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Questions about advisers in MIT's CSAIL


dirkhaim
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I got into MIT and I am trying to decide between it and UW. The problem with my MIT application is that they assign you to an adviser in advance and he (or she) is in charge on your funding. Basically, it seems like my ass belongs to that particular professor and I am stuck with him.

The problem is that my personal impression from that particular professor is not very good. Ont he professional level he is really good, but on the personal level I am not sure it will be such a good match in the long run. I heard it's possible to switch advisers, but it's problematic with funding. Anyone here form MIT that can shed some light on my problem?

I will be happy to get some opinions about the professors there, but I prefer doing it in private messages. So PM me if you have you know the CSAIL professors well.

Thanks

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Congratulations on getting accepted to MIT!

I do not go there but I am a grad student in EE so I will attempt to provide some advice. If there is a specific professor providing your funding at MIT and there is no guarantee from the school to provide you funding apart from that professor, then well, you have no guarantee =). You might be able to convince a different professor there to fund you. If you are a US citizen you could also apply for fellowships in your first year and get external funding that would conceivably enable you to work with a different professor.

This is an outcome of the extreme selectivity of MIT. They accept a small EECS class (~100) and have a very small student:faculty ratio. So the professors are basically handpicking students in many cases. Since they have loads of applicants with perfect grades, research experience, publications, and favorable recommendations, they lean heavily on fit. All engineering departments at all schools consider departmental fit in their selection process, but more so at the most selective schools.

When I started grad school I was guaranteed funding for the first year (3 semesters) as a teaching assistant. I did research with a professor for elective credit in my first semester. I liked working with him, but I didn't really have any comparison as it was my first semester in grad school. A different professor contacted me and I decided to accept funding and start working for the professor that I did not work with in my first semester. There are MAJOR differences between the two professor that I did not fully understand until after I had worked with both. I will use E for the professor I decided not to work for and J for the professor I am now working for.

1) J has been a professor for much longer and it shows in a lot of ways. He has been a professor at three top universities and is very well connected. If you plan to pursue academia your professors' connections are very important. These connections will be critical for getting postdoc/faculty positions when you finish.

2) J's funding is a lot more long-term and gives him more freedom to choose his directions. E gets funded for a lot of small projects that have more specific goals.

3) J's group is two students (including me), a visiting student, and three postdocs. E's group is one postdoc, one visiting student, and seven other students. I think the smaller, more advanced group is a lot better.

4) I meet with J for about 1.5 hours almost every week and he is on-time and not distracted during our meetings. E was difficult to meet with very consistently, and often distracted. His other students are frustrated by this also.

A lot of these things are outcomes of J being a lot more established than E. I always get the impression from E that he is running a sort of factory, he has a lot of students, but they don't get a lot of individual attention and their dissertations are sort of afterthoughts based on whatever sponsored research he puts them with. He publishes A LOT and I feel like he is at the point in his career where he is trying to get his name out there. J on the other hand is very established really just enjoys what he does and focuses on quality and not quantity in his research and relationships with students and postdocs.

If you want to go into finance or management when you graduate, go to MIT. UW is a great, great school but will not resonate with the suits the way MIT will. If you want to go into scientific research, choose based on professor. Your professor's brand is the one that will matter, not your school's. The quality of your research is the other major factor and that will depend on who you are personally, and again, who your professor is. You want a professor who:

- knows the field you are in extremely well

- is super committed to his/her students

- works well with his students

The third thing is one you won't hear too often, but it is important. You want a professor who will give you some freedom to pursue you own intuitions, but also knows when to reel you in and keep your from wasting time. It is very hard to gauge this third criteria before you have actually started working though.

I hope this has been helpful. All I can say about changing advisers at MIT is that I know that my professor did it when he was there, but it was LIDS and not CSAIL. He told me the breakup was fine. He also told me this very important piece of advice:

When it comes to your PhD, be selfish. You will be one of n students your professor will advise in his career, while you will have only ONE opportunity to do a PhD and it will in many ways define the rest of your career. It is essential that you put yourself first.

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