Archive for December 7th, 2009

Why Go to Graduate School and How to Get into the Program of your Dreams

This is the time of year when applications to graduate schools are due and I see a lot of both misinformation and lack of information among applicants.  I thought it might be valuable to put together some advice on the application process from “the other side,” someone who spends a lot of time looking at the applications and helping to decide who is admitted.  My experience is with applications to a highly research-oriented  MS and PhD program in Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego.  However, in speaking with my colleagues over the years, I believe that the thoughts below generalize to a variety of top CS research programs and, to some extent, to science and engineering graduate programs as a whole.

For myself, I did not know most of the below when I was applying to graduate programs.  All I knew was that I wanted to be a professor and that I needed a PhD.  Sometimes, that is enough.

I will edit this document as I get additional questions and feedback, so feel free to post your thoughts and comments.

Q: Why should I go to graduate school?

There are a number of good reasons to go to graduate school, though of course it is not for everyone.

  • You love Computer Science and are passionate about learning more about it.  Four years was just not enough to cover everything you wanted to learn.  More advanced classwork on topics you saw as an undergraduate will often make the material “click”.  The opportunity to perform research will give you a new perspective on how to approach problem solving and a new skill set that will be broadly applicable to many different work settings.
  • You really want to be a college professor. You look around at your own professors and think they have the greatest job imaginable. There are of course exceptions that prove the rule, but in general you need a PhD to become a professor.
  • You want to perform research.  You like working on open-ended problems with the opportunity to both advance the state of scientific understanding and the chance to perhaps influence the way people and companies do things in the future. There are a number of great industrial research labs that hire PhDs to perform exactly this kind of work.
  • You have an entrepreneurial bent and want to start a company. This reason is probably a bit controversial since you may be better off just going to work and learning about important problems facing industry. However, a higher-risk though perhaps higher-reward approach is to go to graduate school to learn about cutting-edge ideas with an eye toward applying them to the marketplace. This applicant is fairly rare as it requires both a strong entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to perform leading research (which often times does not have any immediate commercial application).
  • You want to get a better job, with more interesting responsibilities and a higher salary, than what you might be able to get with a Bachelor’s degree.  Depending on the job market and your own qualifications, this could be a great reason to go to graduate school, but very likely an MS rather than a PhD program. A typical 2-year MS program at a good school is likely to put you in a position for better jobs with higher starting salaries.  However, a PhD is likely the wrong way to go because by the time you account for all the years required to complete your PhD, you would have been better off starting in industry, gaining experience, gaining promotions, and perhaps moving on to your second or third job. For better or for worse, people rarely stay at companies for very long these days.  In Silicon Valley, the median amount of time at a company seems to be 18 months. You may be able to get significantly further ahead by just working and gaining experience and contacts rather than going for a PhD.

Q: What does the admissions committee look for in a successful applicant?

The ideal graduate student will have the following characteristics:

