Graduate School: Education, Not Job Training

We’re noticing a significant uptick lately of rendering of the garb over the diminishing value of a graduate education. The negative view, beginning here, pivots largely around the argument that grad school has become something of a career dead-end, with some fields (eg, academic positions) in dire straits. And then there is the additional argument, not one I necessarily agree with, that the rising cost of higher education reflects a growing economic bubble that is bound to burst.

I attribute much of this negativity to our current state of economic stagnation. In past cycles, one could bivouac in graduate school to wait out the downturns, emerging with freshly minted credentials just as the economic storm was clearing. I think the wide-spread carnage of the current mess has deepened the uncertainty compared to prior cycles. This one looks like it will transcend the typical time it takes to earn a doctorate. We aren’t confident the storm will clear when we are through.  But other than that, not much else has changed.

Because the best reason to attend graduate school is, was and will always be because you are deeply interested in continuing your education and/or performing new research in subject matter XYZ. In all likelihood, irrespective of the field you enter, you will emerge with better writing, public speaking, and analytical skills along with specialized knowledge. The marketplace has always placed a high value on these attributes (pdf) and there is no reason to think that won’t continue. I strongly agree with what Roger Whitson has to say about this. Things are not as bad as they appear, but can also be improved.

I would add one caution to his superb advice to grad students that they acquire additional transferable skills while in grad school: Don’t get so thin in your effort that it compromises your ability to fully excel in your primary mission. At the end of grad school, excellence in effort and performance will always open more doors and more career possibilities than something less well achieved.

I’d also like to mention something rarely discussed about the skill set of the typical graduate school professor. When they excel, it is in teaching and research, not in career training. Prospective students should understand that most professors are ultra-specialists with little experience outside of the academy. That fact has far-reaching implications about what they can reasonably be expected to deliver in terms of job advice for their students.

Still, one way to recognize a good graduate program is the level of energy placed into exposing their students to the world of career possibilities. For example, the programs I’ve been involved with sponsor a parade of outside speakers and visitors from non-academic fields for their students throughout the year. Their students acquire a broader career perspectives. Sometimes I worry that we do this too well, that we aren’t doing enough to nudge our outstanding students toward academic careers.

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Our Hometown- Decatur, GA

The City of Decatur in Georgia serves as the Gradschoolmatch.com world headquarters, and we think of it as a great place to start up and run a business that focuses on helping graduate school programs and prospective graduate students find their best fit. Decatur is a small town that lays quietly right smack in the heart of the booming Atlanta metro area, one mostly known around here for its schools, neighborhoods and restaurants.

If Decatur reminds you of Pleasantville, you would not be mistaken, since it has all the charm of a gracious southern community, but with a worldly cosmopolitan flare. One can hardly walk a block–and Decatur prides itself on being a walkable community–without running into someone involved in higher education. Whether or not they are currently employed in it, or earned a fair number of degrees from it. Decatur is the home of Agnes Scott College, a highly regarded woman’s college. And nearby employers include Emory University and the Centers for Disease Control. Hop on the Marta commuter rail line and within a few minutes you’ll arrive at Georgia State University, the Atlanta University Center including the renowned historically black colleges of Spelman and Morehouse, or connect to a northbound line to the Georgia Institute of Technology. But a little something in Decatur Metro, or local daily blog, caught our eye this morning. A small, nondescript office building in Decatur, just a block or so away from us, is also the headquarters for the non-profit Task Force for Global Health, which is now the 4th largest philanthropy in the United States, behind heavy weights such as the United Way and Salvation Army.

Surprisingly, the highest ranking nonprofit in the state is the Task Force for Global Health, which came in at No. 4 — the first time the nonprofit had made the list. “To go from not being on the list to being No.4 is still stunning to us,” said Mark Rosenberg, president and CEO of the Task Force for Global Health, which is based in Decatur. “It’s not something we ever thought would happen.” The Task Force, founded in 1983, works collaboratively with other nonprofits and pharmaceutical companies to provide medicine and vaccines to treat, and possibly eliminate, diseases throughout the world, primarily in developing countries.

