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Applying for CS (Theory) without research experience


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Just wondering if anyone is in the same boat as me. Would like to hear back from others.

So I'm applying to schools for CS theory and I'm a Math/CS double major from a top 5 US college. I used to be a Math/Economics double major until halfway through my junior year, when I switched to this current combination. However, because of this late decision, I have absolutely no CS research experience, and the only kind of research experience I have is one mathematics REU that is tangentially related to CS theory. I did not choose to start on research this year, since I was basically scrambling for time to apply to graduate schools and finish up on both majors (and also because I think Math is awesome and want more exposure before I specialize). Of course, I have seriously considered why I'm embarking on this whole CS grad school thing.

My Profile:

Math/CS double major (more of a math major)

3.7 Math GPA, 4.0 CS GPA

6 graduate CS classes (all in CS theory) by the end of the year.

Research: zero! (kind of)

So I haven't heard back from most schools and I'm not expecting great news for my applications, but at least I've gotten a school I really wanted. :)

Also, does anyone know if CS theory admissions works in a different way from other aspects of CS?

BTW, I'm an international student, if that is at all relevant.

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I am not specifically a CS theory person, but since you have that REU you should be in at least decent shape. Even if it were in something completely unrelated, it's still research. Plus CS theory research I think is fairly similar to math research to begin with (I think there is definitely a blurry line between the two fields, especially between CS theory and combinatorics as it seems from attending a good number of CS theory colloquia in the last year or two). Any math research is probably going to not only be a testament to your ability to do research period, but also a testament to having at least some research skills specifically relevant to the field in which you're applying. I am hoping and assuming that one of your LORs is the person that supervised you for that REU.

Are you applying to both Masters and PhD programs? Either way, if the one M.S. (right?) program to which you've already been accepted turns out to be your only option and you can afford it, I would say go ahead and do that and make sure you have a strong focus on your research while there. Definitely do a thesis if given the option and try to publish as much as possible in good conferences and journals. That will be your ticket to a PhD program afterwards if you choose to do that. I guess you should also try to work closely with at least two professors while there so that you can get several exceptional letters.

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I applied to the ACO program at Gatech (under CS) and honestly I can't remember what I wrote for the SOP and who I specifically mentioned. Needless to say it couldn't have been too specific, but I did describe the types of results in Algorithms and Complexity I was interested in. I basically approached the SOP like how a Math major applying for Mathematics graduate school would.

BTW, the masters program I got into at Toronto is fully funded (and hence more selective), and from what I gather the masters admit there is seems somewhat equivalent to a PhD admit in US: it's a lot more common to transfer into the PhD program rather than fighting for a few precious openings. In general it seems that for Canadian PhD programs, schools admit students after they've done their Masters unless they're really good.

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As a master international student who also applying theory, here is my 2 cents

Math/CS double major definitely boosts your chances of getting in, but, as far as I know, several students in US college who do theory already have papers (some even in the top conf). And you should know that the slots for theory students are not so much. It's not like other fields where a prof can have about 10 students. In theory, a prof mostly has 2 or 3 students, sometimes even 0/1.

Congratulation for the offer from Toronto. They have a strong theory group. Also do you have any particular subfield you want to do in theory? From your list, it seems to be complexity?

Edited by zer0
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I seem to be in the same boat as you. I am a CompSci/CompEng double major and am applying to grad school specifically for CS theory (Algorithms, Computational Complexity, Graph Theory). I have some research experience, but very little and no conferences/publications. I applied to a mixture of Ph.D. and Masters programs depending on different factors about the school. So far I have been rejected from 2 Ph.D. programs, but one of them (a top 5 CS theory school) admitted me to their Masters program because they really liked my application but didn't feel that I had the research experience to be accepted for a Ph.D.

Overall, I would say that your application makes you a pretty strong applicant for Masters programs, but the lack of research experience will definitely hurt your Ph.D. acceptance chances. Also, like another poster said CS theory researchers (usually) have fewer spots available than other researchers to take on students, so this probably makes it a bit tougher to get accepted.

Good luck with your applications (and congrats on your Toronto acceptance!). A good friend of mine got accepted to a top 3 CS school's Ph.D. program last year with absolutely no research experience, so it's possible. :)

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Thanks for the advice and encouragement guys! And congrats on the Cornell acceptance DJLamar! Yeah when I was choosing my schools my advisors/recommenders told me to aim somewhat high because of my grades in graduate classes, but they were a little concerned (flabbergasted?) by my lack of CS research experience. Looks like there's still hope haha.

blon19, good to know that there are more people like us out there. Where are you applying to and where did you get?

Edited by ch_
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On 2/15/2010 at 2:06 PM, ch_ said:

blon19, good to know that there are more people like us out there. Where are you applying to and where did you get?

I applied to the following schools:


1. MIT - A huge stretch, but it's always been a pipe dream of mine, so I applied. (I already got denied as an undergrad and a transfer student. :P)

2. Stanford - already denied, but I wasn't a great fit so not a big surprise

3. Washington University in St. Louis - I'm really hoping for this one. I seem to be a really good fit for this one and have had some promising conversations with a professor there.

4. Carnegie Mellon - Applied for their ACO program.

5. Cornell - got denied for a Ph.D., but accepted to their M.Eng. program. I know the M.Eng. program isn't ideal (at all) for going on to a Ph.D. program afterward, but I'll go if I don't get any other admits.


1. Dartmouth

2. Yale

I also applied to my current undergrad school, but since I got the Cornell M.Eng. admit I won't be coming back here.

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Aha, my competition :P. It seems like I applied to a superset of your PhD schools. Good luck especially on WashU!

Anyway, I think others have already said this, but I would really discourage you from taking up the Cornell M. Eng. It felt like everyone who got rejected got offered that, and it seems more like a professional degree than anything else, so unless you get the chance to do some truly great work in that one year (seems difficult since it sounds like a course-based program), there will probably be some sort of stigma attached with such a program. I think it might be preferable to work in industry or even as a research assistant for a while (my original backup plan) before applying again, if only because of the cost of the M. Eng.

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