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I'm a student in a "second-rate" engineering school in France (by that I mean that it offers a decent formation but has basically no appeal for employers in the kind of jobs I want). This is deeply unsatisfying to me for several reasons:

  • I recently discovered (during an international exchange) that I strongly prefer the mathematical aspects of computer science to the programming side of it, and I would like to continue my career working on Machine Learning/statistics, which is not an option in my current school. I've done pure mathematics and physics in my two years of preparatory classes, which ended a year and a half ago, but haven't had a proper math course since then, except a few probabilities and boolean logic.
  • The school's ranking and reputation are very disappointing to me. Whatever people can say about the uselessness of rankings and the importance of following one's passions etc., I know I could have done much better had I had a better environment (as opposed to a dysfunctional family, social isolation and as a result, mental health problems), and I feel like my studies have been stolen from me.

I'm in my first year of Master's degree (4th year after high school), and considering my options. I wonder if, by working hard enough, it's still possible to get a degree from a more reputable institution, or if it's already too late to try again and my degree's academic level is set.

I am aware that most answers will tell me to get on with it, and that the school's ranking is not a good motivation, and that I will be alright as long as I do what I like. I am doing this partly because I want the advantages that come with a reputable university (being surrounded by motivated people, having more options, having an advantage in job interviews), and partly for personal reasons. This is more than an ego problem, I want to know what I'm capable of, and I'm pretty sure that my current studies or the jobs they lead me towards cannot satisfy me.

Additionally, I would like to go finish my studies abroad at some point, and already have a few cities and universities in mind. I would like a researcher or research engineer's position in the private sector.

I am considering the following options:

  • Finishing my Master's degree while catching up on maths on the side, then trying to get into a PhD programme abroad.
  • Finishing my Master's, finding work in a machine learning- or statistics-related field for one year, then applying to a PhD programme. The year off would give me more time to get the required level in maths, and the professional experience could be useful when applying.
  • Trying right away to get into another school's Master's programme that would be better adapted to my plans.

For all I know, all of these may be unrealistic (starting a PhD after two years without math courses would at least require a lot of work on the side, and I don't see how my application could have a chance without a math-related degree to prove I'm competent; getting into a foreign school's master's programme is probably a very selective and/or expensive transition, especially if I'm coming from a lower-ranked institution).

The ideal way would be to go back to high school and do the preparatory classes again, this time without personal problems to discourage me. Of course, this isn't possible.

My options seem pretty bad given my goals, and I'm aware that my plans seem unrealistic. This is a point in my studies (and life) where I seriously question my previous choices and start to regret the low ambitions I had a few years earlier. I am mostly trying to get an overview of what I can aspire to and what is off the table. What would be a good way to proceed from there?

  • When you say high school, do you mean undergraduate studies? – Spark Jan 26 at 20:48
  • @Spark I mean high school, before higher education. This is my 4th year after the baccalauréat, which is the French diploma we pass when finishing high school. – Elzo Jan 26 at 20:51
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    Got it, well you can see my answer :) – Spark Jan 26 at 20:52
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    Finish the program you are in. Then look to go immediately to a program you like. They are familiar with some students having less math background. You can remediate that while you are doing your Ph.D. The sidetracks are not worth it. Finally, school prestige in France is more a thing in France. Abroad programs will be more interested how smart you are. – guest Jan 26 at 21:23
  • A similar misadventure happened to me. The problem is that France is an incredibly unfair country which provides more to foreign people than to its own citizens. While you could brush up your academic CV going abroad, France still (illegally) discriminates harshly on age, and schools (but only for its own citizens), and being French and having been abroad is not viewed in the same manner as a foreign person coming from abroad. For the French person, it is seen as being a failure. This means that you might have to leave the country once and for all once you graduate if you want a good job. – Evariste Jan 27 at 14:16
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First of all, nothing is off the table. You are still in the very beginning of your academic path and nothing is closed off irrevocably. You are correct in thinking that a CS degree will require you to catch up on fundamentals. The question is how much time and effort would you like to invest in this endeavor. I don't think that dropping out of the engineering program is necessary. A lot of people transition from engineering to CS, you are by no means the first to want to make the switch.

So what are the options of a master of engineering holder to get into a CS PhD?

  1. Doing nothing: You can probably get into some CS PhD program right now if your research statement/references are good, though you are not likely to get into one of the top international programs. School rank does not matter in PhD as much as your ability to find a good advisor with whom you are able to publish! This is a function of your mutual fit and joint capability, not the school's ranking.
  2. Getting a master in CS: if you want to get some foundational knowledge and have time to familiarize yourself with the field, you can just take 2 years to complete another master's degree. The downside here is that it takes time and money, the upside is that you get another degree to your name and time to gain the necessary experience.
  3. Getting a CS undergraduate degree: this is really resetting your academic clock to some degree. It will take you a while (though you may have the option of getting credits for your existing classes, depending on where you take your undergraduate degree). There's nothing wrong with going back to basics, but it is a bit extreme.

To conclude, what you want to do is not easy, but certainly within the realm of plausibility. I would say that the current hype around AI/ML is not playing in your favor. The competition for these programs can be quite fierce, especially in top schools, so if your life dream is joining them it may require you getting some professional training via a masters at least.

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