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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