Personal experience: how to come to study in the USA and become an artificial intelligence specialist
Victor Popov was born in Novosibirsk and came to the USA to receive a master's degree. Now he is already a sought-after specialist, works in Chicago. The journalist and friend of Viktor Nikita Pasechnik in his publication talks about his path to the goal, problems and obstacles. VC.RU.
Next - from the first person.
Quite by chance, in the course of my work, I met Victor. He is from Novosibirsk, now works in Chicago - in Opex Analytics at the position of Data Science Consultant (in 23 of a year).
To take this place, he had to go a long way and cope with certain difficulties. This is what will be discussed later. Victor and I hope that his experience will help others.
A little bit about our hero
Victor was born and raised in Novosibirsk, then entered the Moscow State Technical University. N.E. Bauman. Now, I repeat, works at Opex Analytics in Chicago. For him, it was a long and interesting way, during which he happened to face many bureaucratic nuances. First, he figured out how to enter a US university for a master's degree. Then - how, without experience, to find work in the States. Using his own example and the example of his peers, Victor determined which background increases the chances of successful entry and work. Further, he will tell you all the nuances so that you know what you will face on the way to study or work abroad.
Starting conditions - where he studied and what he learned
Victor was born in the 1996 year in Novosibirsk. There he studied - he entered the Gymnasium No. 1, the best school in the city. After 11 years, he finished it with a gold medal. I must say that he did not like to study, but he knew that it was necessary. Therefore, he made efforts to quickly and well do his homework, and then go about his own business. This approach has well developed perseverance, responsibility and ability to solve complex problems. In the future it was very useful to him.
At school, Victor had 3 favorite subjects - mathematics, physics and computer science. Therefore, he regularly participated in olympiads in these disciplines and attended special courses at NSU. From the 9 class, Victor studied in the governor's physics and mathematics class, where, instead of the usual school lessons, university couples conducted. In winter and summer, when everyone began their vacation, students in this class took a session. And this, along with participation in the Olympiads, which took a lot of time. Soon, Victor appreciated this format of study, because in this way he prepared for the university.
How to go to choose a university in the USA, and enter in Russia
Victor's father wanted to study in the USA, but they could give him a scholarship only for the first year of study. Therefore, he remained in the Academgorodok and entered the NSU. He really wanted his son to go to an American university. But Victor’s idea of studying in the USA was not enthusiastic, as he was a “domestic” child who, in addition, did not know much English.
However, the guy in the 10 class still went to watch US universities on vacation.
I got acquainted with their device, what and how they study there. They jointly decided to receive a bachelor's degree in Russia, because fundamental education is given in a higher quality. The idea of entering the United States was postponed. They decided that abroad Victor would receive a more specialized specialization in the magistracy.
Admission to Russia
Before choosing a university, Victor analyzed what he liked. The list is as follows: mathematics, physics, computer science. He wanted the chosen direction to combine all this. Therefore, he was interested in robotics. Searching the lists of the best universities in Russia with a program in robotics, he discovered that Baumanka was in the lead, so he decided to go there.
The plan “B” gave confidence, as the NSU had already sent an invitation to enter the physics department out of competition. All due to the fact that he participated in the All-Siberian and All-Russian Olympiads, where he won and won prizes.
In Moscow, Victor first went to apply to Baumanka. They looked at its results (USE on 287 points from 300, the school’s gold medal and various olympiads) and offered enrollment immediately. He agreed and went to call relatives to send the original certificate, because he did not count on the fact that he would immediately be taken to the university, so he left him at home.
Studying in Baumanka
Studying in a university format in high school gave Victor a strong base. Therefore, the first course of Baumanka seemed easy - the material is familiar, and the format of the pairs was familiar.
From the second year, subjects in the specialty appeared in the program. Engineering disciplines were taught at the highest level and by first-class teachers. However, in terms of computer science, the program was very weak. They taught to program 2 semesters on Delphi and Matlab. There was also a lack of practical training and laboratory work.
With the study of the direction of artificial intelligence that interests Victor, it was very bad. Therefore, he began to disassemble the topic on his own. At this moment, he again thought about continuing his studies at Western universities, because there was a great emphasis on practical knowledge, and there was also a very rich selection of courses on the subject of artificial intelligence.
Summer "practices" in the USA
From the second year students of Baumanka must undergo summer practical training. Victor asked for feedback from senior students in advance. They said they were disappointed with what they had to do.
At that moment, he had the idea to go to practice in the United States. However, this seemed almost impossible, since at that time he did not have enough skills for this, and his only work experience was tutoring.
