help me get into grad school!
January 7, 2011 3:46 PM   Subscribe

Interested in graduate school (possibly in CS) but with lukewarm academic records and letter of rec. I also didn't major in CS. I'm already doing what most people recommend for someone in my position (work as a research assistant). What else can I do? Is this possible for me?

I graduated last spring with a BS in biomedical engineering from a well regarded university. After graduation, I've been working as a research assistant at a different, also well regarded university in a neuroscience/cognitive science laboratory. I plan on staying here for 1-2 years, with goals to begin applying to grad schools this summer/fall. I have a few roadblocks on this path (which I'll describe later), but to be clear, a major reason I want to go to graduate school is because there are not many jobs options as a BME bachelors beyond research assistance positions, and I want to eventually move beyond this. I know there are exceptions, but this has been the case for almost all of my classmates. Our department focused primarily on getting us prepared for advanced degrees (med school or grad school), and little else. My undergrad curriculum was extremely broad, and I have very little depth and wish to gain more. I also enjoy research. Without a graduate degree, I am fairly certain I will eventually reach stagnation, both in terms of opportunities for professional growth and moving beyond a meager income.

Issue #1

I have pretty broad and vague interests, which I realized I need to define, so until I do that, I'm leaning more towards masters, but am open to a PhD in the future. I am not interested in most of the things I learned from undergrad as a BME, particularly anything involving wet labs. My cognitive science experience has been interesting, but I'm not sure I want to pursue this in graduate school. I realized that I really enjoy programming and building algorithms, and that combined with my interest in cognition, I'm am toying with the idea of a computer science degree with a focus on artificial intelligence. However, I have never taken an artificial intelligence course before, so maybe I have no idea what it'll be like! Additionally, I have no idea if I'll be competitive for a computer science graduate degree, having not majored in CS as an undergrad. I've taken a few intro to programming courses. My current work is very heavy on MATLAB programming, but I'm guessing this is nowhere near the rigor of a CS major. I pick up languages quickly, and I'm quite good at it, but again, this is coming from a general engineering prospective, not a computer science one. Will this be an issue? Do I need to take some makeup courses? My current university is focuses on life sciences, so I can't pick up a CS course here. I've looked into university websites, and though they either don't list prereqs, or state they don't have any, I'm wondering if in practice, I'll be very much at a disadvantage for admissions with my current qualifications. Does anyone have any insight about what I'll need to be good candidate for an artificial intelligence graduate degree at a good university? Obviously, I will spend the next few months looking more specifically into potential areas of study, but I want to know if my current goal is a pipe dream. (Also, I'm not interested in jumping ship to another RA position right now. I need to stay here to build a relationship with my current lab.)

Issue #2

I don't not have a very strong academic record nor enough stellar recommendations. Due to some mental health issues in undergrad, I graduated with a 3.2 (with an upward trend though...). Basically, I was sometimes so depressed and anxious I didn't go to class or do homework. That is now under control, but I still have my less than spectacular grades. My 2 programming courses I got B's in, even though the material was very easy for me. In my first year, I got multiple C's and D's, and was put on academic probation (which I quickly got out of). Besides my current PI, I will have weak letters of rec. I attempted minimal undergrad research before fizzing out due to mental health issues. I also rarely attended class or interacted with my professors. I think I can get enough letters, they will just be very general. I hope to get a good letter of rec from my current PI. I have no publications, and it's unlikely I will publish at my current lab anytime soon. I have not taken the GRE's yet, but I'm good at standardized tests and have taken practice ones, and hope to be at least in the 90% percentile, most likely higher. Is there anything I can do to strengthen my application at this point? I'm doing all I can at my current lab, but I don't want to be doing research assistantships for the next 5 years just to collect recommendations and publications. I need to move on to the next stage of my life.

Issue #3

I can't pay for my degree (in a technical field, I shouldn't have to). I will absolutely need to be funded, and I realize this is more difficult to do for masters.

I'm graduated with a BS and working as a research assistant. I want to apply to grad school, looking at masters with goals of eventually pursuing PhD. Interested in computer science, but feel unqualified. Very bright when I apply myself, but with lukewarm academic record and letters of rec. Need funding. Want to go to the best graduate program I can possibly get into. How to achieve this? Am I a good candidate for grad school?

Thanks all!
posted by lacedcoffee to Education (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Oh and this is all in the US if that matters!
posted by lacedcoffee at 3:53 PM on January 7, 2011

I beefed up my even-less-than-lukewarm undergrad record by taking graduate-level CS courses as a "non-degree seeking" grad student at the university. I aced the classes, impressed the hell out of several professors, got glowing letters of rec out of them, got accepted into the program, and got funding. I started this process the fall after I got my undergrad degree, and in the next spring I applied for acceptance for the following fall.

