Should I Go to Graduate School?

Should I Go to Graduate School?


TRACY TRAN Deciding to go to graduate school can be one of the hardest choices a student makes during their academic career. You start college, take your classes, and all of a sudden, you find people asking,  “are you interested in going to graduate school?” For those who have already made the decision to go to graduate school, you may find yourself asking what graduate school is really like.

You may be unsure whether or not graduate school is the right path for you, and whether or not you have the potential to attend a highly-ranked graduate program.  In order to provide some perspective on what the road to graduate school is really like, two UT alumni reflect on their decision and journey to graduate school.

Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Tammy Tran: I focused on a bachelor’s in psychology, and a minor in biology during my undergraduate at UT. At the time I started, I was focused on studying cognition. There wasn’t a neuroscience major at the time, and I was able to take a few classes including “Hormones and Behavior,” “Cognitive Neuroscience,” “Human Brain Imaging” and “Neural Systems” from both the biology and psychology departments. Over time, I realized that within the realm of cognition, I wanted to focus on memory. As a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University, I concentrate on studying memory function in healthy young adults compared to memory decline in older populations and patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.   

Prad Nelluru: I went to UT Austin for my undergraduate and master's degrees, both in computer science. I was in the Turing Scholars program, and then in the Five-Year Master's Program. I was actually a double-major in business until the middle of my sophomore year. But I decided I a business major wasn't right for me, so I dropped it. Early in my time at UT, I did some game AI research with the Freshman Research Initiative. Later, for my Turing Scholars thesis, I optimized machine learning algorithms. That work kept me occupied for the rest of my master's degree. I've always been interested in making programs fast, so my research interests have been in systems, compilers, programming languages, and related topics. I currently work at Microsoft as a software engineer. My team works on data analysis tools for Windows and Xbox. I'm happy to say I get to use a lot of what I learned in graduate school at work. My free time is filled with the usual: books, music, films. I also regularly keep up with developments in computer science by reading papers and articles. Occasionally, I try new technologies and programming languages.

How did you know graduate school was the right decision for you?

Tammy Tran: I’ve always wanted loved science and learning. Graduate school is the pinnacle of both of those mindsets. You can explore all of the questions that you want answers to and spend the rest of your day answering those questions. If that sounds remotely fun to you, then graduate school might be an option for you.

Prad Nelluru: I didn't think I'd be happy with how much I knew if I just graduated with an undergrad degree. My graduate course and research work has certainly given me a broader and more in-depth understanding of several computer science sub-fields. Those skills let me work on projects that require prior experience right off the bat, coming out of college.

What do you strongly suggest for undergraduates thinking about going to graduate school (in terms of participating in research, project portfolios, skills we should have)? 

Tammy Tran: I’ve always wanted loved science and learning. Graduate school is the pinnacle of both of those mindsets. You can explore all of the questions that you want answers to and spend the rest of your day answering those questions. If that sounds remotely fun to you, then graduate school might be an option for you.

Prad Nelluru: Doing research is a must. UT is unique in how many opportunities are available for undergraduates wanting to do research. You learn how to dig into papers, plan investigations, do experiments, and analyze data and arguments. There's no better way to get acquainted with the state-of-the-art of a problem or field.

What are the crucial elements you think graduate schools look for in an application? (Research? Volunteer work? Industry experience? GPA?) 

Tammy Tran: Research experience and strong letters of recommendation is a large focus for graduate school. If you are interested in doing work in a specific field, show that you have experience and a good repertoire with other researchers from that field. A strong independent project or a senior project that you can talk about is also very important. Have some project or research that you can call your own.

Prad Nelluru: From what I hear, research experience is the most important, followed by the rigor of coursework, and accompanying GPA. The GPA more-or-less needs to be above a cutoff. A truly exceptional GPA helps, but there isn't much of a difference between a 3.8 and a 3.6. Being able to communicate clearly is a requirement; that's where your personal statement helps. I don't think volunteer and leadership experience is important unless you organized a research conference or something. Nothing is more impressive than getting a few papers published in good journals.

Tips and tricks to nail the GRE? Are those expensive courses from Princeton and Kaplan really worth the costs? 

Tammy Tran: There’s two free real GRE test available through ETS. Khan Academy has also recently released a series of videos for the GRE that may be a great resource. The Princeton and Kaplan courses may be good since they force you to study down and study.

