Graduate Studies in Boulder

In January 2000 I started my graduate studies towards a Master of Science degree in Computer Science at the Department of Computer Science of the University of Colorado Boulder (CU), in the United States.

My name is Matthias Hauswirth and I graduated from Biel School of Engineering and Architecture in 1994. I worked for five years afterwards and then moved to beautiful Boulder to get my Master of Science in Computer Science.

On this page I collected information that has been important to me and which might help other students who want to continue their studies abroad.

Knowing the Requirements

To study in the United States, you will have to provide the following:

Paying Fees

During the preparation of your application you will have to pay various fees.

Some fees (like GRE and TOEFL fees) can be paid by credit card (A credit card is a must anyway. Organize one if you do not yet have one. The Postcard MasterCard from Die Post only costs you CHF 50.- per year).

Sometimes you cannot pay by credit card. The only means of payment is check or money order. In such a situation, instead of buying a check (very uncommon in Switzerland), which costs you about CHF 20.- in addition to the value of the check, and which might take several days to be issued, ask whether they accept a traveller check in US$ (buy one for CHF 2.- at any bank).

Taking Tests

The TOEFL and GRE tests must be taken in the ETS (Educational Testing Services) testing center in Geneva (walking distance from the airport).

To prepare for the TOEFL you have to read, read, read and read again. Subscribe to technical journals like ACM Communications (by becoming a member of the ACM), or IEEE Computer and IEEE Software (by becoming an IEEE Computer Society Member). Add to this some non-technical magazine, like the National Geographic Society's National Geographic Magazine. Read all software manuals in English. Stop buying German or French computer books or magazines. Stop writing German or French when documenting your Software, do it in English.

To prepare for the GRE, take a lot of practice tests. This is very important! If you do not practice enough, you will get ridiculously low scores.

Both tests, GRE and TOEFL, take about have a day. Don't take both tests at the same day.

Register for taking the tests about two weeks before your chosen testing date. You can do this by phone. You will need your credit card and your passport number.

Sending Documents

If you have to send documents to the University and have to meet at tight deadline, use Die Post's EMS service. One letter costs you CHF 45.- and takes one to two working days.

If the University has to send you back documents, which you need immediately, have them send the documents by FedEx. The University won't do this for free, though. You probably have to send them a check before.

Once you are accepted

You have to organize a visa (US Embassy in Bern). You will most probably require a student visa (called an F1). For this, you need the form I-20 from your University.

The Visa Services of the U.S. State Department provide much important information.

Finding a Place to Stay

Once in Boulder, you will have to find a place to stay. In the beginning it might be a good idea to stay in a motel (like the Super8 or Best Western Boulder Inn, which both are just across the street from CU) or the youth hostel for a week. The youth hostel is not very cheap (I think about $30 a night). The cheapest motels will cost you around $50 a night. Make your reservations early, because at the beginning of a new semester a lot of new students have the exact same problem.

You will have to decide whether you want to live on campus (in the residence halls - Studentenwohnheim) or off campus.

There are many residence hall buildings on campus. If you live there, you can meet lots of students very easily. This might be a very good thing, especially if you don't know anybody in the beginning. Living in the halls is also very nice since you can walk to your classes (the distance to the engineering center is between 50m and 1km). But it is extremely probable that you have to share a room with another student. There are only very few single rooms in the halls. And in most halls you will also not have a shower in your room. And sometimes not even water.

If you live off campus you can share an apartment or a house with other students. This might cost you a monthly rent of $350 to $800. Boulder is not cheap!

To find your room (on or off campus), check out the Housing Department Web Site. It is very important to apply for on-campus housing early. For off-campus housing, check out the listings of available rooms in Boulder that Off-Campus Student Services provides. To get a listing over the Web, you need to either already be a student, or you have to send them a check (currently $15). Using their service is heavily recommended, but you can wait until you arrive in Boulder, since you want to have a look at your new room anyway.

