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I'm in my third year at college, currently pursuing CS. I've developed quite an interest in social network analysis and machine learning and have, thus, been working on research papers that lie within these two categories. However, while I am certain that I enjoy the research experience and can communicate this effectively in my Statement of Purpose, I am worried about the quality as well as low number of publications that I expect to have by the time I apply for an MS/MS-PhD program.

I say quality because I have not published in any of the top-notch CS journals. Two of my papers have been published in conference proceedings (Publisher: Springer). The third paper is actually a book chapter published in IGI-Global. However, two of these papers have only two authors with me as first author and my mentor as second author.

Apart from this, my grades are pretty high. Overall, 9.5/10.0 gpa as of now and I expect to keep this constant by the time I graduate. (If it matters, I scored a 10.0/10.0 one semester and so ranked first in the Uni for that sem.) Taking all this into consideration, is it reasonable for me to target the top 20-50 universities even with my 3 "okay" papers? I was hoping that my grades may offset this. Note: I am targeting an RA/TA position as I definitely require full financial aid as I am an international student.

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    Why are you applying to MS and not PhD programs? It sounds like you want to do research, and you need funding (which is standard for US CS PhD students and not at all standard for MS students.) – ff524 Dec 21 '15 at 19:13
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    This is perhaps limited to my institution, but from my understanding grad school has no expectation of undergraduate research experience. For programs that have a large number of applicants and limited positions, however, if your learning curve is going to be less steep entering the program (i.e. undergrads w/ research experience going into a Ph.D. vs. undergrads who'll need to be brought up to speed) it helps your application quite a bit. You should consult the program director/advisor for your intended institution, definitely. – CKM Dec 21 '15 at 21:47
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    Don't fret about the research. It's icing on the cake, as Kendall said. But you should be selecting the programs to apply to based on the content of the program and the research interests of the professors, not the ranking. Spend some time reading course descriptions and descriptions of research interests, and apply to the places that just make you drool, thinking That's what I want to do! – aparente001 Dec 22 '15 at 7:27
  • @ff524 I was thinking of applying to thesis-based MS programs if funding is possible as that would allow me to take a year or two off from college and work before going back to pursue my PhD. As you said though, most of the programs I've seen so far provide funding for MS-PhD integrated courses and not the MS ones. – Niki Dec 22 '15 at 19:19
  • Short story: You sound like an unusually strong candidate for almost any PhD program in your area. – Daniel R. Collins Jan 5 '16 at 16:29
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The general answer to your question is, there are no expectations per se. Although your question is phrased in terms of undergraduate research, your explanation focuses mostly on visibility in the form of publications. By parts and based on my own experience:

  1. Undergraduate research: This is highly desirable, importantly because it's the best way to get an in-depth letter of recommendation. Letters are the most underestimated factor in admissions by students. The difference between a letter from someone we know describing at length your qualifications and a letter essentially re-stating that you got an A+ in a large class is very significant. Another reason why undergraduate research may be important is because it may give your statement of purpose more focus. Last but not least, it's always desirable to get a student that knows what he/she is getting into and that can hit the ground running.

  2. Publications: If you have a publication in a top-tier venue, that is of course an excellent thing to have. A publication in a low-tier venue won't count for much by itself; its significance will depend on, you guessed it, what your adviser's letter says about your contribution.

Ultimately, I think the questions you want answered are:

  1. Will someone with undergraduate research experience and a very strong package (including letters of recommendation), but no publications, be competitive in CS? My answer is Yes.

  2. Could such an applicant lose over someone identical but with some low-tier publications? My answer is, these two applicants would probably be considered essentially equally.

  3. Alternatively, could such an applicant lose over someone identical but with one or more publications in top-tier venues? My answer is Yes, IF they are competing for a single spot--which is unlikely. Also, such kind of applicants are not at all the norm in my experience (which could vary by area).

In any case, it probably can't hurt for you to engage in research that aims at publishing at a top-tier venue: When you shoot for the moon, even if you miss it, you often end up among stars.

  • Thank you so much for such an in-depth answer! This is exactly the kind of explanation I was looking for. :) – Niki Jan 27 '16 at 18:42

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