  • Research experience. Nothing prepares a student for graduate work like actually focusing on the most important aspect of the graduate school learning process, performing original research. However, such experience is relatively rare for undergraduates, paradoxically especially so at major research universities. The most important aspect of research experience is typically not the actual work you do but the opportunity for you to get to know a professor relatively well. And this leads to the next point.
  • Letters of recommendation. Having strong letters of recommendation is critical and something that you can control more than good research experience in many cases. It does help to have letters from writers who members of the admissions committee know. So if you are interested in doing research in operating systems, then you should try to take that course early. Chances are decent that some member of the admissions committee at some of the schools you are applying to will know the operating systems professor at your university.
  • Important personal characteristics. There are a number of qualities that are more important predictors of success in graduate school (and beyond) than generic intelligence. These qualities include creativity, focus, leadership, independence, diligence, passion, integrity. Unfortunately, it is possible to attend a great school, earn terrific grades, and even publish some papers without having these critical qualities.  This is why appropriately detailed letters of recommendation are so important.  If they can attest to some of these difficult to quantify characteristics, then the applicant will definitely have a leg up.
  • Rigorous undergraduate program. Attending a strong undergraduate program ensures that you have some baseline mastery of important computer science topics and techniques. Essentially, the admissions committee is looking for applicants that are as “research ready” as possible. If you do not have to spend time to learn the basics, then you can get started with successful research more quickly.
  • Strong GPA/GRE scores.  The definition of a good GPA is calibrated by the quality of a school and also historic norms for “grade inflation” at a particular institution.  Since we see many applications from a subset of schools every year, the admissions committee often has a logical database of norms to consult against. GRE scores are a bit more difficult to evaluate, especially since it is possible to essentially memorize one’s way to strong GRE scores.
  • Work experience.  Contrary to popular opinion, a few years of industrial experience can be a huge plus for an applicant. Practical experience in leading industrial positions can expose students to important problems and often leads to students who have stronger implementation skills coming into the program.  In addition, an applicant who spends time in industry and makes the conscious decision to come back to graduate school (giving up regular hours, a higher salary, etc.), typically shows a high level of dedication to graduate study.  They know it is what they want, rather than “it seemed like the next thing to do.”
  • Personal statement. You can consider this to be a writing sample that also gives some insight into your personality and maturity.  This is your chance to describe some of the work that you have done and why you found it interesting and important.  If you already have an idea of what research you would like to pursue and why, this would be a great place to discuss it.  If you have spent the time to get to know the research of a one or more professors in the department you are applying to, it would definitely help to include a personalized paragraph in the personal statement.  Many applicants use the personal statement as an opportunity to wax eloquent on the beauty of basic research and how they were set on the path to fundamentally change scientific understanding at an early age.  Some faculty (e.g., me) have a soft spot for such idealism.  But most are turned off by it, so on balance it is best to avoid such discussion unless you have something really distinctive or substantial to say (the wonder in your eye when you first laid eyes on a computer does not count).

On the PhD side, applicant screening is difficult because the characteristics of a good PhD student are different from the characteristics of a great undergraduate student.  Doing well in undergraduate courses requires being able to apply a relatively small set of concepts in a particular course to a relatively focused problem domain.  Individual problems may take hours to solve and, in rare cases, may require more focused work for days or weeks. Performing well in research requires applying ideas from a large set of domains to a problem that is likely poorly defined and almost certainly has no fixed answer.  Still, the admissions committee does consider a student’s grades as reflective of raw intellect and baseline knowledge of important computer science skills.

GRE scores are similarly an indication of at least some baseline mathematical and writing ability.  Overall, the GRE scores tend to provide the least differentiation among applicants. I cannot think of a single instance where a student was selected over another student over GRE scores.  Still, it is something that the admission committee does at least look at.  Since the GRE tests the most basics of mathematics and since Computer Science typically requires strong mathematical and analytical abilities, most admissions committee members look for near perfect GRE math scores.  Some admissions committee members largely dismiss the GRE math as only an indication of an applicant’s ability to perform simple mathematics quickly.  I know at least a few admissions committee members who put significant weight on the GRE Verbal score.  Communicating research ideas, both through oral presentations and written research papers, is critically important.  Since this skill is relatively under-developed in many graduate students, this is a skill that we look for.

Q: What can I do to prepare for graduate school applications?

The key is to be organized and to plan ahead (two skills not necessarily required for success in undergraduate programs but that will prove to be critical for success in graduate school!).  Many programs now offer online admissions applications (we certainly do at UCSD here).  Still, you have to arrange for all of your letter writers to send their letters to the various programs you are applying to.  Many schools offer letter services for their undergraduates where they can ask their writers to place a letter in a file for them.  The applicant can then simply request that copies of the letter be sent to individual programs. You have to ensure that your GRE scores are similarly delivered.

As indicated above, having strong letters of support is one of the most important parts of an application.  And this is simply not something that you can start preparing for in November before December applications are due in the same year.  Ideally, this is a process that spans multiple years by cultivating a relationship with faculty members in your department.  Summer internships at companies are also a good opportunity for securing letters. Becoming involved in a research internship at a remote institution for the summer is another terrific opportunity.  A number of programs such as NSF’s REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) recruit for such positions at universities across the country.  This is something to apply for in your sophomore or junior year (or earlier!).

