Applying to Grad School

Tips for those pursuing a PhD in CS.

July 25, 2020

Having applied to CS PhD programs over the past year or so, I decided to write down a few lessons I learned. To begin, I will talk about my overall experience. The summer after high school (2017), I took the GRE, as I knew I wanted to pursue graduate education, and the GRE was not much of a stretch after the SAT and ACT. In spring 2019, I spoke to my professors about what grad school entailed, and whether it would be a good fit for me. These professors recommended I apply to CS PhD programs as well as the NSF GRFP. After touring the schools where I was accepted earlier this year (2020), I chose to attend USC. Below is a list of tips I learned throughout this process – some items come from first-hand experience, while others were passed along to me.

  1. Figure out what you’re getting yourself into. Grad school is no small undertaking. Basically, you’ll be spending up to 6 years working full-time as a researcher in your advisor’s lab. Unlike in undergraduate, courses will be secondary – you’ll take a few, but they will mostly be aimed at supplementing your research. In short, grad school is more like a job than “school.” One article I found particularly helpful in understanding grad school was this blog post from my advisor at USC.
    • Some have asked whether they should do a master’s before / instead of a PhD. My general impression is that master’s degrees are more focused on coursework, though many programs do involve writing a thesis. In general, if you are pursuing a research career, a PhD is the way to go. Furthermore, many PhD programs allow you to petition for a master’s once you have passed certain milestones. If you are thinking of completing a master’s and then a PhD, keep in mind that a master’s is not required to pursue a PhD (i.e. you can go straight from undergrad to PhD), and a master’s will not necessarily take time off your PhD.
  2. Talk to as many people as possible. Get advice from lots of people when you are trying to figure out the program and school to which you should apply. Keep in mind that you will receive many viewpoints, some conflicting with each other. It is up to you to distill the information that is helpful for your situation.
  3. Figure out an area in which to specialize. You should be going into a PhD program with a general idea of what problems you want to work on. This will help you decide which professors you want to work with, as well as what you write in your various application materials. Certainly, this will require some soul searching – read some papers, think about your personal history, and figure out what you want to work on next.
  4. Choose the professor(s), not just the school. Grad school is all about the people, since you are basically picking your manager and coworkers for the next several years. Thus, as you select schools, make sure you are looking through professors’ publications/websites. You may also want to check whether the school has multiple professors working in your field of interest, as having a community of like-minded researchers can be beneficial. To this end, CS rankings is a great website for finding prominent schools and professors in your field of interest.
  5. Email professors who you may be interested in working with. If you are genuinely interested in working with certain professors, spend some time composing an email asking about their recent research. Importantly, do not go around asking professors if they will accept you, but do ask if they are accepting students for their lab. If a professor is not taking any students, your application may be wasted. Note: some professors will explicitly ask that you not email them.
  6. Choose your recommenders carefully. Recommenders must be people who know you well enough that they can write a letter about your ability to do independent research. Ideally, they are professors with whom you have done research. If you have not done research with enough professors, get to know your current instructors by attending their office hours. Above all, do not be afraid to ask for a recommendation. Writing recommendations is a regular part of a professor’s job, and if they know you well enough, they will be willing to help you.
  7. Ask your recommenders early, and keep them in the loop. Give your recommenders as much time as possible to write your recommendations. By June of 2019, I had asked two of my recommenders, and by the end of the summer, I had asked my third. As I applied, I kept them updated on my list of grad schools, and I let them know when I had sent out requests for letters (usually, the application system lets you send a letter request to your recommender; the recommender then opens this email and submits the letter).
  8. The personal statement is the part that you can control. Most of your application will already be set by the time you start applying. Your GPA probably will not change much, your GRE scores will be set, your recommenders will write what they write, and you will not suddenly gain a plethora of new research experiences. However, the personal statement is something that you can change right now, so make sure that it is pristine.
  9. Get everyone to review your application. This is especially true for the personal statement. Send it to as many people as you can – not just the professors / recommenders you are working with, but also counselors, family members, and (especially) peers. In particular, I found it really helpful to get advice from friends who had just applied to and entered grad school, as well as friends who were currently applying to grad school.
  10. Consider if you want to go abroad. The advice in this list is tailored to US programs, but you can always consider places like the UK, Canada, and Singapore. Keep in mind that the processes and programs in other countries may be different. For instance, UK PhD programs tend to be shorter than US ones.
  11. Apply to fellowships too. Fellowships like the NSF GRFP provide funding to graduate students and come with high prestige. Some schools also have offices dedicated to helping students apply to such awards. For example, UCI has the Scholarship Opportunities Program.
  12. Start early. Applying to grad school is a tedious process, and you will need as much time as you can get. Starting early means you have more time to write your essays and get reviews from professors and anyone else helping you. If you’re reading this article a couple months before you would apply, you’re already on the right track.
  13. The application process does not end with submit. Unfortunately, you’re not done when you hit the submit button on your application. Though applications are typically due in mid-December (with some in late November or early January), expect to be contacted for interviews and visits with professors starting in January. Essentially, before choosing to work with you for the next several years, professors will want to know more about you than they can glean from your application. To prepare for these interviews, review the professor’s recent work and make sure you can answer questions about everything on your application, especially research experiences. Of course, make sure to ask if there is anything you should prepare when a professor contacts you.

With that, I hope this list has clarified some of the PhD application process. Best of luck on your applications!