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Advice for Returning to School After Long Break? 580

Posted by Cliff
from the back-to-the-books dept.
arohann asks: "A few months ago, I quit my secure, well-paying (but boring) job as a software engineer in India and have been applying to graduate schools in the US, Canada and the UK. My aim is to get back to computer engineering studies (my undergrad major) as a grad student. However, after a 5 year break from academics I'm not sure about my decision and could do with some advice from Slashdot users."
"Here are some of the things that I'd like to know:

1) Typically, how do graduate admissions officials view work experience? Note that I haven't been working as a Computer Engineer but as a Software Engineer.

2) What are the differences between graduate studies at the Masters level in the US, Canada and the UK? I already know a bit from what is available on the websites, so I'm looking for some deeper insights.

3) I'd like to hear from people who've done this, i.e. quit their jobs and gone back to get a higher engineering degree. What problems did you face and what advice do you have?

4) People who've studied in the UK at the MSc, MPhil, MEngg level - how did you fund your education? Were you able to get things like teaching or research assistantships and how much of your costs did these cover?"
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Advice for Returning to School After Long Break?

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  • Grad Help! (Score:4, Informative)

    by CyberBill (526285) on Monday January 10, 2005 @02:10PM (#11311617)
    I recently graduated from a bachelors degree and went out looking for a school to get a Master's from... Unfortunately when I went out, a lot of the schools requested that I got work experience first... So dont forget to mention that you've been WORKING for five years, it really will help you get in.
  • by Cade144 (553696) * on Monday January 10, 2005 @02:11PM (#11311624) Homepage

    I just completed a professional degree program after several years away from school. Here are a few nuggets of advice:

    • Buy/sell used books online, if you can. The campus bookstore still rips you off.
    • If you don't know already, learn to use Power Point (or similar presentation software). As far as I can tell, all university professors have traded in their old View-Graphs and slide carousels for Power Point presentations.
    • Collaborate with your classmates (if such is allowed by class/university rules) online. Starting a class blog, or Yahoo! group can help keep you and your classmates up-to-date, and provide a good forum for "what the heck was the prof saying?" type of questions.
    • Pack your lunch/snack/coffee. Campus food services/vending machines still overcharge for junk food.
    • Use the campus career center as much as you can, even in the early days of your degree. After all, a new and better job is the untimate goal, and University Career centers are still full of fantastic advice.

    Good luck, and make sure to do all the readings and homework this time around.

  • Not "either/or" (Score:3, Informative)

    by leitz (641854) on Monday January 10, 2005 @02:14PM (#11311663) Journal
    Many US grad schools offer night time and weekend classes. You need to find a job here and then go to school in your off time. That's how I got my Masters, though not in CompSci.

    Having a job will give you money to fund your own small research projects, buy books/hardware, and contacts that can help you answer questions when you're stumped. It's also a much better way to have a job after graduation.
  • by pll178 (544842) on Monday January 10, 2005 @02:15PM (#11311674)
    Two years ago, I did what you did. I left my good paying job as a project manager at a high tech firm to go back to engineering school. It was scary but well worth it! To answer your questions:

    1. For graduate admissions, at least at Carnegie Mellon, they send the files over to the professors based on your interests. The professors then look at your background to see if you are a good fit. In my case, they considered both my academic background as well as my industry experience. In fact, my industry experience helped me.

    2. Not sure about US vs. UK vs. Canada, but what I can tell you is that a M.S. in engineering is more than sufficient if you only want to work in industry. A Ph.D. is good if you want to teach and if you want to lead a research team.

    3. The biggest problem I had was all in the mental realm. I forgot most of what I learned in undergrad (all that funky calculus stuff, physics, etc ;). I spent a few months doing a major review of everything I thought would be necessary to get me to the level where I should be if I were just coming out of undergrad. I also found that I wasn't as quick as some of the younger students in my lab, but what I lacked in speed, I made up in discipline and focus. :)
  • uk courses (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2005 @02:16PM (#11311688)
    In the UK you can fund an MSc with a career development loan, the government pays the interets on this for the duration of your course. But after you graduate it attracts commercial rates and is due within 5 years. Not sure if foreign students can get these or not.

    PHD/MPhill are often funded by grants from universities, government, industry etc. These are tax free and cover both maintenance and tution. If your not able to get one of these you'll need to come up with the money yourself, either by working part time, your family/friends/savings or by borrowing it. Foreigners should have no problems applying for grants, but places will go for those with the best ability (.

    Tutition for either of these is usually about £3k per year for a UK/EU student. Not sure if it differs for non UK/EU.

    MEng degrees are undergraduate courses usually lasting 4 years (often with a year in industry as a compulsory, so 5 years in that case). I'm currently in the final year of one of these but find the stuff being taught is not focused on technologies, but on methods and software engineering principles.

