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Should I attend grad school in computer science?

August 29, 2009

Lately, I’ve had a series of conversations with students who are considering about attending graduate school in computer science next year. I thought it might be useful to condense and summarize those conversations from my perspective. I’d be very interested in seeing a student’s perspective on a conversation like this one.

Why (or why not) grad school?

Let’s consider “why not” first.

Don’t go if you think grad school will make you rich. A graduate degree will increase the size of your paycheck, but you have to consider the time that you spent in school not earning a paycheck. Will a two-year master’s degree increase your paycheck as much as working for two years and then using the experience to get yourself a promotion? And will that slight increase ever overcome the two years of income you didn’t earn? As for a Ph.D., forget it: you’ll never catch up.

Don’t go to grad school because you think you’ll hit a ceiling in your career. You may, but it will take a few years. In the meantime, many workplaces will help pay for additional education, and you can use the time to figure out exactly which degree you need and what you should study.

Don’t go to graduate school if you’d just rather not enter the workforce yet. Honestly, grad school is a job — and it’s a low-paying job. Take a job that will get you some experience and will let you build up your savings, and spend some time figuring out what you want to do.

Finally, do consider grad school if you really want a job that requires a graduate degree and you are searching for an intellectual challenge.

Do I really need to know what I want to do?

Yes and no. Mainly yes. It’s common for new grad students to not know exactly what they want to study — or for them to have two or three broad disciplines that interest them. Even if you think you know what you want to study, you’re almost certain to change your mind after you begin.

Nevertheless, you should think about what you want to study and why before you apply to grad school. First, your application will be much stronger if you do. Second, and more importantly, you need to know that you could be passionate about answering some question. Wanting to “learn more about computer science” is a good start, but think hard about whether or not you can satisfy that urge while you work. It’s not like you’ll stop learning if you go into industry! On the other hand, if you want to start creating knowledge — if you start asking questions that don’t appear to have been answered yet — then grad school is for you.

What is grad school like?

You read, think, and argue — a lot. Graduate school is about learning how to think and develop ideas — not about learning material. You’ll certainly learn a lot of material along the way, but it’s important that you learn how to identify an interesting idea, how to develop it into a series of questions that you can answer, and how to present your answers within the context of existing knowledge and motivations.

To develop those skills, you’ll need to read a lot of arguments (papers), hear and watch many presentations in different settings (reading groups, classes, defenses, and conferences or colloquium), and present your own findings to critical, intelligent audiences.

When do I need to decide grad school is for me?

This topic deserves its own post, so I’ll follow up in a couple days. Briefly, you need to keep your options open, but you don’t actually need to decide until the end of your fourth year.

If you are considering graduate school, you should start preparing early — in your first or second year — by making sure you get to know your professors. You need them to remember you, so that you can get three or four good recommendations in your fourth year, and you want to develop a strong relationship with at least one professor so that you can get involved in a research project with him or her by your fourth year.

However, you can defer the final decision until your fourth year. You aren’t actually committed to grad school until you sign on the dotted line. The due date for committing to a grad school is around May 15, though some schools will accept a commitment in the summer.

How much will it cost me?

We’re lucky that we’re in a discipline with a shortage of students interested in graduate studies and significant industry and research agency support. Most Ph.D. students will be paid to study, usually by working as a teaching assistant (TA) or a research assistant (RA). Some will get fellowships, and you should spend time applying to these. Having your own, independent source of funding can really reduce the time required to obtain your degree.

Unfortunately, if you’re a master’s student, grad school can be quite expensive. Some schools will offer TA or RA positions to master’s students, but most will prioritize these positions and offer them to Ph.D. students first. If you’re certain you wish to obtain a master’s degree and stop, consider entering industry and getting assistance paying for it through your workplace or by saving from your salary.

Where should I go?

This question requires some contemplation on your part. The graduate school you attend should reflect what you want to do with the degree afterward. If you want to work in industry in some region, then a degree from the regional school is ideal. On the other hand, if you want to work in a specific field, you should consider schools which are strong in that specific discipline. Finally, if you are considering becoming faculty, school ranking becomes important. Larger, more research-focused universities will only hire from the best universities in the world.

Don’t forget to consider life issues, as well. If you are working on a Ph.D., the grad school you choose will be home for at least four years — and potentially six or more. That’s a long time, so don’t go some place that you — or your significant other — will hate. At the same time, don’t restrict yourself too much. Going somewhere new and expanding your horizons is an important aspect of the experience.

