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Apply to Master's or Ph.D. Programs?


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17 replies to this topic

#1 Zoop

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Posted 05 April 2012 - 05:44 PM

I just graduated with bachelors' in computer science and mathematics from a small, unknown liberal arts school. My GPA was 4.0, my GRE was Q: 164, V: 160, A: 4.0, and I only ended up with a semester of supervised research (didn't publish anything). I believe I would receive great recommendations, but from professors unknown to adcomms, and only one that would speak heavily to my research potential.

I am interested in pursuing a Ph.D. However, I realize that with my background and experience, top Ph.D. programs would likely be out of reach. Ideally, I would like to end up in a top 20 Ph.D. program, but it may not be worth it do what is required to achieve that goal. From what I've read, the experience from a master's program would be the best way to get from where I'm at to a top 20 Ph.D. program, but I would almost definitely be paying for that master's. What are your thoughts? Is it worth it to pay the price of a master's tuition to get into a better Ph.D. program? Or should I do the best I can with my current credentials?

I realize this isn't a yes or no question. I would just like to hear your thoughts on the issue. Thank you for your help!

Edited by Zoop, 05 April 2012 - 05:46 PM.

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#2 Pauli

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Posted 05 April 2012 - 07:10 PM

I can think of a couple options you can do:
  • Apply to a master's program from a university and boost your credentials there to hop to a more admissions-competitive university.
  • Apply directly to the PhD program while contacting potential advisors to see if you can garner interest.
  • Do a couple years of industry to boost your professional experience and use that as part of your portfolio material in your grad school app.
  • Not pursue a top 20-ranked PhD program and go to a PhD program while achieving strong credentials during your time there.

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#3 jjsakurai

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Posted 05 April 2012 - 07:35 PM

I disagree with the advice to do a couple of years in the industry. Unless you want to go into a field like systems or PL, industrial experience will be of no help. If you however go to a research lab and manage to do research with a well-known member of the community, that helps your case a lot.

As to the original questions - it may be possible for someone of your background to get an admit at a top 20 PhD school. I'd definitely recommend that you apply if you're sure your recs will be fabulous. Some schools also offer a funded MS while at many schools, once you get admitted, you can find profs willing to fund you after a semester or two. I'd also recommend that you check out Canadian schools - typically they're cheaper and they've some amazing schools like Toronto up there.

Edited by jjsakurai, 05 April 2012 - 07:36 PM.

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#4 ema

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Posted 05 April 2012 - 07:47 PM

If you want a Ph.D. and you don't mind going to an excellent school that's not necessarily top 5, absolutely apply to Ph.D. programs!! My stats are very similar to yours (one year research, no pubs; three great recs, but only one about research; basically unknown state university; basically swap our quant and verbal scores; 3.9 GPA/4.0 in major), and I got in to 2 top 20 schools and a top 50 (all with full funding packages), and the rest of the schools I applied to were top 5 (one of which interviewed me, and I admittedly bombed). The school that I'll likely be attending is top 10 in my area.

I think it's important to (seem like you) know exactly what you want to study when applying to these schools, and thus be really specific in your statement of purpose. Pick out professors you'd like to work with at each school, read about their research, and talk about it specifically in your statement. You also don't have to have done only supervised research. Did you do any research of your own, or somehow demonstrate ability to do independent work like in an independent study course? You can talk about all of this stuff in your statement. Come up with an area of research that relates to your experience and explain why you're passionate about it (or better yet, show how you're passionate about it).

As a backup, many Ph.D. programs will offer you a (unfunded) master's if they don't feel very confident in your research skills, so you would likely still have that option available if you aim for Ph.D. And as the person above said, even when they don't guarantee funding for master's students you can often still find funding once you get there, and eventually transition to the Ph.D. program.

I think the best thing to do between now and next year would be to try to find a programming job with a research lab. These are rare, but they do exist at the bigger (CS) schools and I think this would look really good on your app.
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#5 Pauli

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Posted 05 April 2012 - 08:42 PM

I disagree with the advice to do a couple of years in the industry. Unless you want to go into a field like systems or PL, industrial experience will be of no help. If you however go to a research lab and manage to do research with a well-known member of the community, that helps your case a lot.


I would have to totally disagree with you on that point that a couple years of industry is useless, because industry experience is still highly valuable to adcomms for engineering fields and some science fields. This is especially true in companies that provide similar research training that is similarly done in a grad program. Additionally, you can get a great reference letter from a superior in the industry field that is also an alum, which does go a long way. When I sought advice from the people I received my reference letters from and who provided guidance to grad school as well, they also offered this same advice to me.

Basically Zoop, industry experience is totally a legit option.
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#6 jjsakurai

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 12:01 AM

I would have to totally disagree with you on that point that a couple years of industry is useless, because industry experience is still highly valuable to adcomms for engineering fields and some science fields.


Engineering and some science fields - yes. CS (except for Systems and PL) is not one of those AFAIK.

