Friday, December 12, 2008

Applying to grad school in US or UK

Some juniors have been asking me for advice on this matter recently.

Since I've been applying to grad school for some time now and not to mention my dreaded VISA application experience, I think it's fitting for me to write a thing or two about applying to grad school in the US or UK.

Many undergraduate have a mixed feelings of fear and enthusiasm when it comes to pursuing a research degree. It is understandable because research is after all quite different from what we do in our undergraduate days. Some people prefer research, while some prefer studying text books, working on tutorials and dislike situations where what you study do not have a definite answer.

So before you embark on the (long) journey of grad school and research, let's make sure that you really know what you are up against and that you are still interested.

For grad school, especially Masters degree, there is usually two types - Taught programmes and research programmes.

Taught programmes are very much like undergraduate courses except that the content will be a bit more advance. Students who are unsure about the research interest, or have no intention to further pursue their education into research degrees, or would like to have an open, more flexible option after completing the Masters degree should opt for the taught programme. Such programmes, of course, include popular programs such as MBA.

Here, my blog will concentrate more on the latter. Research programmes are especially useful for those students who are already sure that they want to pursue a PhD degree. There are a few things one should know about research.

1. People who like Phd and research are people who like to dig deep and try to understand the roots of the problem. It is those people in the class who keeps on asking "Why, why, why?". In the industry, people are more concerned about costs and speed. The industry wants to get the design out to the shelf ASAP with as little cost as possible. Therefore there is usually little time for one to go into the very root of the problem. If Phd candidates are those that ask, "Why, why, why?" then industry people are usually people who says, "As long as it works, I don't care how." So if you like looking into problems at a more in depth level, you may like research.

2. Research could be a lonely job. Only you would know the answers to the questions in your research because if anyone else knows about it, you are either copying from them or they have already beat you to it. Even your supervisor would only be able to give you guidance, and not answers. So, most of the time, you'll be working alone.

3. Most of the things that you work on, do not have answers. Unlike in the undergraduate days when the answers are always at the back of the book, you'll have to learn to live with it, i.e. that some things just don't have answers. For those that have, you'll have to find the answers yourself.

4. The first few months could be very tiring and scary.

- Tiring, because you would have trouble understanding any bit of the journal papers you are reading. You'll start reading the reference, and then the reference of the reference, and then the reference of the reference of the reference. You'll find yourself backtracking a lot just to understand a single journal paper. This is normal. It could be weeks before you could actually proceed beyond the first paragraph of the journal paper. And this is especially true for a physical science research degree.

- Scary, because all the idea you thought was novel has already been thought of. They are either disproved, proven or work in progress. Given that thousands of people are taking Phd degrees across the world at any one instant, this is not surprising. In the end, you realised that a novel idea can only come up when you've read sufficient journal papers and understand where the trend of the research is. This is why literature review is important.

5. Doing a research degree is obviously tough. But for some, it's an intellectual challenge. And you'll find that your peers who are doing their research degree will have similar passion as you. But if you are not sure if research is for you, try the Masters degree first. The research level at Masters degree is quite enjoyable and relaxing. All you need to do is add a little transistor here and there or make a tweak here and there for your dissertation. However, at the PhD level, there is a huge quantum jump.

If you are already sure that grad school is what you want. Then these are the steps you should take now:

1. Identify the area of your research interest. The better you can narrow this down, the better it is.

2. Identify Research Centers, Universities or professors who are renowned in your research area.

- Some lowly ranked universities could be exceptionally good a a particular research area. e.g. Univ. of Southampton is not ranked top 10 in the UK but its electrical and electronic engineering research is outstanding.

3. Understand the admission process.

- This can be particularly tough as Universities have different criteria and admission process. Some can submit application online, some can't; some requires GRE, some don't; some requires 2 referrals, some requires 3; some requires TOEFL/IELTS, some don't. So you have to make sure you understand all the requirements.

- But most important of all, take note of the admission deadline! For most top ranked UK or US universities their admission deadline is usually in December of the year prior to your admission, i.e. if you are entering in Sept 2009, the deadline would be Dec 2008.

