Graduate School Application Dos and Don'ts

It’s the beginning of a new academic year. With it, there comes  a new wave of inquiries about applying to UCI/ICS graduate programs and joining my research group. I’ve seen these waves every year for the past 9 years. The vast majority of these inquiries don’t pass my mental spam filter; a small percentage does; an even smaller percentage ends up being accepted. I thought I’d write down my thoughts on these inquiries. I know that amongst the hordes of applicants who fail to cause a good impression on prospective advisors, there are a few bright ones to whom that happens because of unawareness and bad advice. This post is for them. If they find it.

The Insider Scoop

Here’s the secret: if your resume is just plain good, and not insanely awesome, the single most important pieces of the application process are (1) your direct contact with a prospective advisor, and (2) your recommendation letters. Forget about GPAs and GREs. You and the interactions you have with others are _it_. Professors like me are looking for good people who are driven to produce great work and who can grow into independent intellectuals under their supervision. GPAs and GREs give some information about you, but they miss to capture the potential you have for doing independent work. Besides the signs of potential for good, independent work (usually given by papers and/or projects), the impression that you make on your prospective advisor is the deal maker or breaker. As such, it is really important that you prepare for that, as much as (or more than) you prepare for the GRE.

Matt has some good advice on how to get into grad school. My post here focuses on the interactions that you will have with prospective advisors.

Your Context

So, you are sitting there in front of your computer — in India, China, Iran, or even in the U.S. You just graduated, or are about to graduate, from an undergraduate institution, and you have no idea what you want to do with the rest of your life. The prospect of getting a job doesn’t entice you. Or maybe you tried it, and you think that there ought to be more intellectual stimulation in your life. You like being in school, you admired some of your professors, you enjoyed doing some projects, you have good grades, and your family values Higher Education. Some of your friends and acquaintances are doing a PhD, and you have a secret envy for them — not the least of it because they seem to continue to have the relatively care-free lifestyle that characterizes student life, and that is very different from the lifestyle that your other friends have, those who got a job. And then it hits you — you could do it too! I’ll leave the reasons for choosing to go to graduate school for another post. Let’s just say you made up your mind. But where to start?

You frantically Google for information about graduate schools. You hit the so-called “top 10” Universities, and you day-dream about being a nerd-wiz at MIT. Then reality hits you, and you start looking at other options. You exhaustively browse through faculty web pages to check out what they do and imagine how it would feel working under their supervision. Finally you feel ready to shoot up the first contact messages. And this the first opportunity you have… for your plans to fail. Right here, in the beginning.

The Many Ways of Succeeding in Making a Bad Impression

Want to make sure your application is ignored? Send an email that reads like spam. Here is the worst possible email you can send:

Dear  Sir,

I am XX YY from UUU University in CCC. I am seeking an opportunity to use my background to do research in your prestigious lab. I have seen your publications and research work and they are of great interest to me. I am attaching my resume. I had acquired programming skills on C, C++, VC++, Java, Oracle, and MS SQL. Also I had conducted relevant projects during that period.

I am rather sorry to trouble you. It would be very helpful to me if you could convey to me the chances I have of getting into the PhD program in your university.

Sincerely yours,
XX YY

OK, stop right there. If this is the best you can do, don’t even bother doing it! And if the reason isn’t clear, let me explain what’s wrong with this email. There is nothing in this email that differentiates prospective University A from prospective University B, much less prospective advisor L from prospective advisor M. Why should I pay attention? It’s really easy for you, because it’s the exact same message, but what message are you really sending me, the receiver? Essentially, you are saying “I’m so lazy, I’m not bothering to write down anything that will force me to manually type a few differentiating parts in the 100 emails that I am about to spam professors with.” Professors don’t like spam and they also don’t want lazy people in their labs — at least not uninterestingly lazy like this. It’s a #SureFail.

(There is a slightly worse variation of this email, one that discloses your background in, say, signal processing, while spamming professors whose research areas have nothing to do with that…)

Here is the second-to-worst email that you can send: (notice the typesetting)

Dear    Professor Lopes   ,

My name is XX YY from UUU University in CCC. I am writing to explore the possibility of becoming a PhD student in your lab at University of California Irvine .

I am very interested in pursuing research in    Mining Software Repositories . My previous educational and work experience has given me solid background in analysis/design/programming.

Attached please find my resume in word format. I am looking forward to your reply. Thank you.

XX YY

This is slightly better than the first because at least you went to the trouble of writing down some differentiating bits. Unfortunately the typesetting reveals the spamming nature of this message. The differentiating parts were pasted using a different font, revealing that you have composed this message from a template with blanks on it. Then you simply went through a list that you may have compiled in Excel or something, listing professors names and research areas, and voila! – insta-spam again. #SureFail.

You may feel that I’m being unfair in calling this spam, because you have done your homework in researching professors and their research interests. But I’m not being unfair. This is still spam from where I stand. This message is telling me: “Hey, I really want to be admitted… somewhere, working with… someone, doing… something. I don’t care where, who or what, I just want to go to graduate school.” Well, professors like to think that their work matters. They aren’t just looking for generic brain power, they are looking for people who are a good fit and who show signs of being able to find out what they want.

What Your First Email Should Look Like

What I am about to tell you is about quality and is fairly incompatible with sheer quantity. If you do what I say, there’s just not enough time for you to do this for 100 professors. As such, narrow your search to just a few and target them wisely.

First of all, understand what kind of work goes on under that professor’s supervision. This means that you need to figure out what projects are going on in that lab, what publications are being produced, who that professor’s current graduate students are, and who the past graduate students were and where they are working. You need to read through a few of those papers. If you care about your career, you absolutely need to do this thorough background research, not just look at the professor’s home page to pick up a few keywords. You are about to embark on a 5-6 year engagement that will have a profound effect on the rest of your life. Caring about who, what and where you are committing yourself to, respecting yourself, is the basis for making a good impression in others.

Then write emails specifically for each professor you are interested in working with. Don’t send the application essay in that email, leave that to where it belongs — in the application materials. In the emails, be short, but be specific for each of them. Just cover the main points. Tell them what it is of their labs’ work that got your attention, and why you’d like to join. If you refer to a paper or two written by the professors and their students, and make some intelligent comments about them, I guarantee you you will get the professors’ attention.

As I said above, this takes time and engagement on your part. But here’s the thing: in the absence of substantial research experience, the time you take to study the prospective professors’ work and the intellectual engagement you show with that work are the first real indicators of your potential as a researcher, and how good of a fit you are to the professors’ labs.

Coda

If you read the entire post, feel free to email me if you’re considering applying to UCI/ICS for graduate work, and especially, if you are interested in my lab. Besides the ‘old’ program in Information and Computer Sciences, we have a shining new Ph.D. program in Software Engineering.

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