Q: How important is research experience in the evaluation process?
A number of the answers given in the Considering Graduate School Section address this question. Overall, departments are looking for proven potential for research. For top research departments, a successful research experience is very important. If you come from a school that offered little opportunity for research, some departments may make adjustments in their expectations.
Q: Does contacting faculty individually increase my chances of getting admitted to graduate school?
Usually not. It depends on the school. Don’t be annoying. Do it only if it adds information. (But that information should have been in your application.)
Q: I have done some research as an undergraduate, but there are no publications. Should I push my collaborators I worked with to submit the results to a conference or a journal?
Yes. Having a paper that is published in proceedings of a well-known conference or a journal as an undergraduate will help. Especially if you have made significant contributions to the work. If your collaborators are other students or a post-doc, they should also be motivated to publish their research as publications are relevant to their careers.
Q: Are there waiting lists when applying to graduate school?
The majority of the schools don’t have explicit waiting lists for graduate school. There are a few schools that hold off sending a few applicants a decision until sometime in April (which can be viewed as being on a waiting list). If you did not get accepted and your record changed, there is no harm done in letting a department know. Make sure you contact the right person.
Q: I would like to start graduate school in January (I graduate in December). Do departments admit students for January?
Most do not. The standard admission schedule is: apply in November/December, start in August/September. It is possible to defer your start by a few months (though you will miss out on standard orientation activities and on bonding with other grad students). You should apply the fall before you graduate, like everyone else does.
Q: I plan to apply for an NSF GRF. My advisor judges me to be a very strong applicant. Does receiving this fellowship increase my chances of getting admitted to a top department? Should I let them know?
Grad school application deadlines are around December, and grad schools make admissions decisions in January and early February. The NSF GRF notification date is in April. Hence, your admission will be decided without knowing the GRF decision. If your top choice department declined admission, no harm is done by contacting them and letting them know that you have received an NSF Fellowship.
Q: How do the top CS departments review applications to their PhD program?
Departments typically have a faculty committee overseeing admissions decisions. Often applications of students interested in a specific area are reviewed by the corresponding research groups. Various models on how the admissions process works exist. A perspective from a faculty in a top-rated department is available at http://da-data.blogspot.com/2015/03/reflecting-on-cs-graduate-admissions.html.
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?
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?
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: I got admitted to the graduate school I want to attend, but I did not get an offer of financial support. Does it help to email professors whose work I am interested in?
PhD admissions almost always come with financial support. Most students admitted to the master’s programs do not get financial support. After you arrive at a university, some opportunities may come up and you may get support.
Q: I got accepted into multiple PhD programs. I am not sure how to decide which admission to accept. How should I decide among the financial package, research areas represented, rank of school, geographic location, PhD qualifying process?
General advice is to determine the school that offers the best environment for you to become a successful researcher. Most departments have visiting days for admitted students, so attend them. If there are none, ask them to help arrange a visit. Talking to the faculty and graduate students is generally very helpful and informative. Most schools will offer financial support, even though the type may differ (e.g., TAship, RAship, fellowship). While a fellowship is nice, the research programs and interests of the faculty will be more important in the long run. Geographic location and qualifying process seem secondary (you should assume you will graduate and move; you should assume that the qualifying process is not a real hurdle). Don’t let money (including which school offers a slightly larger stipend) affect your choice, focus on what is better for you in the long run.
Q: Am I guaranteed full funding throughout my graduate study if I am funded initially?
No. However, in computer science and computing related fields, a student is typically funded for the entire graduate career.
Q: Is it wise to start at one school without funding and hope to get funding later if it is my preferred choice of school though I was admitted with full funding elsewhere?
PhD admissions typically come with financial support. If you are in the master’s program, there is no guarantee that you will get funding at a later point in time, especially at schools that admit many master’s students. However, many schools have funding opportunities for computer science students outside the CS department. This may be hard to arrange before you arrive, but a student can often get a good understanding on what other support opportunities are available.
Q: I did not get admitted to my top choices of graduate schools. Is it wise to start at one school with the hopes of transferring to a better ranked school after my master’s? Or is it better to wait another year to apply again?
