Q: Why go to graduate school?
A: The Conquer website contains material and resources on reasons to pursue graduate school and the material provides different perspectives. In particular, see http://conquer.cra.org/students/why-go-to-graduate-school, the listed resources, and the slides in the presentation available at http://conquer.cra.org/faculty/helping-students-apply-to-graduate-school. The questions below focus common concerns on how to best prepare for graduate school.
Q: I am a senior and many of my friends are thinking about graduate school. My parents want me to go to graduate school. I am not sure I want to stay in school longer, but maybe they are right. How do I decide?
A: You should pursue a PhD only if you want to continue your studies and do research. On average, a PhD takes typically 5-6 years and one can be miserable if one does not enjoy the process. Pursuing a M.S. is another story. At many schools a well-prepared student can finish an M.S. degree in 18 months by taking courses. See the Conquer site for more information.
Q: How much does the rank of the school I get my graduate degree from matter when my goal is a Master’s and then a job in industry or in a government lab?
A: To some people and some companies, school and its rank matters. There are people who will say to themselves: “This person is from MIT (or wherever) and therefore I should be impressed by them.” There are companies who say: “We and our clients have been happy with students from university X, and thus we will continue to hire from X.” If you are at one of these schools, have done well, and want a job with such a company, life is good. Thoughtful people know that there are great students in every school and they will assess you for who you are, what your technical skills are, what your communication skills are, and any other criteria and qualifications they are looking for. A company focused on quality will have recruiters who know this and know how to spot talent and assess abilities and potential. Having companies come to campus to recruit tends to give students an advantage, especially to students who still feel uncomfortable with phone interviews.
Q: How much does the rank of the school I get my graduate degree from matter when my goal is a PhD?
A: If you are interested in a job in industry or a government lab, see the above answer given for a Master’s degree. If you are interested in a faculty position in a research department, your research accomplishments, the area of your research in relation to departmental needs, and the rank of the departments you graduated from will matter
Q: I am a junior and I want to go to graduate school. What should I do during the academic year and summers to improve my chances of getting admitted with funding to a highly ranked school?
A: Participate in research. Do well in challenging courses. This will allow you to get recommendation letters from faculty who know you and your abilities relevant to succeeding in graduate school.
Q: I know that I want to do research and get a PhD, but I am not sure what area I want to do my PhD in. How should I choose which schools to apply to?
A: Choose departments with strength in multiple areas to apply to so that you have many choices after you enter the graduate program.
Q: I have been working in industry for 5 years and want to pursue a PhD. Is work experience considered as something positive?
A: Generally yes. People with work experience often have learned discipline and good work habits. They also often have better motivation for going to graduate school, rather than treating it as a default choice. On the flip side, it is essential that during your work career you have remained active academically and have done activities that indicate you will transition smoothly back into academic life.
Q: Is there a financial advantage to getting a graduate degree? Do people with Master’s and PhD’s get paid higher salaries than those without graduate degrees?
A: If money is your primary motivation, then graduate school, particularly a PhD, may not be your best option. You should consider graduate school because it is something that will give you personal satisfaction, not because you think it will make you rich.
Q: I want to work in industry rather than in academia. How would a Master’s or a PhD be helpful?
A: A PhD will enable you to get a research or research-focused position. It is unlikely to get a research position in industry with a Master’s degree.
Q: What kinds of jobs does one typically get with a PhD versus a Master’s degree?
A: A person who has a PhD can get almost any job a person with a Master’s degree would get. More research-oriented jobs typically seek people with a PhD in a targeted area. At the same time, some companies may be reluctant to hire someone with a PhD into a job with an MS expectation. Having a PhD opens up more opportunities in academic environments. For example, suppose you want to teach (part-time or full-time) – while some universities do hire people with a Master’s degree to teach, lecturers are in high demand due to increase in CS enrollment and having a PhD would give you an edge over others who may only have a Master’s degree.
Q: My undergraduate degree isn’t in computer science, but I’m planning on taking some CS courses before I graduate. Which courses should I take and what are my prospects of getting into CS graduate school with just a handful of CS courses?
A: There are a few graduate programs that target students who don’t have an undergraduate degree in CS (for example, the MCIT program at the University of Pennsylvania — http://www.cis.upenn.edu/prospective-students/graduate/mcit.php). There are programs known to admit promising students with a background not in CS and they may ask students to take prerequisite courses in the first semester. Taking the following four courses as an undergrad and doing well will help: one or two programming courses for CS majors, Data Structures, Discrete Mathematics, Design and Analysis of Algorithms.