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Applying for Research MS in CS Fall 2014, could use some guidance/reality check


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Hi everyone, this is my first post here and I'm looking forward to getting involved in this community here. Thanks in advance to anyone who takes the time to help me figure some things out about my future and grad school stuff.

 

In short, I'm wanting to pursue a master's degree (and hopefully eventually a PhD) in computer science starting in fall of 2014. I know I've got some setbacks that probably hurt my application, so I'm hoping I can figure out the range of schools I should be shooting for.

 

I graduated with a BS in computer science from the University of Utah in the spring of 2011. Both my general and major GPA were 3.66. 

 

I spent my first year after graduation abroad, teaching English as a second language in southern China (having taken some Mandarin classes at the U of U). For the last 12 months I've been working in the Kansas City area as a software developer at a small solutions company, mainly building mobile/web applications and developing middleware server software for telecoms. 

 

I feel like I really want to get involved in research in the CS world to be part of something cutting-edge and bringing the future closer. In terms of a specialty, the worlds of graphics/visualization are really fascinating to me, and I want to get involved in research that has to do with visual representations of data and simulations of large systems on a world/universe scale.

 

In my spare time I've been working on teaching myself about OpenGL and three.js, and have been making contributions to an open-source project on GitHub to build a distributed set of planetary simulation server software. Getting involved in academic research seems like a good way to pursue that kind of knowledge-building.

 

I took the GRE a few weeks ago and got the following scores: 163 quantitative, 167 verbal, 5.5 writing. 

 

One of the main issues with my application is that I didn't really prepare myself during undergrad to head to grad school. My connections with my old professors could have been better. My first letter-writer is the professor of my 3D computer graphics class, who seemed quite eager to accept my request -- but our connection during college was mainly course-related. My second is with a networking professor with whom I worked for two years as part of an NSF grant to develop programs to promote outreach/recruitment for CS to local high schools. My third may be another professor on that same NSF project, but since we didn't work as closely together I think I may ask the head of the small software development company I work for; it wouldn't be the most academic/research-based recommendation but I think he can give a good perspective of the sort of work I do.

 

In addition, I don't really have research experience as an undergrad, and no publications. I worked on a pretty involved project with the Robotics Club, building the camera software for the university's rover for a JPL-funded Mars rover competition -- though I couldn't honestly call that research. This is the main reason why, even though I want to pursue research and generation of new knowledge in the field, I don't feel confident about applying to PhD programs at the moment since I don't know if I have what it takes yet. I want to get into a master's program to build up that research experience. When thinking of schools to apply to, I've been drawn to those that mention a common pool of applicants for PhD and MS, thinking that would help in my case. Is it a thing that's done, to apply for an MS at some schools, and a PhD at others at the same time?

 

A big issue with me is the matter of cost, and I'm really trying to find schools that don't outright disqualify master's students from funding or assistantships. I want to get involved in research, and from my experiences in teaching (and being a TA for a semester in college) I actually think that being a TA would be good in and of itself. I've some income from my software development job, but above all else I don't want to go into debt or take out loans for grad school. For this reason, I'm putting the few decent Kansas universities on my list if only for the fact that I'd get in-state tuition.

 

I recognize that one difficulty with my application is the fact that I've been out of school for a couple years, which suggests to me that this year is really the best chance I'll get for getting into grad school and continuing my education along the lines I want. I would suspect that having to wait another year wouldn't strengthen my application and would just hurt it by making it longer since my letter-writers at the university had really worked with me. As such, I really feel like I could use some guidance to optimize this process, mainly with making sure that the programs I apply to are useful to me but also that I'm not wasting my time/money on applications that I have no feasible chance of getting into.

 

Here's the list of schools I'm considering at the moment. I think I should apply to about 10 schools in total.

 

Stretch:

Berkeley (yeah, unlikely, I know but everyone has to have a dream)

Georgia Tech

UNC

UMich

UIUC

Wisconsin - Madison

Purdue

 

Middle-of-the-road?

University of Utah (went here for undergrad)

Michigan State?

Ohio State

NYU

 

Safety:

University of Kansas

Kansas State University

 

Anyway, I suppose this is all a bit of a mess of a post, but I could use some help in determining, given what I've mentioned about my scores/grades, my recommenders, and the other admitted issues surrounding my application, just where I should be placing my "sensible average" when evaluating what schools I should look at for having a chance at. Is top 20 feasible at all, and if not what should the value of X be for "Top X"?

 

Thanks again!

