A Comprehensive Guide on How to Get the Most Out of your MS Degree in Computer Science in the United States
Every year, thousands of Indian students arrive in the United States for pursuing their graduate studies in Computer Science. Moving to a new country and being all by yourself is a very daunting task. On top of that, factoring in the pressure of graduate school and financial issues can make life quite stressful. Due to some of these reasons, Indian students tend to make a lot of mistakes as they don’t have proper guidance regarding their career or the education system in the US. The following article will help bring some clarity to students who are all set to pursue their higher studies in the United States.
As an MS student in CS, you have two options ahead of you: apply for PhD or apply for jobs in industry. Based on your preference, you need to structure your masters degree coursework in such a way that it helps you achieve your goals. Following is a comprehensive guide with umpteen tips on what you can do during your masters degree that will help you achieve your goal, be it being admitted to a PhD program in CS or getting a job in behemoths like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook.
Goal 1: Getting admitted to a PhD program right after MS in CS
- As soon as you land in the US, your number one goal should be to find a research position. If you don’t have funding in the form of research assistantship (RA) or teaching assistantship (TA), then try volunteering with a professor whose work interests you. Ask them if you can do an independent study with them for a semester or simply volunteer in their lab. Based on your performance and availability of funds, you may end up getting an RA from the second semester or second year onwards. TA is also good, but RA will make a huge difference to your profile as it gives you the opportunity to do research and publish papers in journals and conferences.
- Before you meet professors, read up on their research papers from google scholar and make a list of questions to ask them. Email the professors for an appointment. Usually, professors are very busy and sometimes they may not respond. If they don’t respond, knock on their door and see if they are available to talk. Once you get an appointment with them, express your interest to work with them. Towards the end of your discussion, ask about their funding situation. Professors in the United States are very frank and will tell you whether they can fund you or not, so don’t be shy to ask questions related to funding.
- Finding the right advisor/professor is extremely important as they can make or break your career. Before deciding which professor you would like to work with throughout the course of your masters degree, make sure he/she is friendly and supportive. A supportive professor can really help elevate your performance whereas a professor from hell can make things difficult for you. Before you approach professors, talk to students and seniors working in their labs and ask them about their supervisors working style, demeanour etc.
- Work hard to get your research work published in conferences and journals. Computer science is a hugely competitive field and having papers under your name will help you develop an edge over others. Also, papers are an excellent indication of your research work. If you are aiming at the top 20 universities for PhD, make sure you publish papers as the number of seats and funds for international students are very limited. For this reason, PhD admissions is a very selective process as the university has to fund your living expenses, tuition fees and research work. Therefore, paper publications will be a great addition to your profile and masters degree is a wonderful platform for doing good research work and publishing papers.
- For PhD admissions, more than GPA it is your research experience and paper publications that matters the most. This is not to say that you should neglect your GPA but many Indian students tend to neglect internships, projects and research work just to maintain that perfect GPA. In the United States, people will hire you only if you are competent enough to do their work. GPA is only to make sure that you are a disciplined student. Make sure you maintain your GPA at 3.5 and above. Sometimes, coursework + personal responsibilities + research work can take a toll on you and due to this your GPA might come down. Don’t worry too much about it and focus on maintaining a GPA of 3.5 and above.
- Focus on your thesis work as you will be expected to submit this as part of your PhD application. Thesis is an excellent showcase of your research skills and you can talk about it during your PhD interviews as well.
- One word of caution. Just because you do your MS from a particular university doesn’t mean you will be automatically admitted for a PhD in the same university. As explained before, PhD seats are limited for international students due to funding issues. Therefore, you will have to do good research work and impress the professors in your department to get admitted to their PhD program.
- If you are planning to apply elsewhere for your PhD studies, then you will be requiring 3 letters of recommendations. Get one from your advisor/supervisor at university, one from a professor whose class you might have aced or got an A/A+ and one from any internship that you have plans of doing during your summer vacations. Whatever classes you take, make sure you are an active participant in all the classes as this can impress professors who might be willing to help you develop contacts, networks or write you a good letter of recommendation for your PhD studies.