Accepting admission to a PhD program and knowing that you only plan to get master’s is dishonest. Yes, students enter the PhD program, get an MS and do not continue their PhD (for a variety of reasons). However, entering a PhD program with the intention of only doing a master’s and then switching to a PhD program somewhere else is different. You will need letters from the department you are leaving and researchers know each other. Think carefully about your strategy. Having said this, good students sometimes leave and pursue an MS somewhere else when the department lost or never had faculty in the area of their research interests. In one case, the faculty actually helped the student find a department with the right environment.
Q: What are my chances of receiving financial support if I get admitted into the master’s program?
Some departments do not offer financial support to master’s students (their TAs are PhD students). Other departments offer TAships to master’s students when they have a need and the M.S. is very qualified. The graduate office can probably provide some past data. In many schools, computer science master’s students find support in other departments or other units.
Q: I have been admitted to department X and it is not one my top choices. They have invited me (and all other admitted students) to attend a visiting weekend. Should I attend?
Unless you already have accepted admission somewhere else or you are certain you are not interested in department X, consider attending the visiting weekend. There is no substitute for visiting a department and talking to graduate students and faculty. You are likely to find out things you did not know and they may become important in your final decision. The more information you have, the better.
Q: I have been admitted to department X. It is not my “stretch” school, but there are two faculty whose research really interests me? Can I contact them to find out if they are taking on new students?
Sure, once you have been admitted to a program, you should not hesitate to contact the faculty if you have questions. Your email and phone conversations with them can prove to be useful in your final decision.
Q: How important are the GRE scores for getting admitted to a top graduate school?
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: Should I ask for letters from research mentors, teachers, or summer internship bosses? Should I ask for letters from my direct supervisor or from people high in the organization hierarchy?
You want to ask people who can address your academic and/or research abilities. For the letters from course instructors, choose instructors from more advanced courses over introductory course instructors. Only choose people higher up in an organization hierarchy if they can write about your academic or research potential. Writing about your personality is unlikely to help your application. You want at least one letter to discuss about your research potential.
Q: I want to make sure that my letters of recommendations are really strong and convincing. I am not sure how my letter writers will evaluate me. I am thinking of asking more than three of my professors to write a letter. Is it advisable?
Asking more professors to write letters may not solve your problem, if there is one. Talk to your professors about graduate school, where you should apply to, and if they are willing to write a letter. From the answers you get, you can probably conclude something. Some professors may tell you that they don’t have enough information to write a strong letter. If you sense there is a concern, you should think about it. Are you asking the wrong people to write letters? Is there something in your academic record your professors are justifiably concerned about? Are the schools you are considering an appropriate match to your perceived abilities? Instead of having more letters, try to understand your record and their concerns better.
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?
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?
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?
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: What type of MS programs exist in computer science?
A: Most CS Departments offer a range of MS degree programs. While the naming, branding, and details of these degrees may vary, the most common types of degrees are the following:
- Academic MS programs. These are typically research-oriented programs, where students take PhD-level classes following a curriculum that may align with the first 1-2 years of a PhD program. Completion of a master’s thesis, under the supervision of a faculty advisor, is a common component of these programs. In some programs, a student can switch to the department’s PhD program during or after the MS.
- Professional MS programs. These are terminal degrees intended for students who want to pursue a career in industry. The degree requirements of these programs are often course-based with no research expectations, but may involve completing an internship or a capstone project. They often focus on a specific area (e.g., AI, robotics, security, data science, and bioinformatics) and emphasize skills that advance one’s career. Admission criteria are generally different from academic MS programs.
- Non-terminal MS degrees. Some PhD programs allow, and sometimes require, students to get an MS degree on their way to their PhD. In those programs an MS degree can only be awarded to a PhD student. Students typically cannot apply directly to the MS programs. The MS-on-the-way-to-PhD option exists in some top CS programs that may not have any other academic MS program.
- Online MS programs. Professional MS programs of some institutions are delivered online, sometimes with an in-person component. Fewer academic MS programs are fully online. A good online program does not simply stream in-person classes but incorporates learning experiences making online education effective. Online programs are valuable for individuals in the workforce for gaining additional skills. Transferring online course credits to residential graduate programs is not always straightforward.
Q: What types of CS-related graduate programs exist outside of Computer Science departments?