But Victor decided that it was necessary to spend this time with benefit. Therefore, he turned to the dean of his faculty so that they would instead of practice attend summer schools in California. Victor is still very grateful to the dean's office and the leadership of the department for giving him such an opportunity.
Thanks to this, during his three summer vacations during his studies in Bauman, Victor managed to study at the best universities in the world - Berkeley and Stanford. He completed the Academic Writing program (Berkeley), the Programming Methodology and Technology Entrepreneurship courses (Stanford), and also graduated from the Data Science Intensive certificate program (Stanford).
Admission to Cornell Tech in the USA
Closer to the last courses, Victor was thinking about choosing a place of study in a magistracy abroad. He chose Cornell Tech, Cornell's new ivy league university engineering campus. It focuses on masters and PhD students. Victor liked the training program - only one required technical course, and the rest was optional. This allows you to immediately learn exactly what is interesting.
Compared to Russian universities, there is a wide variety of courses on artificial intelligence. You can choose Machine Learning, Deep Learning, Reinforcement Learning, and so on. All courses are practice oriented. Theory is minimal. The basis of everything is a discussion of the possibilities of application and the practical implementation of knowledge.
Victor studied on an accelerated program. In one year, a two-year load fit. He chose this format, because he was tired of studying 15 for years in a row, he wanted to quickly begin the practical application of knowledge. However, the accelerated program had one very significant drawback, which will be discussed a bit later.
Unusual format of study in a magistracy
Each semester spent Studio classes. They are arranged as follows:
1. Students from all university programs are divided into teams and choose a company. For her, they will carry out the project. The result should be a technical product that solves a specific problem.
2. Students are assigned a mentor from the company. This is a senior manager or employee of this organization.
3. During the semester, the team meets with the mentor and teachers of the university to consult and discuss ideas.
4. During the month spend 3 sprint. It takes 24 hours to significantly advance in the project, and then present it to other students, mentors and teachers.
In the first semester, Victor's team worked with Pitney Bowes, for whom they made an application that selects global companies of local influencers to promote the brand in the market in a new country. In the second semester, they worked with Citibank Innovation and developed a program to automatically search for personal information in a database.
This format was unusual. He consolidated professional skills, taught to work in a team, to find a common language with other people, to correctly distribute tasks. This is an interesting immersion in a real workflow, where success depends on the coordinated work of all people.
What to do for admission to a master's program in the USA
For admission to the US magistracy you need:
- pass the English TOEFL exam;
- take an exam in English and mathematics GRE;
- collect letters of recommendation;
- write a motivation letter;
- send documents.
This is best done in the summer before the last course. US universities usually begin accepting applications in September and finish in December. And collecting documents and passing the necessary exams takes a lot of time. Further Victor tells in more detail about each of the stages listed above.
The first exam is TOEFL. It checks the knowledge of English.
TOEFL consists of four parts - reading, listening, speaking and writing.
To improve his English, Victor used this strategy:
- Every day I was looking for an interesting article on NYTimes, Forbes, Economist, WSJ. I printed it out, read it before bedtime, highlighted unfamiliar words with a marker and looked for their translation. The next day I reread yesterday's article and repeated the words. Only after that I was looking for new material.
- Started watching YouTube videos in English.
- I switched the language on all the devices I used.
The best strategy is to learn from what interests you. Choose materials that catch, and then the process will go faster and will be a joy.
Prepare for GRE
The next step was more difficult. You need to pass the GRE - exam in English and mathematics. Something like the exam for graduates of undergraduate studies. The mathematical section of Victor did not cause problems. He lost the maximum 1 score. Difficulties arose with the English language (the so-called verbal part), because in exam texts they use words and phrases that are not used in real life. Even Americans are forced to expand their vocabulary to surrender GRE.
I had to solve the problem using flash cards. On each of them is written a word, and on the back there is an explanation and synonyms. Victor purchased a total of 5 sets of 500 cards for the GRE exam. Shuffled, divided into groups of 20 cards for the day and began to learn. Once a week and once a month I checked myself for the remembered words. All cards that I forgot, kneaded again in the deck and went through again.
This is an effective exam method. But expanding the vocabulary in the long term will not work - learned words are forgotten.
Collect letters of recommendation
Next, you need to collect letters of recommendation from three people. They should include:
- your characteristic;
- how did you distinguish yourself when interacting with the author of the letter;
- Opinion on how suitable you are for entering the selected program.
It is best to receive letters of recommendation from university professors and employers.
Write a motivation letter
The most important part of the application is a motivation letter. Here you need to tell why you want to study on a specific program, how you plan to use the acquired knowledge and how you will be useful to the university if you become a student. All information needs to be packed in a limited amount of words.
