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:

So given all this, why did I opt to get a master’s degree?

My reasons at the time

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:

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 :)

  1. They can also be done without a bachelor’s degree in CS, but that’s a separate discussion. ↩︎

  2. This could change, of course. ↩︎

  3. A perspective which I believe I gained, to an extent, through internships. ↩︎

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