This question in some sense, complements this question. Suppose a good student completes his master's degree in a less-than-top-ranked university. He has excellent academic grades both in his bachelor's and master's, but unfortunately has not experienced the best research 'atmosphere' in his post-grad and so does not have any publications thus far in his career.

It is a hugely relevant practical issue: low-ranked universities woo good students by providing them full funding plus scholarships for their master's, so there are many cases where students prefer them to top colleges where funding is not assured. After completion of graduation, these students desire to go for a PhD in top universities. So the question is this:

  • How does a bright student with excellent grades but lacking in publications secure an admit in a top school?

One obvious answer is to formulate an excellent research problem and to convince professors of his research ideas pertaining to the problem. Any other useful suggestions?

  • The answer to your question is that such a student rarely does. – Samuel Reid Apr 2 '12 at 7:05
  • 2
    Note that in some countries (such as France), it is not required at all to have publications to enter a PhD program. As far as I know, it's even quite rare, since the Master mostly focuses on lectures and projects. There can be an internship of several months at the end of the Master, that can lead to a publication, but that usually directly precedes the PhD, and the admission to the program is done before the end of the internship. – user102 Apr 2 '12 at 13:36
  • @Bravo: Charles makes a good point. Are you trying to get into an American PhD program? From my experience many people do graduate Master's programs with publications in the US. – mac389 Apr 3 '12 at 14:56

You have to make the case that your research potential outweighs your lack of research output.

The only places to make that case are your research statement and your letters. Both your statement and your letters should make it clear that you are an active researcher, even though you are not yet published. Your statement should describe the specific research problem(s) that you are pursuing, promising and specific partial results, and a specific and well-informed plan of attack.

Similarly, letters from faculty at your MS department should describe your independence, stubbornness, intellectual maturity, and so on, in specific and credible detail. When you ask for letters, ask your references specifically if they can write a strong letter about your research potential. Ideally, your references should admit that their department doesn't provide you with the environment that you need to thrive as a researcher. And it really hurts to write “[Bravo] can do better than us,” so it better be true.

Admissions committees (at least the ones I've been on) do take applicants' previous institutions into account when judging research records. We know that applicants from most 4-year liberal arts colleges don't have as many opportunities for computer science research as applicants from (say) MIT, so our expectations for MIT applicants are higher. So your lack of publications may not hurt you as much if your MS department is known to have a weak research atmosphere.

However: Do not suggest in your application that your lack of publications is your MS department's fault. You may believe it's their fault, and you might even be right. But if you actually write that it's their fault, you'll come across as someone eager to blame others for your weaknesses. No matter how good you are at research, nobody will admit you if they think you're a jerk.

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This is another one of those questions that defies easy categorization. If you are applying, for instance, to a "hard" engineering discipline, it's not normally expected that a MSc would have any "external" publication record of any kind, and, as such, not having one would not weight against the candidate in admissions considerations. (All things being equal, of course, the candidate with a publication record might be prioritized over one without.) Similarly, any student coming from a European bachelor's/master's system, where the expected output is a master's thesis, but not necessarily journal publications, I would weight accordingly. (I might ask for a copy of the master's thesis.)

Similarly, if the degree is coursework-only, then this should be clearly stated as part of the application. The challenge will then be to get some support from the letters of reference of your capability to do research.

For fields where some publication record is expected, I'd follow JeffE's advice.

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