Sunday, September 5, 2010


Q. Will I get funding with an MS admit?
Q. How soon can I expect to get funded after joining my Masters program at a US graduate school?
Q. How do I go about getting funding as a Masters student?

MS admissions hardly ever come with scholarships or fellowships right with the admission itself (unlike in the case of PhDs). Most MS admission letters would read "The MS is an unfunded program and students should not rely on securing departmental/university funding for attending the graduate program" and or something similar. However, that only means that you are not "assured" to get funding, it doesn't mean that you will not be able to get funding at all.

Sources of funding for Masters students typically include research assistantships, teaching assistantships and if neither of those work out, other jobs like library/administrative/IT assistant, etc. The ease of actually getting funded depends on a lot of factors like the particular university in question, the economic situation, department, etc. Funding will be tougher to get in universities with very large admit pools. E.g., if a usual batch of MS students in a department is 200 or 300-strong, that increases the competition for the limited amount of funding slots. The economic situation (e.g. recession) may affect the amount of funding the university/its professors are getting from the government, defence agencies, industry, etc. for various research projects. Even the department you are admitted into has a part to play. Some departments are in general wealthier (as far as funding is concerned) than others. These are just some of the factors that affect funding, but the best way to get a good picture about the funding scenario at a particular department in a particular university is to talk with a current student there. Forums like are good sources for such information. But it would be best to get the contact information of a current student from the university's directory and mail him/her directly to get an accurate picture of the current funding opportunities there.

I can do my part by talking a bit about funding opportunities at Stanford, specifically the Stanford computer science department. The funding scenario for Stanford CS students is quite good. Most people I know managed to get funding at least by their second or third quarter, if not right from the first quarter itself. Of course, it involves a lot of patience to contact different professors, possibly interview with them, etc. and repeat this as many times as necessary. But students who took the funding-hunt seriously did eventually manage to get funded - either as RAs or TAs . CS students also have the advantage of easily applying for RAships in other departments like Psychology, Geophysics, Linguistics, etc., where there may be projects that need students with programming expertise. They thus have plenty of opportunities (because of their programming skills) in places apart from their own department. This is a luxury which students in other departments might not have. Also, from what I knew/heard at Stanford, there certainly were funding opportunities for students in other departments too, but probably not as abundant as those for CS students. It's always better to cross-check this information with current students at the university.

A word about on-campus jobs apart from RAships and TAships. It's not uncommon to be unfunded in the very first quarter/semester. Professors usually want to know you first or evaluate you in a class before they give you an assistantship under them. Thus, with no or little background to show, it can be tough to secure an RAship or TAship right in the first (or even in the first two) semesters. An alternative way to fund yourself is through other on-campus jobs like library assistant, administrative assistant at a particular department, etc. These jobs are usually posted on an internal careers/job listing website and pay on an hourly basis. The salary might not be comparable to what you get as a RA or TA, and you also miss out on the best part of the RA/TA compensation, i.e. tuition waiver. Nevertheless, it can be a source of income to at least offset the day-to-day living costs and saves you from spending that much out of your/parents' pockets. Moreover, this should be a temporary job that you do while you keep your hunt on for TAships and RAships.

My final advice would be that if you are getting into a highly reputed university and into a very in-demand program (where you are assured of getting handsome jobs after graduation), please do not reconsider your decision to join just based on the fear of getting funding. Even if you do not get adequate funding and end up owing a substantial education loan, you should be able to repay that fairly easy with your post-graduation job. Having a Masters degree from a university like Stanford, MIT, Berkeley, CMU or any of the other top US universities is definitely well worth it.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Selecting Universities

Q. How many universities do I apply to?
Q. How do I decide which universities to apply to?
Q. What are the different things to keep in mind while choosing the universities to apply to?

First, lets talk about how many universities one should apply to. The easy answer is the more you apply to, the better your chances of getting into a university of your choice. Practically however, the number of universities you can apply to is limited by the application costs. This includes the base cost of the application itself which can range anywhere from $45 to well over $100 (depending on the university), and the postal charges in shipping the application material. Depending on your spending budget, you can apply to 8, 10 or more universities, but I would advise applying to at least 8 to have a reasonable chance of making it into a good university.

Once you have an idea of the number of colleges you will be applying to, the next step is to choose them. Some of the factors to consider are:

1. Ranking, general reputation of the college, campus recruitment scenario, average salary of a graduate from that university - these factors are more relevant for MS than PhD
2. Professors, their reputation, research groups, relevancy of research to your own interests - more relevant for PhD than MS
3. Course structure and specializations offered, whether there are enough good courses offered in your area of interest - for instance, there might be good CS universities which might not have enough exciting courses on say, AI or Theoretical Computer Science, since their area of focus is something else. Make sure that the university offers enough courses related to your interests.
4. Flexibility of curriculum, whether it is possible to take interesting courses from other departments as well in addition to your department's core courses - for instance if you are specializing in AI within CS, it might be helpful to take a few courses from other departments like mathematics, statistics, psychology, linguistics, etc. and it would be good to get credits for taking those courses too.
5. Tuition fees and living expenses, i.e. how expensive the education is
6. Funding opportunities

The university website and its students (by getting in touch through email) are good resources to get the above information.

Finally, the last thing to evaluate is how realistic your chances of getting admitted into that university are. Obviously, the higher ranked or reputed the university is, the tougher it is to get into them (with few exceptions). Also, PhD admissions are much more tougher to secure than MS admissions at the same university. There are many online forums (Edulix being one of the most popular ones) where existing students from across different US graduate schools help in evaluating the profile of aspiring graduate students and give them guidance on which universities might be a good bet for their profiles. In addition, you can email students from your interested university and get their opinion on how good your chances are.