This is especially true in companies that provide similar research training that is similarly done in a grad program. Additionally, you can get a great reference letter from a superior in the industry field that is also an alum, which does go a long way.


With only an undergrad degree, it's very very hard to get the sort of position where you'll work on the kind of research you'll do in grad school (again Systems and PL are the exception). Also, an industrial letter is worth much less than an academic letter - see point 4 here (http://matt-welsh.bl...rad-school.html) written by Matt Welsh when he was a CS prof at Harvard. He also says this in the comments -

applicants who have spent a little time in industry are tricky. If they have great letters from former professors talking about their research potential, then there's no harm in doing a few years in industry before applying to grad school. More often, we find people who didn't focus on research as undergrads, and are banking on their industry experience to help them get into grad school. Unless someone is, say, at a startup companuy where they have done some amazing hacking that makes it look like they would be a good grad student, that experience doesn't help very much. As I mentioned earlier most recommendation letters from industry folks are not that useful so one would still need the letters from the former profs. One suggestion for such students is to get the profs to write the letters before the student graduates and hold onto them until the student does, in fact, apply to grad school. Though, most professors are notoriously bad about procrastinating on letter writing until it is actually needed, so YMMV.



This not to say that industrial experience is not valuable. Just that in terms of CS grad school admissions, unless you're interested in Systems/PL - and I guess HCI too, the industrial experience will not be that important (unless you really created something noteworthy which people in your field have heard about) and is generally not a substitute for doing research at a university.

Edited by jjsakurai, 06 April 2012 - 12:35 AM.

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#7 Pauli

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 01:47 AM

This not to say that industrial experience is not valuable. Just that in terms of CS grad school admissions, unless you're interested in Systems/PL - and I guess HCI too, the industrial experience will not be that important (unless you really created something noteworthy which people in your field have heard about) and is generally not a substitute for doing research at a university.


That is such BS, and my profs in both undergrad and grad would disagree to those statements to varying degrees. It's certainly and especially very untrue for certain fields such as HCI, graphics, machine learning, and information retrieval, where research and industry work overlap (some very strongly like in HCI, others less so like in graphics). Of course industry experience is not the best substitute for valuable university research, but you make it sound like nothing value is taught from industry experience when going into research.

Furthermore, a couple years of industry experience offers many things to the original poster that directly applying to a PhD program doesn't offer: strong material to put into the essay portion of the app and possible interview on how that experience relates and tie to research interests, improvement of technical skill sets that would have probably needed to be acquired through taking foundation courses or self-study, more opportunities to network with others, etc.

Computer science research isn't just a monopoly of the ivory tower mentality of grad school, but can also be found each decade in great quantities in the industry experience. Regardless of what one professor says at some university, I'm relying on the experiences of my fellow grad student classmates at my university and who I meet from conferences, as well as from professors who I've talked with that also hold positions in adcomms from both my undergrad and grad school when I say that a strong and valuable couple years of industry experience couldn't hurt at the worst, and has many great benefits to compensate lack of undergraduate research experience and weaker academia when applying to grad school at the best.
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#8 Zoop

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 02:45 AM

Thank you for the suggestions, everyone. You've given me a lot to think about! Perhaps I have a better chance of getting into a top 20 Ph.D. program than I orginally thought. It sounds like my chances at such a university with my current credentials would ride heavily on my ability to write a pursuasive SoP. However, the possibility of an unfunded master's offer is somewhat comforting. What are your thoughts on unfunded masters' at top 20 programs vs funded PhDs at lower ranked programs?

At the moment, I'm leaning toward applying to Ph.D programs this fall. I will also look into some programs at Canadian schools as suggested. I would hope to at least get some masters' offers.

I think the best thing to do between now and next year would be to try to find a programming job with a research lab.


I would like to fill my time between now and next fall with something that would improve my application. I will look around for jobs like that, but since they are quite rare, do you have any suggestions for a plan B?

Thanks again for the comments. If anyone else has something to add, I would love to hear it.
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#9 tkulk

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 04:49 AM

I have to disagree with people advising against industry. I started in a systems team at a big company, moved over to a team that does vision/AI (R&D division) and now going to MIT for a PhD this coming fall. I would say majority of my notable work was in the industry.

Moreover, I don't think I would have gotten in without my industry experience. So if I were you, I would also look for good engineering positions within industrial research divisions.

Edited by tkulk, 06 April 2012 - 04:55 AM.

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#10 Pauli

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 05:18 AM

Moreover, I don't think I would have gotten in without my industry experience. So if I were you, I would also look for good engineering positions within industrial research divisions.


Agreed. A good percentage of my classmates here in grad school sharpened their skills from industry experience, and a few of my labmates would not picked up their technical prowess, team skills, and strong ability to adapt to diverse topics.
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#11 Zoop

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Posted 06 April 2012 - 05:44 AM

So if I were you, I would also look for good engineering positions within industrial research divisions.


