Planning MS in US – Part I
Planning to do your masters, especially abroad in an unknown country, is a BIG and most of the times- a costly step! It is important that you don’t take this process lightly. If I could sum up the whole process in one word then that would be – RESEARCH. Yes, it involves lots and lots of research, much more than you think. And you are hearing this right from the horse’s mouth. I have almost completed this process and got admission into all the good universities for my program, just so that you know a buffoon has not written this article. I am writing this so that you don’t make the same mistakes that I did (luckily few) or many other’s that students make. Indians – you will also find some information specifically for you. The beginning of the article provides general information on MS, moving on to US specific information and finally terminating with information specifically for Indians. Part I : Till applications completion. Part II : After applications.
Step 1: Choose the right program/course, at the right universities, at the right locations.
I cannot stress enough how important this step is. And the earlier you start the better! This step involves the most amount of research and can take anywhere between few months to a few years. Continue reading and you will see why.
- Find what you are passionate about. Most probably, if you are reading this, you already have done that, but I still suggest you rethink. Your masters will define your career path (your job) and you may not be able to change it later. It is not easy to work 9 hours every day on something you don’t really love!
- Don’t think technical education in India and western countries is the same. There is a huge difference. Masters programs at good universities have leaders of a field as teachers and are the hub for research and industry innovations. The amount of freedom and flexibility there, allows you to truly pursue your dreams. So don’t get discouraged after your engineering experience in India, give up and move towards management. If you really did like few subjects in college and have no serious inclination towards management, then explore MS as an option. Go through the list of programs offered and you never know what you might like! Personally, I never thought I’ll do MS. My plan was to go down the MBA route. Until I worked for a year which made me realize, what I was actually passionate about and what my work philosophy was. I couldn’t see myself doing what the management did. Given my varied interests, it took me a year to find the right program and I chose an interdisciplinary program that satisfied these interests. Earlier, I didn’t even know that such a program existed! Also, studying in US is not just about academics but also about networking and exposure to industry and research.
- The earlier you discover your passion the better, as this enables you to take up research, projects, internships and jobs related to your interest which would really strengthen your application for MS.
- Now that you have found the field you are passionate about, next, find the right programs and right countries for your career choice.
Locations and Universities:
- Though US has the best universities for almost every field, many universities in Europe are also topnotch. Some of these universities are much cheaper as compared to US. Germany is an excellent choice for automobile related fields, being home to companies like BMW, Volkswagen, etc. The Nordic countries (Sweden, Finland, Norway, etc) are excellent for industrial design programs being home to companies like IKEA, Nokia, etc. Many of the top MBA and MS (Management)programs are in France. Most of the graduate programs are taught in English. However, some universities still demand a basic understanding of the native language and there might be some other issues like work permit, lack of jobs, etc. For example, UK’s latest policy requires students to leave the country as soon as they finish their education unless they already have a job in hand, the salary for which should be above a certain amount. Therefore, make sure you research well on the prerequisites and economic, political and cultural factors before going to any country.
- As there are 100’s of universities, as a starting point, look at the university rankings for your particular program.
Rankings vary greatly depending on the program you choose. A university that is No 1 for computers might be No 10 for biotechnology. The Ivy League universities do not necessarily have the best programs for every field. It is important that you find rankings for your particular program rather than just going by the overall ranking and reputation.
For MS in Management: http://rankings.ft.com/businessschoolrankings/masters-in-management-2011
- After making an initial list of universities, find the right program at those universities along with program specific details.
- There is a huge variety of programs in the US with great flexibility within a program as well. There are also interdisciplinary programs, professional programs (those that directly prepare you for the industry), tailor made programs and dual degree programs. For example you can get a Masters in “IT and Law” or “IT and Art”! There are also some universities that allow you to directly enter PhD programs instead of doing a Masters first (like the Human Computer Interaction department at Carnegie Mellon).
- Sometimes the same program may exist under different names or in different departments in different universities. This is especially true for interdisciplinary courses. For example, Human Computer Interaction(HCI) program is called “Human Centered Design and Engineering” at University of Washington. And though HCI is normally part of the computer science department, it can also sometimes be found in 2 other departments- Psychology and Design. At Georgia Institute of Technology, it exists in all the 3 departments! Therefore, it is necessary to go through the whole list of “Departments and their Programs” on university websites so that you don’t miss the program you are interested in. Some students find an interesting program after they have already been accepted into another program or are in the middle of one, and they regret not being aware of such a program earlier!
- Find out as much as you can about the curriculum, undergoing research, teachers, the kind of job you will be doing after graduating, and if money is a big concern, then about the present financial health of that field. Sometimes, students realize that they don’t like the curriculum or that the work they end up with after graduating is not what they had expected.
- Speaking to your seniors, current students and reading blogs and forums is a good way of finding out more about the experience, education, and industry.
- Most of the programs begin in the “Fall” term (August, September) though few programs begin in the “Spring” term (January, February) also. The typical length of the programs is 2 years though there are also some programs which are for 1 – 1.5 years.
- Usually, a student, shortlists 5-10 universities for application. This list consists of dream universities, universities where there is a good chance of admission and universities he/she is confident of getting through.
Step 2: Make a list of requirements.
- Now that you have made a list of universities and programs, go through the admission requirements for each of these programs.
- This step should be completed at least 10-12 months before the starting of the program. Reason behind this is that the applications deadlines are typically 6-8 months before the start of the programs and you need at least 3-5 months to prepare your application (2-3 months for GRE + TOEFL, 1-2 months for application).