As those of us who have lived in Decatur have understood for years, it is a small town where more goes on than first meets the eye.

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Reimagining The Grad School Fair

reimagining the grad school fairAs the leaves fall graduate program fair season is in full bloom, when representatives of various graduate schools converge on campuses seeking prospective applicants. Graduate program directors everywhere would do well to read the concerns expressed by Jason Krell on these graduate school fairs.

Majoring in creative writing and Italian at the University of Arizona, Jason appreciates the value these events can provide students, most especially opportunities to interact with grad school representatives and to get questions answered. But he is frustrated by the on-campus implementation of the concept. His trigger concern was the absence of representation by schools offering advanced degrees in the fine arts, fields that interest him.

To zero in on the difficulty here: Jason, like virtually all prospective graduate students whether they have arrived at a level of self-awareness as him or not, has some fairly specialized academic interests. Chances are that a few hundred graduate programs exist out there in a field that might interest him, but in all probability only a handful that truly fit him well. That is the nature of graduate education. The on-campus graduate school fairs are not really capable of providing the level of specialization that Jason, and most other students irrespective of field, will need.

On campus grad school fairs are generalist affairs. The recruiters who attend these represent multiple programs, sometimes hundreds of programs, back at their home institution. No doubt great connections can be made with recruiters at these fairs, and no doubt lives often move in unanticipated directions as a consequence of these meet and greets. But these events have inherent inefficiencies. First, with travel and lodging, a school will spend ~$2000 to send one representative  for one seat at a table.

In fact, the landscape of graduate opportunities at many graduate institutions can be so broad that it is simply cost-prohibitive for them to send sufficient numbers of representatives to thoroughly present the scope of the fields they offer. A school the size of the University of Arizona could alone would occupy hundreds of seats.

Think of Gradschoolmatch is a 365/24/7 online graduate school fair. With interactive features designed to connect the students who are seeking information on their next step directly with the program decision makers themselves. A starting place to get specific information tailored to specific interests. Gradschoolmatch.com is a place on the internet where students and program representatives with common academic interests can find each other and also do the meet and greet that you would hope a grad school fair could deliver. And since our tables are virtual, or space is unlimited. And since no travel or lodging is involved, a seat at the table is extremely cost effective.

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How Undergrad Degrees Play A Role in Graduate Admissions

graduate admissions process undergrad degreeAn interesting Inside Higher Education article discusses the role of undergraduate pedigree in graduate program admissions decisions. This was written in reaction to a provocative blog post from University of California-Riverside philosophy professor Eric Schwitzgebel in which he analyzed the undergraduate institutions attended by graduate students accepted into the top philosophy PhD programs.

Prof Schwitzgebel concludes that a significant bias exists in his field towards accepting those applicants who possess an elite undergraduate pedigree. The expansive comment section of the blog piece includes a number of testimonials, all apparently from within the philosophy community. Some of these offer affirmation whereas others prove to be exceptions to the rule.

In a more broad view, the vibrant dialog is worth reading by anybody considering applying to PhD programs, irrespective of the discipline. Because this discussion provides some insight into how seats in PhD programs at research universities are a limited resource, and the processes and thinking that goes into handing them out. For a nice round figure, aggregate doctoral program application acceptance rates hover in the 20% range, with some variance depending upon academic field and type of institution (see this Link (large pdf)). What this indicates is that entry into PhD programs is quite competitive, and one can readily surmise it is substantially more competitive for those programs that are perceived as top-rated in their disciplines.

I don’t doubt that pedigree doesn’t factor into admissions decisions, but from my own experience would think it speaks less of elitism and more reflects the decision making that goes into distributing a limited resource. For graduate programs receiving large numbers of applications, pedigree can become an important distinguishing factor if there aren’t enough seats in the program for all the highly qualified applicants. What is perhaps more important for aspiring PhD students to recognize is not the relative merits of pedigree and performance and aptitude, but how these admissions decision are being made. The Inside Higher Education piece hits the mark, in this regard:

Joanne Canyon-Heller, senior director of admissions at Roosevelt University and president of the National Association of Graduate Admissions Professionals, said that the key thing about admission to Ph.D. programs is that “it’s really faculty-driven, and because it’s faculty-driven, they are going to be looking for their own goals, their sense of the mission of the program.