Deal with documents
Still to deal with the documents. If you enter immediately after graduation, then instead of a diploma you need to take a certificate from the university with current grades, since at the time of application (last year's fall) you will not have a diploma.
Then fill out the questionnaire on the university’s website, where you need to tell general information about yourself, select areas of interest, as well as download the results of the required exams and scans of documents.
Studying in the USA and the household issue
Living in the USA is more expensive than in Russia. Additional difficulties are created by the fact that you are an international student. Victor had to go into such a situation and draw conclusions that could help others.
How and where to work
An international student cannot go to normal work in the first year of study, because you can only get a work permit after a year of study in the USA. You can only work on campus and no more than 20 hours a week. Students are offered positions in the cafeteria, library, assistant teacher. You won’t earn much, but at least some money.
Victor talked with his American comrades, who also entered the same program. They said that making money with such a busy schedule is difficult. The maximum that they aimed at is to work at least once a week.
About life and nutrition
Victor settled in a student dormitory. It was within walking distance of the university, so that you could not spend money on public transport. Living in a hostel is an interesting experience. Around are different people from all over the world. This allows you to learn a lot about other cultures and traditions, and also broadens your horizons.
He ate mainly in the university cafeteria. Good nutrition cost 8-10 dollars. By the standards of New York, this is very cheap. The choice in the dining room is large: from fast food to salads, soups and other healthy foods.
How to get a job after studying
Getting a job is the hardest part. Especially when you study only one year. You need to act quickly and competently to advertise yourself to employers. Victor attended many interviews and made useful conclusions from them.
Job search while studying
After graduation, there are 60 days to apply for an F-1 OPT visa. Who does not have time - must leave the country. The F1 visa is a standard student visa. And OPT is an extension that gives permission to work for a period from 1 years to 3 years after graduation. In order to be sure that everything was in time, Victor applied for OPT in March - exactly 90 days before the end of the course (this is the earliest when you can do this).
I looked for work from the first month of the magistracy. With this, the Cornell Career Center, whose staff:
- give tips on how to fix a resume;
- advise companies on student interests;
- Invite companies to make presentations on campus
- arrange a blitz interview where companies select students.
Not all students are invited to a blitz interview, but only those whom the company will select from pre-sent resumes.
Obstacles in finding a job:
- Lack of work experience in the USA.
- Lack of work permit. Therefore, it was possible to start working only in the summer (a year after the start of the master's program).
- Lack of experience in Data Science and Machine Learning (Victor was interested in precisely these positions).
- The undergraduate program focused on electronics and mechanics, rather than machine learning.
- 99% of companies in the USA take on internships (which is easy enough to get) only for students who will then return to study. For the rest - a full time job with higher requirements for the applicant.
On the subject: How Ukrainian became a WhatsApp programmer
We solve problems with job search
After identifying problems with finding a job, it was possible to begin to solve them. For this Victor:
- I started taking courses on Coursera and Udemy on Data Science topics, which significantly increased my competencies.
- Created an account on Github. All projects from the courses in the magistracy and Kaggle were laid out there so that the employer could see them. He did it as efficiently and responsibly as possible so that at the interview people were more confident in his skills.
- Registered on the platforms Dice, Monster, Glassdor. I filled out a profile there and attached a resume so that it was easier for employers to find it.
- Filled out a profile on LinkedIn. He began to search and add recruiters from companies of interest to him. So Victor saw posts with new vacancies in the tape and you could immediately choose an interesting position and send a resume.
However, the opportunity to add the strongest line to your resume appeared by chance.
Machine Learning Project
Victor’s best ad as a candidate for employers was thelearningmachine.ai. Participate in it happened by chance. In December, when the first semester ended, Victor realized that he did not understand the algorithms of artificial intelligence well enough. He wanted to formulate a complete picture of their interaction and understand when and which is better to use.
To do this, he took up work on notes. I copied them, made a map of algorithms, added a description for each.
He liked the result of the work, but it hindered the feeling that only he could use it. However, Viktor wanted to share the revised notes with a wider audience.
And once he accidentally stumbled in the group of artificial intelligence on Facebook on the post of a Russian guy from Amsterdam. He created a site where he planned to make an interactive tutorial on Data Science with a simple explanation of complex algorithms, using many examples and visual information.
Following the link, Victor saw a map of artificial intelligence algorithms, which was very similar to what he compiled in the abstracts. After that, he wrote to the creator of the site, showed examples of what he had done, and offered his help. As a result, they began cooperation.
Throughout the winter holidays, Victor wrote notes for this site, supplemented and improved them. I made it so that other people could conveniently use notes. It was a painstaking work, where he thought over every word and example.
