Key Aspects Indian Applicants Ignore While Looking for MS and PhD at the Top Universities Abroad

Looking at to improve your career opportunities by pursuing MS or PhD abroad? You are on the right path. But, are you doing everything right to get into your dream school? Academic grades, research projects, test scores, essays, and recommendations are certainly the most important parameters for getting into a top graduate school abroad. But, with increasing competition and decreasing acceptance rates, you need to you need to walk the extra mile, In this article, we will talk about the major aspects Indian Applicants miss out on while looking for MS and PhD at the top universities abroad.

Key Aspects Indian Applicants Ignore While Looking for MS and PhD at the Top Universities Abroad

MS and PhD at the Top Universities Abroad
Image Source: The Hindu

It’s a fact that the admissions to the MS and PhD at the top universities abroad are getting more and more competitive. In 2016, 676,484 applicants apply to the graduate programs (Master’s & Ph.D.) in the US. Among them, 192,000 (28% of the all the applications) were Indian applicants. The top foreign universities like Ivy League & Elite schools in the US or the Prestigious ones in Europe accept only 4 – 8% of international applicants.

There are many factors that decide the fate of an application for a graduate program. Grades, relevant research or work experience, essays & personal statement, recommendations, and test scores. The acceptance depends on the overall profile, rather than just one particular component – what these schools like to call, a holistic admission (evaluation) process.

Though quite often Indian applicants go wrong with certain application components. The most prominent ones are of course statement of purpose (SoP), essays and recommendations. Though the majority of applicants are aware of all the components to a great extent, there are two key areas where the majority of the Indian applicants miss out while looking for MS and PhD at the top universities abroad – research & demonstrated interest at the very beginning.

These two steps should be done in parallel while shortlisting universities or programs. So, what is this “research & demonstrated interest”? Let’s dive deeper.

How to Research and Shortlist the Programs for MS and PhD at the Top Universities Abroad

Consider Your Interests to Choose the Right Specialization

Say you want to do MS in Computer Science in the US. Rather than just shortlisting universities by looking at the rankings on portals like U.S. News and QS Top Universities, have a closer look.

  • If you don’t have any specialization in mind, go for MIT, CMU, UT Austin, Cornell, Minnesota
  • For software engineering, consider MIT, UC Berkeley, CMU, UT Austin, Georgia Tech, Rochester, Rice
  • Theoretical Computer Science: MIT & Cornell are better than Caltech or Yale
  • MIS: Carnegie Mellon University, University of Minnesota, University of Arizona, Texas A&M
  • Human-Computer Interaction (HCI): CMU & Georgia Tech
  • Cloud Computing: Harvard, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Princeton, Columbia, NYU, University of Chicago
  • Robotics: University of Michigan, Georgia Tech, UPenn, Oregon State, UT Austin
  • Data Science: Columbia, NYU, Stanford

On an important note, don’t treat Data Science and Data (Business) Analytics as the same.

Think about the Immediate Career Goals

If you are looking at the MS programs, you must focus on your immediate goals first. In case you’re interested in doing MS in Data Analytics in Europe and your immediate goal is a job in consulting, then consider the Master’s programs at IESEG, HEC Paris, Smurfit, and Strathclyde. If the financial services sector motivates you, consider the universities around New York and Chicago.

Pay Attention to the Location

The same goes for biomedical and biotechnology programs in the US. For bioengineering jobs, universities around San Francisco are better options. If you want to get into core drug discovery, then focus on the graduate schools around the East Coast in the US. Location plays a very important role, especially for the graduate programs in biotechnology, biomedical sciences & engineering. Apart from the location, you also need to look carefully at the research projects and profiles of the faculty members.

Look Beyond the University Rankings

While shortlisting universities, applicants just refer to the popular ranking tables like QS, US News, Times Higher Education, ARWU (Shanghai Rankings) etc. But, it does not make sense if you apply to the universities simply because they are highly-ranked on QS or U.S. News. For example, the top schools for bioinformatics are the canonical top schools for most of the biomedical or biotechnology programs. In most cases, the top 25 universities are more or less the same for individual subject fields.

There are several companies that publish rankings for universities across the world. The rankings are based on a certain set of parameters, each of which is given different weights by the publisher, before calculating a university’s rank. You need to check if a particular ranking gives weightage to the factors that are important to you. Secondly, just because a university is ranked high overall, doesn’t mean that they rank high in the course you want to pursue.

Don’t try to go after the Best School. Identify the Right School

When it comes to the graduate school, the name of the school is 10%, while the project and who is your advisor make the other 90%.

Unless you are applying to a non-thesis based Master’s program, a graduate program (MS, MS-PhD or PhD) will involve significant research work. That’s the whole idea of pursuing a graduate program.

So, you need to treat applying to a graduate school like you are applying to a company. When you apply to a company, you are actually applying for a specific job position. You need to apply for a specific role so that you know what you’re getting into. Hence, prior research about the potential supervisor, lab, and the project is essential.

Focus on the Research Projects

This is absolutely essential if you are looking for PhD or integrated MS-PhD. The first step should be finding the relevant review and/or research papers related to the area(s) of your research interest. You could use tools like Google Scholar, ResearchGate or PubMed to begin with.

You don’t need to understand everything. Try to decide the problems you think you’d like to work on, or what kind of techniques and tools you would love to work on. Then, look at the schools that the authors work in.

If they have a program in your field of interest (the broader one – e.g. Data Science, Bioengineering, Atmospheric Physics or Economics), then look through that list of faculty. Then you should see if there are at least three faculties that you’d really like to work with – say, AI within Data Science, Tissue Engineering within Bioengineering, or Methane Production & Global Warming within Atmospheric Physics). This would be a very effective way to shortlist the universities or schools.

