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Funding Fundas

Looking to get finanial aid for your MS abroad? Jitendra Mohan tells you how to go about it – especially if you are not from IIT.

Getting financial aid in a grad school in the US is a not a cake walk these days with funds drying up in most of the departments. So much so, that many professors prefer to adopt a wait-and-watch policy rather than hire someone straight away.

Having a high GRE score, a great GPA, a well-written and clear SoP, and great recommendations increase one’s chances of getting RA Research Assistantship). However, it gets tougher for students who are low even in one of these departments. Doing one’s homework carefully paves the path to a full scholarship in the form of a research assistantship (RA). Students who don’t have the luxury of a great GRE score/GPA try for RAs in one of the following ways:

1.) If a student is working on a project and has produced good enough results from his undergraduate research to convince professors that he has high motivation for intellectual pursuit, he is done. The key point here is, his GRE score, undergrad college, and GPA become inconsequential.

A good friend of mine was ranked last in his undergrad class, had a undergrad GPA of less than 3 out of 5, and an average GRE score. He got a call-with-schol from MIT. Surprised? Don’t be. He did his undergraduate research on a project with NASA, and received excellent recommendations. The point I am trying to make is that, one thing the professors are looking for in a prospective RA is research capabilities.

Be it GRE score, GPA, recommendations or SoPs, these are only meant to scoop out some information about the candidate’s research interests. Doing some decent work in undergraduate project and publishing at least one conference paper makes things very easy. Unfortunately, very few students come under this category.

2.) If a student doesn’t fall in the above category of ‘undergrad researchers’ so to speak, then certain apparently extraneous things become crucial. Brand name is one of them. I will cite one example. Every professor my brother met at Stanford during his first quarter used to greet him like this, “Welcome! So you’re from India. Cool. Are you from IIT?”

They have some sort of blind preference for IITians, and understandably so. What if one is from a lesser-known college? Well, it gets tougher. But a carefully planned approach might help. The best option in such a scene is to get in touch with professors at all the universities depending on their area of interest. Go through their works, and journal articles. Think over it, study it and come up with some good questions, and mail them. Once they reply, study it carefully, and keep the chain of questions flowing.

The point is, one needs to SHOW that s/he is interested in that particular research work. This inquisitiveness will help when the selection committee meets. Professors will surely give him/ her a preference over some other guy who is also from a lesser-known college (assuming everything else is same for both). This process has to start months before the actual application process. It is NOT a short-term thing. E-mail exchange with a professor just for a few days is not going to help. One thing to be noted is that, most of the professors are too busy to even reply to mails. But, there might be some who will show interest.

3.) For students who need RA and who don’t have much time to make use of (2), the best bet is to prepare a resume, which exactly caters to the needs. What do I mean by that? Professors don’t have time when they scan through any resume. Phrasing one’s resume in such a way that it reflects his/ her interest and suitability for that particular project is very essential. Does that mean one has to lie? Not at all. It just means correlating one’s skill-sets with the requirements of the project, and coming up with an appropriate objective. I know a guy in Stanford, who had a very low GRE score. Within five days he mailed his resume to some 100 professors in various departments. 20 of them replied. Four of them offered to hire him. A carefully made resume did the trick.

4.) Those who are not able to get RA (there are many) take up some part-time jobs, time permitting. There are plenty of job-openings in places like library, computer centers, gymnasium, various university stores etc. At the same time, they keep in touch with the professors regarding RA. Some students also opt for a non-paid RA, so to speak, which might get converted into a paid thing eventually.

Teaching assistantship (TA) is another form of financial aid. Candidates need to clear some tests/exercise in order to be eligible for a TAship. The hitch is that, professors generally hire someone, who has already attended that course before, as a TA for that course. If not, then someone who has attended grad school for at least a semester gets preference. New grads are only the last option. Having a teaching experience of any kind at the undergrad level helps. So it is important to devote few lines in SoP to communication skills. Bragging is totally fine as long as it is true. It really helps if recommendation letters say something about one’s teaching skills.

My 2 cents: Convert useless worry time into useful work time. Do your homework well, and you will succeed!

Jitendra Mohan graduated from Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad and went on to do his MS from University of Texas, Austin. He can be reached at cooljhajee@yahoo.com

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