Arijit Banerjee, an alumni of IIT Madras from the Computer Science department talks about his masters program in Stanford, CGPA, and funding for grad schools. 551757_10150924619347512_544802904_n1. Please tell us about yourself, the university you are studying at, the research field you are working on, and the scope it has to offer after an MS or PhD. Also tell us about a typical day in the life of a post-graduate student.
I’m doing a Masters in Computer Science in Stanford University. A typical day for me involves keeping up to date with courses and research work, optimizing for my next meal and trying to find some free time.

2. When did you decide to apply for further studies? When is the ideal time to start thinking and preparing for it? What are the necessary skills, according to you, a person should develop in order to make himself cut-out for research and not just getting a good Grad school?

I don’t think there was a specific moment about which I could look back on and say “this was when I made my decision to apply”. It was more a process of realization that I did not want to work in industry right after graduating, that I had not done much research work so applying for a PhD would be difficult and that Stanford was a nice place to spend a few years thinking about the future. Most of this happened during my 6th and 7th semester.

3. How did you make the choice between placements and applying? Did you keep the options of placement as a fall-back options? Aren’t people who are working on projects and making their resume good enough to apply to Grad school less preferred by recruiters?

I had a job offer from Microsoft after placements, but once they heard that I was waiting for my MS results which would come out in March, they informed me that they would not be able to wait until then. As a result, I had to decline their offer and did not really have a choice to make when the MS results were out.

About the preference aspect, my interviewers did not ask me whether I would be applying to grad school. I don’t think that software engineering recruiters care so much about this. HR however gets very annoyed once you inform them that you are doing so, so I wonder why they do not ask us about it during placements.

4. Is a high CGPA required for applying? Is it all lost for people below the ‘astronomical’ 9 point CGPA? How can they make up for not crossing the barrier?

It may not help beyond a point, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a high CGPA. I know of guys getting admitted to MS and PhD programs in CS with a below 9 CGPA though so it certainly isn’t all lost (if your letters of recommendation provide proof of strong research potential and your statement of purpose explains the reasons for your low grades).

5. How relevant are extra-curriculars and Positions of Responsibility? If any, what position did you hold, and how did it help you?

I’m not sure if there is a correlation between holding positions of responsibility and being good at research.

Sentences along the lines of

“My keen interest in algorithms was further developed when I delved into the mysteries of the Rubik’s cube at Shaastra 2009.”

should probably be avoided in an SoP.

6. Can you tell us about the other schools you applied to(Please list all the colleges having a strong research culture in your field of interest)? Did you have alternate options? How did you select between them?

I applied to and received admits from Stanford, CMU and Princeton (MIT does not have an MS program, Berkeley’s program warned applicants that they only expected students interested in continuing on to a PhD).

I chose Stanford because it offered better chances for funding, because many of my friends also got admits there, and because the long cold winters of the east coast seemed very uninviting after spending 4 years in Chennai.

7. How did you identify your recos? How important are recos, SOPs, CGPA, GRE score, projects/internships, publications etc. in relative percentage of weightage?

Ideally, your recommender should know you well and have a favourable impression of you. Would probably help if you worked with him or did well in one of his courses.

There were few enough such profs in IITM, I asked 2 of them (one of whom was my BTP mentor). The third was my internship mentor.

Publications and letters of recommendations are probably the most important and can make up for deficiencies in the other fields.

Stuff like CGPA / GRE score are expected to be reasonably high and only hurt you if they’re not.

9. Please tell us about the funding options for a Grad school?

In Stanford, the easiest way for Indian students to get funding is through RA / TA ships. While a 25% assistantship pays for around half of your costs, a 50% assistantship (around 20 hours of work per week) provides a tuition waiver and more than enough stipend to cover your remaining costs of living.

These are not very difficult to secure, if you try hard enough.