- As an international graduate student on F1 visa, you must be aware of OPT and CPT. Optional practical training (OPT) is a period during which an international student can work for one year in the United States after the completion of their master’s or PhD degree. Once the 12 month period is over, employers will have to sponsor H1B visa for international students to continue working in the United States. Curricular practical training (CPT) allows international students to do internships, cooperative education during their graduate studies in the United States. However, if a student exceeds 12 months of CPT, they will not be eligible for the OPT quota. Therefore, if you are interested in doing internships during your MS studies, make sure it falls within 12 months of duration.You can do internships only after the first year (first two semesters) of your graduate studies. OPT can be extended for another 5 months as computer science falls under the STEM category.
- Try applying for internships in the R&D labs of highly reputed companies such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft. Getting an industry perspective will always be very useful throughout your career, be it in academia or industry.
- Being proactive is an essential skill for PhD. Instead of expecting your advisor to tell you what to do, you try coming up with ideas and suggestions about your master’s thesis or any other project. During your PhD studies, your research work lies only on your shoulders and it is your responsibility to execute it in the best manner possible.
- Computer science has invaded almost every field, be it pure sciences such as biology, neuroscience, physics or chemistry or engineering such as biomedical engineering, mechanical engineering etc. Due to this reason, interdisciplinary studies are very popular right now and many grants and funding are being allocated in these areas. If you are keen on building a niche for yourself or want to enter academia as a professor, it is highly recommended that you be open and look outside your department for exciting projects that may have great potential to revolutionize any particular industry in the future. You also have the option of taking courses from other departments during your masters.
- A good peer group is highly essential for a successful career in research. Some of the best inventions have happened due to research collaborations between like minded individuals. Therefore, it is important that you be a team player. Be open to others suggestions and be encouraging towards others work.
- Seminars and talks are routinely conducted in all universities across the US and it is highly recommended that you attend a few every month. You will have PhD students and professors from other universities, nobel prize winners, industry experts etc coming to talk about their work. Attending these talks can be enlightening and will also give you a lot of ideas towards your own work. Also, attend talks in other departments where there is a lot of work being done using computer science such as bioinformatics, biology, neuroscience, mathematics etc. This will show you another dimension of computer science and how it is applied to solve complex problems in other disciplines. In fact, it is this kind of openness and flexibility that makes a scientist wildly successful.
- One last but very important thing is that some areas of research are open only to US citizens such as information security, forensic research etc. You don’t want to spend 2 years of MS + 5 years of PhD only to realize that you cannot use your work because you are not a US citizen. Therefore, be careful in choosing your area of specialization.
Goal 2: Getting a job in a prestigious company after MS
If you are interested in finding a job right after your MS degree, there are certain things you can do that will help elevate your profile.
- Develop a strong online presence in the form of a website or a blog and update it regularly with details about your work, projects and courses. Before interviewing candidates, it is very common for employers to google search names. Therefore, an impressive online portfolio can help make an impression on prospective employers.
- Become active on Github and use this tool to it’s fullest potential. Plenty of employers depend on github to find quality software engineers. Explore open source projects that aligns with your interests and contribute significantly to them. Share all your code from personal projects and coursework related projects on github in an organized manner. You can also include the link to your github profile in your resume or personal website.
- If you do not have funding, volunteer with a professor or do an independent study during your first semester of MS. Based on your performance and availability of funds, you will be given RA or TA from second semester or second year onwards.
- Presently, computer science has invaded almost every other field. Many CS students work as research assistants (RA) in departments outside CS such as computational biology, financial engineering, complex systems, bioinformatics, computational neuroscience etc and then end up getting great jobs in core companies. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you are writing an algorithm to detect protein structures or computer vision. What employers look for is your skill sets and the way you solve problems more than the kind of problems you worked on.
- As an international graduate student on F1 visa, you must be aware of OPT and CPT. Optional practical training (OPT) is a period during which an international student can work for one year in the United States after the completion of their master’s or PhD degree. Once the 12 month period is over, employers will have to sponsor H1B visa for Indian students to continue working in the United States. Curricular practical training (CPT) allows international students to do internships, cooperative education during their graduate studies in the United States. However, if a student exceeds 12 months of CPT, they will not be eligible for the OPT quota. Therefore, if you are interested in doing internships during your MS studies, make sure it falls within 12 months of duration.You can do your internship on CPT only after the first year (first two semesters) of your graduate studies. OPT can be extended for another 5 months as computer science falls under the STEM category.
