Roadmap to MS/PhD (2/3)


Alright folks, let’s continue from where we left off in the last article on MS/PhD programs.

In the last article, we discussed the following aspects of applying to any graduate school-

  1. Understanding the difference between MS & PhD programs
  2. Graduate Record Examination (GRE)
  3. Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)

Today, I plan to exhaustively cover the following topics-

  1. Shortlisting universities
  2. Legend of 3-4-3 rule
  3. Guide to the online application
  4. Statement of Purpose
  5. Cost Analysis (cumulative spending in the application process)

Shortlisting universities

It is the most important step towards applying for MS/PhD based programs. Prospective applicant should start this process, before they register for GRE & TOEFL also.

Majority of the prospective MS/PhD applicants have similar concerns – “How do I know that a particular program is good or bad at a XYZ university OR How I do even start looking for universities with program’s relevant to my area of interest”

Your apprehensions are normal. All of us go through it. We all know that rankings are subject to criticism, so we can’t blindly follow them. We start looking for other parameters and that’s where a thorough background research on the internet comes to play. 

The following websites provide an exhaustive list of universities with reputed graduate programs.

The idea here to create a pool of universities with reputed MS/PhD programs and then based on certain parameters (eg – field of study, tuition & living expenses, quality of research by the on campus faculty, job opportunities, etc) we shortlist Z number of universities to apply too. (Z has no fixed value. Some people say, Z = 10 due to the 3-4-3 rule which I will come to later, other’s say 15-20 is a good range. It completely depends on the applicant)

On a personal note, I would like to point out that, rankings mentioned here are subject to debate. If you are an international student applying for MS/PhD program, you are well aware about the notion surrounding ranking of engineering schools. So, don’t objectively rate any university on the basis on its ranking.Gather information from your own sources about the nature of the program at that university. That way, your opinion wouldn’t be clouded by preconceived notions. 

Since the spectrum of search is large, let’s do it region by region (SE Asia, followed by EU, USA and Rest of the World). In each of these regions, one should carefully study the type of research each university does. Let me give you an eg –

Let’s say that in USA, you are exploring opportunities at University of California – Berkeley. Assuming that you’re a prospective MS applicant in the field of study like CS, to understand the type of the research UCB does, you should do the following –

  • Since CS is a part of the EECS department at UCB, you must visit their department page
  • On this page, you will mostly find a tab called “Research” (BTW, this is applicable to majority of the universities)
  • Under Research, you will find tabs like “Areas, Projects, Labs, Publications” as different sub-sections for further exploration
  • Let’s say I choose Areas, and the following page list the different research areas in UCB. Let me choose Signal Processing, for this particular example
  • The following page provides a comprehensive list of the graduate level courses, faculty working in SP and the kind of research problems being tackled by PhD students & Professors at UCB.

This page tells an applicant how his/her area of interest align with the department’s research areas. This page is far more relevant than some ranking on a popular news forum.

Focus on understanding the fundamental research problems being tackled in the different fields and what does each university have to offer to a prospective grad student. Also, speak to grad students who are currently enrolled in those universities and gauge how poised a particular university is in terms of RnD. Get in touch with students who have graduated from that university and speak to them about how was the transition (from graduate school to the industry) for them.This will help you understand the tech-market and make you aware about the different opportunities in and around that area. That is why, it is extremely important to understand how appropriate is a particular university for you. 

3-4-3 rule

Many online forums recommend applying to a total of 10 universities with the breakup as 3-4-3. You would now ask, what does this 3-4-3 combination mean ?

X-Y-Z breakup is acronym for “Ambitious-Moderate-Safe” universities that one is expected to apply to. It is believed to be the most optimal combination for any MS applicant. The next question comes is, how does one decide which university are safe/moderate/ambitious for him/her ? My answer – You can’t. You shouldn’t. Please don’t buy into this BS of analysing your profile to decide which universities are safe or moderate or ambitious for you. Many online forums ask you to submit your credentials i.e GRE, TOEFL, GPA, previous research experience (published papers, patents filed), work experience (internships & full-time work) and based on that they generate a list of universities are ambitious-moderate-safe for you.

The way this works is that, lot of students in the past have submitted their credentials and have also provided information about which universities rejected/accepted them. This information is then pooled in to perform a profile based template matching which generates the list of universities, suitable for you. This is vicious cycle. Learn to stay away from all this crap over the internet. 

