Finally done with my Masters! The two years just flew by and it seems just yesterday that I was boarding the flight at Chennai, nervous, excited and emotional. I remember my friends coming to see me off – the handshakes, the hugs, and the last minute photos. I remember the days I spent in Chennai dreaming up how the US would be like. Well, the experience here has been both better and worse than I imagined. And so I thought I would write this post, for my friends and juniors coming here, to know what its like.
Before I say anything, do remember that this is from my viewpoint of studying Computer Science at UW Madison. The experience is likely to be different at other universities. But I think you will find that the essence is the same.
Studying here is different in a number of ways from studying back in good old CEG. The first, and most striking difference is this: The professors really do want you to understand and learn the stuff. They make a huge effort to do this – right from props in class to stories and examples. A good example is the Introduction to Java Programming class. I was the teaching assistant(TA) for this class in my first semester – Every class has a theme/story so that the students will be more involved in learning the stuff. They have the students playing games developed in Java, to understand the concepts of object oriented programming. TAing this class was a lot of fun because of this!
The second difference is that professors and TAs are not actively trying to reduce your score. On the contrary, they try to give you the benefit of the doubt in every mistake that you commit – If there is a viewpoint from which your answer is correct, it will be considered and rewarded. The learning is emphasized, and the tests and exams are relegated to the roles of just helping you keep track of how far along you are on learning the stuff.
The third difference, and this is very university specific, is how the courses are structured. There are undergraduate courses which are more textbook oriented, but all the graduate courses involve heavy reading of publications from the top conferences, and emphasize learning by projects and discussion in class. You learn the current state of the art in many of the courses, and build on what you learnt in course projects. Some of the course projects go on to become published.
The projects are generally 2-3 persons per team, and are fun to do. A lot of freedom is given in choosing what project you want to do – the professors stress that you pick something that you will enjoy building. I’ve programmed robots, built distributed key-value stores and a score of other interesting projects. Most of these projects end up with the bunch of us awake at 2 AM desperately trying to fix a bug! It’s hard work, but immensely enjoyable – You make very good friends this way, since you’re stuck with the others in a lab for a huge amount of time!
I was lucky enough to be funded when I started the Masters program. If you are not, there are a number of funding sources that you can reach out to. Many departments need people for web design, application development, and other positions. Knowing MATLAB widens the scope of the jobs you can get, allowing you to try out for jobs in ECE and biology depts.
If you are not funded when you start MS, you will generally have to wait for a semester until you can procure funding. Students work with professors in what are called independent studies, working on projects that allow the professors to assess their aptitude. If it goes well, and the professor has an opening in his group, you get the spot next semester.
The computer science job market is on the up-swing, and now is a good time to be graduating. Many companies are ramping up their recruiting, and you have a good chance of landing a challenging, interesting job. The pay is usually very handsome, and will allow you to pay off your education loan in 3-5 years.
Closely related to jobs are summer internships. These provide an excellent way to make some money while getting valuable industry experience. Many students convert their internships into full time jobs so that by the end of their first full year here, they are quite settled with a job in hand.
It is not all just fun and games in the land of dreams though. If you expected the masters program to be an extension of your bachelors degree, you will quickly find out how different they are. You are expected to do quite a bit of the learning process alone. The classes are more intense, and require you to pay attention and participate. You will have to learn to do quite a bit of writing – reports are expected for every project. Some universities have insane workloads, and you can quickly find yourself looking at a mountain of work and not enough time to do it in.
The other problem, at least for me, was adapting to staying alone, and in a foreign land. I have never been a hosteler before, so this was the first time I was staying away from home. You take some time to adjust to the fact that you can’t just take a bus and go see your parents. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve wanted a veg puff and a samosa after class. Skype and Localphone proved to be big saviors, allowing me to call and video-chat with my family inexpensively. If you’re not staying with a big gang of other indian students, it can get quite tough to stay motivated for the length of the program.
Provided you get the right gang of friends, there is so much fun to be had here. Black Friday shopping, Halloween costumes, trying out different cuisines, concerts – the list goes on and on. Even working on projects becomes fun when done in the right spirit – I have many fond memories of walking out into the cold at 2 AM with friends to get pizza before coming back and hitting the computers again.
All in all, studying in the US in an experience by itself. If you have an inclination for higher studies and the idea of taking an exam does not send you into panic mode, you should definitely consider getting a Masters degree here. Apart from the resume building and the money making, its quite an experience, and you will be richer as a person at the end of two years.