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I am from India, and I would like to pursue further education (maybe even a Ph.D.). I've messed up my BE degree (in Computer Science and Engineering) by getting consistently low marks from the second to fifth semester. My 6th semester marks are a little bit better (8.12), but that still does not improve my overall CGPA (at 6.69). This means that I have only two semesters to improve my marks, but it seems unlikely that my cumulative GPA will be higher than 7.25 or so.

I've tried my best to ask my head of department about research opportunities, but it looks like there weren't any, to begin with. So, apart from reading some journal papers, I have no experience with research whatsoever.

I would like to get into MSc in Machine Learning/Deep Learning or Cognitive Computing, but with my poor performance, I will probably be rejected. What should I be doing in order to increase my chances of getting into a prestigious research university?

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    Are you looking to pursue an MSc/PhD in India, or abroad? We normally redirect questions like this to our "how can weak/borderline students get into grad school in the US" thread, but I guess we have no similar thread for India.
    – cag51
    Aug 24 at 21:34
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    Probably a good moment for you to reflect on your personal reasons for believing graduate studies would be an appropriate path for you. Sep 25 at 15:50
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There is no doubt that your low score makes it difficult. However, it does not make it impossible.

  1. There are national competitive tests (GATE/NET ...) of various kinds for admissions to Master's (and higher) programmes in India. If you do well in them, you improve your chances quite a bit.

  2. Note that eligibility for these programmes in centrally funded institutes is usually 6.0 (or 6.5 in some cases) so you are above that level. In your application, it is worth pointing out your improvement in grades. This shows that your trajectory has a positive derivative!

  3. If you are reading journal papers, it would be good to write a review/summary of what you have learnt as a report. If this is nice enough and accessible to other students you could try to put it somewhere for publication. That could count in your favour.

  4. If you have programming skills and contribute to some ongoing (usually open source) project, that could count in your favour.

  5. If you have been part of some productive groups during summer internships that could improve your chances.

Ultimately, doing research is different from doing well in examinations and courses. Those who are part of admissions processes are often aware of this and look at a number of factors.

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There are many points to consider. You should think about what is your priority in the long-term since a PhD typically will take 5 years in India and 3 years in some other countries in the least, that too after a 2 years Master's degree. So if you don't really see yourself working on academic research for 3-5 years down the line, then a PhD is probably not the best way to go for you (PhD funding is a completely different ball-game and that can be a separate discussion on its own).

As for the GPA, I think a consistent track record is a good reference for the committee who would like to hire/admit a prospective PhD student. That could also not matter in rare cases when the applicant is required to provide a different score, e.g. GATE rank in India or subject GRE+TOEFL score for English in the US. A Master's degree is usually required before being enrolled into a PhD so focussing on getting into a suitable Master's programme is beneficial in this case. Also, some Universities have the requirement of a Master's thesis which increases the chances of getting a PhD offer since that shows that you have been involved in doing original research. My personal opinion is that good grades typically shows if a student is committed to their education and hence it is important to have somewhat nicer grades than in the lower percentile.

Also, an internship in research institutes/industries that might have a summer/winter program for short R&D projects might be a good starting point for you to check if you enjoy that experience. A PhD is an education and also training for a person to become an independent researcher that comes with several challenges which can be hard unless one finds it meaningful to do so. So before committing to something long-term check if it fits you.

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I do not know the Indian system, here is the score in the UK. Essentially, if your first degree marks are not good enough many choose to do a Masters, which is usually fee paying and the entrance requirements are not (usually) so high as a PhD. In a way, a good Masters degree resets the record. Alongside this, another thing people do sometimes is to volunteer in a "lab". If you have programming skills, writing to a local group (University based) and volunteering to get work experience with them could help. Not everyone can afford this of course, but gaining experience in this way, and references and contacts might help. This of course pre-supposes you have the skills and enthusiasm that would be useful!

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I think you already know the answer, that if your grades aren't very good, your options for a PhD are also not very good. You could try to do a master's somewhere, hoping to improve your grades, or find a lower-tiered school that will accept you despite the grades.

But I hope you might take a moment to reflect on what might be the cause of your poor grades before you decide what to do next. In my experience advising undergraduates at Michigan, where the students were all certainly bright enough, there were two basic reasons why a student might not be doing well.

Usually it was because they had too much on their plates. Sometimes it was distractions like health problems or conflict at home that had them overloaded. But usually, they were just taking too many credits and they never had enough time to get all the work done. For them, the answer was simple: Take a lighter load.

Much less common, but much more serious, were cases where the students didn't like what they were doing. They were majoring in computer science because their parents or maybe an inner voice were telling them how CS would lead to a great job. But they hated it and you could see it in their behavior, e.g., putting off projects until the day before they were due because they didn't enjoy them.

No one can spend their life in a career they hate. Or at least, they shouldn't. I think Steve Jobs got it right in his Stanford commencement address: To do great work, you must do what you love and if you haven't found it, you must keep looking.

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