Therefore, this 3-4-3 rule is an urban legend. DONT BUY IT !

Let’s move on to the next topic –

Guide to the online application

After shortlisting the universities, your next step is to create an account for your MS/PhD application on the university’s admissions page. Paper based admissions process are close to NIL for MS/PhD programs (I believe, MIT has the provision for it – only for exceptional cases). After creating an account (i.e involves providing your personal information and creating a username/password), the next step is completing all the stages of the online application. Why stages ?

Each online application is broken down into a set of 5-10 online forms, to be completed in order or out-of-order depending on the university. It also provides a feature to save & return to your application page, based on the applicant’s convenience. So just create the account and understand the steps. These steps include –

  • Essay Type questions (Personal Statement, Statement of Purpose)
  • Submitting the necessary documents (Transcripts, Likely to graduate certificate, GRE & TOEFL Reports,etc)
  • Letter of Recommendations

Procuring transcripts from the university where you are currently enrolled in or where you studied your undergraduate courses is a challenge at times. At BITS, the process is a bit tedious and hence I would advise BITSians, who are reading this article, to get in touch with the ARCD as soon as possible and understand the different steps involved in getting the transcripts in time. This is because, the estimated time-frame between applying and receiving them is 3-4 weeks in the months of Sept/October.

The transcript you receive from your university would contain the list of courses and their respective grades, corresponding to the last semester that you completed. Eg – if you are currently enrolled in the 4th year – 1 semester and you plan to apply for MS/PhD, the transcripts would contain a list of courses & the grade awarded till 3rd year – 2nd semester. This is sufficient while submitting your application.

This document needs to be sealed in an envelope and dispatched to the university, if required. Normally, a university would mention on its admissions page whether or not, it requires the hard-copy of such documents. If so then you need to courier them, else scan them and upload the respective pdf on your online application page.

To courier these documents to, let’s say USA, would require a time-frame of (max) 5 working days and hence I would recommend services of FedEx, DHL or UPS. I personally prefer FedEx as they provide a student offer with discounted rates of INR 990 per courier package. Some of my friends also used Indian Postal Services with rates as low as INR 700. Feel free to google about the different offers & services.

As mentioned in my last article, GRE & TOEFL score reports are submitted from the ETS website. The way this works is that each score report is tagged by an Electronic File Record (which can requested from ETS, incase you need to track your score report). This EFR allows the university to track your score report and link it to your online application. The scores that you submit in the online application are mere snap-shots of your online score page; the authentic reports are communicated between the university and the ETS. All you need to do is submit the list of universities (to ETS) where you want to report your scores to.

Letter of Recommendations is one of the most important factor in deciding your fate in the admission process. LoR as they are popularly known as, is a document that rates your caliber,potential, tenacity and other personality traits from a third person’s perspective. This person may be Professor at the university/college where you did your undergraduate studies OR it may be a person in the industry under whom you may have worked for the course of an internship. The admissions committee reviews such letters to understand how well to do your know “your stuff”, coming from a credible source. Lot of students deliberate who should their recommenders be !

Personally, I believe that anyone with whom you have good equation & rapport at an academic/industrial and a personal level is best suited to be your recommender. So speaking as an MS applicant, I took all my recommendations from professors with whom I worked on projects over a long duration as well as those whose classes I took as an elective and stood in the top 5% of the class. These two conditions weren’t independent in my case. You must avoid taking recommendations from faculty members with whom you studied a generic course (class size > 200) as that recommendation would seem superficial, despite the credibility of the professor. 

So in the context of submitting LoR, as an applicant, you need to speak to your recommender in advance and get his approval on the matter. You should then provide his personal details (Name, Designation & Email-ID) on your online application. This would enable the recommender to complete your LoR and submit it, based on his convenience. I would advise you to periodically remind the recommender of the deadline for submitting your application, as your application wouldn’t be complete without his LoR.

Generally, universities demand for 3 unique recommenders. Also, since you would be applying to more than 3 universities (on an average), it would be wise to speak to your recommender, as to whether he/she would be willing to fill recommendations for all the universities that you’re applying to. Personally, I maintained a google drive based spreadsheet document, shared with all my recommenders containing the details & deadlines of the programs that I was applying to. It was really helpful !

Let’s move on to the next topic –

Statement of Purpose

This, in my opinion is the deal-breaker for any MS/PhD applicant. It is the only way for the admissions committee to deconstruct your personality, academic interest and career objective. So, don’t take this “li8ly” !