I haven't had any luck finding research positions that don't require either a Ph.D. or a large amount of research experience, but I hadn't considered engineering positions within research divisions. I'll look into this. Thank you for the suggestion.
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#12 jjsakurai

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Posted 07 April 2012 - 07:48 PM

That is such BS, and my profs in both undergrad and grad would disagree to those statements to varying degrees. It's certainly and especially very untrue for certain fields such as HCI, graphics, machine learning, and information retrieval, where research and industry work overlap (some very strongly like in HCI, others less so like in graphics). Of course industry experience is not the best substitute for valuable university research, but you make it sound like nothing value is taught from industry experience when going into research.


You're misunderstanding me. I didn't say industrial experience couldn't be useful in research. I'm saying that AFAIK, the adcoms don't care too much for industrial experience compared to research experience at a good university. So for instance, an applicant who did say 2 years of good research at a top 20 university would be looked at more favorably than a candidate who spend say 10 years at a company like Google. I've several friends working in ML/IR at Google and Microsoft and most of their work involves implementation, tuning various algorithm parameters, optimizing the algorithm to run in a distributed setting, etc. Research in ML/IR at good universities does have those components but what is valued there is the conceptual work that you do.
(Of course, if you're working in a good industrial research lab, that helps your case a lot as I mentioned before but industrial research labs are a very small part of the tech industry in general)

So yes, industrial experience is useful but I've not seen a single student at a top 10 university who got there on the basis of industrial experience alone. Invariably, they had research experience at a university.

Furthermore, a couple years of industry experience offers many things to the original poster that directly applying to a PhD program doesn't offer: strong material to put into the essay portion of the app

The essay portion is one of the least important parts of the app. It can hurt you if you do it badly. I rarely helps you.

Edited by jjsakurai, 07 April 2012 - 07:50 PM.

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#13 jjsakurai

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Posted 07 April 2012 - 08:33 PM

Btw, Zoop - another option you could try is working at University affiliated labs. MIT and CMU Robotics for instance, employ several people who are not students at the university and IMHO, that would be a better option than working in the industry or even in an industrial research lab (unless of course, you're getting a chance to work with someone great at the industrial research lab).

Edited by jjsakurai, 07 April 2012 - 08:35 PM.

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#14 what_ever_

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Posted 07 April 2012 - 09:37 PM

I recommend directly apply to PhD. It does not worth spending that much money, if you are not super rich.
You should also apply to some of good cs MS programs in Canada as backups, like UT, UBC, and UW.
Apply to the Thesis option, and thesis-based MS in Canada is generally fully funded.
It will definitely boot your PhD application credentials.
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#15 Ancient CS Grad

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 01:27 AM

I agree with what_ever_ apply directly to Phd programs. You are right that it is unlikely to find a research position without a Phd
You sound qualified so the real question is how to get into the programs. My experience and the experience of others that I know seem to show that the most important factor in getting into a Phd program (assuming you didn't graduate from a top 5 school with a 3.75 or better gap) in CS is to find a Prof that you want to work with and then convince him you are the guy he wants. Pull through does work in the application progress and as long as you are patient you will find that a lot of professors will respond to your emails showing interest in their research.
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#16 Zoop

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 03:35 AM

I agree with what_ever_ apply directly to Phd programs. You are right that it is unlikely to find a research position without a Phd
You sound qualified so the real question is how to get into the programs. My experience and the experience of others that I know seem to show that the most important factor in getting into a Phd program (assuming you didn't graduate from a top 5 school with a 3.75 or better gap) in CS is to find a Prof that you want to work with and then convince him you are the guy he wants. Pull through does work in the application progress and as long as you are patient you will find that a lot of professors will respond to your emails showing interest in their research.


Thanks. I think I'll do that. I've read that it can be tricky to make contact with a professor before being admitted. Some professors even ask not to be contacted unless you've already been admitted. However, the worst that could happen is they wouldn't read the email.

Thanks for the advice.
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#17 Ancient CS Grad

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 12:09 PM

Exactly, some professors will not want to hear from you but there are a large number who are looking to form research teams and are looking for promising students. The one thing I would add is to look beyond the "top 20" and look for programs in the top 50 or so that may have strength in your specific interest. There are some departments that are very strong in specific areas that don't make the overall ranking. There are also specific research projects that are at the forefront of their area that are at universities that you might not have considered at all. An example is robotics. While of course there is always CMU and MIT Worcester Poly Tech has a very strong robotics program but is not in the top 20 cs or eecs programs in fact its really a top 100 school. No, I am not going there but I did look at it with my son who has a strong interest in Robotics.
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#18 j3doucet

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Posted 13 April 2012 - 03:24 PM

I think you should do a Canadian masters. You'd be a good candidate, and research-based masters students are pretty much all funded. Also, even with the international fees, our tuition rates are quite reasonable. Check out University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, and University of Waterloo.
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