As I write this post, UC Berkeley is hosting its “visit days” program for admitted EECS PhD students. This is a three-day event that lets admitted students see the department, meet people, and get a (tiny) flavor of what Berkeley is like. Those interested in some history may enjoy my blog post about visit days four years ago.
If you’re an admitted student, congratulations! It’s super-competitive to get in. When I applied, the acceptance rate was roughly 5 percent, and the competition has undoubtedly increased since then. This is definitely true for those applying to work in Artificial Intelligence. I’ve seen statistics from BAIR director Trevor Darrell showing that the number of AI applicants has soared in recent years, to the point where the corresponding acceptance rate is now less than three percent.
It’s technically true that you’re not tied to a specific area when you apply, and that’s what the department probably advertises to admitted students. Do not, however, take this as implying that you can apply in an area you’re not interested in but think is “less competitive” and then pivot to AI. If you want to do fundamental AI research (and not just use it in an application) you must apply in AI — otherwise, I highly doubt the faculty will be interested in working with you when they already have the cream of the crop to consider from other applicants.
That being said, here are some related thoughts regarding graduate school, visit days, and so forth, which might be of use to admitted students:
You must come to visit days. You will learn a lot about the professors who are interested in working with you based on your assigned one-on-one meetings. I don’t know the details on how those assignments are made, but it’s a good bet that if a professor wants to work with you, then you’ll have a one-on-one meeting with him or her.
On a related note, if there’s a faculty member you desperately want to work with, then not only do you need to talk to him or her during visit days, you also need a firm commitment that he or she is willing to advise you without qualifications. This is particularly true for the “rock-star” faculty who get swarmed with emails from top-tier students asking to work with them. Get commitments done early.
You also want to be in touch with the students in your target lab(s). If you accept your offer, consistently communicate with them well before the official start of your PhD. This might mean just occasional emails over the summer, or (better) being remotely involved in an ongoing research project that can lead to a fast paper during your first semester. The point is, you want to be in the loop in what the other students are doing. This also includes incoming students — you’ll want to take the same classes as those in your research area, so that you can collaborate on homework and (ideally) research.
These previous points imply the following: you do not want to be spending your first year (or two) trying to “explore” or “get incubated” into research. Your goal must be to do outstanding research in your area of interest from day one.
It’s easy to experience euphoria upon getting your offer of admission. I don’t mean to rain on this, but there’s life beyond getting the admitted offer, and you want to make a sound and informed decision on something that will impact you forever. Again, if you got accepted to Berkeley, congratulations! I hope you seriously consider attending, as it’s one of the top computer science schools. Just ensure that you were admitted to your area of interest, and furthermore, it is crystal clear that the professors who you want to work with are willing to advise you from day one.