A: Within a university, CS departments are administratively housed in a specific College or School, such as a College of Engineering, a College of Science, a computing-focused college (e.g., College of Computing, Informatics, Information Sciences), etc. An institution with a computing-focused college may offer computing-related MS programs with admission not managed by the CS department. Examples of such institutions include CMU, GTECH, IU, Penn State, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, U of Michigan. (See the CRA report “Creating Institutional Homes for Computing: Transforming a Department into a School or College” for related information). Depending on your objectives and background, an MS degree in such a program may be of interest. The information given in this FAQ on the different types of MS programs applies to other computing focused academic units. Read program descriptions carefully and don’t assume coordination between admissions offices. Contact respective admission offices with questions.
Q: What is the difference between a professional MS program and an academic MS program? And how can I tell the difference between them?
A: A professional MS program is typically focused in a special subarea of computer science relevant to careers in industry (e.g. cybersecurity, data science, robotics, etc.). There also exist professional MS programs that confer a degree in Computer Science (instead of a specific area), giving students a broad offering of classes to choose from. An academic MS typically focuses on a broader section of the field and has more emphasis on fundamentals and underlying theories and provides opportunities for research.
Professional MS programs are often course-based, without requiring an MS thesis, while academic MS programs will often have a thesis requirement. In addition, students in a professional MS program are generally not eligible for financial support.
Q: How long does an MS degree take?
A: Generally, as a full-time student, an academic MS program takes at least one year to complete, and rarely takes more than two. Professional MS programs tend to be one year long. Many MS programs offer part-time options, where students only take one or two classes per quarter/semester. Part-time students will take a longer time to finish.
Q: How is a Joint Bachelors/Masters degree different from pursuing a standalone MS after college?
A: Joint Bachelors/Masters programs are often structured as “4+1 programs”, where students work on completing their Bachelors requirements during their first four years, and their Masters requirements during their fifth (i.e., “+1”) year, all at the same institution. Unlike applying to a Masters separately, students in a 4+1 program apply to participate in this joint program sometime during their first four years (and sometimes as part of their original college application as high school students), and typically have access to certain benefits, such as:
- In some institutions, a 4+1 student has undergraduate status throughout the 5 years, which allows them to continue to receive undergraduate financial aid..
- In others, the student is a graduate student in year 5, which may open up opportunities available only to graduate students, such as Teaching Assistantships or Research Assistantships (which may come with tuition remission).
- 4+1 degree programs typically allow the student to double-count a certain number of graduate-level courses towards the undergrad and graduate degree, meaning the total number of courses taken will be less than if the student were completing a Bachelors and MS degree separate from each other.
- While the 4+1 model is common, there are also other types of Bachelors/Masters programs, including programs that allow students to graduate with a Bachelors and a Masters in just 4 years (and which are typically intended for students who would ordinarily finish their Bachelors in three years).
For undergraduates interested in research and considering a PhD, the focus as an undergraduate should be on pursuing research activities and identifying an area of interest. Pursuing a 4+1 degree may have course requirements that limit the research opportunities a student can pursue, and PhD admission committees will value research experience more than additional completed coursework.
Q: I plan to apply to professional MS programs. Do these programs have financial support opportunities?
A: Most professional MS programs will not offer financial support. Some programs may allow students to work as Teaching Assistants, but it may not cover the full tuition of the program.
If you need financial assistance, you may want to check whether the university you are applying to offers financial support, including scholarships and loans, to MS students. These are often handled by a central office, and not by the MS programs themselves. Offices managing professional MS programs will have answers to such questions. Always ask, especially if you are deciding between multiple programs.
Q: I plan to apply to an academic MS program. Do these programs have financial support opportunities?
A: In most academic MS programs, students are eligible to work as TAs (which often covers the tuition). It is not common for an admitted student to receive financial support as part of their offer of admission, but support may become available over time. Always ask and complete forms to be placed on a TA waiting list. In addition, there may be financial support opportunities in other departments or centers on campus.
Q: How competitive is admission to MS programs?
A: Competitiveness varies between different types of programs as well as between different programs of the same type. For most institutions, admission to professional MS programs is less competitive than for PhD programs. There is a common perception of professional MS programs as income-generating programs that lack rigor that admit almost anyone who can pay the tuition. While it is true that professional MS programs are typically a source of revenue for their universities, programs at highly-ranked departments have rigorous admission standards. These standards will be different from those of a PhD program. Most notably, a common admission criterion for professional MS programs is whether the student has the necessary background and ability to be successful in the program, and whether the career goals of the student align with what the program can offer.