- Make your time line according to the requirements and stick to it!
Step 3: Take the GRE and TOEFL tests.
- GRE general test is a test of your verbal, math and analytical writing ability. It is a requirement for almost all the MS and PhD programs. To get a detailed overview of the test and preparation strategies, please read- Everything you need to know about Revised GRE.
- GRE usually requires around 3 months of preparation though it varies from person to person depending on the amount of time he/she can give in a day, learning speed and aptitude.
- TOEFL is an English reading, writing, listening and speaking test.
- If you are from an English speaking country, then you might not be required to give this test. It is an easy test for those who have completed their education in English.
- Some students just go through the overall pattern of the test and take the mock test available on registering for TOEFL. Others go through months of preparation. It is ultimately upto the student to decide how much preparation time he/she needs.
- Both GRE and TOEFL are computer based in most of the countries and paper based in few countries where computer centers are not available. The computer based test can be taken on any working day in a year whereas the paper based test is only conducted few times in a year.
- Find out how many months in advance you need to book your GRE and TOEFL in your city. InIndia, you need to book 2-3 months in advance. Typically, students take TOEFL within a week or two after GRE as the vocabulary built for GRE comes in handy during TOEFL.
- The scores are valid for 5 years. However, some universities ask for GRE scores less than 2 years old.
- All universities require official score reports to be sent by the organization conducting these tests (i.e ETS). Each report is charged around 20$. However, you are allowed to send 4 score reports for free to 4 different universities once you register for these tests. These need to be listed either before the test is taken (in case of TOEFL) or right after the test is taken (in case of GRE). Thus it is better to shortlist the universities for application before these tests are taken in order to save money.
- After these tests are taken, it usually takes 2-4 weeks (international) for your copy of official score report to arrive at your home. A scanned copy of this is needed for application to many universities. Also, it takes around a week for ETS to send official score reports to a university after you have placed an order. Therefore leave a gap of at least a month between the test dates and the application deadlines.
Step 4: Apply.
- Start filling the application form early. This will make you aware of any university specific requirements. Some requirements are not mentioned on the university webpage and it is best to find those out by starting the application early. For example, some universities ask for a bank letter for proof of funds during the application itself and it might take you some time to arrange that.
- Some universities evaluate applications on a rolling basis rather than waiting till the deadline. In such cases, applying early can “sometimes” give you an advantage over other students.
- Letters of Recommendation : All universities require at least 2 and normally 3 of these.
- Those still in college have no choice but to take all of them from the college teachers. Recent college graduates usually take 2 of them from teachers and 1 from work place. The reason being that since you are going to pursue an academic course, the university is more interested in knowing if you have the academic capability and inclination and whether you can do research. Of course, if you have been out of college for quite a few years, then you can get 2 from work place. There is no set formula. Ultimately, you need to choose people who know you and your work well.
- Make sure your recommendation letter shows proof of the claims made. For example, if a teacher says you have good research capabilities, he should provide an example that proves the same. Like, how your research papers won some awards or got appreciation or helped the team move forward in a significant way, etc.
- Here is a good guide from a professor who actually evaluates these letters : http://www.cs.brown.edu/~sk/Memos/Grad-School-Recos/
- Resume : The norm in US right now is a 1-2 page resume. Therefore make sure you have a good compressed resume. Follow guidelines available online and remove all insignificant information.
- Statement of Purpose : This can be the deciding factor in determining your admission. This is one of the most important parts of the application.
- The essay should tell why you want to pursue the program chosen, how you have prepared so far for the field chosen, what motivates you, the achievements and important lessons you have learnt, which are related to the field or will help you contribute significantly to the program, the skills you will bring to the program, your future plans as well as why you have chosen that particular university. Mind you, this should not be a repetition of the resume! List only the most significant achievements and then explain how this has helped you. Context matters! You should convince them that you badly want to do that program and that you are well informed (about the field and program) and sure of what you want to do.
- Read some sample SOPs available online. Ask your seniors who have got through good universities for their SOP to get an idea of the structure and content of an SOP.
- A good SOP does not exceed 2 pages. Normally universities have a word or character limit.
- Here is a good guide: http://www.ece.cmu.edu/~mabdelm/statement-of-purpose-tips.html
- Have a tailor made SOP for each university. This usually means changing the last paragraph about why you have chosen that university. I have seen students who forget to change the name of the university in the SOP when submitting the same to another university!!
- Transcripts : The universities require your undergrad university to send an “official transcript”. An official transcript is basically a list of your marks or grades in all the subjects you had in college in a sealed envelope to be opened only by the university you are applying to. Official transcripts can be ordered at the university administration office for a fee. They typically take a few weeks to arrive and may need to be collected from the office again, varies from university to university. So make sure you plan your order, travel etc in such a way that you get your transcripts on time to send them by post to university which again takes 3-15 days (India : DHL – around 700 INR, registered India Post – 110 INR) .
- Order score reports such that they reach the universities on time.
Step 5: Write to Professors (optional).
- Some people say that writing to university professors before application deadline or during decision period can increase your chances of getting through that university if the professor is impressed with your work and wants you to join him in his research. Well, this can also break your application! You have to be very careful while writing to professors and make sure you don’t end up irritating them or proving that you are an idiot.
- Here are some good guides: http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/advice/prospective.html , http://biology.nd.edu/assets/31026/comments_on_grad_school_emails_to_professors.pdf , http://science-professor.blogspot.in/2007/12/writing-to-me.html
Read Part II of this article.