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Just a heads up - Berkeley doesn't admit very many at all for the MS-only program (at least judging by this year's stats). I think it's possibly as competitive to apply to their MS program as to their PhD program so you're probably better off applying to the latter.

 

Having been out of school is not necessarily a disadvantage - have you got relevant work experience? Or at least in the field of technology? It's beneficial to elucidate in your SoP what exactly you've gained from your time in industry (programming skills, team working skills etc.). 


Applying for a PhD directly would be quite risky without research experience and/or significant relevant work experience.

 

Another thing you could use to help your application is to take a free graduate level online course (such as those on Udacity, EdX or Coursera) and do well in it. If they're run by one of the universities you are applying to, even better. You've still got time to do one or two of these before application season opens.

 

Overall your application seems pretty reasonable. Be sure to play up the relevant parts of your experience. They probably won't be interested in your year abroad (although it does sound great - so definitely include it on your application resume), definitely detail your contribution to the robotics project, your experiments with OpenGL and your open source contributions. If you have made sufficient commits on Github, put your profile URL on the application and your resume. (Side note: if you have a personal website which you plan on including, make sure to include this as a prominent link and be sure to include a detailed description of the projects you've worked on. Keep it simple and purposeful too so that if someone was to just glance at it, they'd see something cool.  I noticed that a couple of the universities I applied to, including UW, actually visited my website but spent almost no time on it.)

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On 6/11/2013 at 8:57 AM, GermanStudent said:

If you are interested in research, why don't you apply for a Ph.D. directly?  Is there a research area that interests you? 

 

Anything in the area of image processing and simulation interests me, like augmented reality or simulating environmental or cultural interactions from a computing background. The open source project I'm working on is trying to be akin to the Civilization games, but with more of an emphasis on simulation than gaming and with more extensible complexity. My fear is that, despite being interested in research, at this point I couldn't get accepted in a PhD program due to the lack of research experience -- hence wanting to get some research experience under my belt with a research-based MS.

 

On 6/11/2013 at 10:09 AM, ssk2 said:

Having been out of school is not necessarily a disadvantage - have you got relevant work experience? Or at least in the field of technology? It's beneficial to elucidate in your SoP what exactly you've gained from your time in industry (programming skills, team working skills etc.). 

 

I do think I've gained a great deal so far from my time in industry, particularly with working on solving real-world problems and finding ways to translate requirements into the actual concerns people are having and getting to the core of a problem to know what people actually want. Working with existing large-scale systems with other people is a definite plus, as opposed to more local/individual homework assignments in class. I'll definitely make sure to express this in my SOP.

 

 

On 6/11/2013 at 10:09 AM, ssk2 said:

Applying for a PhD directly would be quite risky without research experience and/or significant relevant work experience.

 

This was my thinking. I'd love to be wrong on this, but with no real research experience and my work experience being not quite research-y (more combining CRUD Web frameworks rather than the latest greatest algorithms) I suppose I'll stick to the masters programs.

 

On 6/11/2013 at 10:09 AM, ssk2 said:

Another thing you could use to help your application is to take a free graduate level online course (such as those on Udacity, EdX or Coursera) and do well in it. If they're run by one of the universities you are applying to, even better. You've still got time to do one or two of these before application season opens.

 

I'm glad you mentioned that -- in fact I've been hitting up the MOOCs quite heavily this past year. The classes I've completed (and got Statements of Accomplishment from) are:

- Software Engineering for SaaS, Berkeley

- Machine Learning, Stanford

- Gamification, UPenn

- Networked Life, UPenn

- Model Thinking, UMich

- Functional Programming Principles in Scala, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

- Human-Computer Interaction, Stanford

- Programming Languages, UWashington

- Introduction to Databases, Berkeley

 

Plus a couple that aren't particularly relevant or high-level but seemed interesting at the time:

- Securing Digital Democracy, UMich

- Introduction to Sustainability, UIUC

 

I admit I'm sort of at a loss about how best to actually leverage this in my application. Would it be beneficial to mention some of the most relevant courses in my SOP, or keep it in the resume/CV?

 

On 6/11/2013 at 10:09 AM, ssk2 said:

Overall your application seems pretty reasonable. Be sure to play up the relevant parts of your experience. They probably won't be interested in your year abroad (although it does sound great - so definitely include it on your application resume), definitely detail your contribution to the robotics project, your experiments with OpenGL and your open source contributions. If you have made sufficient commits on Github, put your profile URL on the application and your resume. (Side note: if you have a personal website which you plan on including, make sure to include this as a prominent link and be sure to include a detailed description of the projects you've worked on. Keep it simple and purposeful too so that if someone was to just glance at it, they'd see something cool.  I noticed that a couple of the universities I applied to, including UW, actually visited my website but spent almost no time on it.)

