Kevin Alarcón Negy
Computer Science PhD student
Expected graduation: 2024
Address: Office 407 Bill & Melinda Gates Hall
(107 Hoy Rd, Ithaca, NY 14853)
Guide to the PhD Application Process
Last year, I went through the PhD application process alongside several friends and classmates. Together, we learned the ins and outs of applying: we traded tips and we got into grad school. Here, I compile my advice and my experience into a guide for prospective applicants. For this guide, note that this advice is mostly tailored for computer science (CS) and, a bit more broadly, engineering.
Should I go to grad school?
If you are in CS and interested only in making the most money possible, you should at minimum get a bachelor's degree and at most a master's, then go to industry. Your salary after spending time at a company earning raises and promotions will leave you in an arguably stronger financial position than a PhD graduate who has made a fraction of your salary for the last four to seven years.
The reasons to get a PhD are typically not financial. One is the (potentially paid) opportunity to learn—not only to learn what has been discovered, but to learn what hasn't. This path also leads to the opportunity to become a professor. Most research professors and instructors in universities in the U.S. have doctorate degrees. Tenure-track faculty positions are generally reserved only for those with PhDs. Finally, speaking only from a CS perspective, industry is increasingly research oriented. Several big name companies have research labs (Microsoft, Google, etc.) that hire PhD graduates to focus only on research without the academic responsibilities of classes, grant writing, and top-down student mentorship. These career opportunities differ from master's level careers by putting you in charge of research directions, project choice, and the oversight of research groups. If these reasons fall in line with your goals, you should apply for a PhD program.
However, a PhD takes four to seven years to obtain. It is a monumental decision and with the national dropout rate in doctoral programs being almost fifty percent, you should be certain this is the path you want to take before taking the plunge.
My suggestions for indecisive undergrads are: (1) Engage in research with a professor at your own university. This may not be an option for you if you are at a teaching institution. For that reason, (2) I encourage all undergrads interested in research to apply for summer research programs (REUs). These programs allow students to experience research over two to three months while working with graduate students and, possibly, professors at a research university. This is especially helpful to those whose ideal graduate university has a stronger reputation than their home institution. Most of the top CS schools have REUs that you can participate in, which will help you break through your academic ceiling, especially if you are able to earn a letter of recommendation from a professor at one of these prestigious universities. Great places to look for REUs are NSF, The Leadership Alliance, and this McNair website.
How do I pay for graduate school?
For the most part, in PhD programs, you don't have to pay; PhD programs pay you. Typically, tuition will be waived, you will be given a living stipend, and you will receive health insurance. The stipend could be between $20,000-40,000 per year depending on the university and funding source. Funding usually comes from three sources: (1) The department can fund you with the expectation that you serve as a teaching assistant (TA) in return; (2) A professor can fund you to be a research assistant (RA) in their lab. (Ideally, this professor would be your adviser so you can get paid to do your own research.); (3) Finally, fellowships are generous several-year scholarships that free you from having to be a TA or RA. In addition to paying the most out of the three funding sources, fellowships are prestigious and allow you more flexibility when choosing an adviser. A student with a fellowship is essentially free labor for a professor, because there is no need for a professor to seek funding for this student until his/her fellowship runs out, which is often after three to five years. I encourage you to apply for as many fellowships as you can. Fellowship deadlines are typically before or around the same time as PhD deadlines, so plan accordingly. Some notable fellowships are NSF-GRFP, Ford, NDSEG, NPSC, and GEM.
How do I apply?
Apply to PhD programs in the fall semester of your senior year and you will receive decisions in the spring. Applications typically require letters of recommendation, essays, transcripts, and test scores (GRE). With this timeline, you should plan to be involved in research on campus and at REUs before your senior year. Activities completed during your application year will mostly not matter because it will be too late to include them on the application. For this reason, start talking to professors and get involved in research as soon as you can (even as a freshman). Especially now that more emphasis is being placed on undergraduate research, there is no time to waste.
How much different is this process from my undergrad application process?
Applying to PhD programs is much more difficult than applying to undergraduate programs. Imagine that for PhD programs, you may be competing for a handful of positions at each university out of a pool of hundreds or even thousands of applicants. Further, schools and professors are choosing students to work closely with for five to seven years and both personality and compatibility matter. This may sound daunting, but you shouldn't change your mind about applying. It just means you should be strategic about the process. Hopefully this guide can act as a first step.
I'm approaching my senior year and I'm ready to apply. What steps should I be taking in preparation?
Graduate schools are hiring a person, not a list of achievements. The best way to confidently hire someone is to meet them in person, face-to-face. Pre-application visitations are a great way to do this. These visits are beneficial for you and the university. Visits allow you to tour a campus, meet professors, and speak to current grad students before applying. You can get questions answered about housing, student life, and meet potential advisers in person. For them, they get to meet you to decide if you are a good fit in their lab or department. If you make a good impression, they will remember you when they look at your application. To visit a university before applying, you can either apply to a formal visitation or fund your own trip to the university.
For more information about visitations, click here.
When should I plan on submitting my applications? Does submitting early help my chances?
Applications have official deadlines, sure, but the inside secret is that professors are able to and do look at applications early. Competitive applicants will have many suitors. Professors know that they must move quickly on competitive students before other universities snatch them.
I once attended a Don Asher talk where he emphasized that applicants needed a personal deadline. A personal deadline should be about three to four weeks before the earliest official deadline. That means that applications should be submitted right around November 1st. Is this a hard deadline? Not necessarily. At best, you will complete all your applications November 1st and relax while your peers struggle to finish by the deadline. At worst, you aim for November 1st and end up finishing within a week or two later.
Does this earlier deadline add more stress to your life? Yes, but the rewards are worth it. In an unusual case, a student was once admitted unofficially after being contacted by a professor on November 15th. This is not typical, but shows that early submission can benefit you. Do yourself a favor and choose your personal deadline, then try to stick to it. Paraphrasing Don Asher, "sacrifice a month of creature comforts and your life will be changed forever."
Updated as of January 2019.