Majority of the MS/PhD applicants face this question-“How do I begin my SoP ?”

Before you begin with this, basic do’s and don’ts regarding SoP –

  • DONT ATTEMPT TO READ OTHERS SoP. IT WILL CLOUD YOUR THINKING & THOUGHT PROCESS. (I have written this in caps which should hint at the importance of this step)
  • Do get your SoP reviewed. Constructive criticism serves as a valuable feedback. This will only help you improve your content.

Coming to question of “how should I begin my SoP”, here’s a fantastic Quora answer by a BITSGian senior who graduated from CMU recently. This really helped me structure the SoP and prepare a skeleton, before actually getting down to write it.

Here are some valuable links that will help you structure & prepare the SoP in the best possible way –

While writing the SoP, you will realise the importance of shortlisting universities based on research opportunities and not just a ranking parameter. Let me give you a personal example about this –

While shortlisting universities, I made it a point to bookmark research papers published by faculty members at different universities, organised across different university folders on my chrome browser. The reason behind this was to read each paper and summarise my learning in a separate word document to be used later for my SoP. While writing the SoP, one of the major questions one has to answer is “Why XYZ university”. Personally, after reading those papers, I would gain awareness about the future prospects of a particular project. The idea to work on similar kind or new problem statements attracted me more to XYZ university. This is what I tried to articulate in my SoP.

Since I am not a part of any admissions committee, I wouldn’t know how important is this question but my personal opinion is that any university would select a candidate who shows conviction to pursue new or ongoing research problems over a candidate who lacks the ability to connect with them in an SoP.

So, till now we have covered 90% of the application process. Let’s proceed to the last topic of discussion –

Cost Analysis

The idea behind doing this is to give prospective applicants a true picture of amount of money he/she will be spending in the process-

Any MS program consists of 2 major sources of expenses –

  • Cost of Living (A)
  • Tuition Fees (B)

Cost B tends to vary within a range of USD 35,000- USD 50,000 (for a 20-30 units of coursework), while Cost A varies within a range of USD 10k/year – USD 20k/year. This would make the cost of the program (2 yrs) to be around – USD 72,500 (42500 + 15000*2), which is around INR 44 lacs.

Applying to the MS program would involve the following expenses –

  • Registering for GRE (C)
  • Registering for TOEFL (D)
  • Submitting GRE/TOEFL score reports (E,F)
  • Grad Application Fee (Gavg)
  • Sending the transcripts (Havg)

The Cost C & D are 1-time expenses and hence I would call them as hard cost ~ INR 20,000. The remaining would get multiplied times the number of universities you apply to. Below is the cost break-up, based on current exchange rate of 1 USD = 60.26 INR.


Cost E & F can be minimised, since 4 score reports are free as per ETS norms. G & H are variable.I hope this provides a comprehensive picture of the cost incurred while applying & studying the MS program.


Before I end this article, I would like to point you guys to certain popular education based crowd-sourcing forums –

Lot of my friends have referred to them for any query regarding the MS/PhD admission process. I hope you find them suitable too !

That concludes Stage 2 of the roadmap to MS/PhD. I will be completing my next article (Stage 3 of 3) by the end of July. Until then, Stay tuned to the Auxiliary Wire !

Roadmap to MS/PhD (1/3)

Since Jan 2014, my news feed on Quora has been exploding with questions pertaining to graduate programs such as MS/MBA/PhD and I believe it is high time that I blogged about the roadmap to such programs. I intend to extensively cover all aspects of such programs and hence I have divided the content into multiple articles to be rolled out in due course. So, let’s begin by analysing the task at hand.

If  you’re a prospective MS/PhD applicant (who is reading this), your first step to “Applying for MS/PhD based programs” should be to understand the nature of the programs.

Master of Science (MS)

The Master of Science (Magister Scientiæ) degree is the primary type in most subjects and may be entirely course-based, entirely research-based, or, (more typically), a combination of the two. The combination often involves writing and defending a thesis or completing a research project which represents the culmination of the material learned.

