Graduate School - Questions and Answers

Why should you go to Graduate School?

"Graduate Life - it's not just a job, it's an indenture."
"Graduate school is for those who don't realize when a good thing is over."
  –  Anonymous
A lot of people probably go to graduate school just out of momentum. I was once told that I should consider graduate school only if there was no other way to achieve my goals - graduate school is pretty intense, so it should be pursued only if it really is going to help you get where you want to be. This is particularly true of Ph.D. programs - doctorates generally don't help much in industry and the academic market for them is very tight. Still, if your goals require an advanced degree, then you should go for it, but such a process shouldn't be undertaken lightly.
  –  UCSD Computer Science Graduate Student

While the preceding quotes may paint a dismal picture of graduate school there are several good reasons to go onto graduate school. Most people go to graduate school to qualify for better jobs. A graduate degree can also lead you to more interesting and rewarding work. Most of all, graduate degrees are a must for someone planning on doing research or university teaching.

Having a graduate degree can be rewarding when negotiating a salary. A 1989 survey of U.C. Berkeley showed that salaries at the M.S. level and Ph.D. level were 20% and 60% higher respectively.

So while it can be rewarding going to graduate school, it is something that requires a lot of thought and planning.

Looking for Schools

Above all, start looking early! Start looking about a year before you plan to enter graduate school. For most students, the summer before your senior year is a good time to start looking, if you plan on graduating in the spring. Visit the UCSD Career Services Center where many services are offered for students interested in attending graduate or professional school. The Peterson Guide to Graduate Schools, particularly the Computer Science section in the Science and Engineering volume, is also a helpful resource for students. Descriptions about the programs offered by different universities are listed as well as who to contact at those schools.

Check the UCSD Central Library catalogs and search the World Wide Web, particularly, for different Computer Science departments. You will find that the best information comes right from the departments.

One of the most important aspects about a Graduate program is the faculty. It is important to make sure that the faculty at the department interest you. Look up the faculty and read some of their papers. You could even look up some papers via anonymous ftp over the Internet. The UCSD Computer Science department keeps an anonymous ftp server on with recent papers by professors. CS departments at other campuses do the same.

You can also do this search in reverse by reading some publications and seeing which papers interest you. Then find out more about the author and investigate the department that the professor works for.

Once you have compiled a list of departments, send a letter or email to the department that you are interested in. Ask for information on the programs offered by the department as well as an application. Include your name and address (U.S. Mail address) in the letter. Some graduate programs also offer an online application which makes the process easier.

Schedule to take the GRE

The GRE (Graduate Records Exam) is a requirement for admissions into all Computer Science graduate programs. The paper-based version of the test is usually offered three times a year while the computer-based version is offered year-round at different testing centers across the US. December is usually the latest you can take the test to include with your application. It's a good idea to take it before then in case you don't do so well and want to take it over. Likewise, you can only take the test once per calendar month up to 5 times in any 12-month period. Whichever test you decide to take, be sure to make your reservation several weeks (or months for the paper-based test) in advance since space fills up rather quickly. There are two different GRE exams: the General Test and the Subject Test. The General Test is offered in the morning of the test day. It consists of verbal, analytic and quantitative portions. The Subject Test is offered in the afternoon of the test day. It is a 3 hour test consisting of a variety of questions from various aspects of Computer Science.

While it is possible to take both tests the same day, it is not advisable to do so. You may be burned out after the General Test in the morning and won't do your best on the Subject Test in the afternoon. Schedule to take the general test one month and the subject test the next month. You'll have more time to study, won't be burned out on the second test and do better on the exams. Most of all, plan ahead and allow yourself ample time to study!

Getting your Scores

ETS (Educational Testing Service) will send all your scores to the schools you list on your GRE exam. If you are applying to more than five schools, you'll have to fill out the appropriate form available in the GRE Application Packet or on the GRE Website to order additional score reports. Some schools will accept photocopies with your applications in the interim until the official scores arrive from ETS.

Sending your Transcripts

All schools will want a transcript from each college you have attended. Some schools may require two copies and may have specific procedures in sending your transcripts so be sure to read the application carefully.

Official transcripts may be obtained from the Registrar's Office, 301 University Center, and can be ordered in person, by mail, or by fax (fax orders can only be paid by credit card). The current fee is $6.00 per copy and the transcript will be processed within three working days after receipt of the request. Please see How To Order a Transcript on TritonLink for more detailed information on ordering your transcripts. Keep in mind that some schools will want the transcripts mailed directly to them, while others will want the transcripts enclosed in your application. The Registrar's Office will either send the transcripts to the school or to you, per your request. You can also have the Registrar's hold the transcripts until the current quarters grades are available.

Statement of Purpose

Graduate and professional programs will require a statement of purpose from applicants. While certain programs may have specific guidelines or questions to answer for your statement of purpose, the following questions are useful to ask yourself as you begin to compose it: "What did I do academically/professionally, why and with whom?" and "What do I want to do academically/professionally, why, where and with whom?". This should not be a reiteration of what is already listed on your transcripts, resume, and curriculum vitae. Rather, this should be a complement to what the admissions committee will already know about you. The Career Services Center also has helpful guidelines in How to Write Your Statement of Purpose.

Letters of Recommendation

Most schools have forms in the applications that your recommenders will fill out. Out of consideration for your recommenders, it is customary to provide them with stamped, addressed envelopes to send the recommendations in. Another helpful tip is to provide your recommenders with your statement of purpose, a copy of your transcript, and/or your resume or curriculum vitae. This will assist them in writing the best possible letter of recommendation for you given that they have some insight into what your plans for graduate school are. Visit Guide to Obtaining Letters of Reference for Graduate or Professional School on the Career Services Center website for more helpful information.

The Career Services Center also offers a Graduate or Professional School Reference File Service that assists UC students and alumni with the process of applying to graduate and professional schools. This service allows students and alumni to keep letters of recommendation on file at the Career Services Center until they are needed for applications. Visit the Career Services Center for more information on how to utilize this service.

After Submitting Your Application

Once you have submitted your complete application, call the staff member responsible for admissions to make sure that your packet is complete, especially before the admissions deadline. Also, try to arrange a visit to the department of interest. You'll benefit by learning more about the department and school as well as showing them that you are seriously interested in the program. Select some faculty you might be interested in working with, read some of their papers, and email them with some intelligent questions. Let them know that you're interested in their work. This strategy works best if it is pursued long before the admissions process, but it should continue on after applications have been received. A surprising number of rejections come from the impression that the student isn't really serious about the program. Therefore, it's in your best interest to show that you are interested.

Above all, put your best foot forward and show the schools that you are the best candidate!