Preparing for Graduate School

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: I did not worry too much about grades as an undergraduate and my GPA is not so great. Now I am thinking about going to graduate school. What are my prospects of getting into a good school?

A: Grades are only one metric of predicting academic success. To be successful in a PhD program, one needs to be independent, creative, motivated, persistent, and deal with setbacks. Hence your application material should demonstrate that you have what it takes to be a successful researcher. So if, for example, your grades suffered because you were focused on research and the research resulted in publications in top conferences or journals, you should be able to have strong recommendation letters and your prospects for admission are most likely very good.

If you don’t have good grades and limited research achievements, it may be hard to convince the reviewers that you have the potential to be a strong PhD student. If you are passionate about doing a PhD, try to work with a faculty on research for a semester/year and then apply for a PhD with a letter from the research mentor. Keep in mind that lower ranked schools often have top researchers in some areas (e.g., theory). Getting admitted to such schools is a little easier and you can still have a good experience getting your PhD.

Q: How can I convince the reviewers of my application that despite my poor grades they should seriously consider me for admission into their graduate program?

A: Grades are only part of your application material. Your research involvement and achievements and your faculty recommendation are two other important components. If your letters are from recognized researchers and are very strong, the impact of poor grades may be minimized. If you have done research that is published in well-known conferences or journals, your grades may be ignored. If your grades are unimpressive, the strength of your application needs to be based on something else that allows reviewers to predict your abilities and success as a researcher.

 

Q: I have a perfect GPA from a highly ranked undergraduate program. Why would I not get admitted into a top ranked PhD program?

A: Quite a number of students applying to top rated PhD programs have a perfect or almost perfect GPA. To get admitted into a top program, your record needs to stand out in other ways. Most relevant will be having demonstrated your research ability. PhD is about research and while a high GPA is an indication that the student is serious about academics, high grades alone do not determine the research potential of a student.

Q: How important are the GRE scores for getting admitted to a top graduate school?

A: Some top schools don’t request GRE scores. A number of top schools are known to pay little attention to GRE scores. Hence, good GRE scores may not help much but poor GRE scores can have a negative impact.

Q: I never did research as an undergraduate. My grades and community involvement are excellent. Does the lack of research hurt my grad school application?

A: Having good grades from a well-known university will help, but for PhD applications, one needs to demonstrate research potential. Having at least one letter from a known faculty who can write about your research potential will help. Community involvement is likely to have little impact on your graduate application.

Q: How important is the USNWR ranking of my undergraduate institution in getting admitted to a good graduate program?

A: If your undergraduate degree is from a lower ranked school, the reviewers don’t know any of the letter writers, and you don’t have published research, the chances of getting into a good program are low. One of the advantages of graduating from a higher ranked undergraduate institution is that the professors who write letters for you are likely to be well-known.

Also, keep in mind that admission committees know that a few excellent undergraduate programs grade harshly and a 3.5 GPA is actually pretty good. Hence, there is no simple answer on how the ranking of your undergraduate institution impacts your admission.

 

Q: How many schools should I apply to?

A: Most students are advised to apply to at least 8-10 schools. This often includes a third safe schools, a third good matches, and a third stretches. Students should talk to faculty and advisers to get additional feedback and suggestions of schools that are good matches with their interests and abilities.

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.

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