Admissions criteria and acceptance rates to academic MS programs can vary widely, and for a variety of reasons. Some programs are capacity-limited. Some programs at public universities have a mandate to prioritize serving the needs of in-state or domestic students. Some academic MS programs will preferentially accept candidates who they see as having the potential to successfully continue into their PhD program.
Q: Should I apply to graduate school right after college, or can I go work for a few years and then come back for an MS or PhD? What are the pros and cons of each approach?
A: Most graduate programs are equally likely to accept students either right after they earn their BS/BA degree or after they have spent time in the workforce. In professional MS programs, it is not uncommon to see a high number of students returning from the workforce. Research-oriented graduate programs do not typically expect applicants to have work experience, and many students in those programs will be entering directly after receiving their undergraduate degree and having research experience. Research institutions that are based in urban areas will typically have larger numbers of returning students than institutions not in urban areas. For a returning student, maturity and work experience are often a benefit. Students who return to graduate school after working may have a clearer idea of what they hope to gain from their studies. In addition, returning students will have acquired useful technical, leadership, collaboration and communication skills, as well as valuable persistence and time management skills, that are important to success in graduate school. A student enrolling right after college will still be used to the academic structure, including the demands of courses and exams, while a student enrolling a few years later will typically have to re-adjust to this structure.
Q: I have an undergraduate degree in physics and have programming experience. I would like to pursue a graduate degree in computer science. How do I best prepare for admission in highly rated CS departments?
A: There are multiple options. First, find out what background a program expects. A common expectation is a solid programming background obtained in 1-2 programming courses, as well as knowledge typically acquired in data structures, algorithms, discrete mathematics, and systems programming courses. Math and Statistics expectations may vary from one program to another. You can take online courses, enroll in a bridge program, or take courses as a non-degree student to make up for any missing background. Examples of bridge programs include the ALIGN program at Northeastern, the CS@CU MS program at Columbia, and others. Some CS programs encourage prospective students who lack a CS undergraduate degree to enroll and take preparatory courses as a non-degree-seeking student, and some of those courses can then be applied towards the graduate degree after admission.
Q: How to get more information about an MS program?
A: If, after reviewing an MS program’s website, you still have questions about the program, or are just unsure whether you are a good fit for the program, you should reach out to the admissions staff for that program. They are there to help you and, in fact, want to make sure you’re applying to their program if you’re a good fit. You are nor bothering them if you send questions.
Here are a few tips on how to go about asking these questions:
- Make sure to use the contact address for the program you are interested in. If you use the general contact address for the department the program is housed in, or the university’s general “graduate admissions” email address, it may take longer for you to get a reply.
- Make sure to provide a brief (3-4 sentences) description of your background and your interest in their program. That kind of context can be valuable to admissions officers when answering your questions.
- If you don’t have specific questions, but are just unsure about whether you are a good fit for their program, it can be helpful to describe your career goals (it’s also fine if you just tell them that you’re still not sure where your career is going).
Q: Where can I find more information on what a strong graduate application should look like?
A: We recommend reading through the FAQs of the CONQUER program. While that document is focused on PhD admissions, many of the suggestions there are equally valid for applying to academic MS programs.
For professional MS programs, the suggestions in the CONQUER FAQ can be useful, bearing in mind a few key differences:
- Your statement of purpose should focus on describing your career goals and explaining why the program you’re applying to aligns with those career goals.
- It is less important to present academic letters of recommendation, particularly if you’ve already been out of school for a few years. Letters from recent employers, speaking to your technical abilities, work ethic, etc. will usually be more effective.
Q: Do I need an MS degree to get the job I want and advance in my career?
A: This depends on many factors. In general, an MS degree deepens one’s knowledge, allows one to become an expert in a new field, and has the potential to increase one’s career options. If one’s goal is to have a higher paying job, the answer is not so clear. Many useful views, pro and con, are available online. In particular, the Quorum question “What makes a Master’s in Computer Science (MS CS) degree worth it and why?” gives a range of answers.
Q: I plan to get an MS in Computer Science. Can I apply for teaching positions at universities with an MS degree?
