September 2020

How (and why) to apply to CS PhD programs from industry

Oops, this is a draft article that accidentally got published to my RSS feed. Real version coming soon, but enjoy the outline for now! (and email me) if there are topics you want me to cover

If you’re an early career software engineer considering grad school, you’re probably wondering: 1) is it a good idea? 2) how do I get in?

Unfortunately, in my experience, it’s hard to find advice on this rather niche question. There’s lots of advice on grad school written by academics, but most of it seems to be for hotshot undergrads dreaming about grad school from day 1 of freshman year. Conversely, most people in industry don’t really know what grad school is like, so they can’t give good advice either.

I found this lack of guidance quite challenging a couple years ago when I was applying to PhD programs after five years working as a professional software engineer. But it worked out for me in the end—I applied to eight competitive programs, was accepted to six, and I’m now a very happy second year PhD student at MIT CSAIL.

This is the guide I wish I had when I was applying. It’s specifically targeted at people who have spent some time in industry and are wondering whether they should do a PhD, and how to get in. Keep in mind, as with most advice, this is all based on my n=1 personal experience, and I’m only a year into this whole endeavor, so you should carefully balance my thoughts here with other sources (some linked at the bottom of this post).

It’s just a job application

  • #1 misconception: PhD is some weird mythical thing. yes it’s odd, but I find it helpful to think of it as a JOB.
    • It’s a weird job, but it’s closer to a job than school.
    • footnote: masters is a whole different beast.
  • I’ll analyze whole thing from this perspective.
  • Should you apply:
    • long-term, low paid job, with weird perks
    • consider the costs
    • do you care enough about the perks
  • How to get in
    • it’s just a weird job application.
    • play the game. as usual, referrals matter

Should you apply?

Know your motivation

  • tell my panorama story
  • the pluses
  • advisor fit is everything

Take the pay cut

  • it’s not that bad. good to learn to live on less money.

How to get in?

Play the game

  • it’s not school
  • cite guo

Play up your competitive advantage

  • remember, in most jobs, new grads are at a huge disadvantage!
  • you don’t need EXACT transfer, think about what “research” really is

Demonstrate concrete potential

  • do some research, demonstrate your skills
  • guo
  • matt might
  • jean yang