Wednesday, June 3, 2009

How to enter in Science and Engineering Ph. D. program in an American University

Another question came from a M.Sc. student during my last India trip in a college seminar. The student wanted to know, how to get into science Ph. D. program in an American University. Here in this post, I am trying to compile information for M. Sc./M. Tech. students about the graduate admission system as it works for the most American universities. This information is approximate and situation can vary from a program to program, but it will still serve the purpose of general guide.

1. American undergraduate programs are 4 years. Students can go to Ph. D. program or any other professional program (law, business or medical school) after finishing their undergraduate program. The students who wants to enter science or engineering Ph. D. program has to go through a common entrance test called GRE.

2. Indians also need to pass English language Proficiency Test (TOEFL) in order to get admission in any American university. It doesn't matter that you were educated in a English medium school and college, you still need to go through it.

3. In most cases, you need to write a personal research statement usually 1-2 page long with your application. This statement describes your scientific background, your research interest and any research experience if you have, and statement that why you are interested in that particular department of the university, and how it matches with your career and scientific goals.

4. Admission for Science and Engineering Ph. D. programs relies on 3 factors, your GPA (Grade Point Average) in the undergraduate program. GPA is equivalent to the percentage obtained in examination in the Indian system. Since American undergraduate programs are 4 years, in many cases, your 3 years B. Sc. degree might be insufficient and one year of M. Sc. will be sufficient. This can vary from university to university and their admission official. Also, you might need to take some extra courses depending upon the need of the program.

5. Each department of the university receives applications independently. So you will need to go to the web pages of departments in the university web site and see the application procedure to apply there. Since admission is dependent on the research program, departments are generally flexible in their requirement, that means a physics background person can apply to physics, medical physics or biophysics graduate programs. There is usually an admission fee associated with each application, and this can be costly affair in terms of Rupees, so make sure you really qualify for the program and is ready for it before going through all the hassles.

6. In order to assess the application, the admission committee (typically 3-5 faculty members of the department)considers all the factors in your application, GPA, GRE score and your research statement. It is better if you go through the web pages of the faculties in the department and see what kind of research they are doing, so you can write something about how this kind of research matches with your background and interest. Be specific, its very competitive world out there, and committee don't want to take chance if they are not sure that you are 100% sure on what you want for your future.

7. In many cases, American students who wants to go to Ph. D. program usually spend summer months in a lab to gain some research experience and also to see if they will like to go for graduate program. having some research experience is an added advantage in your application. To gain such experience in India, it is better to go to IITs, IISc, TIFR which are research intensive institutes etc (it can also be done at your university with some faculty) for few months. I know people who first went to IISc as a RA in a lab, since they were paid there for their work, they prepared and cleared all the requirement and then went abroad to do Ph. D.

8. American universities are ranked every year for their graduate programs acoording to the subjects. The rankings can be found here (U.S. News & World Report's annual rankings of graduate programs). These rankings are approximate and should be taken only as a purpose of guide. But it does serve the purpose of telling that the competition for top ranking programs will be extremely tough.

9. Here is a tricky information about finances. When you get admission in an American university for a Ph. D. program, you need to pay tuition fee per semester and also you will need money for living (in dollars). In most cases, graduate students work as a TA (Teacher Assistants) in the department, which means that they assist in teaching undergraduate courses and labs, and they get paid for that work, so you will end up getting some monthly salary which is sufficient to cover these costs. In some cases, students are paid as a Research Assistants (RA), so they don't need to be TA.

10. Science and Engineering program from a top ranked university can be very rigourous and tough. In the beginning there will be many things going on simultaneously, 1. you will need to work as a TA in order to get paid, 2. you will need to attend and pass certain courses (known as cumulative) needed for a particular program and this may take 2 years, 3. you will need to do research with your supervisor, and in many cases supervisors can be very demanding. That means you may end up working almost all your waking hours in order to get through everything in first couple of years.

Hope this information is useful. Good Luck!!!


Smita said...

hey thats a great one! it has every info...very helpful

Hariharan Ragunathan said...

Dear Author,

If possible can you brief me regarding admissions to PhD in management at US universities. Are those the same.?

Indian Scientist in USA said...


I will check on this and will write a separate post. I know someone who is doing Ph. D. in operational management.

smiles for you said...

The technical aspects of knowing the details of admission are very well covered in the post. I would like to add a little more in terms of what is essential for Indian students to get through the admissions process.

In 2003, I was TA for a 'Communication Skills Course' especially designed to improve general and writing communication for masters and PHD students in IIT Bombay. The course was built after many professors felt that effective communication is a bottleneck for otherwise very talented Indian students, when they come abroad and compete with students whose primary language is English. Writing is intensely involved in all stages of masters and PhD studies starting with the application essay "Why PhD/MBA/MS". Then come assignments, papers, presentations and several other challenges for an effective communication.

I have watched closely that the Indian students (even kids from the first generation immigrants) falter at the language hurdle. Although it may or may not create a major problem in terms of achievements, it is never a bad idea to learn to write an impressive and distinguished cover letter, a flaw-less assay describing the aim, interests and passions. I would like to suggest the students to spend some time of the day in good reading (classics, fictitious and non-fictitious novels, news papers etc). Further, a book I consider as the bible in improving coherence in writing can be followed- ‘The Elements of Style’ by William Strunk Jr, with revisions by E.B. White.

Hope, this is useful.

Rainbow Scientist said...

Comments from a friend, a Ph. D. student in chemistry:

Great post,
A few suggestions:

1) I am not sure if American Universities consider Only one year of your masters in India. I think its advisable to finish your masters and then apply.
2) your comment about the finance, (you may add this) usually when you apply for Ph.D. You dont have to show any assests to get Visa, becos your admission letter comes with a contract, stating you will be paid "X" amount as a TA in that Department.
3) Cumulative exam, are different from the courses. they both are different requirements to be able to obtain PhD candidacy. Also in some universities there are qualifiers, Original research proposals. Students are required to fulfill these requirements mostly within first 3 yrs of PhD.
4) On arrival students are required to take placement exams ( atleast thats the case for chemistry). The exams are usually of the level of GRE subject exams. This helps the department to decide if the student has weakness in any subject and if he or she needs to take some courses to be proficient.
5) Please mention its a good idea to take subject GRE's and if you get a good score on it include it in their application. (what is a good score on subject GRE............I am not sure of that.) But i would say anything thing over 70-80 percentile should look good. but again it depends on the university you apply to. Better the university higher the requirement.

Thanks, Chhavi for useful comments for my readers.

Suraj said...

Very nice article :)
I am a bit confused about what to do..
I have B.Tech from good NIT with CGPA 8.12 in 2009.
I was AIR 71 in GATE 09 but did not opt for higher studies and chose job.
Then I worked for Oracle for 1 year and now working for But now, I am feeling that I should study more.
So what do you suggest? Should I write GATE again and go to IISc for ME. and then decide whether I want do PhD or go for MS now..but I have not written GRE till now.

Rainbow Scientist said...

Hi Suraj,

It's hard for me to say what you should do for your future. If you are enjoying your work and find it challenging enough to keep you motivated, then probably you are not missing anything by not doing PhD or going for higher degree. One can learn a lot without going for any higher degree. But if you want more specialized field of career including academic career, then probably you will need to go for higher Ph. D. Ultimately it's your call for your life. Go for what your heart says to you and you will never regret.