Prad Nelluru: It's hard to cram reading comprehension. You have to build up your ability over time. Make a habit of reading articles from the respected national magazines: Harper's, The New Yorker, or (my favorite) The New York Review of Books. Routinely reading scientific papers will also get you on the same train.

What factors did you consider when choosing which schools to apply to? (Location? Program structure? Professors? Salary or costs?) 

Tammy Tran: Graduate school is approximately five years. You should think wisely about whether you can live there, but it is only five years! You can live a little outside of your comfort zone. For graduate school, I would look very closely at the program. If you change advisors, what would happen? Are there other people that you could work with? Are the classes offered going to provide you the education that you need? For students that graduate from that program, where do they end up? For your advisor, this is someone that you will be working with closely for five years. Are your communication styles the same? Is your advisor hands-on or not? Do you want someone hands-on or a more distance advisor?

Prad Nelluru: I chose UT's Five-Year Master's Program for a few reasons. It would enable me to get my bachelor's and my master's in four years. (I skipped a good chunk of introductory coursework using AP credits.) UT has a leading computer science department, especially in my area of interest - systems. I thought I'd likely be able to get my master's funded. Plus, my family also lives in Austin. All in all, a no-brainer for me.

What is the general opinion about gap years? What can students do to make their gap years productive? 

Tammy Tran: Gap years are really a wonderful opportunity to gain more experience. If you have an idea of the field you’re interested in studying and you don’t have research experience in that area, a lab manager position or a lab technician position would allow you to explore that area and build some connections in that field. If you do a gap year, try to find a position where you have the opportunity to learn skills and work on your own project or closely with a graduate student or post-doc as well as doing the fun things such as cleaning animal cages, training animals or running MRI scans.

Prad Nelluru: Taking a gap year is fine. Life's not a race. Do the usual: research, travel, intern, read. Be sure that what you want to do next is exactly what you want to do next.

Tell us about your interview experience. How did you prepare for them? What attire do you suggest? Is there anything you advise us not to do? 

Tammy Tran: For your interview, you should practice with a friend about speaking about your research. Not just the technical aspects of it, but what theortical questions your research is answering and what are the implications of your project. You should be able articulate what you want to work with X professor. What projects are you interested in perusing, what papers did you like from their lab. Have questions for them about their research, and about their communication style. Don’t forget to bring copies of your CV!

Some students believe that a low GPA means graduate school is not an option for them. Are there ways students can counteract low grades when applying to graduate schools (extra research, working before applying to grad schools, post baccs, etc)?

Tammy Tran: Every application has strengths and weakness! Research will definitely outweigh a low GPA. Build strong rapports with the professors that you’ve worked with and definitely consider a two-year post-bac! Having a paper(s) can balance out a low GPA. Along with research experience, a high GRE score can definitely strength your application.

Prad Nelluru: Publish a few papers, and no one cares about your GPA. Seriously. If you're looking for a research-based graduate experience, you must demonstrate that you have the ability to do research. Just because you're bad in classes doesn't mean you're bad in research, and vice-versa. In a way, research is a great equalizer. No matter how good or bad of a student you are, your research results are what really matter.

How long did you spend on your application? When do you suggest students turn them in? Is there an advantage to submitting your application early? 

Tammy Tran: There isn’t really an advantage to submitting your application early. You should spend a few hours editing and tailoring your application for each school/program that you’re applying for you. Each program has different strengths and weakness, and different reasons for what you’re interested in that program.

Prad Nelluru: I spent many days working on my personal statement. It is a chance to "punch above your weight." A good personal statement can push you above the the threshold, even if you're not the perfect candidate.

Where were your recommendation letters from? Professors? TAs? Former bosses? Research PIs? 

Tammy Tran: My recommendation letters were from three research PIs that I worked for during my undergraduate as well as my honors thesis program advisor that I worked very closely with. Make sure to get recommendation letters from people that know you as a person as well as your research. If you don’t have three people that can strongly recommend you, I would highly recommend that you do a post-bac program.

Prad Nelluru: The usual advice: two professors whose classes I did well in.

Special thanks to Prad Nelluru and Tammy Tran for taking their time to answer these questions. If you have any other questions about grad school or this article, please submit them to Ask Cat!

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