 

Thanks for the advice. I assume, then, that the levels of schools I'm going for is within a reasonable range for me? Of course, there's no guarantees and I wouldn't want to push anyone into trying to divine the future, but you can probably tell that a big concern for me is whether I'm shooting for the right league.

 

The idea about a personal website is a really good one, and while I don't have one at the moment this makes for a good opportunity for me to get around to setting up a little something that can showcase past and present projects well.

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Don't sell yourself short - I absolutely think you can get admitted to a good PhD program with your qualifications. Berkeley would be very unlikely but the other schools you listed are possibilities for a PhD application. You may not have good research experience, but that is not absolutely necessary, What is necessary though is that you can show enough promise to convince the admissions committee that you're worth a shot. To do so, think about a problem (i.e. not just an area, but a specific problem or problems) that you would be interested in working on in grad school. Find out as much as you can about it, and about the researchers working in that area. Apply only to schools that have profs actively working on the problem(s) you are interested in and when you write your SoPs write as if you are writing to those profs. By this I mean, write with detail about your problem and with enough grasp of the issues involved with the problem that you can get the attention of the profs at that schools who are working in that area.  

 

So my advice to you would be, if you eventually want a PhD, apply directly to PhD programs - even if you don't have stellar (or even much) research experience. 

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I do think I've gained a great deal so far from my time in industry, particularly with working on solving real-world problems and finding ways to translate requirements into the actual concerns people are having and getting to the core of a problem to know what people actually want. Working with existing large-scale systems with other people is a definite plus, as opposed to more local/individual homework assignments in class. I'll definitely make sure to express this in my SOP.

 

This sounds great - and graphics is an area where you need to be a competent engineer, so this will definitely help.

 

I admit I'm sort of at a loss about how best to actually leverage this in my application. Would it be beneficial to mention some of the most relevant courses in my SOP, or keep it in the resume/CV?

 

Definitely include these in your resume. I'd pick the most relevant courses, like you say, and mention them in your SOP. The key thing for the SOP (which I'd wish I'd spent more time on) - is to make as directed and relevant as possible. Essentially it has to read like a strongly purposeful essay. The question you should keep in mind as you write it, 'why would this candidate make a good student?'. Include everything that gives proof for why you would be the best candidate (if not the most qualified in terms of research experience) and exclude everything that detracts from this point.  As newms says, you need to write as if you are making a point directly to those professors.

 

Thanks for the advice. I assume, then, that the levels of schools I'm going for is within a reasonable range for me? Of course, there's no guarantees and I wouldn't want to push anyone into trying to divine the future, but you can probably tell that a big concern for me is whether I'm shooting for the right league.

 

I'd say so, for sure. You will have a slight home country advantage too (better still if your employer is likely to be one admissions tutors have heard of). 

 

The idea about a personal website is a really good one, and while I don't have one at the moment this makes for a good opportunity for me to get around to setting up a little something that can showcase past and present projects well.

 

If the main purpose of your site is to augment your application keep it super clean and simple and have additional sections such as 'About', 'Professional Experience', 'Projects' (+ links to your online presence - LinkedIn, Github etc.). This should be more that sufficient :-). Stick a Google Analytics tracking token in there too from the moment you submit your application.

 

It sounds like you're doing all the right things to put in a competitive application. I'd start writing your essay as soon as possible - and get feedback from professors or people who are familiar with the application process. (Speaking from experience - getting feedback from people who don't quite know what these schools are looking for can be detrimental and you'll get a horrible muddled essay if you try and incorporate everyone's feedback. Obviously, they're good for finding typos and grammatical errors but get a couple of opinions from informed reviewers to check that your essay answers the question.)  I've put a whole bunch more advice on my blog (see link in the signature) - specifically, check out the book that is linked - 'Graduate Admissions Essays' by Donald Asher. It has no CS specific examples but it will give you a good flavour of what they look for.

 

Good luck! 

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I admit I'm sort of at a loss about how best to actually leverage this in my application. Would it be beneficial to mention some of the most relevant courses in my SOP, or keep it in the resume/CV?

 

Is there a particular course that sparked your interest for graduate work? If so, that's definitely something that should be brought into your SOP. You can also play up the fact that you took courses on your free time to advance your computing knowledge and understanding of the research field you'd like to work in.

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