Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What to Ask When You're Applying to Grad School

MIT had EECS visit days last March, when I first wrote a draft of this.  It was another year of meeting enthusiastic young'uns eager to publish papers and win Turing Awards, which can make one feel even older and crankier.

Since it's application season again, I thought it was time to dig this up. In computer science, prospective graduate students go on a whirlwind set of visit days, where they tour departments, talk to potential advisors, and chat with grad students. It's a heady experience -- famous professors try to woo you to their school. It seems to me prospective PhD students never ask the right questions, and thus don't get good answers to help them make a decision.  Which is unfortunate, because they are making a decision about the next six years of their lives! Where you go can greatly affect your happiness. So if you're applying to graduate school in computer science, you might find this post useful.

Here are some things to think about before you actually start chatting with students and visiting prospective schools:

Think about your goals.
 Are you interested in pure academia, or would you like to do some work in industry as well?  What kinds of things do you want to learn, and what skills do you want to acquire? What might you do afterwards?

Figure out your learning style.  Do you prefer a lot of contact, or would you rather be left alone? Do you learn best by taking classes, or by digging into a problem immediately? Different research groups have different personalities and research styles.

Think about what advising style works for you.  It's hard to get a feel for this, but different professors have very different advising strategies. Some like to engage with industry and work on open source software. Some like to publish a lot, while others prefer to work on fewer big pieces of work. One thing that varies the most is the amount of contact you'll have.  Another complication is that some professors actually change advising styles as they progress through their careers; think about students who might know best what the advisor's style is currently, and what it will be over the next few years.

Ask the same questions to many graduate students, and particularly graduate students with different properties.  Everyone is biased! Find out about different experiences. For example, you should talk to students who plan on staying in academia and ones who intend to go to industry.

Formulate specific questions.  There is a natural tendency to gloss over the hard bits of grad school, so try to be probing and ask about specific things students can't fudge. As an example, "When was the last time you did X?" instead of "Do you do X in your group?"

Once you've done a little thinking, you'll be in a much better position to ask good questions and interpret the answers.  Here are some concrete questions you can use depending on your goals.  Be diplomatic; but don't be afraid to do some investigating:

If you definitely want to stay in academia, ask:
  • How many students has this professor graduated? How many stayed in academia?  
  • How many dropped out before finishing? What did they do after they left?
  • Does your advisor introduce you to people at conferences?  Who have you met?
    • Has anyone transferred out of the group recently?  Where did they go, and why? (Also try to talk to them.)
    If you work best when people leave you alone/you work best when someone checks up on you a lot, ask:
    • How often do you meet with your advisor? How variable is this?  
    • When was the last time you just walked into their office without an appointment? How often do you?
    • How often are they actually in their office? What hours during the day?
    • How quickly do they respond to your emails? Do they email you often?
    • Which sections of your last paper did your advisor write, and which did you write? Did your advisor read the whole thing? Did they edit your text?
    • Did your advisor write code for your project? How much?

    If you are not sure what to work on, and would appreciate guidance in picking a research problem, ask:
    • Did your advisor give you specific problems to work on your first year?
    • Have you ever felt lost, like you didn't know what to work on? How did you overcome it?
    • Can you walk me through a typical research meeting with your advisor?
    • What's the longest someone has taken to finish a PhD in your group?  How often does that happen?
      If it's important to you to be in a positive, social environment, ask:
      • What do you think about this paper, X?  (You're looking to see if they trash it out of hand).
      • Do you do practice talks? How many? What's it like to do a practice talk in front of your group?  
      • When was the last time your group socialized together outside of lab? How often does it happen?
      • When was the last time your advisor said something positive and affirming about your work? What was it?
      • Do you acknowledge birthdays in your group, or frequently talk about vacations and things outside of research?
      If you really want to work with other people, ask:
      • How do students in your group manage their code?  Do you use version control?  
      • Are there centralized resources available to the group (like documentation), or does everyone do their own thing?  
      • When was the last time you shared code (latex templates included)?
      • How many of the last few papers from the group had multiple students publishing together?
      If you really want to work on your own stuff, ask:
      • How long were you here before you published a first author paper?
      • Do students work on (and own) different projects, or do they all collaborate on a few big projects?
      • Does this professor work mostly on a few specific topics, or do his/her students work on lots of different things? 
      If you want to have a reasonable work/life balance, ask:
      • Which professor's students would you expect to see in the lab on a Saturday night?
      • What is the process for taking vacation? How much did you take last year? (Not counting conferences!)
      • How late do students usually stay in lab when there isn't a deadline?
      • How often did you TA?
      I didn't touch on issues like funding, because it seems to me this isn't a problem in most computer science programs. And of course there are a lot of caveats to all of this; take each student's opinion with a grain of salt. But try to notice patterns! Sometimes the most highly-ranked graduate program or most rockstar advisor isn't the one where you, specifically, will be most successful. Getting a PhD is pretty amazing when you are happy and productive in your environment. Best of luck!

      Thanks to Ted Benson, Jon Gjengset, Elena Glassman, Adam Marcus, and Jean Yang for reading drafts of this.