in your department?

Mike Nielsen, PhD. Professor and Chairman, Department of Psychology, Georgia Southern University
Mike Nielsen, PhD. Professor and Chairman, Department of Psychology, Georgia Southern University

Mike Nielsen: Yes, it is.  Our faculty believes that we have a responsibility to better understand people, and to use that knowledge in an ethical, responsible way to improve people’s lives.  So, in our two graduate programs we take this to heart.  Our Master’s of Science program focuses on generating a better understanding of people. We connect students with faculty members and together work to answer the question of why people do/think/feel as they do.  In order to do this, students pursue research projects to answer basic questions about people. This culminates in a thesis showing the student’s independent investigation using psychological science.

Our Doctor of Psychology program does this as well, as each student conducts a dissertation that pursues a basic question. In addition, Psy.D. students study how to assess problems and use therapy to try to address the problems people encounter in their lives.

Because Georgia is a relatively rural state, our Psy.D. program focuses on training students to be therapists in rural and under-served areas.  This is one of the unique things about our psychology department.  In a rural area, access to resources such as transportation can be very limited. Factors like this can pose challenges, and make mental health care a scarce resource. We hope to help address this, so that all people can have access to good mental health care.

TJ Murphy: Obviously, graduate school is where specialization happens, and there are many specialties people can pursue at the graduate level. But frankly, I had never thought before of the need to train people to specialize rural mental health care delivery. That’s strikes me as a real niche in a world of niches. What are some of the challenges you face in finding students who might be interested in that?

Mike Nielsen: Good question!  Many people are interested in psychology, as you noted, but most of them are in cities.  So, one of the challenges we face is simply the fact that people in recent history have moved from rural areas to cities. If we are going to address the mental health shortage in rural areas, we need to find people who want to be a psychologist and want to live in small towns.  Small towns have a lot of positive traits, even if they might not have a huge shopping district or cultural center.  Finding students who are interested in that is the key.

But each year our Psy.D. program has existed, we have had more and more applicants.  This year we have had nearly double the number of applicants, and we will be able to accept only about 10% of them. So, as part of our application process, we ask students about their interest in serving rural areas and under-served people.  We take this part of the program very seriously at admissions, and it continues throughout the entire program.  Even students’ dissertations address rural living in some way.

TJ Murphy: Your recruiting successes sound great, I hope Gradschoolmatch helped to contribute a little bit to your application pool. Students out there reading this will be wise to understand how important “the fit” is in making admissions decisions. Programs need to make sure they are training the right people, whether there are many or just a few applicants.

Mike Nielsen: Yes, we really do believe in finding the right fit between the student and the program.  A tremendous student can be in a great program but, if their goals don’t align well, the student won’t be getting the education or training that s/he wants.  And by finding the right fit, you will be on track for a more productive and fulfilling career!

Because we have been using Gradschoolmatch for just two months, it is hard to say how much of the increase in our applicant pool is due to the website, vs. how much is due to our recent accreditation from the American Psychological Association.  I have corresponded with several people as a result of Gradschoolmatch, but most of them are anticipating applying for admission in 2017.  🙂  I can say that the people I’ve corresponded with have been very articulate and have asked good questions.  I expect that we will be seeing some strong applications from them next year!

TJ Murphy: The more we look at the data the more impressed I am in how much work prospects put into exploring their graduate school options. For many, it begins years in advance of the application deadline. I think they know very well this is the biggest career decision they’ll make in their lives. It changes their trajectory.

Mike Nielsen: Yes, absolutely. People with a bachelor’s degree are not as focused in a single trajectory as are graduate degree holders. It is a big decision!

TJ Murphy: What people may not realize reading this is that it takes a bit of work to get to this point in the conversation, since we’re both typing in a chat function. This whole session has been very informative. I’ve stolen enough of your time for one day, and I thank you very much for it and all of your insights.

Mike Nielsen: Thanks!  Have a great evening– stay warm!

TJ Murphy: You too, Michael. Best!!



Are We At Peak Master’s Degree? Part 2

While the enrollment trouble at for-profit universities has been making all the news the past few years, graduate school enrollment has been on the decline at traditional non-profit universities, too.  The numbers of Master’s degrees, but not doctorates, awarded in the past three years has been flat. And seventy-five percent of all graduate degrees awarded each year are the Master’s. Therefore, it stands to reason that declining graduate school enrollment can be attributed largely to a reduction in Master’s program enrollment.