Taking the required exams and the first 3 steps mentioned above would already usually take up months. So prepare early!

4. Preparing the documents. This can be very ANNOYING.

- Usually, you'll need to send the ORIGNAL transcript, which we obviously only have one at the point of graduation. So more needs to be requested at the university registrar. And remember, it has to be in English, otherwise a certified translation would be required.

- Writing your personal statement is probably the toughest. Many Malaysians loathe this because they feel like it's writing something to boast yourself. But he/she couldn't be more wrong on this. No matter how bad your GPA is, and how bad you feel about yourself, there are always postives in yourself that you can find. The admission officer is not looking for a perfect person, but a person who is confident in himself/herself. For example, my whole life in secondary school is nothing but Chinese debate. Although I learn a lot from this activity, I couldn't pin down what exactly I have learned. I felt inferior when I wrote my personal statement. That is until I saw a personal statement written by the Stamp Club's president (yes, you hear me right. there's actually a stamp club. a club that promotes collecting stamp. yes, those stamps that you lick and paste onto your letters). Stamp Club's president obviously had little to do or learn, but the personal statement was written as though he/she could bring stars from the heaven to earth. And you know what, he/she is now in a prestigious US University. Now, I'm not asking you to lie. But one can be truthful and yet be confident of his/her own postives. e.g. you may not be able to get a good GPA, but you are always intrigued by tough questions in the exams and you are usually the only one who is able to solve that question, then this is something worth bragging about. Or if you do not get good grades because you are actively involved in multiple student acitivies or political activities, you may still make a good political science student. In short, prepare your personal statement early and proof-read it many times.

- Gettting referrees to write you a good letter is not as easy at it sounds either. Referrence letters are the single most important documents that you could submit with your application. Your referrees may take time because they may be busy and if we try to push for it too hard, chances are that your referrees may just simply write you a letter. So inform them early, and send them a kind reminder from time to time. Also, most people you approach for writting this referrence letter would usually ask you to send them a 'draft' so that they could use it as 'reference'. I'm not sure if this is right, but this is definitely common. So it has no harm if you could prepare a 'draft', just in case your referee needs it. (Note: Some Malaysians feel 'shy' to persistently bug lecturers for a reference letter, but remember it's their duty to do so. So do not be 'shy'.)

* the funny thing about applying to Cambridge is that although they are using online application, your reference letter is still submitted in written form. And what more is that you are required to send in the reference letter 3 weeks from submitting your online application. A very short time indeed. Unlike for the US Universities, your documents can arrive anytime before the admission deadline. Furthermore, after registering your online application with Cambridge, you'll be given a 'self-service' account where you can check all your application details. Again, this portal is far from being user-friendly. I just have to say that in terms of the ease-of-use of the online application, Cambridge is still quite far behind compared to the US Universities. And I do not understand why that the US Universities could do much better job at the admission process than the UK counterpart. But to be fair, Cambridge is one of the first few Universities in UK who uses online application and it started only a few years back. Whereas US has been using online application for almost a decade.

5. Search for scholarships. There are already a multitude of websites on this. The popular scholarships available are Maxis, King's scholarship (JPA), Bank Negara, Yayasan Khazanah, Chevening, Fulbright, Sime Darby, etc. The only thing that I wish to remind the applicants is that some of these scholarships are only opened for a very short period of time, i.e. 2 weeks (and they give very short notice too). So prepare all your documents and statements beforehand and check their websites/newspaper ads regularly, particularly during the months of January to April.

6. For US you can go to MACEE for more information. For UK you can go to MABECS for more information. These two organisations are very friendly and provide a lot of information about studying in the US or UK.

Lastly, I would like to say that these are just my thoughts. They may not reflect the actual thoughts of the admission officers. After all, I still did not get into Stanford (which is my first choice) despite getting (what I reckon is a) very good score for my GRE. So, the problem probably lies with my personal statement and my reference letters.

Applying to grad school was never easy. But it may be worth the effort. To some, PhD degrees are intellectually rewarding. While some of my friends pursued a Masters degree just because they wanted a break from their everyday work, or simply they wanted to experience life in a new country.Whatever the reason may be, to all those who are applying, good luck!

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