Occasionally, I get asked questions on how to get into grad school, what can be done to improve the chances of making it in and how to get funding. I am by no means an expert on this, but every bit of insight helps I suppose so here’s a quick guide that may be helpful.
Comic from phdcomics.com on Grad School
Get to know your Undergrad Profs Well!
This point cannot be stressed enough. When I was going through my undergrad I rarely got to know any of the profs. Especially early on. I kept to myself and did my work, even went above and beyond on many of the assignments, but still almost none of the profs knew me. This became a huge problem when it came time to get those required reference letters to get into grad school. Some of the profs I asked didn’t know me well and I suspect wrote just that in their reference letters. One school I applied to seemed very interested in the early stages, but after they got my entire application package they declined, perhaps this was because bad references. If possible, the best type of profs to get to know are those which are working in fields you are interested in. Another good reference is a prof who is well known, or profs who often collaborate with the schools you are intending to apply to. Another important point here, is DO NOT ASK FOR A REFERENCE LETTER AT THE LAST MINUTE!! I have seen students ask professors for grad references with only a week or less left before the deadline. Often the prof gives a bad reference or will refuse it outright.
Find Potential Supervisors
It is best if you can identify researchers you would like to work with. At some schools you can contact these people directly to see if they have enough funding available to take you on or to pitch them your research plan / idea. At more popular schools, the profs may be too busy to respond to everyone’s email, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to identify potential supervisors. You can still try to determine if this person will be a good match for based on several things. You can look at their websites to see if they give any hints to what their personality is like, if their research is compatible with your ideas etc. It is very important to be a good match with your supervisor because not getting along should you get accepted would make for a long couple / few years. Additionally, in getting to know the potential supervisor, you can tailor your research proposal to what you think they might be interested in, so that when you are compared against other students who have applied you stand a better chance of catching the profs eye.
Have a Research Plan
From the last point you can see why it is important to have a research plan. You need to convince one of the profs or someone at the school that you are worth spending time and money on. At least have a general idea of what direction you want to head in if / when you start your studies.
Try For Good Marks (Early On If Possible)
Most schools (in Ontario) have a requirement of around a B/ B+ average. As far as I understand, some schools (Waterloo, Toronto) consider this requirement across all four years of your undergrad degree while other schools (Guelph, Western maybe) consider your last two years. I speak from experience when I say you should try your best to get good marks. It will save you alot of stress. I just barely made it in and was admitted on probation. I am now a normal grad student after getting an A average the last couple of terms, but it definitely puts alot more pressure on. Also, if you want funding it may be impossible if you entered on probation like me. For OGS and NSERC, they look at your last 20 courses while you are in your first two years of grad school. Over these 20 courses you need an A- (80%) average. So the point is, if you plan to go to grad school (which many people don’t even know until near the end of undergrad like me) get good marks ASAP! Try to make the choice as early on in your undergrad as you can. Be strategic about your marks, drop classes you know you aren’t doing well on and take them again another term (You will be surprised how much this can help), take distance ed courses if your school offers them and make sure to mix your hard courses with some easier ones so you don’t get too discouraged by an overly hard semester.
Consider Attending Different Schools for Each Degree
This is perhaps one of the most controversial points of all of the grad school tips. Depending on who you speak to, some people will tell you should not under any circumstances stay in the same school for more than one degree. You should attend different schools so that you are exposed to new ideas, new people and team dynamics. Often times a given department is biased toward thinking in a certain manner or using certain methodologies and it may help you to experience different ways of thinking in this regard.
Of course, there is also considerations to be made for the other side of this argument. For example, if you already have a great supervisor lined up, already know a project well and have a good plan to get alot of work done then perhaps it may be better to stay. Also consider how much it may cost to move around to different schools. If the school is in another city, province or country it may require paying more for rent, getting a part time or whatever else to keep the bills paid. I would recommend avoiding part time work like the plague while you are attending grad school. (I know from experience, it is very difficult to balance it all). If you are in another country it may be more difficult to get funding as well since some scholarships are only available to citizens. (Although there are also scholarships specifically for students who aren’t citizens as well.
Apply for Scholarships & Awards Whenever Possible
This one is important, not only because you get money but also because it beefs up your resume so it’s useful for jobs if you feel like getting into industry or whatever else later on. I think that profs like to see students who are able to get scholarships themselves because it means they will be less reliant for funding on the professor. Even if you don’t get them often (or at all) it can be helpful to at least get into the habit of writing the applications out, because they are similar to applications for grad school and for practise for more important awards later on in grad school (NSERC, OGS etc).
Ask Questions & Attend Meetings
If your school offers meetings regarding grad school applications, go to them. Even if you don’t plan on applying until the following year. It takes quite a while to get organized for grad school applications so start early. Ask any questions you have and make sure you understand the whole process well. Contact the departments you are applying to if anything is unclear or look around online. (One great place to ask questions regarding grad school is PhDComics Forums. Another place more specific to computer science (and in Canada) is CompSci.ca Forums. Often both of these sites have a wide range of students from undergrad right up to professors who can answer many of your questions. Additionally, you can leave me a comment here (however I am no expert).
Be a Motivated Student
Personally, I think this is one of the most important factors in being accepted and being a successful grad student. Graduate school can be at times very trying. It can sometimes feel like you will never find the solution to the problem you are working on, or that there are a million deadlines and things to do. The only way through this is with absolute passion for your subject of study. Sometimes you might have to create this for yourself. Take a break from your normal work, read things related to your subject that are interesting (Personally I <3 reading websites like Digg, Slashdot and technical magazines like IEEE and ACM to see all the new and exciting ideas... but whatever works). Passion not only affects you in a positive way, it also rubs off on those around you. Profs and other students will want to work with you if you show genuine enthusiasm for what you are working on. (This can also be a factor in deciding where you want to study, because if you get a good environment where everyone is like this, you can feed off one another).
Comic from phdcomics.com on Grad School
So thats it for my tips for now, I’ll add to this from time to time as I think of more and feel free to add any suggestions you think should be including in the list.