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Forward the future…

Planning to study in the US? Sibin Mohan has some useful tips and fundaas to share – especially regarding funding.

Three or four years spent towards working on that degree… maybe a year or two cracking away at that desk job… somewhere along the line, many of us feel the need to break away and want to learn more, see the world, see what we have really missed in our education. Enter the study abroad option. And the most popular destination for students worldwide remains the United States, in no small measure due to the opportunities available here.

3.5 years into my PhD programme in Computer Science, I look back at my application procedure. The question arises – is it still relevant? The answer is a resounding “yes!”. What changes, is the actual numbers.

The number of applicants and the intake of a particular university depend on the economic status of both countries – the one from which students apply and the receiving country as well. If there is an economic boom and jobs are available easily in the home country, then the number of applications drop as compared to when there is a slump and jobs are harder to come by. During a slump the competition for a particular university shoots up as more eligible candidates have now thrown their hats into the ring.

When the economic situation of the host country or even the university/ state is not good, then one of two extreme situations may occur –
a) some departments/ schools may reduce the intake of international students, as they are unable to support a large population, or they may drastically increase their intake (thus diluting their quality) to obtain the larger fees that international students bring (and hope that these students are able to get by without funding/support). Actually an economic slump hits universities a year or two after it has actually started, because that is when the funds/ grants dry out and newer ones are hard to come by. So, they are harder to gauge/ plan for.

These factors are not under the control of the applicant. All that one hopes for, is that his or her application is capable of being noticed at a good university and also there are sufficient funds available to obtain an assistantship.

The number one activity for an application (and I cannot stress on this enough) is research. Before and after you have written you GRE/ TOEFL and other exams, you must spend enough time to chart out which universities you would seriously like to apply to. It is absolutely imperative that you pore through the university and department websites to obtain as much information as possible on the following topics…

Research areas/ interests – Find univs that focus on or are close to the areas that you would like to study/ perform research on. Most universities and professors put up detailed information about their projects/ publications etc. online. Make sure you read them and also try to understand some of their research papers. This first step will be the foundation for the rest of your application process. Information about projects that are funded are easily found on most department and faculty web-pages.

Once you have a list of about 15-20 universities that match up with your areas of interest and reasonable funding sources, rank them in the order of (a) preference and (b) university/ department ranking. Pick schools such that the majority of schools fall into the middle category – ones that you would like to study at and have a realistic chance. You can also pick a couple of really good ones and some of the lower ranked ones. How many you must actually pick depends on you and your confidence level. I would say about 5-8 is par.

Contact current and erstwhile students of the departments you are applying to. But first take the time and effort to do some serious research yourself. They will not really be able to guide you on general questions, such as “What univs should I apply to?” or “Will I get an admission into your department… I have a score of X, Y, Z, etc.”, as they are seriously unaware of how students are really admitted. That decision if made by a faculty committee. Specific, well-thought out questions such as “Does professor M work on field A?” or “Does your department have courses related to fields P, Q, R” or even “What are the prospects of on-campus jobs?” will get honest, helpful responses.

There are definite ways to increase your chances:
1. Research. This gives you a great weapon to improve your chances for admission/ funding.

2. A good SOP.

3. Projects, publications and work experience in relevant areas. These are invaluable. The more you have of these in your resume/SOP the better. Also it’s not very useful if you have a background in computer science and you are applying for biomedical engineering .Relevant experience is what counts.

4. Recommendations, GRE/ TOEFL scores. Unless you are from IIT/ BITS Pilani and a few other selected schools in India, your recos are probably just a formality. Most schools and faculty members do not take them seriously as they have gotten wind of the fact that recos are a dime a dozen and often self-written. So your GRE/ TOEFL scores count for a lot.

5. Subject GRE test: In computer science, the subject GRE test is also a good way to increase your chances – take the test and do well, you can almost be guaranteed of success in admissions/ funding.

6. Your choice of schools/ departments/ research projects/ faculty and any interest you are able to develop among the faculty members as a result of your communication with them.

Statement of Purpose
There are other positive advantages of having obtained solid information about universities and departments. The statement of purpose (SOP) for one. You should ideally tailor one for each college that you are applying to, and mention your interests in fields that they excel in or have ongoing research projects.

This way:
(a) you will get their attention and
(b) you will come across as a serious candidate. Do not write too many generalisations in the SOP. Stick to your background, academic and professional, projects, publications, course/ research interests, etc. And mention why you like what they do and why and how your background uniquely identifies you as the ideal candidate.

Another side-effect of having done good background research is that you can contact professors in the department and start a relationship with them. You can start by expressing interest in their work, clear any queries you may have about their papers/ projects/ etc. This way you again establish yourself as being seriously interested.

Some professors do not take it kindly to being contacted BEFORE you have an admissions, but that is a risk you run. I would suggest not to talk about funding from the beginning. Wait for a while for some kind of interest to build on their side before you ask about funding/ RA/ TA etc. Typically, if you haven’t been offered funding from the department at the time of admission, then most professors would like you to come down and meet them/ take their course/ work with them before they commit to funding you, if at all. In my opinion, most professors will work hard to obtain some source of funding for students that they feel are able to work hard and produce some results.

Also I would seriously reconsider committing to a PhD unless you are absolutely sure of wanting to go down that lane. Some students commit to a PhD in the hope of better funding chances, but they then drop out after a Masters and on receipt of a job offer. This kind of behaviour leads to bad blood in the department, especially among faculty members, and it could harm prospects for future generations of students from your college/ university/ city and even country. Hence, one should refrain from making this commitment unless one is absolutely sure of backing it up.

These thoughts are based on my collective experiences over the last three odd years in graduate school in the US. Wish you all good luck with the application procedure!

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