One big thing, however: I did have to pay out-of-pocket for those non-degree classes, so that probably breaks your issue #3. It was a bit of a gamble but I was determined to get in and get my MS degree. It paid off big-time for me.
posted by zsazsa at 3:55 PM on January 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

Might you be able to leverage your current experience into a staff position at another school that has better CS offerings and a tuition benefit for employees?

I did basically what zsazsa did, but worked at the school for the nondegree classes (and the grad program, but you could also quit once you had another funding source, or go to another university entirely).
posted by substars at 4:09 PM on January 7, 2011

Another staff position could be an option, but I'm determined to not burn any bridges again. My current role is pretty central to the lab's functioning, and so leaving anytime soon will probably upset my PI.

I might have the option of taking classes from my alma mater, which is 1 hour away. They are also overpriced. I also have plenty of community colleges nearby. If I were to take classes, would taking classes at a prestigious university be better than classes at a local community college (after taking into account prestige vs cost and transportation).
posted by lacedcoffee at 4:19 PM on January 7, 2011

Does anyone have any insight about what I'll need to be good candidate for an artificial intelligence graduate degree at a good university

I would say strong marks in a senior-level undergrad course on a topic relevant to AI research is both necessary and sufficient, if you're aiming at Master's programs. It would help if the prof who taught the course writes you a good letter as well.

P.S. Think about studying in Canada? We have quite a few good programs and they tend to be relatively affordable and I would say less competitive than comparably strong programs in the US. Two-year master's degrees as a bridge between undergrad and PhD are very common in Canada, more so than in the US as I understand it.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:01 PM on January 7, 2011

Seconding the "take grad courses as a non-matriculated student" suggestion of zsazsa's. I know people for whom it really helped. Yes, it's an investment of $$ but it's an investment you need to make if you want funding--you aren't going to get it with your current transcript.

If you're at all interested in bioinformatics, this is a growing field with very few people who have training or experience in it. My lovely husband's employers are desperate for people with bioinformatics experience and degrees.

A real wild card here is the US Public Health Commissioned Corps, which offers tuition benefits almost as cushy as the armed services'.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:04 PM on January 7, 2011

I realized that I really enjoy programming and building algorithms, and that combined with my interest in cognition, I'm am toying with the idea of a computer science degree with a focus on artificial intelligence. However, I have never taken an artificial intelligence course before, so maybe I have no idea what it'll be like!
From my bookmarks, here are some resources for learning about AI online you might find interesting: And in print:
posted by bergeycm at 9:00 PM on January 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

My current role is pretty central to the lab's functioning, and so leaving anytime soon will probably upset my PI.

If your PI takes it personally that you got another job in the interest of developing yourself, you shouldn't be working for that PI in the first place. Give reasonable notice, sure, but you owe your current position nothing but the notice you agreed on when you started.

If you happen to have a few thousand dollars to spend on getting up to speed in CS, Stanford's SCPD offers a bunch of their introductory CS classes online (you could do the whole master's online too, but that ain't cheap). You can take the class for a grade, but you can live anywhere and still be a student. Stanford is a very reputable name in CS and many of their instructors are pretty famous - I think if you did well in a couple of their courses and got letters from the professors you would have a stronger application for sure, plus you'd know whether you could actually hack a top-flight CS education.
posted by little light-giver at 9:14 PM on January 7, 2011

Another way to do this is to get a job as an actual programmer. If you are really as good at picking up languages as you believe, this might not be as daunting as it sounds. From there a few things could happen:
1) Your employer pays for you to take classes, helping you to build up the resume you need to apply to grad school
2) You get enough experience and recommendations that you can get in on the strength of your professional career
3) You realize that you don't need a master's degree (or even a phd) in CS to do much of anything at all

As it stands now, I would say that you are a weak candidate and I would not expect to get into graduate school without paying for it. Good GRE scores are mostly just a basic requirement and not usually enough to actually improve your admission chances when you don't have anything else to back them up.

Also, I see from earlier questions that you are indeed 22/23. Relax. Your life is not flashing before your eyes (I know it feels that way). If you really want to do this, you can totally do it, but sitting around in a boring lab assistant job in a lab that isn't even doing CS is probably not going to get you there. Don't stay at that job if you only want it to be a reference to get into CS grad school.

Finally, a word of warning: If you really don't know anything about CS, I wouldn't try to come in expecting to do field X. The reality of the nitty-gritty work in CS fields is very different than what it seems like it might be when all you know is the basics.
posted by ch1x0r at 9:42 PM on January 7, 2011

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