One woman's path through doula training, childrearing, and a computer science Ph. D. program

Thursday, October 4, 2012

What I wish I Knew When Applying To Graduate School

This is a post about What I wish I Knew When Applying To Graduate School, a session at the Grace Hopper Celebration for Women in Computing, October 2012, in Baltimore, MD.

Judy Hoffman at University of California, Berkeley in Computer Vision. She went to the same school for undergraduate.

Katya Gonina at University of California, Berkeley in Parallel Computing. She originally applied as a MS student but switched to PhD.

Kristin Stephens at University of California, Berkeley in Computer Networking and Online Learning Education. Her undergraduate studies were focused in industry.

Aude Hofleitner at University of California, Berkeley in Machine Learning. She did her undergraduate education abroad in France, and last year served on the admission committee.

Elena Caraba at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in Scientific Computing. She was on the admission committee at UIUC for both PhD and MS, and she switched advisors in her 3rd year of PhD work.

Application Components

  1. Standardized tests (i.e., GRE, TOEFL)
  2. Recommendation letters
  3. Research statement
  4. Personal statement, for some schools
  5. Transcript and GPA from your undergraduate institution
What makes a good application? This list is geared towards a PhD application
  1. Research experience, or industry experience that can transcend to research life
  2. Good recommendation letters
  3. Transcript and GPA
  4. Solid research statement
  • By far, the most important thing to get involved in
  • Find out if you like doing research
  • Find opportunities early (in your sophomore or junior year); do internships
  • Try to get a publication, in any form, including a poster symposium in your school, a workshop paper, a poster in a conference, a conference publication, or a journal article
  • Reflect your research interests and experience in your research statements.
Recommendation letters
  • Typically professors at your university or managers from job/internship. 
  • Ask, "Can you write me a great letter?" You don't want a good letter. You want a great letter.
  • Find a person who knows you well
  • Ask professors who are in the area for which you are applying -- and include 
  • Ask early, and follow up (e.g., weekly: "By the way! Did you get to that letter for me? It's due XXX.")
  • Also very important
  • Take higher-level calasses in topics in which you are interested
  • Great way to explore grad school topics
  • Do well in the classes you choose
Research statement
  • Your chance to tell: a) Why you want to go to this particular graduate school, and b) What you want to study.
  • Discuss your research or work experience.
  • Why do you want to go to this particular school? Why should they want you to go there? Tell them why you are a good match for each other. Look up the professors you want to work with, and name-drop in your applications.
  • Get feedback from other students that have written research statements. Then get feedback from the people writing your letters of recommendation.
Other components of your application
  • Standardized test (GRE and TOEFL) -- don't look illiterate in the verbal
  • Personal statement -- women in computer science already stand out, so go ahead and ride that wave. If there is anything else unique about you, use it to your advantage
  • Funding -- If you have applied for funding (even if you do not know if you got it), committees look favorably on students that take the initiative to seek their own funding. NSF has funding for graduate students (e.g., NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program).
Rough application timeline
  • May -- August (end of Junior year)
    • Take GRE
    • Think about recommendation letter writers
    • Research schools and professors
    • Narrow down research focus
  • September -- October (beginning of Senior year)
    • Ask for recommendation letters
    • Write research statements
    • Fill out applications
    • Fill out NSF GRFP application
  • November -- December
    • Submit applications
    • Submit NSF GRFP
    • Follow up about recommendation letters
  • February -- March
    • Hear back from schools

Question and Answer

Q: For international students: When applying to graduate schools, how often is it that your application is rejected because of lack of funding (e.g., need-based funding)? Does applying for funding diminish your chances of getting in to graduate school?

Aude: It won't affect your chances of getting in. If you get accepted for a PhD you will get financial aid. At the MS level it's different: if you're good then they will accept you; if you're in the top 5% you may get financial assistance.

Q from Holly from University of Waterloo: What are some of the courses that you really really wish you had taken but didn't have the chance to, or didn't think to at the time?

Katya: It's never too late to pick up a topic that you feel you missed. I did not take computer science in undergraduate. If your interests change you can get back on it. It is good to get advice from graduate students in your school to find out what they feel the core classes are and who the good professors are.

Judy: If you really like something, don't be afraid to delve deeper and take a graduate course as an undergrad. It will give you a godo idea if you really like that topic, and will help you to look good on an application.

Q: When you ask a professor for letters of recommendation, do you have to tell them the list of schools they are writing the letter for? Do they have to write a separate letter for each school? What if I'm still in the narrowing-down process?

A: The professor can help you figure out which universities to apply to. You can have a conversation with your professor.

Q: How many schools should you have when you're applying?

A: I did it wrong. I applied to Top 3, and then Berkeley. Don't do just four. Remember when you were in high school they told you to apply to the really high ones, the middle ones, and the ones you know you'll get in to.

Judy: I applied to 9 schools. I think that was good. Because the schools are so specialized it's hard to know which one you'll fit in to, which one has nice professors, the school size -- you can't get a good sense of this stuff from just reading their website -- until you visit.

Katya: Apply for your dream school. You might as well. Dream school, middle schools, and safety schools.

Aude: You will likely live 5-6 years in the same location. So visit the school. If you can't stand the cold weather, don't go there, because you will be miserable.

Audience professor: Some schools will let you continue modifying your online application even after the deadline.

Q: How do you know what's a safety school, what's a top school?

Elena: I went to my professor and asked. You should apply to just one safety school. It should still be a good school but not highly ranked.

Q from Jesse from Rice University: When is a good time to go to grad school? Work experience in industry or right after undergraduate?

Elena: Some people have a hard time going back to graduate school after having been gone for a while. You go to grad school, the stipend is not that great compared to industry pay. Having to do homework. It is good, though, to go to industry to get perspective on what you want to do

Judy: Some companies will sponsor you to go to school. There are companies that will send you to school with the understanding that you will work for them for a few years afterwards. Some schools offer a 5th year option that grant you a Master's degree.

Elena: It's something you should get lots of opinions about, so that you can form your own opinion from those.

Q: Thank you for being here to give us precious tips on how to apply for graduate school. I am a graduate student, but also: Surprise! I'm here to tell us about my school. I'm from University of North Texas. We have a dozen funded PhD positions in different domains and areas.

A: A plug for going to graduate school. It's awesome and where I learned to ski.

Q: Another general question related to the admission process. Should I get a MS before a PhD?

A: Having a Master's will increase the expectation that people will have of you. If you have an outside interest, you should take 

Q: Is it good to put things that make you stand out, for example, screenwriting?

A: YES. That's something that will go in the personal statement.

Q: Should you get a Master's and a PhD in the same school or in different schools?

A: You apply to an MS/PhD program in many schools. It's possible to get a Master's in one school and go to another school in a PhD. But in many

Q: Is there anything of value in getting a Master's degree? Would you recommend it?

A: You want the escape pod. If you decide that you don't want to do the PhD, getting the Master's is a way to show that you spent time in graduate school.

Judy: If you get there and decide you don't like it, you can leave after you have your Master's. So you can apply for a PhD and know that there is an option.

[ Break out sessions ]


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