Rankings v Rankings


The Washington Monthly makes a case for why its own college ranking system matters:

“The Washington Monthly rankings are based on three factors. The first is social mobility, which gives colleges credit for enrolling many low-income students and helping them earn degrees. The second recognizes research production, particularly at schools whose undergraduates go on to earn PhDs. Third, we value a commitment to service. The more expensive college becomes, the more students are encouraged to see higher education as a mere return on investment. The students in our best colleges are taught by example and design to look beyond themselves and give back.”

Irrespective of the overall scope and objectives of the ranking methods, both prospective graduate students and advanced degree programs alike should find some utility, particularly in the Research categories of the rankings.


Why Are You Applying To My Graduate Program?

Successful applicants put in the time and effort to explain why they are a good match for a program.
Successful applicants put in the time and effort to explain why they are a good match for a program.

As applications to advanced degree programs are winding down, of those I’ve reviewed so far this year, I’m reminded that around 80% of the applicants routinely fail to answer the most important question on my mind as a faculty reviewer:

Why are you interested in MY program?

The only way to answer this question cogently–and never forget that your audience is a faculty member who knows a heck of a lot about his/her program and institution and has a fairly keen sense for BS– is to do a lot of homework.

First, you have to delve deeply into what the program faculty teach and research, understanding that every program offers unique expertise, even those within the same academic field. Begin this by going over descriptions of the curriculum, then reading faculty profiles, and even pulling up and reading some of their published work. You might not fully understand much of it, but it will still make some sense.  Developing a dialog with some program faculty by exchanging messages and phone calls to get your questions answered can be invaluable in this discovery phase.

Second, you have to take some time and come to some decisions about what you want to learn or what research you wish to pursue while in graduate school. At a fairly specific level. Trust me, something that you read in step 1 above will resonate with you, if you are not already at that point. You will know what you like when you see it. These don’t necessarily need to be perfectly formed plans, but they have to be a lot more specific than generic platitudes. Going through this process prepares you to convince me in your application why my program can best serve your interests. Year-in and -out, applicants who make a strong case that they are a good fit for my program are those who receive offers for interviews and even admission, whereas otherwise strong applicants can be weakened significantly by doing this job poorly.


Bill Targets Wasteful Spending On For-Profit Universities

In Senate hearings, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) argued that congress is failing to provide needed oversight for $32 billion in taxpayer money “squandered” by companies that run for-profit universities.

“So, student comes in, gets a maximum Pell grant, gets a Stafford Loan. The school gets the Pell Gant, the school gets the loan, the student drops out a year later. The school has the loan, the school has the Pell grant, and the student has the debt around his or her neck. They can’t discharge for bankruptcy, and they don’t have a degree to show for it. And they are worse off then when they began.”

This dismal process affects up to half of the students who enroll in for-profit universities every year:

“Enrolling students, and getting their federal financial aid, is the heart of the business, and in 2010, the report found, the colleges studied had a total of 32,496 recruiters, compared with 3,512 career-services staff members.”

The pending legislation, supported by the Obama administration, will empower the Department of Education with new regulations linking federal dollars to a university’s ability to demonstrate acceptable graduation rates and gainful employment of their students. For these reasons and until these issues are sorted out, Gradschoolmatch.com will only accept subscriptions from accredited non-profit universities and colleges for the benefit of our student subscribers.


Thought Article: Models Used in Biomedical Research

Daniel Engber has written a provocative article for Slate that challenges the usefulness of the ubiquitous mouse model:

That is to say, we’ve arrived at something like a monoculture in biomedicine. The great majority of how we understand disease, and attempt to cure it, derives from a couple of rodents, selected—for reasons that can seem somewhat arbitrary in retrospect—from all the thousands of other mammals, tens of thousands of other vertebrates, and millions of other animal species known to walk or swim or slither the Earth. We’ve taken the mouse and the rat out of their more natural habitats, from fields and barns and sewers, and refashioned them into the ultimate proxy for ourselves—a creature tailored to, and tailored by, the university basement and the corporate research park.


The Humanities Are NOT A Dead End

The best reason to go to grad school has always been to pursue a subject of interest with deep passion. Accomplish that successfully and everything else should fall into its proper place. This applies, especially, to the oft maligned humanities:

Evidence is plentiful that stressing the range of expertise humanities graduates have makes intellectual and economic sense. Take, for example, Damon Horowitz, director of engineering at Google. He insisted recently in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Educationentitled “From Technologist to Philosopher: Why You Should Quit Your Technology Job and Get a Ph.D. in the Humanities,” that “if you are worried about your career … getting a humanities Ph.D. is not only not a danger to your employability, it is quite the opposite. I believe there no surer path to leaping dramatically forward in your career than to earn a Ph.D. in the humanities.” “You go into the humanities to pursue your intellectual passion,” he explains, “and it just so happens, as a byproduct, that you emerge as a desired commodity for industry.”


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.


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.