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by SS at 7:45 am on Saturday 26th April

As a data collection (and, often, analysis) nerd, I've collected reasonably accurate data on the cost of the whole process of applying to and attending graduate school. Please don't take any of the below as a recommendation for what to do - it is merely an attempt to rationalise and explain my decision from a PURELY FINANCIAL point of view for others who may be considering a similar career move. Note that my motivation was not solely financial and yours probably shouldn't be - if you don't want to be completely miserable for a year or more! The numbers below are all deliberately imprecise - so make your own calculations if you need to. Note also that these figures are for software engineering jobs!

Let's start off with my salary in London before I started my Master's degree. My last position, at Last.fm, paid 37,000 a year. At Last.fm (a subsidiary of CBS Corporation), there was no salary progression and no bonus because they like employees to be dissatisfied with both leadership and their compensation ;-).

I lived with my parents and commuted into work - this meant my monthly disposable income, after taxes, healthcare, commute, food and student loan repayment costs was approximately 1,000. (Note that if I had been living in London and paying rent, my disposable income would have been considerably closer to 0. Also note that if I didn't have so much stuff wrong with me, I would have saved a fair chunk on healthcare.) For two years this money went straight into savings which I have since depleted to pay for tuition.

The overall year cost of the degree was approximately $70,000. Less if you live frugally, more if you don't. I managed to save money on the estimated graduate student budget provided by the university which is excessive if you know how to cook a little and don't eat out all the time. (Prepare your own caffeine too - coffee shops are expensive and you WILL develop a coffee habit as a graduate student here!)

My burn rate here is approximately $2,000 a month - including rent at $800 a month, food, travel and a modest amount of social. I expect that as I start to have free time when starting to work, I'll be spending more a month - closer to $2,500 a month.

Typical salaries for new software engineers with a Master's degree in the Bay Area range between $100K and $125K, depending on your level of experience and the location. Factor in the cost of owning a car if you live in the South Bay, as well as higher rents. If you work in San Francisco, you can quite easily commute in from Berkeley and pay the same rent. If you wish to move to San Francisco though, expect to pay at least $2K a month in rent. Rents in the South Bay (i.e. Silicon Valley) are about $1500. Rent inflation is high though, so I'd advise checking the market rate closer to when you make your decision.

(A side note: Amazon's offer was comparable for the first year - they offer a $90K base salary with a $20K bonus. This is amusing because the immediate cash bonus is a huge incentive for hapless graduates to sign. While rent and tax is lower in Seattle than California, I feel that pegging your base salary at $20K lower than employers in this area is likely to have repercussions in the future if you do choose to move.)

(Another side note: I'm beginning to wonder if international students/hires are offered lower starting salaries than applicants with permanent residency (i.e. a green card) or citizenship. I have very little data to confirm this but it's a growing hunch.)

Assuming the worst case, which is a $100K starting salary and living in San Francisco and approximating tax to 40%, this works out to a rough monthly income of $5,000. Assuming $1,500 worth of living expenses plus $2,000 in rent, this leaves a disposable income of $1,500 a month. This is considerably better than the situation in London where disposable income was close to 0 when renting your own accommodation. However, there's the obvious $70K that has been spent. Assuming no interest rate, a constant income, constant expenses and a diligent saving regime, this will take 46.6 months, or about 4 years to pay off.

Taking the best case, which is a $125K starting salary and commuting in, that gives us a rough monthly income of $6,250. Expenses, as previously mentioned, of about $2,500 - which leaves a disposable income of $3,750. Again, under the same assumptions, we should be able to pay off the $70K in 18.6 months, or about a year and a half.

This figures are based on the assumption that you'll be attending a year long program and do not get any sort of financial aid. I appreciate that many Master's courses are longer - but the actual increase in cost isn't directly proportional to the length of the program since students often get well paid summer internships which offset the extra semester or quarter well. In addition, there's opportunity in courses greater than a year long to get research or teaching assistantships which offset the tuition cost significantly.

