As a college senior I thought it would be nice to write the guide to applying to graduate school that I wish I had when I started this process. So without further ado I present to you “A Swattie’s Guide To Applying To CS PhD Programs” or “How I Did It”
- Now is the time to start thinking about if you want to apply to grad school. I have written a few thoughts on that in a previous post entitled: Should You Consider Applying To CS Grad School?
- If required, set a test date and start studying for the GRE. See my post on that here.
- Lastly, if you’re feeling extra ambitious, start thinking about the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program (assuming you’re a US citizen). See the next section for more details.
Start Looking for Graduate Schools
Assuming you’ve decided that you do want to apply to grad school, its time to start looking for programs and professors that you would be interested in. Finding professors are key because ultimately this is what will make or break your graduate school experience. 1
Grad school is so advisor specific that choosing an advisor is far and away more important than the school or the program you find yourself in. When it’s all said and done, your experience is dictated by your advisor -Prof. A
As you collect a list of potential places that you’d like to go for grad school I would recommend keeping track of them in some sort of document. I used Google Sheets because it allowed me to easily share my document with other people. The basic format of my document is below:
|School||Department||Lab/Program||Interests Supported by School||Application Deadline||Admissions Testing||Faculty of Interest||Notes|
|StateU||CS||Falcon Research Group, JEDI Lab||HCI, HRI, AI Ethics||December 15||GRE Required||Dr. Han Solo - Portable Mixed Reality
Dr. Padme Amidala - Medical Robots, AI Ethics
|I have a bad feeling about this…|
|Private University||ECE||EARLGREY Lab, Voyager Group||HCI, Usable Security||December 1||No GRE||Dr. Jean-Luc Picard - Vehicle Interfaces
Dr. Kathryn Janeway - User-centered Security
|Everyone seems to be wearing silly uniforms|
For the “Faculty of Interest” section I highly recommend taking note of who you’re interested in working with and why; this will save you time down the road when you assemble your application package for a given school.
Interlude: A Few Thoughts On How To Find People and Programs
In my experience, there are three effective options to help find places to apply to. In no particular order they are:
- CSRankings.org - Keep in mind that rankings aren’t everything, but it is a useful tool to help narrow down the scope of places to look at
- Conference Proceedings - Find the big conferences in the subfields of CS that you are interested in and look into the authors of papers whose topic you found interesting
- Professors - Do not neglect this one. Your Professors know the lay of the land and can point you to places and people
NSF Graduate Research Fellowship
If you have some extra time, and working on application like material won’t induce burn out, now is the time to start taking the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP) program seriously. The application package that you have to put together for the GRFP lays the ground work for the applications you need to write for grad school. I was able to recycle ~700 words from one of my GRFP essays to use in my grad school applications. Moreover, you can apply to the GRFP once as an undergrad and once as a graduate student so by not applying you’re loosing out on an “extra” shot at getting the GRFP. There is a lot of really great advice on the internet about applying for the GFRP. I’m a big fan of Mallory P. Ladd’s advice and Alex Lang’s advice.
Starting now may seem like a pain, but it’ll make your life easier during the semester.
Continue Looking for Graduate Schools
By early/mid September you should have an initial list of people and places. If you can, meet with a professor within the subfield you’re interested in and show them your list. They will be able to give you good feedback and maybe point to someone they know who would also be of help.
Draft the GRFP
By mid/late September you should start seriously thinking about the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program (assuming you’re a US citizen). See the previous section for in-depth details.
Identify And Reach Out To Your Recommenders
Most schools typically ask for three recommenders. Identify and reach out to your recommenders early. This will give them the time they need to write you a good recommendation letter. When asking for someone to be a letter writer the operative phrase is “would you be willing to write me a strong letter of recommendation.” At some schools your application lives or dies on the strength of your letters so you want to be sure that they highlight the best in you.
Thoughts on Selecting Letter Writers
If possible, you want to select people who you have done research with in the past. Getting a professor that will write what’s referred to at CMU as a DWI 2 – or did well in course – letter isn’t as useful as someone who can speak to some sort of research that you’ve done. Your ability to do well in school is not necessarily a one-to-one mapping on your ability to be a strong researcher.
Revise and Submit the GRFP
I didn’t start my GRFP application until much later than what I recommend in this post (oh the benefit of hindsight). As such, the GFRP dominated my spare time in October. More so than anything else listed in the month this should be your top priority.