This begs the question; is this a transient or have we seen peak Master’s degree? Here’s a bit more evidence from the government’s data vaults that indicated Master’s program enrollment is declining, and that it probably reflects a reduction in demand for the degree. And so, yes, peak Master’s may be something in the past.

Unfortunately, although government data reports the number of heads enrolled in graduate school any given year, it doesn’t report program-level enrollment. Strictly, when we see a dip in overall graduate school enrollment, we don’t really know if that dip is due to Master’s students, to certificate students or to doctoral students.

However, given a few simple assumptions on attrition rates and time-to-degree, it is possible to infer enrollment in different degree program categories by using the number of graduate awards conferred at these levels by an institution each year.

Here, I estimate graduate enrollment as function of the ratio of certificates plus masters awards, divided by doctorates, the CM/D ratio in the figure above. In these calculations I assume a average of 2 years to degree for a Master’s student and 5 years for a doctorate, and 10% annual attrition. These assumptions work as a good first approximation for institutions that have a complicated mixture of programs, times to degree and attrition rates.

Thus, the higher the CM/D ratio, the higher the relative enrollment of Master’s to doctoral students. For example, this model calculates Master’s to doctoral student enrollment is over 4 to 1 at institutions with a CM/D award rate ratios of about 10. In other words, it is hard to have their reported award ratios without having these calculated enrollment ratios.

If reductions in enrollment are afflicting Master’s program more than others, we’d expect to see institutions with the highest percentages of Master’s students most adversely affected. Indeed, by sorting institutions by their Carnegie classification, we see the enrollment dips are more pronounced in those groups of institutions that award higher percentages of Master’s degree relative to doctorates.

For example, the most precipitous enrollment drop happens in the institutional category of large program Master’s Colleges and Universities. This large group of 377 institutions, on average, award 47.4 Master’s plus graduate certificates for every one doctorate. I calculate their ratio of enrolled Master’s to Doctoral students is almost 20 to 1, which is very high. These are institutions that must on average be taking in about 30 new Master’s matriculates for every new doctoral matriculate.

Collectively, enrollment in the large program Master’s Colleges and Universities institutional category is down a whopping 6.5% from their 2010 peak. That’s just a remarkably high shift over a short period, as the graph dramatically illustrates.

In contrast, although graduate school enrollment at Research Universities (very high research activity; aka, Research 1 institutions) is not down, it is nonetheless flat. These institutions award 3.1 Master’s and certificate degrees for every doctoral degree.   At these elite institutions, that means only a little more than half of all enrolled graduate students are in Master’s programs. Since they are such large institutions, as a group they award high absolute numbers of Master’s degrees, but the high percentage of doctoral students enrolled in their student bodies may be serving as a buffer to lessen any dramatic impact of reduced Master’s demand on the overall graduate enrollment.

Reduced graduate school enrollment is evident at institutions that award intermediate CM/D ratios. In particular, enrollment is down markedly at the Research Universities (high research activity) and Doctoral/Research Universities, where the ratio of Master’s and certificates to doctoral awards is higher than at Research 1 institutions. Enrollment at Research Universities had been relatively stable since before the year 2000, but is now down a gob smacking 7.5% from a 2011 peak!

Meanwhile, enrollment is rising in the Medical School and Medical Center category of institutions, which unlike all of these other categories, generally award more doctorates than Master’s.

Taken together, these observations along with what I’ve pointed out previously argue strongly that a systemic reduction in graduate school enrollment is on-going throughout the entire landscape of US higher education. This afflicts Master’s programs because the demand for the Master’s degrees is falling. Call it a burst Master’s bubble, call it a Master’s virus, or call it the peak Master’s degree. The appetite for the Master’s seems to have diminished markedly compared to what it was even just a few years ago.

To believe a reduction in demand doesn’t explain flat and dropping graduate school enrollments you’d need to argue that all of these hundreds of institutions simultaneously raised admissions standards.

