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What is the most important part of the graduate application packet?

Unfortunately, probably the recommendation letters. I wish it weren't like this, but in practice, a lot of faculty rely on good recommendations to evaluate applicants. With that said, it varies by professor

What qualities are professors looking for in a potential PhD student? How can one highlight those qualities in one’s application?

IME this is super individual, but I can give mine. I look for someone aligned with my interests who would be a good teammate for my current lab, and would add something new (I don't want my lab to be super homogenous).

I also like recruiting students who are comfortable asking for help. Otherwise it's really hard for me to tell if I'm doing enough to help them

Like Talia said, it is going to vary a lot among profs. For my lab, i like to recruit students who have experience building software, communicate well, and have the drive/ambition to succeed.

Another thing I have heard from a lot of faculty is looking for creative people, i.e., thinking of and coming with ideas to solve problems, or come up with new problem statements ... Not all ideas have to work, but the student should atleast show desire to try new approaches

How to shortlist potential advisors? How can one get to know their working style and the lab culture?

Ask their students!!! Current and former

Use @CSrankings! If your undergrad profs follow research, ask them for recommendations. Follow the profs on social media/blogs to get a sense for their style. Otherwise it's hard to tell without talking to them or their students.

To know the lab culture, I highly recommend setting up calls with current grad students in the lab. I was surprised how helpful, open and honest they were in describing their lab culture.

How should one go about contacting potential advisors? Should one even do this?

I personally think it's valuable, specially if your interests and background are relevant to those potential advisors'. This guide by @sarahnadi has great insights on how to contact potential supervisors

A thoughtful email can't hurt and can help. The best emails, IME, don't use generic templates, and make a genuine case for alignment with my interests. It can be hard to understand how to do that from looking at a website, so feel free to talk through with a mentor first

No. I wouldn't bother doing this unless the prof recommends doing so on their web page.

Sometimes sending an email to a PhD student in the advisors group can be useful ... I often recisbe such messages, and mention any interesting sthdents to my advisor ... Keep the message short though

How can one approach professors to be co-advisers? What aspects should one focus on while asking professors to be one’s co-advisors?

Oh, I love coadvising! Honestly I love when students do this because it gives me a chance to learn something new, and interesting projects form at the intersection of interests. I'd look for coadvisors that you think have complementary backgrounds/interests that align with yours.

In my case the student just listed both advisors as potential advisors, and then we spoke to each other about it. But you could always ask the potential advisor directly if they'd be open to coadvising

I wouldn't worry about this at the application stage. Co advising can always happen post acceptance.

Apart from published papers, how can applicants demonstrate research experience in their application? Do contributions to open-source projects help?

Yes and no. In my case, it would help since I look for soft engineering experience. But i doubt it would help if you want to do theory research.

I think they can help, especially if you don't have more formal research experience. I've also had students without formal research experience tell me they did something on their own, like go through one of the major textbooks with exercises for my area, or implement something

If a student contributes to, say, a programming language or proof assistant (tools for my area), a compiler, or a verified tool of any kind, I'm going to view this extremely positively, even if it's not formally "research"

YMMV but I also look very positively on software engineering experience of any kind, even if it's not "research." Also, the research doesn't have to be in the same field as the one you're applying for

Also at least in my area I don't expect undergrads to have publications. Doing research and getting a good letter or writing an honors thesis counts just as much to me

Generally in Systems related research having demonstrable engineering skills is viewed positively ... In particular in embedded systems, having demontrable knowledge of firmware and hardware design in considered a positive in applications

How should one pick one’s recommendation letter writers? How can the applicant ensure that the letter writer will write a strong letter?

Pick the profs you have interacted with the most, who know you as beyond a grade in their class. Give them enough information to write a good letter.

Give writers plenty of notice, and send your materials ahead of time. Also, one thing that can work is to try those letters out early for some kind of award application

My undergrad advisor @mnwsth has written a great blog on requesting and writing LoRs which has guidelines on how you can help him write a good letter-

What are good ways to get feedback on one’s application?

Many schools now have programs where current grad students critique applications (there is one at @UTCompSci). This can provide great feedback.

In addition to these comments, if you're close to one of your letter writers, you can ask them for feedback too

I find programs which pair current PhD students with applicants to be great for getting feedback. MIT EECS GAAP ( is one such example.

Fill out this form if you'd like to receive feedback on your CS gradschool application material (SOP, CV, ...)! If you're interested in helping me w/ this voluntary&independent effort, sign up here so we can help more students!

You can also try reaching out to PhD students of faculty you are interested in working with, especially the younger PhD students (1st-2nd year) ... They may not always respond, but if they do you get good feedback

Some professors conduct an interview of PhD applicants. What can one expect in such an interview? How should one prepare for it?

This is one of those things that varies by professor. But for me it is mostly about getting a feel for conversational chemistry, like can the student and I actually communicate with each other?

So I do a 30 minute chat, and mostly ask about their experience, interests, preferred advising style, collaboration style, and so on. But mostly the interview is about whether we can communicate with each other, rather than their answers

It varies, but in my case, everyone I choose to interview is someone I think is "good enough" for the lab, or someone who reached out convincingly. So it's more about how the person and I interact and where they'd complement my lab to build a better team

I do something very similar to Talia. So in general, i find i can always tell whether a student would be successful with me/in my group with a quick chat. It's a combination of communication skills, personality, and drive/ambition.

I only chat with folks where i think they could be a viable part of my group, and the chat helps me see if there is a match between us. So it's not like a technical interview and more of a getting to know you kind of interview.

I also do a short chat w/ students who are viable matches. Usually e-mail them a short, accessible paper to read before the interview, and then ask what they learned from it & talk about ideas that emerge from reading it. Also ask about their goals and expectations.

Not looking for "right" answers, but whether they can start to formulate ideas (even if the ideas aren't great or have already been done), and can communicate w/ me about research-related concepts. And to get a sense of what they're looking for & how the Ph.D will help them.

That depends, based on my experience these interviews were mainly casual research conversations (to make sure there is a good match). In very few cases I was given technical problems (no coding), I think this usually happens when the meeting is scheduled for over 30min.

How to make the most out of visit days?

All else being equal, go to the place where the students seem the happiest, and where you can see yourself having a fun life outside research. Aim to figure this out during visit days.

Agree with @vj_chidambaram; talk to different students in the research group and understand the work culture ... Figure out for yourself if the work culture is agreeable and you see being comfortable doing that for 5-6 years

What is something you wish you knew when you were applying to grad school?

The undergrad me was too fixated on university rankings. While things worked out fortunately, I recommend grad applicants to prioritize choosing a supportive advisor, exciting research area, open department culture, and nice location when considering similar tier schools.

To add onto this, "tiers" matter a lot more than "rankings". There is a big diff between the top-5 and the top-10/top-15, not much difference between rank 14 and 17.

For example, UT (where I work) and Wisconsin (where i did my PhD) are in the same tier (roughly). The ranks might be different but not in a significant way.

Adding to the points above, you may get an admit in a department of your choice but not necessarily with a faculty of your choice ... Students often accept admits, hoping they can work with the faculty in the future, but end up disappointed ... Be wary of this

Similar to point on university rankings ... Don't simply go for the famous, accomplished faculty (the big name) ... pay more attention to whether their work style, research ideas, goals, thought process etc. appeal to you; you'll have a much better PhD experience then

The most important barriers to grad school that I’ve heard are not knowing 1. Grad school is paid for and you get a small stipend! You do not have to pay for a PhD; and 2. You can get fee waivers from American schools. The way to apply varies. Ask grad students for help.

(Original thread)

Graduate School Applications

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