An Interview with the Founder of Gradschoolmatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you know this was an idea worth pursuing?

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

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

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

Which one was that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do any direct competitors or substitutes currently serve either audience?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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