This post will deal with the two broad kinds of financial assistance that universities provide MS and PhD students, and how you can go about making your profile such that you get them.
Assistantships include Teaching Assistantships (TAs), Research Assistantships (RAs) and Graduate Assistantships (GAs). In TAship, you assist the professor with teaching responsibilities, such as grading papers and scheduling student appointments. As an RA, you assist the faculty with their research projects. As a GA, you could be asked to organize events, manage university websites etc for the University. The basic difference between these assistantships and scholarships is that here, you have to work for the University to earn the fee waiver and stipend that you’re getting, whereas scholarships don’t require such work on your part.
Assistantships are often combined with fee waivers, which means that the amount of tuition you have to pay gets reduced from out-state tuition to in-state tuition. Since in-state tuition rates are much lower than out-state ones, it cuts your costs. Another similar reduction is from non-resident tuition rates to resident tuition rates.
You should be aware that most Indian students get assistantships at the end of the first semester, and not at the time of admission. You need to maintain a GPA of 3.5 or 4 on 5 to be eligible for these.
Scholarships and Fellowships
As mentioned already, scholarships and fellowships are waivers that you get without having to work for the University. These can be either flat amounts or a percentage of the tuition fees. In some scholarships, you may have to pay the in-state fees, but mostly your fees will continue to be out-state.
The grant of scholarships is based on merit, which we will discuss in the next section. Most PhD students get 100% scholarships, whereas for MS students scholarships can range from 0-100%.
Criteria for University Financial Assistance
Some universities don’t give any financial assistance to international students, so check their websites and avoid applying to them if you absolutely cannot do without financial aid.
A factor that often decides scholarships is how competitive the program you’re applying for is. For instance, at Arizona State University, computer science is the most competitive branch. This means that with exactly the same profile, you may not get scholarships for computer science but get them for mechanical.
Perhaps the most important factor when it comes to the award of scholarships is research work. This includes patents, publications, project work etc, to which we’ll come in the next section. And the second most important factor would be a strong academic record at the Bachelor level. It means your standing relative to your peer group. Merely mentioning your raw percentage or CGPA wouldn’t help, since they need to know how you’re doing in relation to your classmates. You could either mention something like being in the top 10 of your class in your SoP, or get one of your recommenders to write it in the letter.
The third most important factor is a strong SoP. Many people have a great research background and a great academic record, but they don’t know how to portray it well in the SoP. More on this in the next section.
Then you need a TOEFL score of at least 100, and you need to network with professors of your prospective universities. The latter matters because if a professor wants you in their research group, then your GRE score becomes insignificant. This reaching out needs to be done before you’re applying, and also after you apply.
What is Research Work?
Research work includes projects, dissertations, term papers, paper presentations and conferences, publications, industrial training, and participation in academic societies such as IEEE and CSE. These don’t have to be national or international; participation even at the departmental level matters.
If you’ve not had publications, you can start a regular technical blog on which you write about your area of research. Remember, independent research work is a criterion even for getting admissions, not just for scholarships.
What Should a Good SoP Contain?
A good SoP needs to tell your professional and academic story. Its content and flow are far more important than the kind of language you use. Essentially, it needs to answer four questions: what do you want to pursue and why, do you have adequate academic background, why you’re applying to that particular university and why the university should admit you in particular.
Most students get the first two questions right, but in general you should remember that your SoP is being read by experts in your field. So it is better to be technical and specific rather than vague. Mention all relevant electives and projects that you’ve undertaken, even coursera and edX courses that might show how driven you’ve been towards your research area. If you aren’t sure of what this research area is yet, then you can elaborate on the area you did your final year project on.
When talking about why you’re applying to that particular university, focus on the word particular. Forget general clichés like world-class faculty and smart peer group; mention specific courses you’re interested in and specific faculty members you’d like to work with.
After spending three paragraphs discussing why you want to get into the university, you need to dedicate a paragraph to why the university should admit you. This is where you mention anything that sets you apart from your peer group and gives your application a personal touch. You can mention personal goals and strengths, and life experiences that have made you unique.
Networking with Professors
Many students find this hard to know, since networking with professors as a way to find financial assistance is practically unknown to applicants. You can start by searching for the list of faculty on the website of the university department you wish to apply to, and zooming in on two or three professors whose research areas match with yours.
You can email the faculty both before and after applying, but when you email them after do remember to mention you application number in the subject. And please don’t email Indian professors thinking that they would prefer you if they’re Indian. Additionally, don’t email every single professor in the department; just the ones whose current research matches yours. By all means, don’t be blunt in the email and ask for an RAship. Speak in terms of exposure and willingness to contribute to the academic community at the university.
We hope that you will bear all this in mind while applying for scholarships, and that many of you will get them too.