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Some background:

I graduated 3 years ago from a big state research university. I had an irrelevant sociology major and graduated with a 2.9 GPA mainly because I had no inclination that I would ever want to go to graduate school and thought it was more important to just make sure that I had a job to support myself and graduated on time.

After graduation I had a crappy office job for 2 years and took some random IT graduate courses which lead me to eventually get a job as a programmer at a large marketing firm for about a year and I got really interested in the more complex world of computer science especially computer vision, modeling and simulation.

Which brings me to now.

I will be beginning a CS Master's program this summer at a medium sized state university with a concentration in Modeling and Sim. I plan to to the thesis option and I've already begun contacting professors about research opportunities.

My GRE score is 162/155/4.5 but I didn't study because I found out I had to take it at the last minute. With some prep I think I can at least bring that up to about 165/160/5.

All that said, do you think that with my thesis, a publication or 2 and a stellar GPA my masters work would over-shaddow my crappy undergraduate career enough to get me into a good PhD program.

My dream department would be Caltech. But I'd at least like to go somewhere reputable if I'm going to bother with a PhD.

Diversity note in case this helps my cause: I'm female, 1st generation college student, armed forces veteran.

TL;DR

BAD UNDERGRAD: 2.9GPA/unrelated major

If I do really well on my CS Masters program, get some research published, and get my GRE score up to like a 165/160/5 do you think a top program would ignore the transgressions of my youth?

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    I'm not familiar with the US system but I think your Masters research will be more important than what came before. If you get involved in solid research resulting in good publications at recognisable venues, and you apply for PhD's in areas where you have developed the start of a good track record, I think you would be a strong applicant. (Even excellent undergrad grades don't translate into excellent PhD candidates: some students may excel in taught environments but not in unstructured research, and vice-versa. Hence, in my book, proven research ability trumps undergrad grades wrt. a PhD.) – badroit Mar 5 '14 at 18:41
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My opinion is that you will be a shoo-in somewhere if you can do good work at the Master's level, while building relationships with the faculty. The fact that your undergrad degree was in sociology almost makes your low GPA irrelevant.

Definitely aim for Caltech if that's what you want, and there is faculty you want to work with. But don't get too hung up on big name schools. There are lots of other schools which maybe aren't as highly ranked but could be a good fit for you.

I recommend reading this book, which helped in writing my statement of purpose. The author is another person who graduated below 3.0.

Here's a personal anecdote to give you encouragement: I was a mediocre undergrad at a big public university, then went to work for a number of years before deciding to enroll in a part-time Master's program at a smaller state school. I had a great experience working with my final project advisor, who encouraged me to apply to a PhD program. I am still working on publishing the results, but in the meantime I have been accepted to a PhD program for the coming year. I never imagined it would happen, but it did. If I can do it, so can you.

  • Thanks for the encouragement. My preference for Caltech isn't so much the big name as it is its ties with NASA. Although, going to a different school I could still aim for internships and/or fellowships at the JPL and still meet the same goal. – CSGal Mar 6 '14 at 15:58
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Given how far away from your original undergraduate degree you've moved (several years' work experience, change in degree program, and so on), it makes it very hard for a PhD program to give your undergraduate transcript too much weight in the admissions process. You will also be able to stress how far you've come as part of your application, either in the statement of purpose or in a "other notes" section—and you should take avail yourself of the opportunity.

As for being female and a veteran, that will matter much more to schools than being a first-generation college student. (Being a female applicant in CS certainly can't hurt your chances if you're a qualified candidate.)

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