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Getting Into Graduate School - Part I

Selecting the Right Graduate School

Before you begin applying to Masters or PhD programs at any graduate schools, the first thing you need to do is figure out which schools are right for you. Selecting the right school is not as easy as it might first appear and should be a continuing process right up to the point that you start submitting applications. This seems like the logical place for me to start talking about the application process for graduate programs.

The best time to start looking into graduate programs is during the second semester of your sophomore year in college (undergraduate program), and no later than the second semester of your junior year. There are many reasons for this that I will cover in part II, but for now, I'll just say that it allows for proper planning. Suffice it to say that this will (should) be an evolving process throughout your school search and the sooner you begin the process, the better prepared you will be.

I hate making lists and doing pros and cons type of stuff; they work for many people but I am not many people. There are times that they are a necessary evil and choosing a graduate program is one such time. This is a list that you will want to keep for a while and make changes to on a semi-regular basis, so I would suggest using a spreadsheet program like MS Office Excel or OpenOffice Calc. (Just for the record and to keep the FTC happy, I have received no endorsements from either product manufacturer, but I would be happy if Microsoft wanted to give me tons of cash or even free software to plug their products. Actually, to be completely honest, I'll whore myself out to any company that makes a good product.) Where was I? The list, that's right. You will likely wind up with a few lists of stuff when going through the grad school selection and application process, so find something to keep all this information in, even if it is just a college composition book.

The first thing you need to figure out for yourself is the age old question, "What do I want to be when I grow up?" In this case, you also want to ask yourself, "How will a graduate program help me get to that goal?" Sounds kind of silly, but when you really analyze those questions you might be surprised by the truthful answers. Many people who email me asking for advice do not have a solid answer for the first question, let alone the second. You need to be very specific in your answers, and not just "Cause I like tinkering with electronics." I will use myself as an example throughout the remainder of this discussion so you can get a better idea of what I am talking about for each step.

What do I want to be when I grow up?
A research professor in the field of robotics.

Notice I didn't say, "I want to work with robots." I was more specific than that but really not specific enough, so I should ask myself, "Why?" and revise my answer to the following:
A research professor in the field of robotics at a top research university. I do not want to build industrial robots or even other people's visions of robots, but my own. I want to expand the fields of not only robotics but also artificial intelligence and artificial life. Becoming a research professor will give me the best opportunity to accomplish this goal.
Much more specific than "I want to build robots," don't you think? So now the next question, "How will a graduate program help me get to that goal?"
Obviously to become a research professor I have to meet the basic requirements of being a college professor, particularly a graduate level college professor. A doctorate is required to reach that level, thus I must attend a PhD graduate program. I have three real choices here for graduate studies though:

1. Major in Computer Science (CS)
2. Major in Electrical Engineering (EE)
3. Major in Computer Engineering (CpE)

After digging through all the information I could find, Computer Engineering seems like a nice combination of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, and, with the right focus, it will give me the best of both worlds to accomplish my goals.
Using a few honestly answered questions I have greatly narrowed down my list of graduate schools that I will want to apply to, so now I can start building the list.

One of the biggest mistakes students make when picking out a graduate school is using school rankings. There are several sources that rank different graduate schools based on all sorts of oddball criteria, including rankings by majors. A second part of this, directly related to school rank, is the schools perceived reputation. This is where the previous questions are going to come in handy to help get rid of many of these top (and very expensive) schools. Simply ask yourself, "Self, to reach my goals, how much does the school ranking and/or reputation really matter?"

The answer should surprise you when you look at it honestly. As an example, let's look at Carnegie Mellon University. In the field of Computer Science and, my previous major, Management Information Systems, CMU is a top ten ranked school year after year. Great. Put it on the list, right? Well, no. This is where you need to go back to the previous questions you have answered.

We'll use MIS as an example here to show why CMU might not be the best choice for a grad school based purely on ranking. If my goal was to work for a power house information systems or computer software company such as Microsoft or Google, than CMU's ranking and reputation will likely matter. If my goal is to work for any other type of company (and most people in any of the IT fields wind up working for companies in other market segments) than CMU's ranking and reputation does not really matter. Why? Because most people outside of the North Eastern states and the IT industry have no clue how great a school Carnegie Mellon is for all things technology related. Trust me; I got a million blank stares when I told people where I was applying last year.

Reputation and school ranking appeals to a very narrow group of people, usually isolated to a specific region of the country or specific industry segment. When it does matter, and here is the big catch, is usually only for your very first job outside of graduate school. Second job at most, depending on the period of time you stay at the first job. Most hiring companies weigh industry experience many times higher than the quality of graduate school you attended, unless you get lucky and interview with an alumnus from your school.

Did you know that the University of Pennsylvania is consistently one of the very top ranked schools for MBA programs? Does it really matter if you plan on working at a television station in Wyoming when you graduate? University of Wyoming will likely carry just as much weight for that job and probably give you a better chance of landing the job because of school relationships and increased chance of interviewing with an alumnus from UW.

In a nutshell, the only times these lists of school rankings or perceived reputations matter is in very isolated instances:

1. Regional Job Markets. If you plan on working near where you graduate from school (i.e. you love that part of the country).
2. Jobs within a very specific industry that will know the reputation of the school.

With what I just said, you might be asking yourself why I applied to CMU for the MSIT program. Well, you can read the full account in my entry entitled, oddly enough, Carnegie Mellon (or "Why I want to attend CMU"). Basically, I needed a distance learning program and wanted a program that would challenge me. CMU met both criteria.

Moving on to making our list of possible schools, we have all the information we need to start the selection process and narrow our list down. I will start with a list of my selection criteria, your criteria may (and should) vary, but the process is the same.
1. Must have a Computer Engineering PhD program.
2. The computer engineering program must include a good focus on robotics and artificial intelligence.
3. Because I want to teach at a top research university (notice I didn't say top ranked university), schools that have good robotic research professors should be included in the list.
4. Must be someplace I would want to live for the next three to seven years.
5. Must be someplace I can afford to attend; a high percentage of fellowships is a good criteria for this one.
This should give me a list of a bunch of schools right off the bat. Start off with the first criteria, in this case, "Having a CpE PhD program." Then go down the list and cross off schools. You will have to do a lot of research for each school to cross check against your list of criteria. As you go down your list of criteria and create your list of schools (and then cross them off), include notes as to why that school is included or rejected. This list will change over time and you will forget reasons that one school is on the list versus another.

Ultimately, my list would look something like this (in no particular order):
1. Stanford University (A top research university)
2. Iowa State University (Doing great research in the field of robotics, particularly Alexander Stoytchev)
3. U.C. Berkeley (A top research university)
4. M.I.T. (Incredible robotics program and I love New England)
My list of schools that I might want to attend for my PhD is actually a little longer and I did not include the schools I rejected in the list, but you get the idea. You might notice CMU is not on the list and that is because I hate Pittsburg and would not want to live there for seven years. Maybe there is a little resentment for being rejected from the MSIT program, despite that rejection causing me to refocus my goals to something that I am ultimately happier with.

And there you have Part I of Getting Into a Graduate School. While it might be a little tedious, going through and listing out requirements is a big help in narrowing your focus. More importantly, asking yourself some leading questions and being brutally honest with your answers is the biggest aid in selecting the right school. Good luck with your research...

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