Monday, October 22, 2012

FAQ: Applying to Graduate School for Computer Science

Over the years, I have gotten various e-mails asking me about what it is like to be a graduate student at MIT and how to apply.  I have compiled this list of frequently asked questions.

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Q: What is the best school for studying computer science in the United States?  Where should I apply?
A: The top-ranked schools are MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and Berkeley but the best school for you depends on many factors, including the area(s) you are interested in, the professor(s) you would work with, the size of the school, the size of the department, the location of the school, etc.  I would recommend applying to all schools you may be interested in and then talking to potential professors and their groups once you are admitted.

My personal notes from visit weekends at MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Washington can be found here.

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Q: Can you tell me about the work in research group X?
A: The best way before applying to get a sense of what is current in group X is to look at the websites of the professors and  the graduate students.  The group itself may also have a website.  After you are admitted, you will have plenty of opportunity to talk with professors and students to determine what is the best fit, either through the visit weekend or over the phone.

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Q: How much work is the Computer Science Ph.D. program at MIT?
A: The course requirements tend to be lighter than other Ph.D. programs: I had four required courses and two additional for a non-CS minor.  (They may be changing this.)  The focus is on your research: as long as your advisor thinks you are doing good work and a couple of other professors can confirm this, there is not too much bureaucracy to deal with.

As for research, you are technically expected to do at least 20 hours of work for your advisor and 20 hours for coursework/your own interests.  I would say the average student should expect to work 40-60 hours a week, depending on how well they use their time and how demanding their advisor is.  The number of expected hours varies by student and by group.  I work on average 40 hours a week if there is no deadline, 50 hours a week the month before a deadline, and 60 hours right before a deadline.  I would imagine the amount of work expected of MIT students is comparable to that at other top computer science Ph.D. programs.

My blog posts Reasons to Pursue a Ph.D. and The Life of an Academic, Explained may also give you insights as to what life at MIT may be like.

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Q: Could you look over my personal statement?
A: Unless I know you personally, I probably do not have time to look over your statement.  Here is some good advice, most of which was given to me by others:

  • Your personal statement should be an answer to the question "why should we admit you and what would it be like to have you here?"  You should argue convincingly for the first point while also giving an idea of your research interests and research personality.
  • Someone should be able to read your statement quickly to answer the question above.  Reading the first sentence of each paragraph should give someone a pretty good idea of what your statement says.
  • Leave out unnecessary details from your statement, especially if someone can find those details on your resume.
  • Be as concise as possible.
  • Don't use excessively flowery language.
  • Start early and revise often.  Show your statement to anyone who will read it and ask for their feedback.
I have posted one of my personal statements here.


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Q: What advice do you have for me on my resume?
A: Here is some good advice for resumes:

  • Try to be as concise as possible.  If you are applying straight from undergraduate, there is little reason why your resume should exceed one page.
  • Use action verbs, state your achievements clearly--all that standard advice.  People should be able to quickly be able to evaluate the contributions you made in each role.  I prefer having 2-3 bullet points per role to clearly communicate this.
  • Ask other people who have graduated from your institution and/or people you have worked with to look over your resume.  They will have the best idea of what people expect and how it will be evaluated.

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This is one of my "applying to grad school" blog posts.

  1. Deciding to Apply
  2. Standardized Tests
  3. Fellowships
  4. Applications
  5. School Visits
  6. Some notes on picking grad schools/advisors
  7. FAQ: Applying to Graduate School for Computer Science
You may also be interested in these blog posts I have written:

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