Finally, the obvious question is - why not apply for a job in the US directly and save yourself the $70K cost? The answer is: access to employers. The obvious geographic advantage of being able to interview with employers aside, the immigration situation is notoriously tight and, as a non-US citizen, getting work authorization is difficult. As a Master's student, you have the ability to work legally here for a year post-graduation under 'Optional Practical Training'. If you study a STEM subject, there is an optional 17 month extension which helps too. During this period, students can apply for a H1B visa under a separate category reserved for applicants with a Master's or higher level degree from a US university. (They may also apply under the normal category, I hear that it is variable whether this category is over or undersubscribed relative to the normal category.)

I firmly believe that moving to this area has been one of the best things I can do for my career, earning potential aside. Just about every large technology company in the world has an office or their headquarters within 60 miles of where I live. This element of choice means that I can acquire work experience in highly attractive technologies and don't need to compromise on employer. (This compromise happens all too often in London for computer science graduates who have to make the trade off between a high salary in financial services or interesting work in a pure technology company. Here, I think it's possible to have both.)

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by SS at 6:15 am on Saturday 26th April

A number of the incoming MEng students have asked for advice when making their decision to come to Berkeley and one question appeared repeatedly - is the MEng degree regarded any differently by employers to a conventional MS?

From my personal experience interviewing at ~ 14 tech. companies in the Bay Area and having spoken to recruiters and so on - no, it is not.

Generally the Master's degree will get you a slight hike in starting salary but the rest of the process will usually be the same as graduate applicants with a Bachelor's degree. Employers typically hire university graduates into the same entry level software engineer positions (unless you have prior experience - and even then, this will account for a neglible salary hike, since they'll anchor your salary to a 'new grad' salary).

To an employer, a Master's degree is a Master's degree - regardless of whether it is a Master of Engineering or a Master of Science. They may question why it is shorter than normal but the retort to this is that it is a professional program - and not intended to be preparation for a PhD.

The main caveat with getting the MEng degree appears to be its lack of preparation for a PhD program. It isn't the case that having a MEng from Berkeley will make it any easier to get into a PhD program since, aside from some graduate level coursework, you won't have additional research experience. (Although it may slightly upgrade your resume if you went to an unheard of school previously.)

I would also advise prospective applicants to take with a pinch of salt the claims that employers covet the 'Engineering Leadership' aspect of the courses. While these courses are valuable in their own right and may help alumni to advance up the management ladder faster, most employers aren't aware of this aspect of the program and look more for engineering talent than management promise in their new graduate hires.

At some point I will follow up this post with a more detailed one outlining my interview experience and suggestions for how to approach your job hunt. (Be warned, it involves creating a spreadsheet, so get rid of any prejudice against spreadsheets now.) Generally though, in the Bay Area, it is extremely easy to get interviews for CS positions and I don't see any reason why, with adequate preparation, any MEng graduate should be forced to accept an offer they aren't completely enthusiastic for. Indeed, I was able to get my role of choice at a very exciting startup.

(Note I mention CS positions. Product management positions are much harder to come by. Also, other majors sometimes struggle to find jobs.)

1 comment posted so far
wrote at 11:48 am on Sat 8th Aug -
Is the situation really that bad for operations research graduates in M eng as suggested by your text in the parenthesis at the end

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by SS at 9:34 pm on Wednesday 12th March

Having been relatively underwater for the last seven weeks or so, I'm relieved, now, to finally have some time to sit and reflect under the breathtakingly blue sky above me, in my favourite concrete patio outside the Civil Engineering building on campus.

February and March have been whirlwinds of romance, logistical coordination, gaining some clarity about my future and, as always, assignments. Very many assignments.

The week immediately after my birthday, I was pleased to receive an offer from Mesosphere, the startup who I interviewed with on my birthday. After some negotiation (negotiating equity in a startup is an unorthodox affair to me, having always worked for large corporates), I signed my offer at the begining of February. Out of the places I'd looked at working when I first came to Berkeley, they seemed like one of the most interesting: fast growing, fascinating technology and somewhere, close to my interests, where I could learn plenty. Plus, they're in San Francisco!