  • by beelsebob (529313) on Monday January 10, 2005 @02:18PM (#11311721)
    1. I was applying to do a PhD, so I'm not sure how much they look at Masters level, but for PhD level, the supervisors quite frankly cared not about work experience, they cared that my first degree was from a good university and that I had a good interest in the subject
    2. The American and Canadian students here (in the UK) don't seem to think that the courses are that different.
    3. Can't really answer that, my work experience was as a sandwich student
    4. I'm paying £3,010 a year in fees in the UK, and I think as an international student you can expect to pay £7,000-£10,000 a year. I'm funding it through an EPSRC grant, which I believe is available to masters students. You need to get in touch with the universities you're applying to and ask what grants and funding are available and how to apply. Quite a lot of places are usually available on a fees only basis (they pay your fees, you pay your way), but you will find the occasional fees and grant place like mine.
  • Here's my experience (Score:5, Informative)

    by RealAlaskan (576404) on Monday January 10, 2005 @02:19PM (#11311725) Homepage Journal
    I went back to school after 11 years. I had gotten my BSEE in '85, then in '96 I decided to go back to school and get a Ph.D in economics.

    I didn't know anyone who could give recommendations (all my professors had either moved on or retired), so I went back to my old school as a master's student for 1 year, impressed the profs, and got recommendations which (together with decent SATs) got me into Purdue.

    I found that living on a small income was hard, but the studying was actually easier than it had been the first time through. In particular, math was easier to learn. That was a good thing, since econ and stats take more and different math than undergraduate EE.

    I never finished my Ph.D (I'm ABD), but I did get an MS in Statistics along the way, and I'm working as an economist. Finishing would have been do-able, but didn't seem worth the cost in student loan debt and time.

    If you can get accepted at a school, you can do it, if you can fund it. If they aren't offering you an assistantship with free tuition and a stipend of more than $10,000 per year, keep looking. Schools recruit undergrads, they hire graduate students.

  • by ghostlibrary (450718) on Monday January 10, 2005 @02:21PM (#11311751) Homepage Journal
    Hi,

    Having left the industry to go back for a PhD, here's my input. It may be different for a Masters, in particular for a terminal Masters.

    > 1) Typically, how do graduate admissions officials view work experience?

    For admissions, mostly not at all. Admissions is really "previous GPA, application, etc." Past work is good if there's an interview stage, but most of admission is just paperwork and weeding out.

    Now, if you do get admitted, that's when you talk to your advisor and find out which past work can count as credit hours (saving you time and money).

    That said, admissions does have one critical bit-- whether they (the committee/department as a culture) tend to favor returnees and people with experience, or if they prefer fresh-outs with no real-world taint that they can work hard and mold in their own image.

    That cultural barrier will be the one big determinant for any application. A department that only wants fresh-outs would turn you down even if you have a Nobel prize.

    An easy way to check this sort of thing, is find out the average age of their student body. Most universities post that (or call them), and it'll clue you into which are 'real-world friendly'. Older = more likely to value experience.

    Good luck!
  • by Otter (3800) on Monday January 10, 2005 @02:27PM (#11311818) Journal
    I've been dipping in and out of a part-time MBA program for a while, and would generally agree with your point. The biggest adjustment I had to make was simply being able to sit and listen to someone for three hours. Not having done it in a while, I found it to be a skill that had to be relearned.

    There were some other things, especially being able to bang out a 10 page paper in an evening without having anything particular to say. But on the whole, as the parent says, general cluefulness makes up for a whole lot of minor deficiencies.

  • by zhiwenchong (155773) on Monday January 10, 2005 @02:31PM (#11311875)
    1) Actually as far as books are concerned he should buy them in India and bring them over (or have his relatives ship them over). Most countries outside of North America sell international edition textbooks which are WAY cheaper than any used book you can get here (it's something like $18 for a book that would cost $150 new/$80 used on Amazon). Also I am told that in India the prices are usually even lower than standard international edition issues because they print on lousier paper or something.

    (btw it's actually legal (or more correctly, not illegal) to ship international editions into the U.S.... google for the U.S. court ruling)

    2) PowerPoint.... no comment. Some of us use LaTeX's slide mode. But whatever works for you.

    3) Useful, but what is probably more useful is having a good relationship with people in your research group (who have already taken the courses you're taking). I find that face-to-face contact is more efficient than online contact, though maybe having both is best.

    4) Agreed. Pack your own lunch. Campus food is too expensive... it'll eat away at your already measly stipend.
  • Unlike much of the jibbering masses here, I have actually done this. I left school disgusted with some changes in North Carolina's statewide Community College System which erased nearly half my credits. I didn't want to go to a community college, take classes a second time, and pay more money, and I couldn't afford to continue at the University level. My boss came along and offered me a fat wad of cash, and off the private sector I went. Ten years later, after a short stint in the army (emphasis on 'short' and emphasis on 'stint'), I decided that I would go no further in life than I had been without an education, and that I wanted to try a different vector. So without adeiu.


