What will happen after PhD programs (hopefully) accept me?
December 15, 2011 10:30 AM   Subscribe

I am (very nearly) finished with my applications to computer science PhDs, and I realized I don't really know what will happen next. Assuming I get in anywhere, what sorts of contacts with programs are in store between their decision and mine?

I am applying to 13 PhD programs in computer science as a prospective Theory student to start in Fall 2012. So up to now I've been pretty on top of things and doing my homework and stuff, but I don't have any clear idea of what I am likely to hear from programs if I am accepted, or even before I am accepted.

Obviously I will visit every program I am accepted to (assuming that number will be manageable); will each one invite me to some sort of visit day in March? Will they buy me plane tickets or something? I can't imagine there's anything as silly as prospective student visits were for UG.

How usual is it to hear from someone on the admissions committee or in the department before decisions are sent out? None of the programs indicate anything about an interview being part of the process, but does this sort of thing happen informally?

Is there anything else that is an unadvertised but common part of this whole weird process?
posted by silby to Education (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's been a while, but I remember that I got invitations to visit days, some before being formally accepted (so that the visit day also served as a bit of an interview) and some included along with the acceptance letter.

The visit days themselves were nice -- the universities did pay the costs, and it was fun to get to meet other prospective students. Activities included dinners and meetings with faculty and current grad students, as well as some "fun" activities like mini-golfing.

I'm sure someone else with more recent experience (and/or a better memory) will chime in with more details!
posted by cider at 10:48 AM on December 15, 2011

I applied 4 years ago. I'm in robotics, but was mostly applying to the same departments you would be. Memail me if you want details about specific schools ... I'm not comfortable posting that publicly.

Of the 5 places I was accepted, 4 of them had a faculty member contact me directly and deliver the news. I also got the formal acceptance letters via email. This faculty member was usually the one most interested in working with me. I talked with two of them via Skype/email, in lieu of visiting. (I was studying abroad in England during admissions season, so I couldn't make it to every weekend)

The visit weekends are crucial. The schools paid for everything (well, reimbursed my plane tickets, paid upfront for everything else). This is their chance to wine and dine you. They've admitted you, and they want you. The visit weekends served 2 purposes for me:
1) talking with my prospective advisors, getting a sense for who you would and would not want to work with. Be sure to put thought into the list of professors you want to talk to - you're trying to pick your boss for the next 6 or so years :) Some schools will give you time after you get there to formally choose an advisor, others seemed to expect it to happen very quickly.
2) meeting other students. There will be social events set up for this. One of the big deciding factors for me was how happy the students seemed. Also, try to get a sense for how generous the program is with funding, what you'll need to do to get it, and how far it goes in the city. It's really nice to not have to constantly pinch pennies.

Afterwards, I actually asked for a several-day extension to make the decision, which was granted. When I did so, one prof offered to fly me out again.
posted by Metasyntactic at 11:08 AM on December 15, 2011

You will hear back in Feb or Mar, usually through e-mail from the department admin. If accepted, the notification will contain details of your funding package, and the advisor assigned to you (whom you are not bound to). In some cases, the said advisor, another faculty member that is interested in working with you, or a grad student will also contact you. It is very rare to hear from anyone before official decisions are made.

Most top departments will invite you for a visit and reimburse your costs. You should most certainly go, since it gives you a chance to interact with faculty and students and get a clearer sense of the department. It's not as pointless as UG prospie visits by any means. Interviews are not the norm, but not uncommon either. In both visits and interviews, you will meet individually with professors in your area, and in groups with grad students. Of course, interviews will involve more interrogation by the professors -- you may have to work out problems on the fly, discuss research in a very technical way, etc., more so than non-interview visits. During the visits, don't be shy to ask the grad students about their experiences, and try to get them to be honest. Grad school can either be intellectually stimulating, all-round awesome immersion with great ideas and minds, or it can be socially isolated, frustrating drudgery -- or most likely, something in between. It depends a little bit on you, and a lot on the culture of the department.

