How to get into grad school, and how to get out properly

Five lessons I learned after completing my Master’s program that I would like to have told myself five years ago.

September 10, 2018 02:42 pm | Updated September 11, 2018 07:07 pm IST

If you aspire to a career you will love, you need to start planning and plotting your steps methodically.

If you aspire to a career you will love, you need to start planning and plotting your steps methodically.

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I always thought a Master’s degree was compulsory. It seemed like a rite of passage: you go to school, then you go to college then you go get a Masters or a PhD. I don’t know where this notion came from but I feel like I’m not the only Indian kid who grew up thinking this was what you were “supposed” to do.

I graduated from a two-year public policy program at Yale’s Jackson Institute in 2017 and these are five things I wish I could have told myself in 2013, when I first began planning for it.


Before I start, let me be clear: Compared to the average Indian, I am incredibly fortunate and I expect the path to graduate school for many Indians to be far thornier than mine. I fully accept that my advice and experiences may not apply to some/many/most Indians and I have benefited immensely from structural inequality and sheer dumb luck. This is me recognising my privilege(s). Humour me.


1. Give Yourself the Best Information Possible Before You Apply.

One of the few things I actually managed to do well in this whole exercise was prepare for my application process. You don’t have to do it alone. You are not alone. There are lots of resources to help you put together your Master’s applications in such a way that you may actually have a good sense of where you’ll get in and with what scholarship.

First things first: create a spreadsheet. On one tab I would put down things about myself: the strengths/weaknesses of my resumé, my key areas of experience, those that I would want to highlight during interviews, what I’m looking for in a program, my priorities in terms of jobs post-program — location, industry, job function (and don’t be afraid to list 2-3 in each) etc.

This tab gives you a sense of who you are and where you want to go — two things that can easily get lost through this process. On another tab, I would list out all the courses you’re interested in. Break them down by column input for each course, such as the size of the class, acceptance rate, median GRE/GMAT scores, average age/work experience of current class, cost, percentage of students who get scholarships and what the average amount awarded is, (if possible) the number of students who get jobs outside their home country, contact details of the admission officer, application deadline and total cost (including room & board). The number of courses out there may initially seem overwhelming but after you lay them out here, a pattern will start to emerge and you’ll be able to whittle them down.

The website “ ” is an outstanding free resource that you simply must use. I wouldn’t be surprised if the exact course you want at the college you’re targeting has its own thread in the discussion forum, where current and former students will give you the lowdown on how best to structure your essay, your interviews, etc. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent on that website, piecing together information about each course from the students currently enrolled in them.

Some programs will want technical skills because they are “ quant ” focused, others will want people who bring a variety of experience to enrich the student discourse. You’ll get a sense of where you “fit” if you spend enough time on these forums. I populated my spreadsheet with the kinds of GRE scores that accepted students had, and I saw that they often matched what the universities posted on their websites. Thus, I had some sense, after giving my GRE, which programs I had a realistic shot at.

I applied to eight programs and got into seven, of which three offered scholarships that made them realistic. The truth is, I got rejected by the school I didn’t really have a good chance with and got into the ones I did. The pattern of my acceptances and rejections made sense, to a remarkable extent conforming with the information I had gathered.

2. Limit the Number of Career Transitions You Make

When I began my program in 2015, I wanted to change everything about my career. This was far too ambitious. I was a business journalist working in India. I wanted to move abroad and work in renewable energy project development. Let’s break that down: I was working in media (industry) as a writer (function) in India (country). I wanted to change all three things: my industry, job function and country of residence. Many people come to grad school to change careers, but I was just being unrealistic. You are probably best served aiming to change two of these — and you may even have to settle for just one.

In my limited experience, changing jobs generally means convincing an employer that you can do the role better than someone they already have. You have to have domain skill and/or geographic expertise because you sure as hell will be competing against others who do. So why would a renewable energy project developer in San Francisco hire an Indian writer when they could hire a local who has more readily applicable skills? I took all the finance and policy classes offered at Yale but an employer would still probably prefer someone who has worked in project development or finance than take a chance on a foreign hack — and I don’t blame them.

As it happens, I am still working as a journalist, but now I live in New York and cover energy finance for a trade journal. So, I guess I made 1.5 changes out of 3: country of residence and to some extent, industry. I think it actually worked out beautifully because while I have to grapple with covering a new country, I know how to do my job and I love that I get to write about the energy sector. Maybe I would have been able to cope with working in a finance-related role for a renewable energy project developer in California as I had originally planned, but that seems like a lot of changes at once. Not easy. One step at a time. I believe meaningful transitions are slow, hard-fought and incremental.

3. For International Students, Your Visa is Everything.

If you get rejected by one company, you can apply to others. But if you lose out on your work permit, you probably have to go back home. Getting your work visa is the #1 constraint you’ll face and it’s important to plan for this. If working in the country that you studied in is a priority for you — as it was for me — then you need to figure out which visa(s) will keep you in the country and how to get them as quickly as possible. Focus on countries which offer easy post-study work visa access and work backwards from there to identify relevant courses.

In the United States, for example, if you study in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, maths), you are eligible to stay on without a new visa for three (!) years, whereas if you studied humanities like me, you only get a one-year extension to your student visa during which to find a job which will sponsor you on a work visa. I reached out to every international student (current and former) and immigration expert I knew in order to put together a game-plan for the kinds of visas I could apply for and, therefore, the kinds of companies that would sponsor me and, therefore, the kinds of jobs I should be applying to. I still got rejected by over 100 job-providers. I’m certain some of these were because the company simply couldn’t sponsor me even if they wanted.