Be Realistic & Honest with Yourself

It’s absolutely fine to target top schools such as universities like Harvard, Yale, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge ETH Zurich, Max-Planck and TU Munich. But, if you have not published any papers, you will have a tough time getting in. In that case, work for a few years and build your academic resume.

Explore the Group Members

Once you shortlist the universities or groups, have a look at the group members. You may spend 30 minutes with your PI a week, but you’ll spend 40-80 hours a week (or more) with your lab mates, and they will teach you nearly everything you will know by the time you get out. Cultural fit is very important.

how to get into ms-phd abroad
Image Source: Quora

Try to get a feeling of the whole group. You don’t have to read their entire publication record, but note things like: how many articles do they publish? Where do they publish them? Are the frequently the last author or are they more collaborative and often middle authors on things? If possible, how many articles do his students publish on average? Most of this can be seen just from the publication record and author affiliations.

Once you have started building your list, reach out to the Professors (PIs and/or Group Leaders). Usually, it’s okay to contact them unless the website specifically asks not to (this happens if you are applying to a centrally structured PhD program). But, ideally, you are supposed to reach out to the faculty members of the graduate school.

More importantly, all these information will also help you to write the university-specific personal statement.

Related Article: How to Write a Statement of Purpose (SoP) for Graduate Programs (MS and Ph.D.) – Strategies, Tips, Common Mistakes, and Real Examples of Winning Essays

Reach out to the Faculty Members

“I would never accept a PhD student without talking to them in advance and learning more about them and their research interests. I don’t even consider PhD applicants who apply to my department without contacting me in advance.” – Quoted by a PI (Professor) on Reddit.

This is usually the case in all the labs across the US, Canada, Australia, and Europe. In fact, in Canada, even for Masters (MS) programs, it’s a mandate to contact the potential supervisors before submitting a formal application to the Graduate School or the University.

There is a clear advantage of following this method while applying for MS and PhD at the top universities abroad. For the Master’s (MS) programs in the US and Europe, this shows your demonstrated interest and motivation. So, you improve your admission chances to a great extent. If you are looking for Ph.D. in the US or Europe or Masters in Canada, if a professor agrees to take you on, it’s fairly certain that you’re in.

The reality is – If they like you, application sometimes becomes a formality.

Related Article: All You Need to Know about Masters in Canada – Cost, Eligibility, Scholarships, Top Universities, Application Process, and Job Prospects

How should students shortlist colleges and look beyond rankings while applying for MS abroad
Image Source:

How to Demonstrate Interest While Applying for MS and PhD at the Top Universities Abroad


Interact with the Admission Officers and Faculty Members

Get in touch with admission officers, course coordinators, and faculty members while researching the schools. If possible, meet the admission officers and/or professors in-person by visiting the schools or during various admission events. It’s also possible to interact with them during conferences and webinars.

Image Source: Preparation Courses Portal

During my stays at Oxford and Utrecht, I worked in two prestigious research groups. I also interacted with many professors, Masters and PhD students across various labs and departments.

As per few PIs, they are used to getting 60 research interests or applications per month from only China and India. Everyone has got a high GPA, research experience, and even a Master’s degree. But, many Asian applicants apply for a graduate program (specifically PhD) just for the sake of doing it. So, when they submit a formal application, they are bound to get rejected.

Related Article: What do Admission Officers and Faculty Members Look For in Personal Statement and Essays

How to Get Fully-Funded PhD Abroad
Build a Good Rapport from the Beginning to Avoid the Above Scenario (Image Source: PhD Comics)

How to Stand Out while Applying to the MS and PhD at the Top Universities Abroad

Follow the targeted universities and/lab groups on social media channels. Connect with the admission officers, program directors, current students, and alumni on LinkedIn.

While contacting the supervisors by email, include your profile in brief, and research interests along with your CV (as an attachment). There is no point in sending the same CV and email to 10-20 professors in a single day.  Here are a few examples and scenarios:

Suppose you have got experience and interest in Protein Biology. You could approach PIs who are working in the field of biomarkers and/or drug target discovery. Rather than just sending a vague or generic interest, it would be great if you write that you would like to work on post-translational modifications (PTM) of proteins since the modified proteins could be novel biomarkers and drug targets.

How to Get into PhD Programs Abroad
Image Source: PhD Comics

If you are from Chemistry background, you could approach PIs who are working in the field of peptide therapeutics or drug designing. Alternatively, as a Molecular Biologist, you could also approach a lab that is working on drug screening and you could propose to work on drug target validation and setting up assays.

The idea is that you should try to stimulate the PI with your ideas. A mere expression of interest in doing a PhD is not going to work in such cases. After all, PhD is all about working on your own (and new) ideas under the supervision of an expert in the field. Read more about how to get into PhD programs abroad for biomedical and life sciences.

Creativity and Thinking Outside the Box will Take You a Long Way


Need Help with Graduate Applications at the Top Universities Abroad?

You could also work with professional admission consultants in order to improve your admission chances. Read the story of Susmita (successful admit with scholarships), who shares her experience of working with admission consultant.

Feel free to reach out to me. In case of quick queries post your comment below. If you want to discuss your profile, university list or application strategy, book a 1:1 consulting session with me.

You might also like the following articles:

How to Get into Top Masters (MS) Programs Abroad with Scholarships from India

How to Get Scholarships to Study in the US

MS in USA vs MS in Canada vs MS in Europe

Recommended Video for MS Applicants: Guidance and Tips on SoP, LoR & Scholarship Essay for Graduate Admissions Abroad

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