Admission to a master’s program is normally contingent upon holding a bachelor’s degree, and progressing to a doctoral program may require a master’s degree. In some fields or graduate programs, work on a doctorate can begin immediately after the bachelor’s degree. Some programs provide for a joint bachelor’s and master’s degree after about five years

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

In the United States, the Ph.D. degree is the highest academic degree awarded by universities in most fields of study. American students typically undergo a series of three phases in the course of their work toward the Ph.D. degree. The first phase consists of coursework in the student’s field of study and requires one to three years to complete. This often is followed by a preliminary, a comprehensive examination, or a series of cumulative examinations where the emphasis is on breadth rather than depth of knowledge. The student is often later required to pass oral and written examinations in the field of specialization within the discipline, and here, depth is emphasized. Some Ph.D. programs require the candidate to successfully complete requirements in pedagogy (taking courses on higher level teaching and teaching undergraduate courses) or applied science (e.g., clinical practice and predoctoral clinical internship in Ph.D. programs in clinicalcounseling, or school psychology).

The detailed requirements for award of a Ph.D. degree vary throughout the world and even from school to school. It is usually required for the student to hold anHonours degree or a Master’s Degree with high academic standing, in order to be considered for a PhD programme. In the US, Canada and Denmark, for example, many universities require coursework in addition to research for Ph.D. degrees. In other countries (such as the UK) there is generally no such condition, though this varies by university and field. Some individual universities or departments specify additional requirements for students not already in possession of abachelor’s degree or equivalent or higher.

A candidate must submit a project or thesis or dissertation often consisting of a body of original academic research, which is in principle worthy of publication in a peer-reviewed context. In many countries a candidate must defend this work before a panel of expert examiners appointed by the university; in other countries, the dissertation is examined by a panel of expert examiners who stipulate whether the dissertation is in principle passable and the issues that need to be addressed before the dissertation can be passed.

These definitions are coherent with majority of the universities in United States. To know about MS/PhD requirements in other countries, kindly google/wiki them. 

To apply for Fall 2015 admissions, you must start preparations from April 2014 itself.

Having established the nature of the program, lets proceed to the next step i.e understanding the requirements to qualify the aforementioned programs. Let me first list out the requirements –

  1. Graduate Record Exam (GRE)
  2. Test of English as Foreign Language (TOEFL)
  3. Bachelor’s Degree

Before I describe each requirement, It is necessary for me to state that only valid passport holders are eligible to register for GRE/TOEFL exams. Your passport serves as a hall-ticket for the exam. Hence, if you currently don’t have one, get it made asap !

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is a standardised test that is an admissions requirement for most graduate schools in the United States. Created and administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS), the exam aims to measure verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking skills that have been acquired over a long period of time and that are not related to any specific field of study. The GRE General Test is offered as a computer-based exam administered at Prometric testing centers. The GRE General Test features question types that closely reflect the kind of thinking you’ll do in graduate or business school. Each GRE attempt is valid for a duration of 5 years.

  • Verbal Reasoning (VR) — Measures your ability to analyze and evaluate written material and synthesize information obtained from it, analyze relationships among component parts of sentences and recognize relationships among words and concepts.
  • Quantitative Reasoning (QR)— Measures problem-solving ability, focusing on basic concepts of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis.
  • Analytical Writing (AWA)— Measures critical thinking and analytical writing skills, specifically your ability to articulate and support complex ideas clearly and effectively.

The VR and QR are marked out of score of 170 each while AWA is rated out of a score of 6. Each section is timed and their exist a provision to wait for a fixed time period between completing a section and beginning the next one. The ordering of these sections is as follows – AWA, VR, QR, VR, QR, VR or AWA, QR, VR, QR, VR, QR

The AWA section consisting of 2 essay questions – “Analysing an Issue” and “Analysing an Argument”, each with a time limit of 30 mins. To understand the nature of each question, see –

However, as a prospective MS/PhD applicant, it is essential to know how to ace them and for that, read the following blog –

Since AWA is an essay based section, the scoring done by the ETS officials could vary from official to official. It is wise to practise a couple of essays from the pool of topics, as shown on the ETS website –

The VR and QR section comprises of 20 & 25 questions to be solved within a time limit of 30 & 35 mins respectively. In a single test, a total of 3 VR+ 2 QR OR 2VR + 3 QR sections can appear. This combination varies from applicant to applicant. Whichever section appears first after AWA, that section will appear last also. Let’s analyse the VR section. Each VR section consist of 3 type of questions- Text Completion (TC), Sentence Equivalence (SE) and Reading Comprehension (RC). The ordering of questions is as follows – TC, RC, SE and RC.

