Friday, August 6, 2010

Applying for a Masters/PhD Program

I have been receiving many emails from students asking for guidance on the application procedure for Masters/PhD and at the same time many students seem concerned about scholarship.

So today I am writing a post to answer all these questions by the students.

Firstly and most importantly students should know that now Computer Science has turned into a very competitive field with largest number of conferences and yearly publications. It is what you can call a hyper-active field with lots and lots of research around the world. As such the model has now changed and the Masters program in Computer Science around the world now comes in two flavors: Masters by Coursework and Masters by Research, whereas PhD is a pure research-based program.

The difference between the two is that in Masters by Coursework you just have to finish course credits and that's it, you're not part of any lab or you don't have to be Research Associate under any Professor. You can say its just like the Masters program we have back there in Pakistan in universities like FAST-NU (though I have been told that as of now FAST-NU encourages research and a project/thesis is a mandatory part of MS degree requirement). On the other side of the spectrum the Masters by Research program is very much like PhD program and your transition to PhD is much easier if you go for Masters by Research program, you have to do a Masters Thesis and you basically work for a Professor as Research Associate. Your choice of thesis topic is with him and its pure research and quite tough too but yet a great learning experience. Some Masters by Coursework programs such as the Erasmus Mundus Masters program and Masters program in some Swedish universities also has the requirement of a Masters Thesis but the choice of your thesis is entirely upon you and little supervision is given during the thesis for example you don't have to complete a literature survey phase, design phase etc. with any Professor.

Applying to the Masters by Coursework program and getting admitted into it is considerably easy. All you have to do is go to the university website, search for the application instructions for applying to Masters by Coursework program, prepare your documents as per the instructions and send them by airmail. That's have applied to the Masters by Coursework program. Now you have to wait for admission results of the university to which you have applied.

Now coming to the procedure to apply for MS by Research or a PhD program you have to do the following:

  1. First you have to identify your research area and search for universities around the world that have research labs/groups working in those areas. This step has to be conducted really carefully as you are the one who knows your research aptitude and potential areas of your interest. Go through the lab's research work very thoroughly, read some of their important publications and decide on basis of that. There is no point in going for research in Computer Science if you have no aptitude for it or cannot narrow down any specific research area for yourself. Most students from Pakistan just want to get admitted anywhere and for that they even don't bother whether the field interests them or not. In fact some even change their field like they have one research area during Masters and land up in a completely different area during PhD, how could anyone who has love for scientific research not choose the area carefully in the first place. This approach may make you get admitted but is not going to help your career as a scientist if you are willing to become one that is.
  2. After you have completed step 1 you must have a list of potential universities in which you are interested and the research groups you find appropriate for yourself have to approached now. The way to do this is to approach through Professors, basically co-ordinating with a Professor from your research area before application. The main thing is getting some Professor interested in you joining as a Research Associate in his lab and the process of approaching Professor has to be well thought out. Dig deep into the work of his lab and explain to him clearly why you want to work with him and in what way you think you will contribute towards his research. Read some of his papers and then compose an email for him. That email should also be written after a lot of study and include a web link of your online profile for the Professor; if you do not have an online profile then create one. An online profile is extremely important in this era of competitiveness and more so if you want to do research in the field of Computer Science. It is better not to attach things with your first email as first email to Professor has to be very short and concise. Here are some great advices for prospective research students by a Professor of University of Virginia: advices.
  3. If after reading your email the Professor thinks you can be productive for his lab he will be ready to take you and agreement of Professor is like 70% of process done.
  4. For the next step he will ask you to send your application package to the university and will support your application. Professor's support of your application highly boosts your chances of successful admission.
Now coming to scholarship: that varies from country to country and university to university. Many universities of the world have tuition fees exemption for international students and in addition to that they give stipends for living expenses so no you don't have to do a job. This is the case in many Asian countries like Japan, China, South Korea, Hong Kong,Taiwan etc. and don't think that since these countries are in Asia their universities are not good. In fact these afore-mentioned countries currently have the highest academic publishing rate in the world even more than what is currently in the US......they have some excellent researchers and Professors with a brilliant environment for research. Whereas the case in most European and US universities is that scholarships/funding is not available for Masters students be it Masters by Coursework or Masters by Research and the situation after global economic crisis is even worse so you might have to do a job which may be a great burden for your research work or you may have to arrange for the amount beforehand which also is quite tough. The case for PhD programs is different; PhD students get scholarship by default almost everywhere since PhD implies you are a Research Associate in some lab so the lab is responsible for your funding.

This is about it, I hope students find this helpful. If there are any queries or any sort of help needed you may contact me on my personal email id: or