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I did an undergraduate degree in one engineering discipline (electrical), and a course based masters in the same discipline of engineering (electrical) and another course based masters in another discipline of engineering (civil).

The undergraduate GPA is very poor, but the masters GPAs were better: 3.7 in the one in a different field than the undergrad (civil) and 3.3 in the same field as undergrad (electrical). I have done more than 20 graduate courses as a non degree student with a GPA of 3.8 in civil and electrical engineering.

I want to apply for PhD as opposed to Masters with thesis in the same discipline as my undergraduate degree and one of my masters degrees (both electrical). I do not have particularly strong recommendations apart from doing well in course work, and no research papers or research experience. I would like to do research in academia or an industrial research lab.

Can I get into a PhD with a very poor undergraduate record and no thesis based masters degree - or should I do a thesis masters degree first ? How can I show potential for research ?

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PhD programs in the US don't typically expect a previous masters degree of any sort (it might be a lot more common in some fields than others, though; engineering would be one of them where it seems more common, though I am basing that mostly on seeing engineering CVs rather than having much familiarity with grad school in engineering). Having done a master's program could shore up a poor undergraduate record, of course, and give you a second crack at doing research in an academic setting. However, it seems you've gotten a couple masters degrees without taking advantage of that part: having a second crack at research.

Therefore, if I were looking at your application, the first thing I'd notice is that you basically haven't shown any past interest in academic research. I'd be wondering: why does this person now want to apply for a PhD program to become trained in doing research, given that they have not yet done anything that shows they are interested in doing research, or whether they have aptitude towards research or even like doing research?

I think all of that makes you a weaker candidate than even someone with poorer grades that does have some research experience.

I think it's very difficult to answer the question "how can I show potential for research?" when so far your career says on paper "I am not interested in research". Certainly getting some sort of paid junior academic research position would be a good step, but I'm not sure whether those positions are common in your field or whether your resume will be suited to getting you that spot. There may be research positions in industry that are a better fit for what you've done so far on paper, but again, these may not be common.

I don't want to discourage you too much, but I'd strongly suggest asking yourself some questions as well: what is your goal in getting a PhD and why are you deciding now that this is a path you want? What are you going to do with your PhD that you wouldn't do without it? Is the PhD truly necessary or is there another path for you to reach your goals?

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  • Thank you, all valid points. I think just maturity, drive and discipline I did not have before and also learning by doing multiple research based projects in my course work, volunteer research experience after one of my course based masters and industry experience that were research based, which then became something I was very interested in pursuing. All topics I plan to discuss in my statement of purpose. Basically, just tell the truth which I am not sure is enough.
    – user4434
    Jul 19 at 22:43
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    @user4434 Are there people from those experiences that can write you letters of recommendation? You wrote in your question that you have "no research experience" but it sounds like that's not quite true and you will want to highlight what you have done, at least. I'd highly recommend this Q&A to you as well: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/38237/…
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 19 at 22:45
  • Well these experiences were informal and self driven. In course work, I took it upon myself to do research based projects and that was entirely self driven. I also volunteered to do research and assist another graduate student in their research work and it led to an informal mentoring relationship. It is my understanding only academic can give references, so I am not sure I can ask this graduate student for a reference, since they are only a PhD student. I am not sure PhD students can give an academic reference - isnt that correct ? Thanks for the link I read that extensively.
    – user4434
    Jul 19 at 22:49
  • @user4434 And you only interacted with the PhD student, not their mentor at all or their mentor doesn't know your contributions? There's no rule that only professors can write recs, but yes I'd highly recommend it anyways. If you have 3 recs it would certainly be fine to have 2 from professors and 1 from an industry reference where you did research, though they may need some information on what a grad school rec should look like vs an industry one.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jul 19 at 23:13
  • Sorry, I was not clear. But the PhD student was at the same school I did my course based masters at - they were doing a thesis based masters at the time and then progressed to now doing a PhD. Were were not in industry but at the school completing our respective degree programs when this volunteer research experience and mentor relationship occurred.
    – user4434
    Jul 19 at 23:14
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Your best bet would be to try and talk to professors (either from your undergraduate or MS programs) regarding how you can get involved in research and gain the experience necessary to join a PhD program.

Ideally, a thesis-based masters would be the best type of MS to pursue if you are interested in pursuing a PhD. Since you already have two MS degrees, this may make things harder and more complicated for you to pursue a formal MS with thesis. In addition to contacting professors from your previous institutions, to start, you should begin reading papers in your field(s) of interest and also try to contact any prospective advisors at any institutions you may want to attend for future degrees.

I also wouldn't rule out trying to start as an independent researcher, although the way to do this can be very ambiguous. Although I graduated undergrad with some research experience (due to starting research late), the experience I have isn't exactly impressive, and I didn't have too much direction or understanding of ML-related fields of interest such as Natural Language Processing. I happened to look up a lab's posting for post-bacs, and although it's just a side project (unpaid volunteer) in addition to my full-time consulting job at the moment, it's very good experience that has opened up my eyes in my potential field of interest.

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Yes. I did and several of the people in my cohort did too. We went to a professional MS and continued to PhD directly after graduation. The important is about contacting the professor, and if you have a good conversation and share similar research interests with them, you will be able to get into a PhD program.

Also, don't get disappointed when you get no answer back from the professor. I sent around 20 emails and got only 2 responses. And one of which did not need students this year.

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  • What country are you in ? What faculty and department ? I have a professor that is interested in me and if I dont get into PhD then drop you to Masters with thesis anyways. So you are saying that if they are looking for people and you have a good conversation then you can get in - is that correct ?
    – user4434
    Jul 20 at 4:17
  • I am from Cambodia and I am going to PhD in Geology and Environmental Studies this fall. Yes. Unlike undergrad, the people that have the final say in whether you're admitted are your potential advisors and/or the committee of the professors from the department.
    – The Mapper
    Jul 21 at 5:27

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