I just finished my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science. I'm 100% sure that I want to pursue a specialization in AI and ML through Computer Science. And becoming a Professor is something that I really want.

I'm taking a gap year to work on my personal projects and I'm also doing some certificate courses online through Coursera.

Part of the reason why I made this decision was that I wanted to be absolutely confident in myself before I went into a professional post-grad program. But, mainly, the reason was that I was scared.

My family can't afford my education any further and not a single member(male or female) in my family (both immediate and distant) have ever studied beyond a Bachelors. I personally don't know anyone who's done a PHD and I'm not sure exactly what to expect from further education. I've been looking up post-grad degree programs in USA, and in Cornell University's MS in CS page I read that students who wish to pursue a PHD should directly apply for the PHD in CS.

That sentence intrigued me. And after looking up some more information, I found that yes, people can opt for PHDs right after Bachelors, it will be difficult obviously, but it's possible. I also found some scholarships online whose eligibility criteria I fit in, but I would still need to work while getting my degree.

But I don't know what happens in PHD programs. Will there be lectures like in normal degree programs or just research and practicals and thesis and projects? Can I work while doing a PHD? And do I really need a Masters degree ? Will it become really difficult without a Masters? Also, what exactly is a fellowship? And what is a Graduate Research Assistant?

I'm genuinely confused. Any advice would be greatly appreciated (not that anyone needs my appreciation). Thank you in advance.

  • Who taught courses for your Bachelor's degree? Did those lecturers not have PhDs? It could be worth getting in touch with those you knew best and ask them some of these questions. It's also important to maintain contact because you will need reference letters when applying for PhDs. – astronat Nov 24 '20 at 15:27

Yes, in the US most students start doctoral studies immediately after a bachelors. Yes, there will be quite a lot of coursework before you get to the dissertation stage. The courses prepare you to pass the qualifying exams and assure that you have a broad grounding in the field.

However, almost all US graduate students work as part of the program, usually as a TA (Teaching Assistant) or RA (Research Assistant). A TA usually does grading and meets with small "sections" of a larger course so that students can get questions answered. An RA works with a professor on research and the tasks depend on what that professor is doing. It might be programming or library research or whatever.

Holding a TA or RA position also means that the student doesn't pay tuition and has enough of a stipend to live (modestly), perhaps even with a family. I had two kids by the time I finished my PhD though my spouse also worked. That would be harder for a foreign student because of visa rules.

You don't need to have a research project in mind to apply for admission, nor do you need to immediately connect with a particular professor. The first year will feel a lot like the final year of undergraduate but with more advanced courses and possibly an introduction to research process.

Apply to several schools, probably in the R1 (Research focused) category. It is best if the general area you want to study within CS is represented there by several faculty so that there is the possibility for a research seminar.

At many such doctoral programs you can be awarded a masters, also, part way through your studies.

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