    3) I'd like to hear from people who've done this, i.e. quit their jobs and gone back to get a higher engineering degree. What problems did you face and what advice do you have?


    There is a huge learning curve for subjects since you've likely purged the 'useless' data which formed the prerequisites for some of the classes you'll be taking. Plan on hours of studying at least for the first few months, as your brain recycles information.

    You'll also be surrounded by youngin's. For more advanced classes it won't be too bad, because the kids that made it that far are more mature and focused, but be prepared to be annoyed by flippant young kids who haven't learned things like sacrifice yet. The flipside of this is that you should not discount your younger classmates. We have a tendency to acquiesce to seniority, but in the classroom even the teacher learns new things at times. My equal in my Calc class is a girl who is 11 years younger than me. And hot. Which is distracting too. Either way, it is to your benefit to adopt an egalitarian outlook while on campus.
  • pros and cons (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2005 @03:20PM (#11312503)
    I'm actually doing what you wrote about: I worked for 8 years as a commercial software developer and recently (like last September) returned to Graduate school for my Masters in computer science. There is alot of things I think I'd like to say about my decision and the ensuing process, including actually being here. Apologies if its a little long.

    Make sure you know why are you doing it -
    Like others have said, make sure you actually know WHY you want to do a graduate degree. Really, to be honest, there is alot you can do in computers without needing a graduate education to pursue it, unless its a very specific field and/or in R&D. Even then it is sometimes possible to enter a field you want by starting from a junior position at a relevant company as long as location isn't an issue or the money you want to make (which should be true if you are considering becoming a student in the US, UK or Canada). Also if you think you have to have a graduate degree to enter a challenging field I think its a bit of a myth. For example I know that in the game programming community, which may not have a big rep in the academic circles, is extremely challenging and requires its developers to know not only programming but math, physics, AI etc. There are alot of extremely talented and VERY smart people in this field who could knock the socks off of a PhD student in compsci. I had considered, very strongly, to go this route (through employment, not school) but I decided to go back because I in fact, did *want* to be in school. Make sure you do.

    Getting in - I can't say enough about what alot of CRAP loophole jumping I had to do to get in. The application process, I think in general, does not look favorably on the mature student. Getting references when you have been away that long is sometimes near impossible, and most of the time they are intersted in your grades, papers you've published or research you've already done. So unless you did it already in your undergrad you'll be lacking in your application. Most commercial work doesn't really apply. Plus, you are competing against recent undergrads who probably knew they wanted to move onto grad studies and in their final year did alot of things to make themselves 'graduate' worthy. That being said, it really depends on the university you are applying to and the supervisor you want to work with. Two profs I contacted wouldn't give me the time of day while two others seem interested. Of those two, only one seemed to appreciate my work experience and encouraged me to come back to school. Find a supervisor like this who is willing to take you on and you are set.

    UK, US vs Canada - I actually did check out programs in all 3 countries and here is a very biased comparison of the three: of the 3, Canada typically has the longest Masters program which is about 2 years - as far as I know the other two countries generally offer 50/50 between 1 and 2 year programs; the UK has a nice system where they usually offer a PostGraduate diploma (1 year) which allows you to do the course work portion of your Masters and if you do well enough you can continue onto the full Masters degree; the US has some fantastic research labs and usually allow for a Masters straight into a PhD if you want that sort of thing; all 3 countries will love you because you are an international student and will pay the associated fees (usually 2-3 times as much). BTW, somebody made a comment about why the US and why not study in some other country. My comment is that yes, you really are that good! My Canadian funny money couldn't take me very far in the US but there is some amazing research being done at the US universities that I haven't seen anywhere else.

    What you will liked as a mature grad student - learning new things that challenge you and interest you: unlike undergrad days you no longer have to take courses that you find boring since everything you take should be relevant to your research (which should have interested you to begin with or why do it). I've found I'm m
  • by Flamesplash (469287) on Monday January 10, 2005 @03:42PM (#11312834) Homepage Journal
    I'll address #3 since I think that's the killer

    I got my BS CS in Dec 2000, went to work for a DoD company for 2.5 years then went to graduate school. I'm currently in my last semester of the 2 year program I choose so I'll share the pit falls.

    Money

    Your Own
    You gotta watch this. I saved a lot of money before going back and it's all gone, even the money I made off my tax returns, since I stopped working mid way through, is gone. It's really hard to step back your spending habits, especially when it comes to things like food, and not eating out a lot as I did. So save as much as you can before hand and make a budget and stick to it!