Of course, another option is to work on research with faculty in your own institution.  If you have done well in a professor’s class, they are very likely to be happy to work with you.  Doing research during the academic year is challenging because of all of the short-term demands on your time (a preview for your first few years of graduate school!).  So again you have to be organized.  A great way to get momentum for research is to start over the summer. Some professors offer paid internships for undergraduates over the summer.  Other times, however, such funding is not available.  My advice would be that if you have an opportunity to perform research with a great faculty member/set of students over the summer and you are very interested in learning about research/graduate school, then volunteering for an unpaid internship is a great investment in your future.

Q: Should I apply for MS or PhD programs?

There are multiple tradeoffs here.  I will summarize at a high level.


+ Largely a prerequisite if you want to teach at the college/university level or focus on basic research in industry (there are exceptions that prove the rule).
+ Typically, admission comes with a guarantee of funding.


+ Significantly easier to be admitted into an MS program.  From the department’s perspective, the risk is lower because typically there is no offer of financial support and the commitment is for two years rather than five to six years.  Someone with a strong undergraduate record is also fairly likely to perform well in an MS program though perhaps may not be an excellent researcher.
+ Relatively short time commitment (18-24 months) with significantly improved job prospects relative to a Bachelor’s degree.
+ If your record is relatively borderline for admission into top PhD programs, can use the MS as a proving ground to significantly improve chances for PhD admission later.

While the MS option typically does not guarantee funding, some to many MS students (certainly at UCSD) still obtain funding through TAships, RAships, or summer internships (currently a 3 month summer internship in the US often pays in the $18-20k total range).  Still, you should only go into an unfunded MS position if you have the means to fund it (through loans or otherwise) in the worst case.  Looking at it another way, many graduate students in law and medicine in the US go into debt (certainly more than the cost of an 18-24 month MS program) as an investment against their future earning power.  It may be worth considering the tradeoffs here as well if you are very excited about pursuing graduate work in computer science.

Q: Does it help to send email to a professor asking for an evaluation?

In general, sending a generic form letter to hundreds of professors is unlikely to help at all.  If you do send such a letter, make sure that you proofread it and that you get the professor’s name and area of research correct.  A poorly written note or one that cites a different professor’s papers can leave a bad impression.  However, if you have something intelligent to say about a professor’s research, beyond a simple “I found your paper on X to be very interesting and in line with my own interests,” then it could be worthwhile.  And, of course, if you have an exceptionally strong record where you might be a clear admit, then it could be worthwhile to get yourself on a particular faculty member’s radar.

But note that the bar for “clear admit” is quite high.  At UC San Diego, we get many strong applications where the line between accept and reject is very fine and impossible to predict ahead of time.  Clear admit says essentially: independent of available funding, current research focus, the strength of the rest of the pool, etc., this student will be admitted in any given year.  At most top 25 departments, this means at least 3 of 4 of the following: top 1% recommendation letters from well-known letter writers, top undergraduate institution, very high GPA/GRE scores, and research experience preferably with published papers in top venues. Out of 1000 applicants, we might only have 40-50 that fall into this clear admit category in any given year.

Q: I have been admitted to a number of programs.  What should I look for in a school?

The biggest mistake I see students make, especially among foreign applicants, is to order their admits based on US News and World Report rankings and select the school with the highest ranking  Your goal is to maximize your long-term success and that means maximizing your prospects once you complete your degree.  I will focus here on the PhD side, but similar considerations apply for the MS degree.

In maximizing your experience in graduate school, in general you want to maximize the quality of the research that you perform and the single most important thing here is your research adviser and the other graduate students you work with on a day to day basis.  So, in considering a school, the first thing to look at are the set of faculty members that you might be interested in working with.  If you are not sure what you might like to do, you should make sure that the various areas that you are interested in are well represented in a particular department.  If you are interested in working in a particular area, is there more than one faculty member working in that space?  You might love the work of a particular professor, but it might be the case that the professor may not be taking on students or may be on leave in a given year. More subtly, your personalities may not mesh well or the advising style of a particular professor may not work well for you.  Some high level distinctions include students who like significant freedom versus professors who might have a relatively narrow set of topics that they want their students to work on.  The reverse can also be problematic: some professors are very hands off while a particular student may need relatively close interaction (at least initially).