An unadvertised aspect of the process is that it apparently helps to contact prospective advisors directly before decisions are made. But they get a lot of such e-mails, so you need to catch their attention with a smart, well-researched reason for wanting to work with them.
posted by redlines at 11:14 AM on December 15, 2011

13 programs is a large number .. Did you visit any of them beforehand ? Or even have any contacts beforehand ?
posted by k5.user at 11:32 AM on December 15, 2011

Hm, I'm not in computer science, and I only applied to two Ph.D. programs, but my experience overlaps enough with what others are saying here that I think it's reasonable to comment anyways.

Prospie weekend in my department currently works exactly the way Metasyntactic describes it. It used to be the case, however, that prospie weekend came before admission decisions went out, and included in-person interviews. Apparently this created a very tense dynamic for the visiting prospies because they were obviously in competition with each other. Now that it's only admitted students who visit, the burden has very clearly shifted to the current department members to make the program seem awesome so as many people as possible will accept their offers. There's a bit of an extra effort to do a bunch of fun social stuff to make the program seem fun and social. Take it all with a grain of salt -- albeit a small one, because I don't think we'd succeed in having a great prospie party and such if we didn't all basically get along, and I personally at least still try to be very honest with prospies about the pros and cons of the program so they can make a good decision.

The thing that surprised me about my own admissions process is that no one ever really officially mentioned that there would be an interview stage, but there was. Both programs did phone interviews with me in January before admitting me in, I think, early-mid February or so. I thought the interview was going to be things like "So why are you interested in this field? Why do you think you'll make a successful grad student? What are your research goals?" To my shock, it was actually more like "On page 27 of your writing sample, you suggest that result x from Table A should be interpreted as evidence for Important Theory. But what about if you take So-and-so's 1997 results into account -- does that change your interpretation? Did you control for factors i, j, and k?"
posted by ootandaboot at 2:52 PM on December 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

k5.user, I was strongly advised by my UG advisor to apply to a large number of programs owing to the randomness inherent in graduate applications. Applying to 13 places which probably all have selectivity of 10% or less leaves me with about a 25% chance of getting in nowhere. (Assuming admissions can be modeled as entirely random; perhaps the fact that I wrote a program to determine this statistic means I have better than random odds).

Also more than a couple folks who I am interested in working with have notes on their website that state very clearly that they don't like to receive random emails from prospective graduate students before they've been admitted, and I haven't quite figured out what I might say in the meantime that would be a more solid contact than "hi I think you are cool and oh I am applying this year btw".

Everyone else, thanks for the details; the existence and nature of visit weekends seems generally unremarked-upon on program websites.
posted by silby at 5:32 PM on December 15, 2011

1) Bad randomness assumption. If you're a superstar, you'll get in anywhere. If you suck (like most applicants), you get in almost nowhere. If you're good enough that they think you'll do well as a grad student, then the randomness applies to you, but with better odds than 10%. You should know where on this scale you are :) This also assumes that you're applying to top-tier research institutions.
2) In some departments, having a professor really want you does absolutely nothing for your chances - they just admit the N best applicants, and let the advisor/advisee pairings sort out. Other places, if a prof wants you it helps a lot. So, for schools of the later type, it's useful to have made a good impression (not that I contacted anybody... and I did fine in the admissions process). The best way is for you to get an introduction through a prof you did research with in UG. As far as what to say - if you're serious about working with them, you should have questions about their research.
posted by Metasyntactic at 6:09 PM on December 15, 2011

I should also add that the length of the visit ranges from 1 (very packed) day to 3 (also packed) days. The extent to which faculty and grad students seem to give a damn about the visit also varies across departments (and something worth paying attention to).

Some places do this weird thing where they fly in candidates individually to avoid scheduling conflicts. You get to meet professors, but there aren't many social activities, and you only meet a couple of grad students that they assign to you. In addition, one function of the visit is to check out your potential cohort, which this doesn't allow. But still, better than no visit at all.
posted by redlines at 1:15 AM on December 16, 2011

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