Here is a link to the sample questions provided by ETS –

This will help you understand the nature of the questions in terms of the question type and difficulty level. Moving forward, let’s analyse the QR section. Each QR section consists of 3 type of questions –

  1. Comparison Type
  2. Numeric Entry
  3. Basic MCQ with single/multiple answers

The ordering of questions is random. To know more about the content areas and sample questions, visit the following link –

This will help you understand the nature of the questions in terms of the question type and difficulty level. You also get a resting time-frame of 1 min between each section and 15 min between 1st QR/VR and 2nd QR/VR section.

On a more personal note, here are the resources which I consulted for preparing for QR & VR sections –

  1. Kaplan’s GRE Premier 2014
  2. Barron GRE 2014
  3. Official ETS guide for GRE
  4. Princeton Review – 1014 Questions for GRE
  5. Manhattan GRE Prep

I would recommend purchasing for all applicants and 1 or 2 depending on what your college seniors or elders recommend. I have also attached their respective ( links to purchasing them online. Books 4 & 5 are available as ebooks. You will have to google up for this. That’s how I found it. 

To build your vocabulary over a period of time, I would recommend reading the following books/web-blogs/articles –

  1. The Washington Post
  2. Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis
  3. MIT Tech Review
  4. Verge Magazine

Also, 3 weeks before the main exam, I would recommend using Flash Cards using Barron’s 333 HFW list –

In the context of VR section, Book 4 is the best for TC,SE type questions while Book 5 is the best for RC type of questions. Personally, I didn’t require much preparation for the QR section as their level of difficulty is low, compared to the type of questions I encountered in entrance exams such as JEE/AIEEE/BITSAT. 

The preparation time-frame for GRE takes 3-4 months (on an average) and hence, giving the exam without much preparation should be avoided. The cost of the registering for the GRE exam is $165 /attempt and as a prospective MS/PhD applicant, you are allowed a total of 5 attempts/year with each attempt spaced out by a gap of 30 days. It would be wise to give the exam not more than once (due to the cost involved); however if given multiple times a candidate is free to choose which attempt he wants to report to the university for his/her application.

It takes a total of 15 days for the scores to be updated on the candidate’s online dashboard. Only after that can the prospective MS/PhD applicant report the score to the respective university. While reporting the score, ETS allows a total of 4 universities to whom the scores can be reported free of charge. These universities must be selected post completion of the exam in the examination hall itself. It is wise to remember the names & ETS school codes while appearing for the exams. The cost of reporting the scores after having exhausted the free limit is $27/university.

Having discussed GRE in great depth, let’s analyse the next eligibility criteria – TOEFL

Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL is a standardised test of English language proficiency for non-native English language speakers wishing to enroll in U.S. universities. The test is accepted by many English-speaking academic and professional institutions. TOEFL is one of the two major English-language tests in the world, the other being the IELTS. The scores are valid for two years; then they are no longer reported. TOEFL iBT is the test which majority of the applicants undertake.  

The test consists of 4 sections (in that order) each marked on a scale of 30, making the total test score of 120 –

  1. Reading (R)
  2. Listening (L)
  3. Speaking (S)
  4. Writing

To understand the nature of each section in terms of type of questions, time-limit and difficult level, visit the following link –

To understand how the different questions should be tackled in L & S sections, visit the following websites –


To access free material for preparation, visit the following websites –


To practise mock-test, I would recommend purchasing the following book – Official ETS guide to TOEFL .

It is wise to complete both these exams within a gap of 1 week in the order – GRE, TOEFL. Similar to GRE, TOEFL scores are updated 10 days after the completion of the exam on the online portal. The cost of registering for TOEFL is $125/attempt. You can report your score to 4 universities, free of charge. These universities should be selected before 10.30 pm, 1 day before the exam. Once the 4 university limit is exhausted, each extra recipient requires an extra charge of $16. The ideal time-frame for completing both the exams is Late July-Early September. Both GRE and TOEFL scores take 1 week to be updated on the recipient’s portal. Hence, plan accordingly.

Having discussed both the exams in-depth, let us analyse if their exist any norm pertaining to minimum score/cutoff requirement for universities. You can read about my analysis on my Quora answer .

For BITSians (exclusively), we have a yahoo-group called “BITS2MSPhD” where queries pertaining to MS/PhD are answered daily. Visit their website to know more. This conclude the Stage 1 of “Applying to MS/PhD based programs in the US”. I will discussing next couple of stages in the following month, so stay tuned to The Auxiliary Wire !