A: Many CS departments have teaching focused positions targeted at individuals with an MS degree or extensive industry experience. The titles of these positions vary considerably: Professor of Practice, Clinical Faculty, Lecturer, and Senior Lecturer are examples. Some positions have an academic rank, but almost none will offer tenure as is done in regular faculty appointments.
PhD vs Master’s
Q: I am potentially interested in pursuing research and getting a PhD, but I am not 100% sure. Is it dishonest to apply to a PhD program? Should I apply to an MS program first?
A: When applying to a PhD program, students who lack research experience and/or are uncertain about their research interests will be disadvantaged. If you are unsure whether or not you want to invest in pursuing a PhD, one approach is to first apply to an MS program that offers research opportunities for MS students and then apply to a PhD program. In most cases, credits earned towards an academic MS can be carried over to the PhD. Also, a student who has done substantial research during the MS and has resulting publications may have a stronger PhD application. Note that applying to a professional MS program does generally not lead to research experiences.
Some students who enter a PhD program realize after some time that they are not really interested in research, that research in the chosen area is not what they expected it would be, or that they don’t want to put in the time and effort it takes to complete a PhD. Programs will typically allow such a student to receive an MS and leave the program. We should note that faculty interviewing potential PhD students are quite good at judging research ability and research interest. At the same time, there are always students who change their objectives.
Q: I plan to get an MS in Computer Science. Can I apply for teaching positions at universities with an MS degree?
A: There exist a number of highly ranked academic CS MS programs that allow a student to switch to the PhD program while enrolled in the MS program. Examples include UIUC, Purdue, and Minnesota. A common expectation is that the student was engaged in research while an MS student and an application to the PhD program may be expected.
Some departments offer pre-doctoral MS programs that do not provide a pipeline into their own PhD program, but do prepare students to become more competitive PhD applicants by taking research-oriented classes and working with a research advisor. Examples include U of Chicago and Stanford.
That said, bear in mind that doing an MS at an institution does not necessarily mean you’ll get preferential access to a PhD program at that same institution. If the department does not advertise a specific path from their MS program to their PhD, it is likely you will have to submit a full application to their PhD program, and be considered along with all external applicants.
Q: If I pursue a professional MS, and later decide to pursue a PhD, how will PhD admissions committees value the MS? Anything I should watch out for in my MS course planning?
A: PhD admission committee will value the fact that you have earned an MS degree. How much it helps your application will largely depend on the type of classes you took in your MS. Admissions committees will be more interested in your performance in foundational classes (e.g., Algorithms, Computer Systems, Machine Learning, etc.) and will typically place little weight on highly applied classes (e.g., software engineering, web development), unless they are highly relevant to the PhD program you plan to pursue. For example, if your intended field of study is Human-Computer Interaction, and you have taken classes on app development, UI/UX, and similar, the PhD admissions committee may value those classes positively.
If you are in a professional MS program and want to leave the door open to pursuing a PhD, you may want to gravitate towards taking more foundational courses than strictly required by your MS. If you are leaning towards a specific area of study, you can also take applied classes that will impart skills that could be useful in a PhD in that area.
Q: I plan to apply to professional MS programs. Will I have research opportunities?
A: Most professional MS programs are preparing students for positions in industry. Courses taken in a professional MS program may be quite different from the related courses in an academic MS program, and may offer only limited opportunities for research.
That said, if you are admitted to a professional MS program in a research university, you may be able to connect with research opportunities by reaching out to professors at the university. While some programs may facilitate this process, and even grant elective credit for that kind of work, this can vary a lot from one program to another. So, if you are interested in getting some research experience while doing a professional MS, check programs out carefully and ask program staff.
Q: I am currently enrolled in an online MS program. I plan to apply to a PhD program after graduation. Can I get transfer credit for courses taken? Do programs distinguish between online and in-person programs?
A: This will vary from one university to another. Most universities will not allow you to formally transfer more than a minimal amount of MS credit from a different university (in the same way that they may allow transfer credit in undergraduate programs). However, some PhD programs may waive certain course requirements if a student has an MS that provides training comparable to the course requirements that students typically complete in their first 1-2 years of the PhD program. These arrangements are often made on a case-by-case basis.
When in doubt, you should consult with the admissions staff, to see if the PhD program you’re applying to offers these kind of coursework waivers (particularly since some PhD programs may have a strict policy of not waiving any PhD coursework, regardless of the student’s prior graduate coursework).