Program faculty make these admissions decisions, developing unique standards differing from one to another. Applicants should strive to gain some familiarity with the overall graduate admissions culture within their academic field (eg, is a master’s degree essential or can one directly enter a PhD track?), and some additional insights into what the specific programs that interest them look for in their applicants. The earlier one begins this process of discovery, the better prepared they will compete for a coveted slot.
And if discovers in looking at a pedigree-weighted program that he didn’t make the correct undergraduate college decision as a high school senior, with that knowledge at least he can save himself a $75 application fee.

What can be more important than a PhD applicant’s pedigree, performance and aptitude is knowing how each graduate program weight these factors in their admissions decisions.

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Guest Post: Jill Dunham, Ph.D.

When I look back to my search for the right graduate program, at the right graduate school, I wonder how I got so lucky. My choice seems absolutely random, now that I think about it, and things could have gone completely awful. I knew at the time that I wanted to study pharmacology, but I didn’t have the first idea as to what programs existed, what the programs were known for, what they required of their students, and how to decide among them. And it was basically impossible to find all of that information without asking people that had gone through the same process or spending many wasted hours searching online for pharmacology departments. And even then, it tended to be the same schools popping up over and over.

Now some people may say, “C’mon Jill; that was over 10 years ago! The Internet has changed drastically since then!” And though that may be true, the search for graduate schools really hasn’t. Until now, that is! I am entirely jealous of people that are going to be able to use gradschoolmatch.com to find their perfect school. I, as many others in my boat, had certain criteria that I knew I wanted in a graduate school. I wanted to stay in the Southeast; I wanted a school with a good reputation, a program that had a wide range of research topics ongoing, with nice, interesting people to work with. Coming out of school with a top GPA, I also wanted to find a school that had other students like me, where I would be challenged and could continue to expand my scientific knowledge and expertise.

Unfortunately, the first challenge I faced was how to find that place. I knew of all of the state and a few of the larger private universities in and around Georgia, where I had attended undergrad, and the Carolinas, where I had grown up. However, I didn’t know anything about their graduate programs (i.e. how they ranked, number of students, requirements, average GPA and GRE accepted), much less if they even had a pharmacology program! And how was I to discover those other schools in the surrounding area if I’d never heard of them? As I mentioned before, it took ‘googling’ Graduate School of Pharmacology, and coming up with some names of schools, and then navigating throughout their associated websites to try to find the department, what type of research was going on, how to apply, etc. And going into some of my interviews, I still had so many unanswered questions.

If I had gradschoolmatch.com, I could have simply typed in my requirements, and found every program that matched immediately, streamlining and shortening the search process. This matching system also would have eliminated the worry and concern about the thoroughness of my search, as results would not only be limited to schools I’m familiar with or those that appeared first on Google. Given that knowledge and power, I probably could have eliminated at least two of my interviews (giving me more free time to enjoy my last semester in college!) and really focused on the best matches for me.

And the same could be said if the graduate programs of pharmacology could have found me. I actually opted against applying for Johns Hopkins, partly because I decided I wanted to stay closer to Georgia, but mostly because I wasn’t sure that I was ‘Hopkins caliber.’ The beautiful thing about gradschoolmatch.com is that it is bidirectional. In other words, had such a website been around when I was looking into graduate school, I would have known that Hopkins was interested in a student like me (or wasn’t) and made a more educated, rational, and reasonable decision about where I sent applications and how I spent my money on those applications.

Such benefits can also be seen when it comes to those applications sent out every year by applicants to ‘safety schools’ – those schools that aren’t as desirable but that are more likely to accept that applicant. Many of those applications would not need to be sent out and a large amount of money could be saved, both on the student’s end with application fees and the program’s end with cost of interviewing and recruiting their applicants.

