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Applying to a Program Different from my Undergrad


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Hello everyone. I needed some help regarding my applications. I did a 5 yr Bachelor's+Master's program in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Computer Science, and I want to switch my branch to Computer Science. I'm pretty clear about my research areas. A brief overview of my profile:

I have a GPA of 3.3 on a scale of 4 from a reputable institute in India. My GRE score is 331 (Verbal: 161, Quant: 170, AWA: 4) and I got a 116/120 in TOEFL so that isn't an issue for me. What is an issue is this: I see a requirement for applying to a CS grad program in most universities. This often includes a set of `prerequisite courses' that should've been completed by the applicant if he's not from a computer science background. To be more specific,

  • Basic math courses: Calculus, Linear Algebra, Discrete Math. I've done all of these, albeit with not-so-great grades in some of them.
  • A basic course on programming: Done.
  • Course(s) in theory: Data structures, algorithms, etc. I've done a fair bit in this field, two undergrad and two grad level courses. Decent grades (grades in the range of B+ and A-).
  • Course(s) in operating systems: Not done any.
  • A course in computer architecture: Not done any.
  • A course in formal languages: Done a course on theory of computation.


I have a fair bit of research experience. My Master's thesis, though not in CS department, was relevant to computational geometry. It was under a professor who works in graphics and geometry in my department. I graduated this June and since then I've been doing an RAship under said prof. No publications yet, but I'm likely to apply for one in a fairly decent graphics conference around the end of Jan, though it'll be too late to include it in my CV by then. My recommendations are likely to be quite good, though none of the recommenders is a CS faculty. I'm set on a (sub)field of interest and I've also chosen colleges to apply to accordingly. So what I want to ask is the following:

  • Will I be eliminated (in the initial screening?) because of the absence of a couple of prerequisite courses? This is the major thing bugging me right now. I have a fair bit of background in the field I want to get into, but I've just not done any courses on the systems/architecture side of things.
  • Should I be concerned about low math grades? My GPA itself was quite low in my first two years when I did those math courses. Alternatively, should I arrange to send my subject GRE (Math) score? My score is in the 80th percentile.
  • Would an MS be easier to get than a PhD? I have looked at a lot of professors whose research interests match, but again I would like to know if a PhD would be too ambitious for me. Even if I do choose a Master's program, I'm pretty sure I'll be doing a PhD later anyway. How easy or difficult is it to switch from a MS to a PhD once you join?


PS: I'm currently thinking of applying to the following colleges (mostly Master's programs): Ohio State University; SUNY Stony Brook; UC Davis; University of North Carolina Chapel-Hill; Duke University; University of Houston, USC. Also thinking of applying at some places in Canada. Am I being too ambitious? I would be grateful for any help.


Edited by sjoe
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Firstly, what is your sub-field of interest? From what I have heard, evaluations are done very differently for different sub-fields.

  • It is unlikely that you would be simply eliminated just because you don't have 1 or 2 required courses. However, you need to really show them something special to keep your app in consideration. For example, relevant publications, stellar recommendations, a very unique internship or work experience etc.
  • Secondly, the type of courses that will be considered seriously depend on the sub-field. For example, if you are interested in robotics, having a few ME courses on control, kinematics, dynamics etc. could actually be more advantageous than having 4-5 courses on compilers, computer architecture, or operating systems.
  • Having a low GPA is definitely not a positive whichever way you look at it. The extent to which it will hurt depends on the courses in which your grades were low, the university to which you are applying etc. Subject GRE may not actually add any value, but considering it is 80+% it will certainly not hurt. If you aren't concerned about a few extra $$, it's better to send.
  • MS is almost always easier compared to PhD. But MS programs don't boost your PhD chances by a lot. Yes, your coursework problem can be taken care of, but the bar for admission will also be much higher for MS students. So unless you publish 1-2 top tier papers, a good PhD program will not be interested. Doing research during MS is not easy, and depends a lot on university. For small programs which take in just 20-30 MS candidates, chances of working with a faculty are bright. However, for large cash cow programs, most faculty aren't bothered about MS students. Funding is also essentially ruled out. So if you want to go the MS route, you must be very careful in your choice of programs. MS programs in Canada are research based, and cracking them is just as difficult as cracking PhD programs at a decent US school (top 30).

From what I gather, CS PhD programs are currently extremely competitive. The amount of effort and aptitude needed to crack a 25-30 ranked CS program is comparable to cracking a top 10 program in most other engineering areas like ME. Added to this is the fact that you don't have the proper diploma. I'd suggest you have good backup plans like a CS MS program in India or be ready to shell some money for a CS MS at a top 30 US program.

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