Your locally-based classmates at grad school will not understand what it’s like being an international student — being rejected from jobs because you have to click “need visa sponsorship”, before anyone has even read your application letter. Applying for jobs as an international student who will need visa sponsorship is an oft-unspoken trauma that I want to get out there in the open. We need to come together as a community and help each other out. You may have to compromise on your dream job to get work status. Go in with your eyes open.

4. Your First Semester is Crucial

Many (most?) big companies — I mean the ones that are willing/able to sponsor a work visa — will hire their full-time graduate-level roles from a pool of last year’s summer interns. This means you need to get that summer internship at the end of your first year of grad school. This means you’ll need to start networking and getting your CV, interview skills, etc., in order as soon as you start your program.

This was a major mistake I made and something I should have known. If you do your summer internship at a large, global firm, chances are that you’ll start your second year of grad school with a job offer in hand — whether you choose to take it or not is another question. Given the money you’ll have saved for and spent on your Masters, a well-paying job offer in hand will ease your situation in life immeasurably. I have friends who got jobs at multinational companies in the U.S. but who were not granted a work visa to stay in the country. Their firm moved them to another office in Europe or the Far East and this means they are earning salaries that can help repay their student debt and/or give them the start they were looking for to their global career.

My colleagues in business school planned for this better than anyone, vociferously fighting for “networking coffee” spots at recruiting events from Day-1 in August, because they knew that summer internship applications were due in November/December and they wanted to give themselves the best shot possible. If you’re reading this, you’re probably just as diligent as them and you’ll be fine.

I took a summer internship where I learned and did more than any of my classmates in my field. I say this without a shadow of doubt. While they were working 14-hour days to format PowerPoint slides, I was joining our CEO in client meetings and working directly with financial counter-parties. But at the end of the summer, they had six-figure job offers and all I had were some impressive lines on my resumé and a good reference from a cool start-up. Things eventually worked out for me and I loved my summer internship experience, but hindsight I may have done things differently.

5. Don’t Go into Debt for Non-Professional Courses

This is a touchy issue, so, hear me out. I would caution against spending $100,000+ of your family’s savings to go abroad for a Master’s program that doesn’t have a set, tested job-placement track. If you’re doing Law, Medicine or an MBA, your course and schools are designed to get you a job. They were built as vehicles to place you into high-paying jobs that allow you to repay a student loan. Student loans, like visa status, are something we don’t generally discuss and to some extent, I understand why.

If you, like me, want to study the humanities, try and find courses that offer 50%+ scholarships. From what I understand, it is much easier to get funding and work your way through grad school in the humanities than in professional courses, where the system does not incentivise universities to offer scholarships. Why would an MBA program give you a scholarship if they know their ranking depends on placing you in a $100,000+/year job? As long as they place you, they know you’ll be making enough to pay off a student loan. Humanities programs, from what I gather, do not generally place as much emphasis on campus recruitment as professional courses and therefore large student loans might be more of a burden.


Disclaimer: I did not take out a student loan and therefore I am not an expert in what this process involves. There’s nothing inherently wrong in going into debt — especially on favorable terms. I would speak to current students (especially international students) at the programs you’re interested in to ask them about the terms of their student loan and how they secured it.


My family, Lord knows why, were generous enough to fund a minor portion of my grad school fees. The majority I got through a scholarship and by working as a teaching assistant all four semesters. Some of my friends got a full scholarship and didn’t have to work at all. Good for them. I knew I needed to bring in as much money as possible to help make up the shortfall between what my family could afford and what my scholarship paid. In the end, my grades were good enough for my university to increase my scholarship in my second year. When you’re applying to programs, don’t be afraid to ask current students about their funding mix and how hard/easy it is to secure campus work and/or scholarships.

6. Bonus Tip: Focus on What’s Within Your Control

I can’t guarantee that, by following these steps, you’ll get into the school you want, enjoy your time there or find your dream job afterwards. International students like us, who don’t have the benefit of visiting campuses, have to go by the intuition we get from speaking to admissions officers, current students and people working in industries that hire from those schools. After a point, you just have to take a leap of faith and hope things work out for the best.

What I can guarantee are that there are some things in your control and many things that aren’t. I would focus on what you can influence. A small example: I will never forget the 21 st of December 2013.

It was my 23 rd birthday and I spent it in the KIC tuition center near Bandra station in my hometown, Mumbai, preparing for my GRE. I had always been scared of standardised tests and always felt like I would underperform relative to my capabilities. I remember that day because my friends had texted me to ask where/when the party was and I ignored them. I knew my future at grad school and beyond was uncertain and the only thing I could do was to work as hard as possible on my GRE preparation that day. I was a year away from actually applying but I knew that if I gave my GRE early (in May 2014), I could, if things went wrong the first time, take it again before the December application deadline. I remember those long nights, solving math problems and learning obscure etymology. I remember thinking: the only thing I can do is give myself the best chance of getting in. After that, it’s out of your hands. I didn’t want to have any regrets. I would give you the same advice.

For what it’s worth, I managed to improve my GRE score quite a bit compared to when I started training and I would recommend investing the money in a structured class with a supervisor who will mentor and whip you into shape. Thanks to Mrs. Sonali, who would scold me in GRE class, for keeping me honest.

Getting into grad school was hard and getting a visa-sponsored job in the U.S. was even harder. I could lose my job tomorrow or they may change the visa laws here and I could end up back in my parents’ house in Prabhadevi next week. But for now, the work and the sacrifice were worth it. Grad school was the best thing to happen to me and I can’t recommend it enough. I gave it my best shot and you should too.

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