Finalize Graduate School List
By the end of October you should’ve consulted at least one professor about your list of schools and have a pretty solid idea of where (and why) you want to apply. Finalizing the list before November is a good idea because some schools (1) offer free or reduced application fee if you apply early or (2) have oddly early deadlines. With your list finalized before November 1st, you can formulate a plan on how you will spend the next month to get all of your applications in.
Professors are very busy and being your letter writer is but one thing on their list of responsibilities. Creating a tracking spreadsheet of what schools have received letters and what schools haven’t keeps you all on the same page.
My sheet looked like this:
|School||Deadline||Email for Rec Submission Sent||Person 1||Person 2||Person 3||Notes||SOP|
|StateU||December 15||No||N||N||N||Interests at school: HCI, HRI, AI Ethics||link|
|Private University||December 1||Yes||Y||N||Y||Interests at school: HCI, Usable Security||link|
Notice that a lot of this information can be copied from the spreadsheet you started over the summer. The “Notes” and “SOP” columns exist to help your recommenders write a stronger letter for you. If they understand what at the school you’re interested in they will be able to tailor the letter accordingly.
Just to make sure that nothing falls through the cracks on your end I also recommend creating an application tracking sheet for yourself.
My sheet looked like this:
|School||Deadline||Personal Statement||Misc. Essays||Contacted Professor at School||Notes|
|StateU||December 15||Drafted||N/A||No||Waiting on edits from Professor Jones|
|Private University||December 1||Submitted||Drafted||Dr. Kathryn Janeway||“Our supplemental essay asks you to detail how you would handle the Kobayashi Maru training exercise” WC: 300|
Note: I hyperlinked each school’s name to their application portal for easy access.
Write Write Write
Now that the GFRP is out of the way, there is nothing between you and getting these applications done. (Besides your regular load of classes, school work, friends, sleeping, and exercise–it’s important to take care of yourself! ) There a couple of things that you should get done first so that you can reuse them again and again.
How to properly structure a CV is a mystery to me; from what I understand, you want to order your accomplishments in a way that puts your research first and foremost because that’s what the admissions committee is looking for 3 . I did my CV in LaTeX because I find fidgeting with spacing a pain in Word. This is how I structured my CV:
- Research Experience
- Poster Presentations
- Work Experience
Brevity is the name of the game here. Your CV should not be longer than 3 pages4.
You should already have an unofficial transcript downloaded in your GFRP application package. If you didn’t apply for the GFRP now is the time to get your unofficial transcript. Make sure you redact PII’s like your student ID number.
Your Statement of Purpose (SOP)
A good chunk of your statement of purpose can be recycled from application to application. You can find a deeper dive into the SOP at my post here.
Gently Remind Professors About Upcoming Submission Deadlines
This will vary letter writer to letter writer, but in my experience I have found that politely reminding a professor about a letter they need to submit within the next 7-10 days is received well.
Submit Your Final Applications and Celebrate
You did it!! Congrats! Now its time for a well deserved break before interview season.
Some schools conduct interviews in January. My understanding is that at this stage in the process you have completed the first hurdle: a school’s admissions apparatus has read your application, liked what they saw, and want to get to know you better.
My interviews were exclusively with faculty that I mentioned in my application but apparently that isn’t always the case. Regardless of who interviews you, you’ll want to do some preparation beforehand. These interviews can make or break your PhD application. I have written more about interview prep in its own post here.
February & March
At this point you will start getting your acceptances and rejections. Casey Fiesler has excellent videos on the entirety of the PhD application process, but I’ll link her video on rejection here.
For the schools you are accepted into, you’ll want to reach out to professors you’re interested in working with and see if they are taking students next year. This serves two purposes (1) to see if you actually want to go to that school and (2) get a feel for the professor. Your experience in grad school is largely dependent on how well you mesh with your professor so be sure to ask good questions. Moreover, it is crucial that you talk to their graduate students. Their perspective on what it is like to be a graduate student at $SCHOOL and working with the professor in question will give you the best understanding of what it is like to go to $SCHOOL.
There are a million factors that you can’t control for when making a decision on which school to attend. At a certain point, collecting more information is not going to help much and you just gotta make a decision based on what “feels” right. -Prof. E
Make a decision and celebrate! Congratulations!! This processing is grueling and you did it!
Some links that I found that were useful