As I started this saying – I got lucky and ended up being in a top program within a top school, surrounded by other students similar to myself and within a stimulating environment. But I know that wasn’t true for all of my colleagues and I think with the new searching and matching ability, that will all be different for coming classes of graduate students. Students will be able to find all graduate programs and pertinent details easily, and as an applicant and possible recruit, they will be visible to those same programs. Needless to say, I’m slightly jealous.

-Jill Dunham PhD earned her PhD in Molecular & Systems Pharmacology from Emory University.

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Is There A Higher Education Bubble?

Does the increasing student loan debt load carried by college students today represent an economic bubble? Probably not.

There’s a big flaw in the bubble argument, though: things may look grim for college graduates, but they’re much grimmer for people without a college degree. Though recent college grads are having a hard time finding a job, it’s much harder for recent high-school graduates, who have an unemployment rate of nearly twenty-two per cent. And the over-all unemployment rate for college grads is still, at 4.4 per cent, very low. More striking, the college wage premium—how much more a college graduate makes than someone without a degree—is at an all-time high. In fact, the spiralling cost of education has to some degree tracked the rising wage premium; as college has, in relative terms, become more valuable economically, people have become willing to pay more for it. It’s telling, in this regard, that the one period in the past sixty years when college-tuition costs flatlined was during the seventies, which also happened to be the one period when the college wage premium fell.

To be sure these are difficult times where the future is far from certain. But even in this climate, higher education still holds economic value…..not to mention the intrinsic value of, you know, an education.

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Gradschoolmatch Launch v1

Press Release- Gradschoolmatch.com launches an online student recruiting tool for advanced degree programs Decatur GA- January 7, 2012– Emory University School of Medicine professor TJ Murphy was frustrated. When responsible for overseeing admissions into his Department’s PhD graduate program, he thought there should be a better way. “Like a lot of programs at Emory and elsewhere, we have a top ranked graduate program at a world-class University, and we get a good number of applications each year,” he said. “But what really bothered me was all those superb students out there who didn’t even know that our degree program exists. If only I could find them and build relationships earlier in the game.” That could lead to more applications, higher matriculation rates, and stronger classes.

On the other side, prospective students are easily frustrated by the difficulty of finding the right graduate programs. The available information is so fragmented that general internet search engines are not up to the task. They see only programs spending thousands of dollars each year in SEO costs to maintain search engine visibility. That is an expensive and inefficient process.

And so, along with his former graduate student Brian Clark, Dr. Murphy built Gradschoolmatch.com as a better way for both programs and students, alike. “Our solution is simple: We’ve made the whole discovery process bidirectional and connective. Students and programs alike use the website to find each other,” says Mr. Clark. “Our website helps graduate programs not only find students who might otherwise not know about them, but also provides up-to-date information and needed guidance from the real experts…the decision makers, the people who run individual programs.”

On Gradschoolmatch.com, graduate program directors like Dr. Murphy create a profile describing what their program offers. Prospective students do the same to describe their academic interests and credentials. All of this profile information lies at the roots of the powerful search and match engines, discovery tools that are designed to easily help both sides find “that diamond in the rough”. “Everything is specialized in the advanced degree landscape. Students are incredibly diverse, as are degree programs; no two in one field are really the same,“ explains Mr. Clark. “We built Gradschoolmatch.com to function on that private, expert-to-person basis that is really what graduate programs are all about.” “I’m gratified to see this vision realized as we begin to see program directors for the first time get on the internet to find students. I’m certain students will welcome their help because deciding where to apply, and where not to apply, is a really difficult and expensive problem for many of them,” says Dr. Murphy.

“Everything is specialized in the advanced degree landscape. Students are incredibly diverse, as are degree programs; no two in one field are really the same,“ explains Mr. Clark. “We built Gradschoolmatch.com to function on that private, expert-to-person basis that is really what graduate programs are all about.”

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