PhD

This is the first of a series post, intended for undergrad students who wish to make the jump to a PhD program. Today I will talk about what happens before you apply to a PhD program. While my experience is in CS/ECE/etc, most of what follows applies in different majors/disciplines as well. Some facts first, that most international students are not aware of:

  • US schools, do not require a Masters (or equivalent) to apply for their Phd programs.

  • When enrolled in a PhD program, students are paid for both their tuition and a stipend so they can live on their own without depending on others. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but they are very rare – especially in CS.

  • Some PhD programs offer a Masters along the way. That means that in the second or third year of the program (and usually as part of the preliminary exam), the student can also defend for their Masters. In other words, the student gets his Master’s and can continue if they want with the rest of the degree.

  • Summertime is super fun: students can either stay in school and continue getting paid to do research (which is their primary duty as a PhD student) or they can aim for an internship that usually pays significantly more and allows for new connections with people in the industry. For people with an F1 visa status (the one that 95% have) it’s super easy to get the work authorization for the summer internship.

Now is PhD for everybody? No it’s not, unlike your undergrad (or even masters) experience, the goals in a PhD are different – yes you still have some courses to take, but your primary goal from day 1 is to produce papers. How do you produce said papers – that’s something that you learn to do in tandem with (a) your advisor and (b) other, more senior PhD students who can guide you. I highly advise to getting on a program that offers a masters along the way (see point 2 earlier), that way if you see that you don’t like research you can master out and go on live a happy life as a S/W engineer with a very comfortable starting salary .

Applications:

OK, you’re sold, you want to apply for PhD programs. First, you should plan ahead at least 10 months before your expected starting date. For example, to start your PhD in August of 2019 you need to submit your applications by December ‘18/Jan ‘19, which means that October is the latest you can start the application process. Among the requirements of schools are the following:

  • Schools require applicants to take the GRE and TOEFL exams and applicants need good scores in the GRE quantitative – schools filter out their applications based on this quant score – so you kinda need to have an almost perfect score to increase your chances. Personally, I studied for a week for it and got almost perfect quant score with my resources being past GRE exams. While the level of knowledge for the quant is low enough, the timed format, the stress of success, and the smartass tricky questions make up for a challenging exam. Prepare at least 1-2 weeks and plan accordingly so that by the time they release your scores it’s not too late for submissions to schools. If you fail to get a good score you can retake the exam after some time. The last chance to take the exam would be October/September before submissions since the results take 4-6 weeks to be released.

  • You need letters of recommendation from 3 sources (academic or industry) try all 3 of them to be academic. You need at least one strong letter from your undergrad advisor that says that you’re capable of the PhD program – to get that letter just make sure you make a good job on your undergrad thesis assignment (e.g., Ptychiaki, Diplomatiki for Greek students). It will be a big selling point to your application if your thesis leads to some publication – if not that’s not the end of world.

  • International students also need officially translated transcripts. Surprisingly, this was one of the most stressful steps I had to go through – between my school’s uncooperative secretary, the lawyer who signed on the translation (yes you need a lawyer), and the public notary, the whole process was a stress induced nightmare. Assume that this will take you a week and plan accordingly.

These points cover the most important things that you need to include in your applications – you also need a SoP but you can figure out how to write them when time comes, if you are unsure of your English skills then hire a professional editor to help you with the translation. As stated earlier, candidates need a strong thesis assignment, what I mean by that is that when skype interviews start happening, you need to be able to explain your thesis, how it’s solving an important problem, and why said problem is important. Moreover, prepare so that you are able to give a 3 min summary and a 20 min more thorough presentation of your work. Such thesis will show schools that you are up for the task. Lastly, when explaining your work, focus on the strong points and don’t spend too much time on your weaknesses.

What schools to apply to:

If you don’t have a specific research area you want to work on, just open the USNews list of grad schools and be generous with your applications. If you do have an area, then find the professors that work in that area and submit to their schools (you can also optionally send them an email stating your interest, but that doesn’t matter you still need to apply to the school).

When I was applying for PhD my undergrad advisor gave me the 13-13-13 rule: 13 of your applications should be in schools at “your level”, 13 “above”, and 13 “below”. I’d change the rule to 20-60-20 or 10-90-10, but you get the idea. I applied in total to 11 schools, 3 from the top15 and the rest from 15-30 rankings. I got accepted from 3 and none of them was in the top15 list of the time. Note that each application costs around $100. Your mileage might vary so create a large-ish pool of schools and send as many applications as economically possible. The whole process of getting offers from schools is stochastic, good students do not always get offers. Try to maximize your odds without breaking bank.

As a last word of advice for current undergrads: work closely with your undergrad advisor and do some good work in your thesis – this will help you whether you pursue a PhD or you go in the job market. Good luck everyone :)