Tuesday, August 12, 2008

CS Grad School Part 5: School Visits

You should begin hearing back from schools in February. I heard back from my first schools--Penn, UW, and Berkeley--on February 6. After asking around I conclude that they do not tell people at the same time, and when they tell people depends on when they decide to admit you and how much funding they have. I heard that how CMU (and probably other schools) do it is they admit the people they definitely know they can fund and then they wait to either hear about more funding to hear from students going to other schools before admitting other people.

School visits are usually in late February/March and are a great opportunity for visiting the campus, talking to professors, talking to grad students, and escaping your native climate. Schools will cover the expenses of these visits up to a certain amount (not guaranteed to cover all costs!), so it is important to book your tickets (and ask about accomodations) as soon as you hear from the schools. (Most schools reimburse you for booking your own tickets, and only CMU offered to do the booking for me.)

Some advice I have compiled about school visits:
  • One of my professors told me to make a spreadsheet with qualities I'm looking for in each school, but one of my other professors told me that there is no good way to rationalize the decision so I should go with my gut feeling. I did the latter, mostly because I have never found spreadsheets to be useful and because I had a good idea of what I wanted in a school.
  • You may not get a whole lot of time with professors, so it is good to look up some information on the school and the professors' work beforehand so you can ask informed questions.
  • Not all professors you talk to expect that you have looked up their work etc. Given time constraints, focus on the professors you think you'll want to work with.
Overview of school visits. These are really fun times when you have scheduled time to meet with professors and current graduate students, you are given good food and drink, and you are generally shown a good time because the schools want to convince you to go there. This is a fun time in your life because it is likely that you'll run into other prospective grad students at more than one school and it's a little bit like one big traveling party.

The schools I visited, in chronological order of my visits:
University of Pennsylvania. UPenn has an extremely strong programming languages group of Benjamin Pierce, Stephanie Weirich, and Steve Zdancewic. They are also very good in things like computer vision and natural language processing (I am told). Their very-goodness is also a new development, as they acquired many Bell Labs (New Jersey) people when that disintegrated. The Penn visit involved many meetings with professors, a poster session, a nice dinner with professors and grad students, a bar crawl, an exclusive Frieda Kahlo exhibit, and probably other things. Penn might have been the only place where they had me meeting exclusively with professors (except MIT), and for a long time (half hour, hour?) each. Everyone was very nice and working on cool things. One of the main reasons I decided not to go there was because I wasn't ready to commit the rest of my life to the flavor of theoretical programming languages theyw ere do research they were doing there. (Penn, CMU, Harvard, and UW are the three places in the states where you'll find the theoretical, POPL/ICPF, theorem-proving kind of PL research.)

MIT. I loved MIT's visit weekend. The first day had various tours, then a dinner with the faculty, then things around Boston. The second day they had a representative sample of the faculty give three-minute long presentations and then allowed the rest of the day for meetings with professors. These were short (20 minutes?) and with a large number of professors. I liked MIT's atmosphere because it was quirky, fast-paced, and had a good sense of humor.

Stanford. Stanford has a much more corporate atmosphere than the other schools. Their research is very applied--people often start companies from the research. The professors were surprisingly nice and seemed to know my name before I got there, which is always a good sign. The grad students there seem like they are treated very well. The visit weekend also included a fun trampoline jumping event. Some of the reasons I chose not go to Stanford: it is very west-coast and corporate, there isn't much of a grad student presence on campus (people treat it like a job and often work from home), and I met a grad student who had done his undergrad at MIT and convinced me that I would love MIT.

Berkeley. Berkeley was the reason I applied to grad school, and during my visit weekend I concluded that Berkeley (the place) is indeed heaven on earth. UC Berkeley also had a great vibe, with its lush green campus and diverse student body. The professors there were also doing great PL research. The main reasons I didn't go to Berkeley was because I felt like MIT was a better personality fit--despite my love for California, I think I am more of an east-coast academic, whatever that means. I also felt like Berkeley's department was much bigger than MIT, probably because there is a lot of collaboration between professors. While this is the reason many people choose to go to Berkeley, I found MIT to be more personal for the reason that professors have their small empires which they tend to with care (in some situations).

UW. This was probably the most fun visit weekend because they are quite generous with the alcohol. (Other grad students I have met have said the same thing.) The grad students at UW seem very happy and to like what they are doing. Two reasons I did not go to UW: Seattle is really far north (and so there is very little light in the winter), and in terms of PL guys they only had Dan Grossman because Craig Chambers was on leave at Google.

CMU. I was very tired by this visit weekend and it was also close to the due date of my thesis, so I didn't spend very long here. Fortunately, I had grown up in Pittsburgh across the street from CMU so I know a bit about Pittsburgh and the area surrounding CMU. CMU has a great CS department; CMU is based around is department, which is an amazing thing if you are into that. CMU's PL group is also basically the department, which is like a candy store if you are a PL nerd. (Correction: I have since learned that the department has many more faculty than the impression I got when I visited. It has been brought to my attention that less than 15% of the faculty work on PL.) Despite this, the draw of CMU and its PL group did not outweigh my desire to not live in Pittsburgh anymore. (I had lived in Pittsburgh for thirteen years, from the ages of five to seventeen. It is a little small for me to return there anytime soon. It is, however, a great city because 1) it is great for raising small children and 2) the graduate stipend goes a long way because of lower costs of living.) Thus, I disappointed my advisor and did not choose CMU.

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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