Considering Graduate School for Programs in CS or IS?


Am I a good PhD candidate?

Am I a good Master’s candidate?

How do I locate a graduate school that suits me?

What do I need to do to apply?

How can I optimize my chances of getting in to Graduate School?

How can I pay for graduate school?



Am I a good PhD Candidate?


The graduate experience is very different from the undergraduate experience. During graduate school, you make the transition from consumer to producer. The first 1-2 years, you will take classes. However, it is the experience of most that these classes are more like directed self-study. They are at a much higher level, and the “textbook” is often a compilation of scholarly papers written on a particular research area. 


Subsequent years (3-4 years) are spent doing research.  Grad students at this level generally have an office, and have identified an advisor and area of study.  Your experience at this point in your education can depend a lot on these 2 choices.  Some advisors leave the student entirely on their own, with weekly meetings to check progress.  At this extreme, the student must find a problem to work on that is of interest, and that no one else has ever looked at, at least with this “twist”.  At the other end of the spectrum are advisors with distinct ideas, and on-going research that the student can become involved in, and be responsible for a piece of. In either case, the goal of the research is a publication that is embraced by the community of the specific research area, and ultimately a large scholarly paper called a dissertation or thesis that shows the work you have done.


Once you enter the research phase of your graduate education, the experience is very much like a job.  Your advisor is your employer.  Your time is very flexible, although you may work long hours to meet publication deadlines. As long as you make good progress, your job is safe. If you do not make good progress, your advisor may let you go.  Your advisor, with the blessing of your committee, decides when you have gained enough expertise, and made enough contribution to the field to be called an expert and thus earn a PhD.


Working on and earning a PhD is an extremely rewarding experience for many.  The level of learning is unsurpassed, and the exhilaration of discovering something brand new is hard to beat.  You will have the opportunity to interact with experts in your field, and make a significant contribution.


The PhD track is not for everyone. It is a long road, and can be a frustrating and lonely one at times.  For most, the degree is not required for employment, and may not even help with advancement.  If you want to teach at the university level, or continue on in research, however, a PhD is generally required.


Descriptions from real students describing the PhD experience.




Am I a good Master’s candidate?


The Master’s degree is a good alternative to the PhD for many.  Earning the degree takes significantly less time, and often provides all the additional learning and opportunities for advancement necessary.  Most of the coursework is the same as what is required for a PhD.  In fact, most PhD students earn a Master’s degree in route to the PhD without much extra effort. 


After 1-2 years of coursework, the program will require some sort of culminating experience. This could be a cumulative exam, a project, or thesis. The project or thesis will be based on an abbreviated research experience. This experience will vary tremendously based on the advisor and area of study chosen.


The Master’s program is generally easier to get into than the PhD program.  However, if you are an outstanding student in the program, are excited about what you are doing, and connect with an advisor, it may be a used as a stepping stone to entrance into the PhD program at the same institution.


A wealth of information on whether graduate school is right for you can be found here.




How do I locate a graduate school that suits me?


If you know others who have gone to graduate school in your field, they are usually your best source of information.  However, if this is not an option, or you would like to go to school out of the area, there are several search engines you could try:


Find a grad school based on area of study and location


Find a graduate program based on area of study, location and degree


Find a graduate program based on multiple criteria (Area of study, admissions standards, cost, location…)



When you find some candidate schools, look at the web pages of the faculty for your specific area of interest, and determine if there is a professor who looks like a good candidate for an advisor.  Consider corresponding with that advisor to determine if you would be interested in working under that individual. If you are a prospective PhD student, the absence of a suitable advisor is a good reason to remove a school from consideration.


Once you have been accepted at a particular school, you should definitely visit the institution. It is extremely important to meet with faculty and current students in your prospective field of study.  In doing so, you will get a feeling for how comfortable you will be in the environment in which you will invest 6 years of your life.




What do I need to do to apply?


Applications are generally due in January, but you should check the web page for the institution’s policies.  You will be required to submit scores for the Graduate Records Exam (GRE).  The general test is similar to the SAT exams taken for entrance into undergraduate programs. Some institutions also require a GRE subject exam. Be sure to check the exact requirements.


Unlike the SAT, the GRE is primarily given as a computerized test.  This provides a much larger amount of flexibility as to when you can take the exam. See the GRE web site for information on times and locations.


In addition, you will need several letters of recommendation. Again, you will need to check the prospective school’s web site for specific recommendation requirements.  Make sure you ask only individuals who you know will give a “glowing” recommendation, and give them plenty of time to complete the task.




How can I optimize my chances of getting in to Graduate School?


q       Study for the GRE, and allow time to take it multiple times.

q       If the institution you are considering is local, consider taking a class or two through the university’s extension program. Generally, you can take the same classes as the enrolled students can. This will provide the opportunity to prove that you can work at this level, and possibility allow you to connect with a faculty member who can give you a compelling recommendation.

q       Try to communicate with a prospective advisor at the institution. If this professor becomes interested in you, his or her input to the selection committee will often make all the difference.

q       Consider applying for the Master’s program.  If you are a borderline candidate, it is often easier to get accepted as a Master’s student, and then apply to the PhD program once you have proved yourself.




How can I pay for graduate school?


This is another area in which graduate school is very different from undergraduate.  Most students, particularly in technical fields, get some form of financial support for their education.  In the best cases, your entire education can be paid for, in addition to a small living stipend.  In these cases, you will be asked to work as a research or teaching assistant.  These opportunities are worth asking about when comparing institutions.