In parallel with this, I withdrew from the startup, UnmannedData, I've been helping build, in varying capacities, since June last year. The plan is help them out as much as possible until graduation but it looked like our funding situation wasn't going to align in a way that would help me support myself after that. Being a international Master's student will leave me with almost nothing in the bank when I finish this program and, having recently started their second business, I can't rely on my immediate family for financial support. This was somewhat emotional - I had invested a not insignificant amount of my time (to the detriment of my health and social life) into the project. Still, a worthy experience and I wish them all the best going forwards.

Around the same time, I kicked off the application process for my California driving license. Having procrastinated hard, I spent just 30 minutes preparing hurriedly for the written test. Luckily, having driven for nearly 9 years back home and being capable of rational thought helped me get through the 36 questions with just 4 wrong. (6 wrong and I would have failed.) The process of visiting the DMV was, as popular opinion suggests, somewhat painful. Despite arriving on time with everything listed on the website, I was told I needed my I-94 admission number - this is an electronic record of entry to the country.

This was easy enough to fetch online on my smartphone. I wrote it down, went back into the office and was told that I needed a printed copy. It was then necessary to hunt down an internet cafe or similar. My first thought was to check out the El Cerrito public library. This opened at noon, and wanting to minimise disruption to my day, I had booked my appointment for 8:30am. Oops.

The next step was then to look for an internet cafe on Yelp. I went to the closest one to discover that it opened at 10. This was not a viable solution. Resigned to wait until then and despairing a little, I looked around. Success! I spotted a Copy Central opposite and cycled safely across the dual carriageway. Arriving in the store, I was happy to see a small cluster of computers with 17" CRT monitors running Windows XP. Sadly, they had a $2 dollar minimum charge for 10 minutes of usage and printing cost 10c per page. Opening up a private browsing session, so as not to accidentally 'auto remember' my passport number, I printed the I94 receipt.

The person before me had decided to print something in landscape and Chrome had handily saved these settings. This meant that my single page receipt printed on two sheets, with one line of text at the top of the second page. Total damage, including tax was ~ $2.31 to print this receipt. Oh well, I returned to the DMV and queued up again.

When I eventually made it to the correct counter, the lady took my paper receipt and typed the long number into their system. She gave the page back to me. It took some self restraint to avoid bringing my palm up to my face.

A few weeks later and after a brief practice run driving a pickup truck around the city of San Francisco (to help a friend move a couch or, as they call them here, a 'love seat'), I went for my 'behind the wheel' test. I had booked a Toyota Yaris (the first car that I owned, loved and eventually drove into the ground back in England) but, rental car agencies basically randomly assign you to the smallest free vehicle they have at the time. In my case, this was a Chrysler 200. This is a mid size sedan, which was actually rather nice to drive, with the usual underwhelming interior but a solid sound system.

My friend and I took the Chrysler up into Marin County and to the beach - making full use of the day rental to go sample the countryside. She, being wary of my rather aggressive driving style, was a little cautious and then a litle carsick as we took the curves back down. On the other hand, we didn't roll off the edge of the cliffs, so I count that as a successful roadtrip.

The next morning I drove up to El Cerrito for my test itself. My instructor, a middle aged man with an odd (read: twisted) sense of humour told me immediately not to drive any differently to normal. Also immediately, I disregarded this advice and drove far more cautiously than I would normally. This test was free of any notable issues - my only minor point being when I gave the incorrect hand signal for stopping a car before we had even begun. (I blame years of cycling where hand up means stop, versus hand down in a car. I may also have been doing this wrong for years.) The test was graded 'excellent' which is possibly the highest score I'm going to receive in any examination this year ;-).

The other significant logistical issue was to apply for OPT - essentially an extension of my F1 student visa which will let me work in the US for 12 months. Since this is a commitment of a few hundred dollars, I wanted to make absolutely sure I had filled out the documentation correctly. This required two visits to my bank, two visits to a photography shop (apparently a light-coloured shirt on a white background may be rejected for being low contrast?) and several visits to the international office. In the end, it was all submitted quickly and receipt was acknowledged by the USCIS. Fingers crossed that the application is accepted and I'll be able to start work in early to mid June.