    As an aside, for americans. The FAFSA which denotes how much you get in student loans, as well how much is subsidized will kill you because the form assumes that since you worked the previous tax season you will be working this tax season and therefor you will get probably nothing in loans. What you need to do is petition the financial aid office at your school to manually evaluate your income based on the actual condition for the year ( basically adjust your gross income), that is how much you will be making during the school year. For my first year this was $0 so my loans were then able to cover my tuition etc for a decent part.

    Funding

    If you are going just for a Masters program do not expect to get an Assistanceship, expect to have to pay tuition, fees and all living costs out of pocket, and via student loans. GaTech, my school, is like this and the TAs and RAs are very hard to come by, they ever fired all the MS TAs two semesters ago due to budget issues. Some schools I think are able to more definitively offer funding of some sort, but be aware.

    Time

    Going back to school is pretty much turning your life over to academics. Do not plan on having much free time, no more 9-5 then stop working. This was and has continued to be the hardest thing for me. It's compounded by the fact that not everything will be scheduled for you, eg independant work, or working assistanceships that pay you. It's easy to let all that get lost in the mix and set to the side simply because you are getting your course work done.

    So accept up front that you will be working most of the time and deal with it and be happy when you do have time.

    Etc

    I would advise not getting cable for a couple months after you start. First live without it then if you think you can manage having it just get basic :o)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2005 @04:09PM (#11313229)
    I went back and got a master's degree. Started it when I was 35. It was a lot of fun. My advice;

    1) Go and do it. Don't put it off. Life only gets busier.

    2) Be financially prepared.

    3) Read "Write your dissertation first and other essays on a graduate education" by M. David Merril. http://www.id2.usu.edu/Papers/Contents.html
  • by big-giant-head (148077) on Monday January 10, 2005 @05:06PM (#11314023)
    Ah Dude, he said he was from India and Quit his job in India. Thats kinda germaine to the whole thing, that started whole trollish nature of this article. If he said I quit my job in Cleveland, there would have been probably a dozen or so replies to this article.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2005 @05:47PM (#11314574)
    I went back to graduate school after 10 years in industry. I am a US citizen so my experience may be a little different then yours.

    First step was to study and prep for the GRE (subject and general) I did ok on both about 90% on english math and cs. My undergraduate degree is from UC Berkeley where I had just above a 3.7 in CS.

    My particular situation was also different then yours, in that I had supported my wife through medical school/residency and she was going to support me through grad school. Consequently, I looked for schools near where we wanted to live and where she was going to work (Newport Beach, CA, USA).

    I applied to UC Irvine, UCLA, UC San Diego for a PHD program in Artificial intelligence. I spent a lot of time on my personal statement and had others read it for clarity, grammar etc.

    I was accepted to all of the programs and ended up going to UCI where I am very happy. All financial support offers were about the same. Aproximately Tuition + $15K-19K

    I was not applying to the very top schools but based on my small sample, it is very possible to get accepted after having worked for several years.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 10, 2005 @05:55PM (#11314657)
    I worked for 3 years before returning to school to get my PhD in chemistry. Taking the time off before I went back was probably the smartest thing I did.

    You will find that you treat graduate school more as a job and less as school. As long as you don't spend all day on /., you will get things done quicker than someone who is fresh out of undergrad and views graduate school as "school" and not as a job. Professors have a lot more interest in you since they know you're more dedicated to school and are in it for the long haul.

    Some advice:
    1. Find something to do that isn't graduate school; it will keep you sane. This was the single greatest piece of advice given to me on my way to graduate school. Preferably, find something that doesn't involve other graduate students. I train martial arts to get my head out of chemistry.

    2. Cut your expenses accordingly. If you take a 50% cut in pay, cut all your expenses by 50%. You will find that you stay busy enough that your paltry stipend doesn't bother you so much. Take this time as a lesson in how to budget.

    3. When looking for a major professor (advisor), make sure you like the guy. He will control your life for a number of years. Talk to graduate students who have been there at least 3 years as they won't sugar coat everything.

    4. When looking at schools, ask lots of questions about money. You won't be making much so every bit helps. Ask stupid things like the following:
    How much does parking cost? (this can get pricey)
    What about health care?
    Are there any hidden fees? (typically student fees)
    Do I have to pay for conferences?
    Does my stipend increase every year to offset the cost of living?

    Hope this helps. Best of luck.
  • Read this book (Score:3, Informative)

    by TheNumberSix (580081) <NumberSix@simpli ... EL.com_minusfood> on Monday January 10, 2005 @08:08PM (#11316096)
    I just completed a Master's program and I found this book [amazon.com] to be very helpful.

    It will give you some idea of the politics and tactics used to get through a grad program.

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