Along with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a lot of international students are now pursuing Ph.Ds. at American universities because the programs are comprehensive and structured, and encourage a lot of independent research. Apart from world-class facilities, well-equipped research labs, and qualified professors, American universities also offer funding opportunities to deserving candidates which makes it easier for international students to pursue Ph.D. in America.
To pursue a Ph.D. program in any American university, students must have a minimum of 16 years of education, which means, they must have completed their bachelor’s degree at the least. Students can also apply for a combined program for MS and Ph.D. In order to qualify for a Ph.D. students should have a high score in the GRE (320+) and sometimes, in the subject GRE along with a GPA of 8.5 or above in their undergraduate program. If the master’s has been done from the USA, the GPA has to be 3.5 and above.
However, below are a few things you need to keep in mind and start preparing well in advance if you are planning to pursue a Ph.D. in a top American university:
Choose your research topic well in advance: Narrowing down your research topic in advance will help you a great deal in making an informed decision. Study the topics, and see which topic would be viable for a Ph.D. project. Choose your program accordingly.
Research your Ph.D. guide: When it comes to a Ph.D., a good research guide is far more important than a good university. Hence, study the research work performed by professors from various universities, get in touch with them, and see if you can get approval from them for supervising your work. For Ph.D. programs, it is always beneficial to first narrow down the right research guide and then finalize the university.
Lookout for funding opportunities: Pursuing a Ph.D. in America can be very expensive and hence it is recommended to first look at universities that offer funding opportunities, scholarships, and research/ teaching assistantships and make your Ph.D. tuition affordable.
Finalize the universities: Once you decide your research topic, supervisor, and funding opportunities, shortlist your universities and start the application process.
Once you approach the first semester of your degree program in an American University you will be asked to meet the academic advisor. You will have to decide on your academic plan, during which you will select whether you would like to complete your master’s course with or without thesis. Almost all American universities offer an option for thesis.
Why should I choose thesis option while pursuing Master’s degree in USA?
Course structure varies from university to university. If you apply for master’s with thesis option the course gets divided into research in a specific area, after completing your core courses. Under the thesis option, you will work under the guidance of a professor with a focus on a specific research area. You would are required to successfully complete and defend the thesis after which it could be published in journals or conferences.
Expenses during your degree program can be taken care of, as you may get funding from the professor in form of teaching, research or graduate assistantship. However this should not be the consideration for taking up the thesis option.
Master’s with Thesis option may help you to get a good research-oriented job. Even if you are not inclined towards a research-oriented job, such research-based academic background can help you land a better job as you have an edge over your peers who chose to do their master’s without research. Additionally, your professor will highlight your research capabilities such as creative problem solving, knowledge, motivation, and intelligence. His / her recommendation letter will hold a lot of weightage at the time of campus recruitment or application to doctorate programs, if you may so decide after your master’s.
If you plan to pursue a doctorate, the university you will be applying to would be interested in knowing more about the thesis topic/s and the reasons behind choosing it. Thesis is a very important factor for getting admission for PhD – it acts like rungs of a ladder leading to admission to a good PhD program in a university of your choice.
Ideally you would like to make all your letters of recommendation count. Consider the following two letters:
(i) Letter 1: “I highly recommend student X for your graduate program. Student X received an A+ in my undergraduate algorithms class. He was ranked Number 2 out of 100 students. He got the highest score on the ﬁnal. He worked very hard all semester, never missed a class, and was always able to answer the questions that I asked in class. This conscientious attitude makes him an excellent candidate for any graduate program. ”
(ii) Letter 2: “I highly recommend student Y for your graduate program. Student Y received a B in my undergraduate algorithms class. He was ranked Number 29 out of 100 students. Halfway through the semester we started working on network ﬂows. Student Y seemed extremely excited by this topic. He disappeared for 4 weeks and even missed an exam. However when he came back, he showed me some work he had been doing on a new network ﬂow algorithm for high-degree graphs. He had done some simulations and had some proofs. I’ve been working with student Y for the past couple months since then and he is full of ideas for new algorithms. I think student Y’s initiative makes him an excellent candidate for any graduate program.”