The courses this semester are going well. The work load is about as high as last year but is more evenly distributed amongst my courses. Our parallel computing course is great fun and I'm enjoying writing c++ code (*gasp*), and, especially, having access to a NERSC supercomputer. My favourite email of the last few weeks was being told that a watch command I had kicked off and forgotten to terminate was slowing down the job scheduler. Oops.

The other CS course I'm taking is the 'Introduction to Machine Learning' course. This is a crosslisted graduate and undergraduate course and I feel the pain of the undergraduates at Berkeley. The sheer number of them in this class is huge and the scale at which teaching happens here makes it very hard for undergraduates to necessarily get the support that I used to back at Cambridge. There are about 300 students in this class and many students were rejected arbitrarily, based on their performance in another course. Many didn't know about this requirement and so I can see how they might feel aggrieved - paying tens of thousands of dollars in tuition and majoring in computer science, yet unable to take a fairly pivotal class. The system is broken.

It's now mid March. In very slightly over two months, this course will be finished. My parents, aunt and cousin will arrive for a long weekend to see graduation and with any luck, Phil and I will be cycling from San Francisco to either Yosemite or San Diego. The next two months are going to be a rollercoaster and will probably violate my caffeine consumption tolerance by some and then some more. It's been a fun adventure so far and it doesn't look likely to stop soon.

3 comments posted so far
Wayne Woodward wrote at 10:05 pm on Wed 12th Mar -
Sounds like business as usual for you Sunil. Hope all continues to go well for you.
Karen Reilly wrote at 10:03 pm on Tue 20th May -
Sunil, congratulations on your recent graduation and I wish you all the best for the future in the states. Don't neglect your photography because when you are my age you will look back on all of your travel memories and experiences with great fondness. I always check 500px and appreciate your eye for composition.
Franz wrote at 1:39 am on Wed 9th Jul -
My dear fellow Geek...and cyclist.

I thought you would be interested in this new invention, a bicyle radar, that gives cyclists a sixth sense! (http://crowd.backtracker.io)

Would love to know what you think!

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by SS at 12:22 am on Tuesday 19th November

Three weeks have again flown by since my last update. Currently (to give you some context, since life is all about context) I'm sitting in a coffee shop come bakery - "Speciality's" - in Santa Clara. This afternoon was a final round interview at a great startup. Running through my head for the last few weeks has been a series of elaborate decision making processes as I try to determine what job offer to accept and which to reject.

As I've mentioned earlier, I knew job offers would come more easily to a software engineer in Silicon Valley. In particular, my strategy of selecting employers whose product I know and love and primarily applying to smaller employers has paid off.

As a brief segue, current students looking for graduate entry jobs seem to apply to the big name companies. This makes their job hunt harder since these employers have their pick of graduates and can be more selective. Additionally, I'm skeptical that new engineers in these companies have much leeway to work on projects that interest them.

My friends who know me well know that I have been planning to come study a Master's (in the US) since my last year at Cambridge. While the decisions that I've made since regarding employment, living arrangements and significant others have been made to this objective, I now face a growing amount of uncertainty. There is no obvious next goal and I have several potential routes to achieving the various things that are high up on my list of life ambitions.

My options are: work for an established company, work for a startup, start my own company. The latter of which is the riskiest and brings with it the most financial uncertainty. It is also the most exciting. Within the first two categories, I need to pin down several decisions: whether to work for a consumer or enterprise technology company, whether to work on a product or a service, and whether to work in South Bay or in San Francisco.

Overwhelmingly it feels as if the more exciting consumer focussed companies are in San Francisco - while the enterprise companies are based in South Bay (i.e. Silicon Valley). I love living in Berkeley and working in San Francisco would make it possible to commute in from Berkeley. Working in South Bay would mean I would have to live in South Bay (or commute in from San Francisco). Besides rent being cheaper in Berkeley, it is surrounded by beautiful scenery, I have many friends there and, despite being fairly city-like, it remains very peaceful.

On the other hand, the harder computer science problems seem to be with those companies in South Bay. Working on an actual tech product/problems is something that I've often tried to do in a professional context in the past but struggled to find. Building services in Java often felt like virtual plumbing - taking one library and piping its output into another library or database.

There are a number of sub-decisions to be made here and I need to pick carefully since it's going to affect my life for the near to medium term!

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