- If you are unable to get internships for some reason, try google summer of code or code jam, topcoder and other online activities. The point is, you need to be as active as possible in the realm of computer science. You can also try volunteering with a research lab or professor in your university during your summer vacations.
- Taking advanced courses in college and excelling in them will work very well for you as these advanced courses come with difficult projects and assignments that you can add to your resume. Many Indian students tend to shy away from advanced courses as they are really taxing, but it is highly recommended that you take at least 2-3 advanced courses throughout your MS studies as they can really help develop knowledge, expertise and confidence.
- Many Indian students give tremendous importance to GPA due to our cultural conditioning on percentages and high scores. In the United States, employers see your skills first and then only your GPA. At the same time, do not neglect your grades. Make sure you average above 3.5 throughout your MS studies but your primary emphasis must be on developing the right skillsets and projects that add value to your profile.
- Building contacts and strong network is of tremendous importance for the CS field. You can develop contacts through your seniors and supervisors. Even professors under whom you have taken classes can help you with their industry contacts. Being an active participant in all your courses will impress professors who might be willing to help you with their industry contacts or recommendation letters. Become active on Linkedin, Quora, Stack Overflow and Github as these are some great places where you can find and develop a strong network of software professionals.
- Structure your coursework based on your area of interest. If you are interested in finding a job as a data scientist, then focus on taking classes related to statistics, machine learning and big data. If it is mobile app development, then take courses related to mobile computing. Ask professors for guidance regarding coursework. You can also do independent studies with professors who are working in areas of your interest. During an independent study, you will be working on a topic or a problem for the entire semester all by yourself under the supervision of a professor. Independent studies are a wonderful addition to your profile provided you work diligently and get good results.
- Should I go for thesis or non thesis? First of all, if you want to find a job in the industry, employers will give more importance and attention to your technical knowledge and programming skills more than your thesis work. Having said that, if you have plans of doing your PhD later on, then doing a thesis will help you immensely and is highly recommended. Also, you can always use your thesis work to showcase your programming and problem solving skills while looking for jobs in industry.
Common mistakes to avoid
- Plagiarism is a big NO in the United States. Yes, in India we are used to copying assignments and code from our friends at the last minute but don’t even dare to do this in US universities. You can discuss assignments problems with your peers and friends, but when it comes to solving assignment problems please ensure that you do it all by yourself.
- Some students tend to be over enthusiastic and take too many advanced courses in one semester or take many courses to finish their master’s quickly. This could lead to a lot of stress and your performance can come down drastically. So, make sure to spread your courses well and keep them balanced. If you are planning to take an advanced course in the first semester, then make sure your other courses are not too taxing.
- Graduate studies in a foreign country can be very taxing emotionally and physically. For this reason, it is important that you have ways of de-stressing yourself. Don't forget your hobbies and other activities that will help relieve graduate school pressure and stress.
- Collegefeed: This is a social platform that connects students in the United States with employers and alumni. This tool is completely free to use and open to international students as well. All you have to do is upload your resume and collegefeed will match your profile to potential employers who are interested in profiles such as yours.
- Careercup: Great website that helps students prepare for interviews at top companies such as amazon, google and microsoft.
- Quora: This is an excellent Q&A website where you can find industry experts, students and professors from prestigious institutions answering your questions on all topics.
- Linkedin: Create a detailed profile of yours in Linkedin and connect with alumni and seniors of your undergraduate and graduate universities. If you upgrade to the premium version, you will have more features for expanding your professional network and communication.
- Interview street: Now known as HackerRank, students can use this platform for solving real world problems and possibly being noticed by prospective employers.
- Topcoder: Topcoder is a global community that brings together experts in design, development and data science to work on interesting problems for fun and reward. You can become a topcoder member and demonstrate your skills in areas of your interest, thereby establishing your expertise.
- Techcrunch: This website is perfect for reading about the latest news and information about technology, startups and large IT companies.
- Stack overflow: Another excellent Q&A website that can be used to solve your questions regarding concepts taught in class or project work. Be sure to use this tool wisely by abiding by their rules or else you will be banned from their site if you keep asking questions that do not contribute anything to the community.
- MIT Technology Review | 35 innovators under 35: Find out more about young researchers who are making waves in various fields of study from all over the world every year. An excellent article for students interested in original and creative innovations.
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