The data I’ve analyzed here comprises that for about 1800 non-profit institutions in total. Yet, most graduate education happens in only about 500 of these institutions, which are responsible for awarding over 90% of all doctorates and 70% of all Master’s. Collectively, the graduate enrollment in these 500 institutions represents about a third of their overall student enrollment. That’s a lot.

This impact must not be easy for them to absorb, particularly if they continue to set tuition rates and treat graduate student recruitment as business as usual. In fact, on the phone recently I was told by someone working at a fairly severely impacted institution they are cutting their graduate student recruiting budget. Good grief. That’s precisely the opposite of what they should be doing given the problem they have specifically, and what is happening more generally.


Hey, Non-Profit Graduate School Enrollment is Declining Too

I’ve been munging around a bit with graduate school enrollment and award data for US universities to get a sense of the overall trends and, at least in my mind, the picture is coming into focus. We’re in an unstable period right now and I think most of the people in graduate admissions and recruitment offices that we speak with on a daily basis are sensing that things are different than before. Our sense is that those at the front lines, the program directors we speak with, seem to feel things more sharply. If I had to summarize those conversations simply, we’re hearing stories of excess seat capacity and that fewer good applicants are applying.

The data visualization that seems to tell the full story for the non-profit universities only is right here in this graph, showing declines in both total and population-adjusted enrollment trends. What this shows is graduate school enrollment has declined sharply from a peak in 2011. The decline is a lot worse when the data are adjusted for US population levels. That’s almost 4% below the peak year of 2011 in a system used to growing about 0.6% year-on-year.

Separately, since starting the Gradschoolmatch project I’ve pretty much arrived at the conclusion that graduate enrollment is demand-driven. We look at our acceptance rates and like to think we’re highly selective, but that’s not exactly true. For example, as one data point to illustrate this conclusion, decent applicants (the ones who actually get into graduate school–the ones programs all want) don’t apply to many programs and are accepted by most to which they apply. They just hold the cards.

Another reason to conclude this is a demand-driven market is that for the most part, as a group, graduate schools are really poor at creating more demand. We either don’t adequately support a marketing effort or consider the marketing of our programs as an unnecessary expense. We therefore leave it to chance whether prospects find us. We don’t calculate very well the return on what a modest marketing investment can bring. We fail to see in our cost/benefit metrics how strongly even a single matriculate can drive tuition revenue or perhaps even research dollars from their discoveries.

When we recruit prospects we do so reactively, rather than proactively. For example, for the programs that do recruit, for most it only happens after an application comes in over that transom, not before it. This process of waiting and hoping is not one that creates demand.

Let’s face it, we academics are so crappy at communicating the value proposition of our universities and degree programs to prospects that we’d also probably struggle to sell a life jacket on the deck of the Titanic. When we have tried to be more proactive, we’ve bought into disappointing high cost/low precision/low yield services, when the very nature of our product, the single highly specialized graduate program, requires low cost/high precision/high yield marketing services.

Taken in this light, these enrollment numbers are just another data point I see suggesting quite strongly that the overall demand for graduate degrees is falling. Although this may just be regression to the mean, I also can’t help but wonder if we’re in a period where this is, in fact, a new normal. What concerns me is that the toxic combination of changing economic demographics, the continued spiraling costs of attending universities and excessive undergraduate student loan burden has fundamentally disrupted the appetites of people for advanced degrees. Despite the fact that the economy pays them so well and can’t seen to employ enough of them.

Declining demand is almost certainly exacerbated by the inability of specific degree programs to effectively communicate their value proposition to prospective students.

For example, if you read the twitter and blog internets of the many unhappy students out there regularly sharing their feelings, you’d be surprised to know that the vast majority of current graduate students are actually quite satisfied with their enrollment decisions. They should be, since they put a ton of effort into making their decisions and often without a lot of help from those of us in programs guiding them to us.

The graph above has enrollment numbers at for-profit universities stripped out of the data. The enrollment at for-profits is low relative to that at non-profit institutions, but it is not insignificant. For-profits are actually experiencing a more dramatic bust cycle than are the non-profits. I’ve excluded those data even though that cycle probably shares some of the drive affecting non-profit enrollment, because for-profits are also complicated by a very different dynamic than what problems might be afflicting the traditional universities.