Professor Mor Harchol-Balter (hereafter, Professor H-B), a faculty member in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, has written a well-cited report about applying to Ph.D. programs. While I agree with almost everything she writes, I figure it’s worth clarifying or modifying a few portions of the report; I’ve listed seven of my suggested clarifications/modifications in this post.

As a disclaimer, I obviously have never been part of a graduate admissions committee before, while Professor H-B presumably takes part in this every winter. What I write in this post is simply my own opinion based on my countless hours of reading about graduate school.

Clarification/Modification #1: Funding the Ph.D.

Professor H-B writes:

Important note 2: There are many companies and government organizations which offer Graduate Fellowships for Ph.D. students. If you are lucky enough to get one of these, they will cover your full way through graduate school, and you will never have to worry about whether your advisor has funding or not. Details about graduate fellowships will be discussed in Section 4.

From what I’ve read, most fellowships (e.g. the NSF) last for at most three years. Thus, it seems like the typical scenario for a fellowship recipient is that he or she uses the money for some number of years, then after it expires, he or she must find some other source of funding. It is extremely rare for students to complete Ph.D.s within three years; the few examples of fast Ph.D.s that I know of (e.g. Frank Morgan) were in the field of mathematics, where it can be enough to discover a convoluted proof to a question.

Clarification/Modification #2: “Top” Ph.D. Programs

Professor H-B writes:

Since my view is that of the top-ranked CS programs, my description below will follow the perspective of those schools. By a top-ranked program, I’m typically talking about a Ph.D. program ranked in the top 10 or so.


As I’ve said earlier, to get into a top graduate school you need prior research experience. This is not necessarily true for schools below the top 10, or maybe even the top 5.

Her article is written and directed at students who aspire to study at the top programs. I personally would extend the "top" part (in both blockquotes above) to be perhaps "top 25-ish" or so, because I’m pretty sure the schools ranked ~10 to ~25 value research experience to a comparable extent as do the very top schools. Also, there are some subfields of computer science that lower ranked schools might specialize in, which may not be reflected in their overall ranking. One example might be The University of Pennsylvania (currently ranked #17 overall) and their stellar programming languages group.

Clarification/Modification #3: Computer Science GRE

Professor H-B writes:

The subject exam – If applying to a CS Ph.D. program, you should probably take your subject exam in CS, Math, or Engineering. Check with the school you’re applying to.

As I mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as a computer science GRE subject test now. Her article was written in 2011, while the CS exam was terminated in 2013, so she’ll almost certainly remove this part during her next update.

Clarification/Modification #4: Getting Research Experience

Professor H-B writes:

As an undergraduate, you can apply for a summer internship at a research lab or another school. I did this. Type “summer internships for undergraduates” into Google and you’ll be amazed how many opportunities there are.

I personally would be more specific and provide the link to this page, which has a listing of most (if not all) current NSF-sponsored computer science REUs. Alternatively, you can try searching within your school if you’re at a research university.

Clarification/Modification #5: Asking for Recommendations

Professor H-B writes:

Asking for a letter of recommendation won’t be a problem if you have been doing research with this person, but that won’t be possible in every case. Here’s a guideline which will maximize the contents of your letter. This works on the theory that professors have very little time and little memory (both of which are good assumptions):

She then recommends preparing a packet of materials for the professor, including materials such as a statement of purpose, a photo of you, etc. Most of the advice is straightforward and is what one should definitely do (e.g. the statement of purpose). If, however, a recommender needs a photo of a student to write an effective recommendation, then it’s likely that he or she doesn’t know the student well enough to write a solid letter anyway.

Clarification/Modification #6: Why to Apply for Fellowships

Professor H-B writes:

Even before you decide which schools you want to apply to, you should pick out which outside fellowships you are eligible for and apply to all of these. I myself applied to 5 outside fellowships. Many outside fellowships require a U.S. citizenship, so not everyone is eligible. There are at least 4 reasons to apply for a fellowship:

Her four reasons are (1) prestige, (2) funds graduate school, (3) makes a more appealing applicant, and (4) to avoid being a fool. Her argument for (3) is based on schools accepting you after you receive a fellowship. By that time, however, it’s usually April or May, and this doesn’t give you enough time to visit (or even think about) the school. My point here is that Ph.D. programs typically tell students if they are accepted in February, and students have an April 15 deadline to select their school. Suppose a student applied to school X and doesn’t hear back, which typically means a rejection. But on April 10, he receives a prestigious fellowship, and school X accepts him on April 11 upon figuring out the news. But that leaves just a handful of days for the student to consider the offer, and doesn’t allow a visit, etc. Quickly accepting an offer from them could be a risky decision.

It’s worth mentioning that Professor Philip Guo also has written advice on why to apply to fellowships. His additional reasons include (1) practicing writing, and (2) your research advisor will make you apply anyway.

Clarification/Modification #7: Ranking of the Department

Professor H-B writes:

Consider the overall ranking of department. This is important only because it determines the average quality of your peers (the other graduate students). Your peers are the people who will teach you the most in graduate school.

While I definitely agree with this (and others do, see e.g. Jeff Erickson’s post), and am also pretty sure that Professor H-B wasn’t being too serious in this writing, I can’t believe that the ranking of a department is only important due to the quality of the students. For instance, the average professor at a top school will have more grant money and productive research projects than the average professor at a mid-tier school. For instance, I remember reading a blog post by a former Ph.D. student at Berkeley who recalled that his advisor had a “seemingly endless supply of money.”