The usual algorithm followed is to apply to a few ambitious universities (ones which are out of your reach and would mostly require a miracle for getting accepted there), some gettable ones (i.e. those which should ideally be gettable for your profile, and if luck's on your side, you should get accepted into those) and finally a few safe ones (i.e. those which have been known to give admissions to students with profiles even worse than yours, so you should definitely get an admission there). Suppose your were to apply to 8 universities, depending on your risk taking capacity, you can do a 2-4-2 or 3-3-2 or 4-2-2 split, etc.

Also, there are few universities which have very late deadlines compared to others - these are so late that you can get results from the other universities you have applied to, and still have enough time to apply to these. Keep in mind that such universities do exist, and especially if one of those happens to be a safe or gettable one for you, you can wait for hearing from other more ambitious universities before applying here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Bachelors in X, but applying for MS/PhD in Y

Q. I did my BTech/BE in X field of study. However, for my graduate studies in the US, I want to apply for a graduate programme in a different field Y. What are things to keep in mind for such a situation?

Quite a few students do this every year. Whether this poses a problem at all depends on how close or far apart the two branches are. For instance, it might take a bit of convincing if you are applying for a MS in Computer Science but your undergraduate major is Political Science or even an unrelated engineering branch like Civil engineering. It would be easier if your bachelors was in one of the so-called circuit branches (electrical, electronics, computers, etc.). However, in the end, more than what your bachelor degree says, more important would be factors like your individual courses, projects and work experience, and their relevance to the branch you are applying to.

Here are a few things that can help:
1. Highlight in your SOP any relevant courses done even if it's at an introductory level (e.g. if you are a MSCS aspirant, this might be any CS-related course like intro to algorithms, programming, etc.). Also highlight any projects or work-ex which requires a similar skill set as your intended graduate field of study.
2. If such a relevant project or work-ex exists, get a recommendation letter supporting that.
3. In your SOP, very clearly state the reason or background for considering a branch switch. It should be genuine and logical. For instance, it could be the interest you developed from a course project, or work-ex, etc. which got you really excited in the other branch.
4. Consider giving the subject GRE (in fact this might even be a requirement for some universities when your UG degree is in a completely different field of study - check this individually on the admissions website of each university you are interested in).

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Choosing Recommenders

Q. How do I choose my recommenders?

Choosing recommenders is often a trade off between how famous/reputed or senior the person is and how close the person is to you. Though recommendations from more senior persons (like professors or people with a PhD degree) usually are more impressive (than say from a lecturer who doesn't have a PhD), the closeness of the recommender to you will matter much more. Thus, your recommender could be a highly reputed person in the field you are applying to, but if his recommendation doesn't sound enthusiastic or personal enough (i.e. is too generic), that recommendation will not have a lot of value. It's always better to choose people who have interacted with you or supervised you closely over a considerable period of time, e.g. your final project advisor.

See section 3.5 of DAGAP for a more detailed discussion on this topic.

Statement of Purpose

Q. Could you give me tips on writing a good statement of purpose (SOP)?

You can find tons of resources on the web about writing SOPs and even find a lot of sample SOPs. However, try not to read another person's SOP (or sample SOPs you might find on the web) and derive from that. At least don't look at them before you have written your very first draft by yourself. Looking at someone else's SOP at the very beginning might bias you to write your own SOP in a way, which was probably suited to the other person's profile, but might not work so well in your case.

You should do multiple iterations over the SOP and sometimes it might be necessary to give some idle time between iterations. You can ask peers, seniors and/or professors to review it and give you suggestions on improving your SOP.

I won't talk a lot about SOPs because of the abundance of information already available on the internet on this topic. But do read section 3.4 of DAGAP for further discussion on what a SOP should and should not be.

Some useful links:


Q. Is the GRE Analytical Writing (AWA) section important?

Yes. Based on my experience as an application reviewer, the importance given to AWA was less than that given to the quantitative section, but definitely more than that given to verbal.

Low AWA scores (<3.5, even 3.5 is borderline) can be a cause for concern.

GRE Preparation

Q. How do I prepare for the GRE?

The GRE general test is a requirement for admission into almost all of the top US universities. It is conducted by ETS and you can find a lot of information about GRE on their website ( For an average college student, the quantitative section of GRE (that tests mathematical skills) should be relatively the easier to master. However, the time and effort required in mastering the the Verbal and the Analytical Writing (AWA) sections greatly differ from person to person, depending on one's current proficieny in English. In fact, for most proficient English speakers, the AWA section should not pose much of a problem. However, the Verbal section purely tests knowledge of vocabulary rather than fluency and thus ends up being a hurdle for almost all applicants, since even the most proficient speakers of English wouldn't use most of the "GRE words" in a normal conversation ever in their lifetimes. One usually needs to devote considerable time and effort in getting up to speed with GRE vocabulary. Books published by Barrons, Kaplan and Princeton Review are good resources. So is the web. There are lot of online resources for GRE preparation available these days and even useful discussion forums on social networking sites like Facebook, Orkut, etc. A helpful website for GRE verbal preparation is

I would highly advise taking a GRE "diagnostic test" - available on ETS website or in the CD that accompanies the Barrons book (or from some other source) at the earliest, typically by end of first year to get a sense of your strengths and weaknesses w.r.t. the different sections and different kind of questions asked in the GRE. You can then direct your preparation accordingly.

DISCLAIMER: This advice is based on what GRE used to be, at the time I gave it (2007). GRE has undergone format changes since then, but hopefully what I said here should still be applicable for the newer formats of the GRE as well.