Thinking about Graduate School?

Each year we hold a meeting for students interested in a better understanding of the graduate school application process. The following summarizes a recent conversation between undergraduate, graduate students and faculty members.

How do I pick which schools to apply to?

The best research-oriented computer science departments in the US are members of CRA, the Computing Research Association. See the list of CRA member universities. Find each department's home page, and browse their faculty and research. Approach your faculty advisor and other professors, and ask them for input about the best schools given the area of research. Apply to about 10 schools and make sure you have reach, middle and fallback schools, just like undergraduate applications.

Should I apply for fellowships?

YES, YES, YES! If you receive a fellowship prior to being accepted to a school, you are certainly considered a more attractive candidate because the school will not have to fund you. You will benefit from larger stipends, greater freedom to study at your own pace, and more. You should be sure to apply for an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Can I work for a year or two before attending graduate school? Do they like that or not?

Many students do apply to graduate school after working for a period of time. Spending 1 to 3 years working before applying to graduate school will not hurt your chances, and may help if you work at a well-known research company. If you work for a longer period, however, you should make clear on your application that your academic skills are up to date. Admissions committees take letters from faculty members more seriously than letters from employers. It can be hard to get an informative letter from a faculty member you studied with several years after graduation. You should try to stay in contact with your favorite teachers, so that they can write good letters when the time comes. GRE scores are valid for five years, so it makes sense to take the GREs before completing your undergraduate degree, when the material is fresh and you are more accustomed to preparing for tests.

Should I get a Master's degree before going for my PhD?

If your end goal is a PhD, it is best to apply directly to a PhD program. Most departments use different criteria for admitting MS students, and usually provide little or no financial support for MS students. The only reasons for applying for an MS program if your end goal is a PhD is if your undergraduate grades are poor or if you majored in a subject under than computer science and took few computer science courses.

Which criteria do grad schools look at most closely?

Our faculty isn't always in agreement on this! Some consider the GPA to be most important, some give stronger weight to the letters of recommendation. All agree that GRE scores might be a first cut-off (anyone below 'x' is unlikely) to make the applicant pool more manageable. Great personal statements or letters of recommendations may give your application a second look if something else is a little weaker. Having letters of recommendation from people who are personally known by the faculty at the school to which you are applying is a great help.

What are schools looking for in a personal statement?

It's very important to show enthusiasm and potential for research ability. Though you may be sending this to many schools, it's important to look committed and show that you care about this particular school/department. Don't necessarily go to a website and reference a certain project as your only area of interest. The website may not have been updated in years and that project could be long gone. However, you might mention why a particular project on a website looked interesting to you. Indicate why you want to be a scientist. Be yourself, but be professional!

What are pitfalls in personal statements?

Unlike your undergraduate application, a personal statement for grad school should avoid references to life-altering moments, should not be schmaltzy, and doesn't need to have a gimmick. It needs to be an honest reflection of your interests without any games. Have others, including your faculty advisor, review it for suggestions before you send the application. They will have great advice for making the right impression.

If I'm invited to visit a school, what do I need to find out while I'm there?

Make sure you talk to current graduate students while you are there. What is the research process there? Ask them how their advisors handle the research process. Are you working on your own work, or are you expected to work on the principal investigator's research and fit your PhD work during your 'free' time? Will that mean it will take you longer to complete your research/degree? Will you be part of a big project group, working on a small portion of that project? Is that OK with you? Who makes the decision to admit you, the department or a particular Principal Investigator? If the department admits you, you may have more flexibility to pick your advisor and your topic. If the PI is funding you, you may be funded by him/her, and if you were to decide not to continue with that advisor, you may find it difficult to get funding. How difficult is it to switch advisors? What is the cost of living for things like housing at that school, and do students find it possible to live on the stipend they are given? How long does the average student take to complete the PhD?

Any suggested reading on this subject?

"So long, and thanks for the PhD!", by Ronald Azuma.