The best way to determine whether you would enjoy working with a faculty member is to attend the school’s visit day.  This will give not only the opportunity to meet the professor but to speak with the professor’s other students to get a good feel for what it would be like working with a faculty member.  Of course, the difficulty of attending visit days for foreign students is one of the challenges in accurately evaluating all of the alternatives on a list.  In this case, students should still be proactive in setting up telephone conversations with both faculty and students at the institution.  At the very least, you should verify that some of the faculty you are interested in working with have the capacity (in terms of both time and money) to take on additional students.

Circling back to the topic of rankings, if a higher ranked institution does not have any professors working in areas you are interested in or if your style of working does not mesh well with the available faculty, then it is less likely that you will be able to perform high quality research.  And, of course, this will in turn impact your chances of getting your dream job upon graduation.

Clearly, rankings do play some role in your subsequent success and it would be naive to think they do not matter at all.  If you are able to do work of equivalent quality at two institutions and one is substantially more prestigious than another, then choosing the higher-ranked one makes sense.  But the quality of your work trumps all other considerations in my opinion.  Certainly, when we evaluate faculty applicants for our own department, the quality and impact of the research performed by an applicant is by far the number one evaluation.  Probably the second most criteria is the leadership skills and vision of the applicant.  School ranking is never explicitly considered.

Since you will not be spending 100% of your time doing research and since your personal happiness goes a long way in determining your overall work productivity, other considerations are also important.  Essentially, are there factors about the location of a school that would impact the things you like to do in your free time (e.g., spending time with friends or family, going to the theatre, snowboarding, museums, outdoor sports, etc.).

Q: One school is offering me a better financial aid package than another.  Can I use this to negotiate?

You can try, but in most cases, schools offer the best financial packages they can to an applicant.  If the difference is between no funding at one one school and full support at another, then it is worth inquiring about available funding.  However, if the difference is a few thousand dollars in the form of a special fellowship at one school relative to another, I would consider the difference to be in the noise relative to all the other things that go into determining your long term success.  Once again, if everything else is equal, then choosing the school with a slightly better financial package makes sense.  But in virtually all cases, other considerations will be more important than the total amount of support.

Another question to consider is the length of guaranteed support in an offer letter.  Some schools promise support to PhD applicants for five+ years, while others may only promise support for one, two, or three years.  You should not place too much stock in the various differences here.  The fact is that, currently, virtually all PhD students in top tier departments receive one form of support or another as long as they are making good progress toward their dissertation. Available support of course varies from school to school and from research area to research area, but it is the clear exception where a PhD student making good progress has no funding options.

And guaranteeing funding has legal implications at some schools that make it difficult to provide such guarantees.  For example, if a professor wishes to recruit 2 new graduate students in a given year and the historical accept rate for admissions offers is 40%, then the professor may wish to admit 5 students total.  However, a particular university might require the professor to demonstrate funding for all 5 students for all 5 years, or 25 years of total graduate student support.  This requirement comes despite the fact that the faculty member only expects 2 of the students to accept and hence really only needs 10 years of total support.  (If there is a “success disaster” where 3 or 4 students accept, presumably that same professor would not recruit in subsequent years to absorb the bubble.)  So overall, depending on campus requirements, it may not even be possible for a faculty member to guarantee support since there may be legal contractual obligations associated with the guarantee.

In general, the best way to determine what the real funding situation is like at a school or a particular group is to ask other students.  If senior students have all had full RAships and full summer support for the past five years, then you can typically use the past as a good predictor for the future, independent of the specifics of the offer letter.

Amin Vahdat is a Professor in Computer Science and Engineering at UC San Diego.

December 2009