By the end of the holidays, Victor added a link to thelearningmachine.ai in the resume. And it was the right decision, which greatly helped in the interviews.
By the end of the first semester, Victor began to receive invitations to the first interviews. He was very worried about the upcoming interview in English, the knowledge of which was still not completely sure. Therefore, I prepared in advance to show myself to the employer.
Victor 2 of the day spent writing out important details of his past in a notebook, choosing information useful to the employer that would show him the best side. Then he memorized the text so as not to forget anything due to stress. In the first interviews, we had to pause specially periodically to make the text sound natural. After a dozen interviews, it became much easier. Victor used to talk with employers, relaxed, began to tell his story interestingly and enthusiastically.
Ahead was another second semester, and here the number of interviews increased. All because of the approaching graduation date and obtaining a work permit. This was also facilitated by an increase in the number of projects in the portfolio.
Victor was greatly helped by the thelearningmachine.ai project. Almost every interview was asked about him, noting that this distinguished him from other job seekers, as he had a real interest in machine learning outside of work and study.
After all the interviews, Victor was in a difficult situation. All final rounds and graduation fell for one week. And she turned out to be very busy. On Saturday, graduation in New York, on Tuesday an interview in Chicago, and on Thursday an interview in Connecticut.
A little about how the interview goes. Victor talks about positions on artificial intelligence or machine learning. In other areas, it could be different.
The interview took an average of a couple of months and consisted of several stages:
1. Screening. Talk with the recruiter about the background and evaluate soft skills.
2. Technical Interview. Ask about artificial intelligence algorithms. It is necessary to give technical details, principles of work, pros and cons.
3. Coding interview or case. The most interesting part.
4. Final round at the office of the company.
For a coding interview, you need to write the code in real time so that the interviewer can see it. To do this, they call the applicant through video communication with the broadcast of the computer screen, and he solves the tasks.
Case interviews are more complicated, but much more interesting. It gives a business task and 1-2 weeks to solve. The employer needs to send the finished program and presentation for verification.
If the company likes everything, then the applicant is invited to an interview in her office. There will be communication with managers, engineers and a case presentation in front of employees.
Work in the USA after studying
From the 3 companies that offered Victor a job, he chose Opex Analytics, in particular, the position of Data Science Consultant. The company has offices throughout the country, including in New York, where he studied. But Victor was tired of this city and wanted to change the situation, so he got a job in the main office in Chicago.
This company is engaged in AI-consulting, but with a nuance. Instead of presenting traditional results for consulting companies on the results of work, they make a full-fledged software product for their clients. The user can customize it to his needs using a simple and intuitive UI-interface.
This format of work is interesting because it has a real impact on the world and allows you to see the results of your work. The constant change of projects was also a plus. Victor regularly works with various industries, which allows him to quickly develop in these industries and increase his expertise.
Features of work in the USA
The whole office is one big open space. In one room, at adjacent tables, executives and ordinary employees sit. You can approach any person and get an answer to your question. Moreover, communication takes place on equal terms, without taking into account posts.
Everyone is open to feedback and criticism. Everyone understands that his knowledge is limited, so everyone is happy to share experience with colleagues and receive feedback from them. They try to criticize in the format of approval-compliment, give advice.
You can work when it is convenient - there is no strict schedule. The main thing is to carry out the tasks. And come and go when you want. You can even work from home. Also, there is no complex project reporting. After completing the task, you just need to write your team in Slack.
A bit about patenting technology in the United States. Victor took up this while waiting for a work permit, as there was free time. He remembered the fascination with the topic of aerodynamics in robotics devices, which he studied during his undergraduate studies.
Victor picked up his notes and studies from those times, searched the Internet for similar materials and did not find information on such technologies. Therefore, I decided to patent them. For several weeks I studied how a patent is obtained in the USA. He formed an action plan and began to work on it.
To begin with, he translated the notes into English and filled out applications for filing with the US Patent Office. To increase audience reach, he broke patents into logical blocks, from which he later made articles with annotations, keywords that were published in many scientific journals.
Plans for the future
Studying and working in the US offers many opportunities. Now Victor has a fairly clear plan for further action.
In the near future he plans to work in Opex Analytics. There are still prospects for growth. The company works with large customers from various industries, which allows Victor to constantly learn new things and develop professionally.
Further, he plans to pay more attention to the business side in the company's work, so as not to concentrate only on the technical aspect. This is important for him, because there is a desire in the future to make his own startup, in which artificial intelligence technologies will work for the benefit of society. And here a combination of technical business skills is very useful.
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