Can I do an undergrad degree and then go to the same place for a grad degree?

Yes, but don’t. In my opinion, the most important aspect of graduate school is being thrown into an unfamiliar environment and being exposed to new ideas. If you continue at the same school, you’ll be comfortable — not in a position to change your habits — and even if you take classes from different professors, you’ll be exposed to variations on the same ideas. The professors at your school hired each other after all; to some degree, they agree with each other.

Is there a difference between Canadian and U.S. graduate schools?

Yes and no. The top Canadian universities don’t rank as highly as the top US universities, so if you’re interested in being faculty and want the option to teach in the US, you should probably attend a US school. Exceptions exist, but don’t count on being one.

However, expectations and procedures at universities vary widely regardless of where that university is located. For example, Stanford and the University of Washington have very different cultures, despite both being west-coast US universities. The only way to get a good feeling about a university’s culture is to visit, so make sure you take advantage of visit day. Lots of my friends from grad school will tell you that they had their hearts set on going to University X but ended up choosing University Y after actually visiting.

Summary, plz?

Going to grad school is a big choice, and it’s not for everyone. Completing a graduate degree opens a lot of doors, but it closes some, too. Furthermore, the time required to earn a degree is significant, so you should spend a lot of time thinking about whether grad school is for you, and if it is, where you should go and what you should study. Don’t go to grad school because it’s the “next thing to do” or because you haven’t considered other options. That won’t lead to success. However, if you know why you want to go and have thought about where, then by all means do! I did, and I don’t regret it.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert Lita permalink
    September 7, 2009 11:14 pm

    I found this post quite eye-opening in a sense and then quite restricting in another.
    Before analyzing this post, I was actually considering grad school as “the next thing to do” but it seems far more complex than initially thought.

    I thought that by pursuing your education in a field you find interesting will raise awareness to corporations and companies looking to hire experienced professionals.

    But I suppose a grain of luck also has a lot to do with your decision. As you stated above:
    “Will a two-year master’s degree increase your paycheck as much as working for two years and then using the experience to get yourself a promotion?”

    Some people might land a good job that will provide valuable work-related experience while others may just be wasting time when they could have continued their studies to possibly land higher paying jobs.

    I might be getting a little ahead of myself considering this year will be my first but I always prefer to think ahead.

    My question is, what persuaded you to go to grad school and beyond?

    • Andrew Petersen permalink*
      September 8, 2009 3:24 am

      @Robert: I’m pleased that you see it as a complex decision. My goal isn’t to say that grad school is a bad choice. Instead, I would like prospective students to consider it a major decision — one of several good paths you can take after graduation. Case in point: If your goal is to add to your professional credentials, I would argue that obtaining a degree is not the best way to demonstrate that you’re an “experienced professional”. An applicant who has earned a master’s degree isn’t “experienced” in the same way as someone who has spent that time working in the field.

      Instead, when making the grad school decision with the goal of eventually entering industry, I would consider how necessary an advanced degree is for the job you eventually want. You will almost certainly need job experience as well, so if you decide that the job you want does require an advanced degree, the question becomes, “Does it make sense to attend grad school before or after I get that experience?”

      To get back to your question — what persuaded me to go to grad school? In my third year as an undergrad, I was fortunate to get into teaching and research assistant positions. My first research experience was a dud (my fault, not the prof’s), but the second research position and the teaching position were both engaging and challenging. In contrast, the summer internships I had felt restrictive. The experience convinced me that I definitely wanted to be an educator … and maybe a researcher. At that point, grad school was the only path.

  2. Usman permalink
    October 11, 2009 9:28 pm

    “Can I do an undergrad degree and then go to the same place for a grad degree?

    Yes, but don’t.”

    Well, I have been advised the opposite. That is, you can’t learn everything in same place from same folks. Switching schools during your student life helps you exposed to different challenging environment, a necessary element for advance learning. Some Departments in University of California system even discourage their undergrad students to apply for the grad school if they have earned undergrad degree from the same school.

  3. Vecinu permalink
    June 5, 2012 2:07 am

    Uhm….old blog spam is old.


  1. The Third Bit » Blog Archive » Thinking About Grad School?
  2. Math World | Should I attend grad school in computer science? « CS @ UTM

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