Once you Arrive in Boulder

Once you arrive here, go first to the International Student and Scolar Services (ISSS) office. They will help you with everything. Ask for Janet or Tina or any other adviser, and ask them all your questions.

Oh, you probably have to find out where that ISSS is located on the big wonderful Boulder campus. The ISSS office is the Environmental Design building on this campus map. And while we are talking about maps, check out the maps of the engineering center, where the computer science department is located. To find places in Boulder, check out MapQuest.

One of the first things you should do in Boulder is opening a bank account. I opened one at Bank One (now Chase) because they do not require your Social Security Number (SSN, the American version of the AHV Nummer). As far as I know you have to show up in person to open the account. Once you have the account, you can transfer money from Switzerland to your account (I recommend you set up an online banking account at your Swiss bank or at Die Post (YellowNet) while you are still in Switzerland, so you can initiate transactions from anywhere in the world over the Internet).

Talking about money. You will need lots and lots of money once you arrive here. You will have to pay your first rent, and probably one or two rents as a security deposit. If you set up a telephone at home, you might have to pay a deposit there, too. And if you have to pay your tuition yourself, you have to pay something around $8000 in the first month. To have all that money ready, I recommend you buy lots of traveller checks (I bought $5000 in checks, and I took around $1000 in cash). And you really should open that bank account on your first or second day here in Boulder, and immediately transfer money to it (ask for your American bank's SWIFT code, so you can tell your Swiss bank where to send the money).

It is also a good idea to get a SSN, even though you do not need it if you don't work (you might need it for some other things, too, though). Go to the social security office in the Table Mesa shopping center in south Boulder to fill in the forms (check with ISSS first). After a couple of weeks, you will get a social security card with your own SSN (this does not mean that you're an American citizen, though ;)

Why?

So why should you do all these things just to get a degree you don't really need in today's job market? Why come to Boulder and not continue your studies at a Swiss university, or just start working after getting your diploma at a Fachhochschule?

Well, CU is a great university. And we have some excellent faculty in the computer science department. Of course you will have to work hard. But you will learn a lot. CU is a very exciting environment to study. You will work together with students from all over the world. I already worked in projects with students from the US (of course), China and Germany. And my new friends include students from Brazil, Chile, Germany, India, the Czech Republic and the US. And don't forget, the US is the country where almost all the big software companies come from. Here in Boulder you'll find everyone. Companies like Sun and IBM have huge campuses right here. If you want to work there, you can spend your summer at one of those companies as an intern. BTW: the summer term goes from mid May to end of August (almost 4 months in which you can work - yes, you can work in the US as a student, it is called curricular practical training - or just go on vacation!)

There is one more very convincing point: Boulder is probably one of the greatest cities on earth. The weather here is better than the weather in any part of Switzerland I know. It is sunny, sunny, sunny. And you live right at the foot of the rocky mountains. I often go hiking or mountain biking starting right on the CU campus! And Boulder has dozens of kilometers of very nice bike paths. And if you feel like metropolis, just sit in the free bus to Denver and have a look at the sky scrapers, go to a concert, or a baseball or football game. And you can even take your bike on all buses. Have you ever been on a bike ride between sky scrapers having a break at a wonderful cafe, and then spent some time in the great Tattered Cover book store, finishing with a visit to REI, the biggest outdoors store on the planet, where they even have a climate chamber in which you can test a new sleeping bag before you buy it? If you want to see some pictures of this great region I'm now living in, have a look at some of my photos.

Back to academics. I'm currently working as a research assistant in the programming languages and compilers research group. We are working on a hot new technology to dramatically speed up Java. We are working together with other major American universities and with companies like Sun or IBM. Think HotSpot is cool? Join us to see what's even cooler! Of course there are many other research groups with extremely interesting projects. So if you don't just want to use hot technology, but you want to invent it, Boulder is the place to be :)