Grad School Reflections Part 1: The Why
August 29, 2021
A question that people, especially those facing similar choices, tend to ask me is why I chose to get a master’s degree in Computer Science (CS). In March 2019, when I was deciding between coming to Stanford for a CS master’s vs job offers, I had listed down a bunch of thoughts that eventually became my reasons for embarking upon the road to graduate school. Inspired by my friend Leo’s blog post (which is a great read!), this post aims to share those reasons. I also aim to reflect on those reasons by juxtaposing them with my actual experience at Stanford, something that the hindsight of the last ~1.5 years has allowed me to do. The hope is that this post is both useful to people evaluating similar choices, and an interesting read for those just generally curious.
Why not to do a master’s in CS
To begin with, it’s worth talking about why it doesn’t make sense to do a master’s in CS, especially if, like me, you had a good CS undergraduate education:
Most jobs that people with CS degrees end up doing can be done with a bachelor’s degree 1. In other words, the set of jobs in CS that one absolutely requires a master’s degree for is very small. Master’s students sometimes do have a higher starting pay for roles open to both master’s and bachelor’s students, but this pay increase often pales in comparison to the 1+ year of work experience, career growth, and earnings that they miss out on by virtue of doing further schooling.
If you’re a student trying to get into CS academia/research, you would typically just apply for a PhD program, rather than a master’s program. In the US and Singapore, one can do a PhD straight out of college. In Europe and Canada, there are funded master’s programs that are stepping stones to a PhD, but I wasn’t considering those.
Besides the opportunity cost, most master’s programs (at least in the US) are typically unfunded and expensive.
So given all this, why did I opt to get a master’s degree?
My reasons at the time
Immigration: A master’s degree was the quickest way for me to get to the US, which is where I wanted to be and still want to be 2 from a career standpoint. As an Indian citizen who went to college outside the US, coming to the US straight out of college to work wasn’t feasible, given that I’d have had to luck out in the once-in-a-year H1B visa lottery. Companies based in the US were either unwilling to make me job offers, or were willing to make me job offers for offices outside the US, some with the promise of moving me to the US in a few years. A master’s degree in the US would have given me access to both a 3 year long OPT program, as well as increased odds in the H1B visa lottery.
Funding: At Stanford, if you’re a teaching assistant or research assistant, your tuition fee is waived, and you get a stipend which for me was larger than my expenses. Some master’s students are guaranteed this funding by the department at the time of admission and others have to find such opportunities for themselves. Though I had no guarantee of funding, I was optimistic enough in my ability to find funding opportunities.
Opportunities: Most of the companies I had job offers from were big companies, but I wanted to work for startups. Furthermore, most of the smaller companies I was interested in were in the US. I figured that by being in the US, as well as by being at Stanford and in the heart of Silicon Valley, I’d be able to find interesting startups, and learn more about the ecosystem.
Research: I grew up wanting to be an academic, and always thought research was cool. Somewhere down the line, I decided that CS academia wasn’t for me. However, I still wanted to do research I’d be proud of before leaving academia for good, something I wasn’t able to accomplish as an undergraduate. I believed that I could accomplish this through a master’s degree.
Classes: I really enjoy taking classes, and there were a lot of CS classes I found interesting that I hadn’t had the chance to take as an undergraduate.
People: I believed I would meet cool and fun people at Stanford.
Fun: It seemed like the most fun option on the table.
How did it turn out?
In hindsight I had overrated some aspects of the experience during my decision making process, and vastly underrated others. I was also on point and lucky about some things: I managed to get fully funded for the entirety of my master’s program, and I am still reaping the US immigration benefits.
For things that I had overrated: I was excited about taking certain CS classes before I had entered the program. However, after taking (and enjoying) those classes, I question if my time could have been better spent, particularly because I use so little of that knowledge currently, and expect to use very little of it moving forward.
Furthermore, I was excited about doing good research before coming to Stanford, but while there I found myself in a circumstance similar to what I had faced as an undergraduate: having too many things to do at once, and not enough time to focus and dive deep into a research problem.
This is completely my fault, and it’s probably the one regret that I have about how I spent my time over the last ~1.5 years. In the words of a professor I had worked with, I let the tasks that were “urgent and important” crowd out the tasks that were “important and not urgent”. Many important things in life don’t have deadlines, and I’m still learning how to balance those against the things that do.
But while I may have overrated some aspects of the experience, the overall experience for me was dominated by what I had underrated:
The opportunities: I was exposed to many startups that I would probably have never heard of if I hadn’t come to Stanford, including the company I now work for. I also learnt an incredible amount about the world of Silicon Valley, through events on campus, friends, and interactions with venture capitalists. Coming to Stanford also gave me the chance to be part of some fantastic communities that I have greatly benefited from being a part of.
The people: I met many amazing people, from both within and beyond Stanford, and from both inside and outside of the world of technology. They are all doing and/or will go on to do inspiring things. I also met many people from many different parts of the world. Most importantly, I made some great friends.
The fun: Beyond the world of CS, I took dance classes, conversational mandarin classes, and humanities classes, things that are ridiculously easy to do when you’re at university, but much harder once you leave. Beyond the classrooms, I forged memories with friends that I will cherish for a lifetime.
The mindset: Perhaps my biggest takeaway from coming to Stanford, and something I didn’t account for at all while making a decision: but when you see the people around you and the people you hang out with do awe-inspiring things, you can’t help but believe that you are capable of doing great things too.
Lastly, a note on the defining event of our time: the COVID-19 pandemic. I spent 3 out of my 5 quarters at Stanford on a campus with greatly reduced activity and online classes. Fortunately for me, I still had many of my friends around me, my academic experience was barely impacted given that I was a CS student (I could do everything I needed to do with a laptop), and I was still fully funded throughout the pandemic. In short, while the pandemic definitely did impact my life in graduate school, I was lucky enough that it did not greatly detract from my experience.
A parting thought
All in all, my experience as a CS master’s student at Stanford was an overwhelmingly positive one, and I’m very glad that I took the decision that I did.
However, one thing I didn’t talk about at all was the tradeoff between going to graduate school straight out of college vs after a few years. In 2019, I was very much against the idea of doing something else in between college and graduate school. I thought that once I stepped out of academia for a bit it would be harder to go back to school.
My views on this have changed. While I believe that my earlier reasoning still stands, I think having real world experience before going to graduate school is valuable because it gives you a different perspective on the things you learn in school 3. Furthermore, an idea worth mentioning that I came across on 80000 hours was that of the “graduate school reset”. The idea is that if you do something risky and unusual after graduating from college, and it fails, you can always ‘reset’ your career by going to graduate school, since once you go to graduate school people don’t really care as much about what you did before. On this note, I now wonder if I was hasty about rushing into graduate school, and a part of me wishes that I had tried something unusual and risky 2 years ago.
Oh well. I guess I’ll just have to do such things moving forward :)