After visiting Cornell, I had a short break at Williams and then traveled to San Francisco to visit the University of California at Berkeley.
I arrived at around 5:00 PM and one of my graduate student hosts drove me over to his house, where I would be staying at for the next two nights. I think Berkeley gave admits the option to reside in a hotel or stay with graduate students. Naturally, I chose to stay with the students, since I think one learns more by living with them. My host’s house was quite nice, and gave me a splendid aerial-like view of their new (and controversial) football field.
There was still plenty of time left in the evening, so my host drove me over to Soda Hall where the admits were getting together. And … wow, there were a lot of admits! One of the visit day coordinators told me that Berkeley had 130 admitted students show up! About half of the students were electrical engineering admits, though, since Berkeley has a joint EECS program.
By the time I had gotten to the lounge, the food was pretty much gone and I was left to stand awkwardly in a noisy, crowded room. Fortunately, I was saved by a group of current Berkeley students who took some of the late arrivals out to dinner. I ended up eating a salad meal from a Vietnamese place near campus, and then went back to my host’s house for the night.
The second day was action-packed, though surprisingly, it started quite late at 9:30 am (good news for those who are night owls!). I went over to Sutardja Dai Hall, which served us breakfast. I had a nice time eating and chatting with other prospective students, and Berkeley even gave free hoodies to us! One interesting thing about the way Berkeley handles the visit days is that they were the only school I visited that gave out name tags to people that also included their undergraduate institution and their research area. That’s very clever, as “Where do you go to school?” and “What are your research interests?” are the first two questions that the admits always ask each other!
At 11:00 AM, we all gathered in an auditorium, where the department chair gave an hour-long presentation introducing us to Berkeley. To the surprise of no one, the chair emphasized how Berkeley had the best placement of faculty members in top computer science departments. He also talked about the department ranking (#1 in computer science, #1 in electrical engineering) and gave us this table based on the 2014 rankings:
- Ranking in AI: (1) Stanford, (2) CMU, (3) MIT, (4) Berkeley
- Ranking in Programming Languages: (1) CMU, (2) Berkeley, (3) Stanford, (4) MIT
- Ranking in Systems: (1) Berkeley, (2) MIT, (3) Stanford, (4) CMU
- Ranking in Theory: (1) Berkeley, (2) MIT, (3) Stanford, (5) CMU (Princeton is #4)
- Average ranking (1) Berkeley = 2.0, (2) Stanford = 2.5, (3) MIT = 2.75, (4) CMU = 3
The chair also listed some of the incredible accomplishments made by Berkeley alums. He later gave us more reasons why they were better than MIT, starting with the warm weather. (At the time I visited there a few weeks ago, the high in Boston was around 26 degrees. Yikes.)
After the chair’s presentation, there were group meetings based on research area. My main interests are in AI, but my name tag actually said my research area was “HCI” and I think this was because the HCI professors were the ones that reached out to me the most. (One professor who talked to me was “cross-listed” in both AI and HCI.) So I went with the HCI group, and got to see some of their latest work while eating lunch. Then they gave me a quick tour across their facilities, followed by another long series of research presentations at the Visual Computing Lab. One graduate student had a really cool project I remember: he used data from images to infer crime rate in cities and applied that to a shortest-safest-path software. Thus, unlike Google maps, which suggests the most direct route when given two points to connect, his software would redirect the person to a longer but safer route. He collected data from San Francisco and inferred it on the Chicago maps, and confirmed its accuracy with real Chicago data. Amazing!
After all that was the campus tour at 4:00 PM. I went inside the Sather Tower and took the following photo while I was at the top. Another one of my photos is the one that starts this blog post.
The day wouldn’t have been complete without the graduate student panel, which took place right after the tour. It was similar to the ones at Cornell and UT Austin. I was genuinely interested to see what the graduate students would answer to the question of “What is the worst thing about Berkeley?” After all, they cannot use the excuses of either the weather being cold (it’s not) or the school not being the highest ranked (it has the best ranking). The grad students said: getting through the bureaucracy.
Right before dinner, there was a light reception at Soda Hall. I got to meet some more amazing admits (some of them are remarkably talented!) and current grad students, and I also had the pleasure of seeing a concert featuring David Culler (guitar), Michael I. Jordan (drums), and a few other graduate students. Then we went to dinner, where one of the professors on the admissions committee recognized me immediately and mentioned that he saw my blog. Say, many of the faculty members knew who I was before I arrived … I guess that’s a good sign.
The third day was when all the one-on-one, 30-minute faculty meetings occurred. I met with five professors and got a good sense of the kind of problems I might work on this fall should I accept their offer of admission. In my free time, I was touring the AI and HCI labs and chatting with some of the current students. My main regret from my visit to Berkeley is that I didn’t get to meet enough machine learning faculty and students, so I’ve been sending a few emails asking questions to the relevant people. At Berkeley, incidentally, the students have shared, open workspaces that are typically surrounded by faculty offices.
After my final faculty meeting of the day, I was able to sneak in another hour or two to do some late Operations Research homework. For dinner, I headed out with the HCI group, and then later took the train to San Francisco airport since, like many of the Berkeley admits, I had to head to Seattle for another visit days starting the next morning….