Which letter do you think is stronger? It turns out that Letter 2 is very strong. Letter 1 actually counts as 0. At CMU we mark all letters like letter 1 with the acronym D.W.I.C.. This stands for “Did Well In Class” which counts for 0, since we already know from the student’s transcript that he did well in class. By contrast, student Y’s letter gives us a lot of information. It explains that the reason student Y didn’t do better in class was that he was busy doing research. It also tells us that student Y started doing research on his own initiative, and that he is quite good at doing research. The professor was impressed enough with student Y’s ideas that he took him on as a student researcher despite student Y not having high grades.
You want your letters to all be of type 2 (this doesn’t mean that you should skip class!). Remember that letters of type 1 will not count. You want words like self-motivated, strong research potential , own initiative, independent, and driven to appear in your letters. These are the words that we circle when reading recommendation letters. You therefore want to ask letters from people who have seen you do research. These may be professors or employers.
The statement of purpose is an extremely important part of your application packet (click here for an explanation). A well-written SOP that brings out the most important facts about you as a candidate for higher studies, can open the doors of opportunity for you. On the other hand an SOP that tries to impress but focuses on facts that the admissions committees consider irrelevant can lose you the opportunity that you have dreamed of.
In the extract below Dr. Harchol-Balter, an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Carnegie-Mellon University points out two common mistakes that many applicants make:
• The grade regurgitator – “In my high school, I was ranked Number 1. Then I got a perfect score on my college entrance exams. Then I competed in a statewide math competition and I was the best. Then I competed in a national programming competition and I was 5th. In college, my GPA was 3.95 out of 4.0. For these reasons, I believe I will do well in your graduate department.”
What’s wrong with this? This portion of the essay is a waste of space. Awards are certainly relevant, however any award you won should be listed on a separate piece of paper which is titled “Awards and Honors” and which you can include with your application. There is no reason to tell us all this in your essay. It will only piss-off the people reviewing your application because they already read all this information earlier in your application and they now want to hear about research.
• The boy genius – “When I was born, my mother gave me a glass ball to play with. I would lay and look at the prisms of light shining through my ball. At age 3, my father brought home our ﬁrst computer and I disassembled it and then put it back together. It was then that I knew I wanted to become a computer scientist. By age 5, I had taken apart every appliance in our house. At age 6, I became a chess whiz ….”
What’s wrong with this? We simply don’t care what you did as a child, and we don’t believe you either. You’d be surprised how many applications from Einstein-wanna-be’s we get. If you really think this is relevant, put the important facts on a separate sheet of paper, and include it in your application. It’s best if your essay can stick with stuff you did in college and later.
For some people the realization that they are really meant to do a PhD comes only after having got some research-related work experience. In fact Dr. Harchol-Balter recommends it before jumping into a doctoral program. Here’s how her career path led her to the realization that she should be doing a PhD:
“After I finished my B.A. in CS and Math, I went to work at the Advanced Machine Intelligence Lab at GTE in Massachusetts. At ﬁrst I was very excited by my paycheck and the great feeling of being independent. I also really enjoyed my area of research at the time: pattern recognition and classification. I was working with frame-of-reference transformations involving eigenvectors of autocorrelation matrices. It was exciting! However I quickly realized that I wanted to know more. I wanted to know why some algorithms produced good results and others didn’t. I wanted to come up with my own algorithms. I worried that I didn’t have enough of a mathematics background to answer my own questions. In summary, I wanted to delve deeper. Everyone around me thought I was odd for wanting these things. I left after 2 years and went to graduate school. That ﬁrst month of graduate school I looked around and realized that everyone there was just as weird and obsessed as I was, and I knew I had made the right decision.”