Ah, the clichéd “application story”. Adding to the pile, here goes:

My PhD story, as I like to think of it, is made up of two parts - the fall and the rise (if you don’t realize how many clichés there are going to be in this one, I apologize in advance).

Part 1 - The Fall

I graduated from Manipal Institute of Technology, Manipal in 2015. So, I spent most of Fall 2014 applying to colleges. These are the places I applied to for an MS in CS:

  1. Carnegie Mellon University (MS in ML)
  2. Ohio State University
  3. University of Minnesota
  4. University of California, Irvine
  5. Georgia Institute of Technology
  6. University of Massachusetts, Amherst
  7. New York University

My profile was: mediocre GPA, GRE score of 321 (165Q + 156V + 4.0 AWA), TOEFL score of 108, decent set of projects and a couple of internships. I had taught myself a little bit of Machine Learning and thought I was in a good place to get into atleast one of the places I applied to.

Then, BAM. 7 rejects and I was left reeling. It was a terrible feeling.

The Missing Part - The part that no one talks about

Sometime in April, 2015 when I was down and out about the rejects, I was talking to a good friend. Let’s call him Akshay, because that’s his name. He didn’t try to console me or advise me, all he did was link me to this video.

The Long Game Part 2: the missing chapter from Delve on Vimeo.

In a mere 6 minutes, this video gave me so much to ponder over. Thank you, Akshay.

I did a lot of thinking and realized that I wanted to do a PhD. Maybe my profile wasn’t strong enough for a Master’s application. Heck, if it isn’t, it surely is nowhere close to helping me get admitted into PhD programs. I realized the best thing I can do to offset my GPA is to do internships at reputed places. Thus began the next part.

Part 2 - The Rise

I realized very early, thanks to wonderful mentors I found in seniors from school and college, that PhD applications are not at all like MS applications. I needed to show demonstrated ability of research and take a more structured approach to applying.

My profile did improve a bit - over the course of Spring, 2015, my GPA increased a fair amount, I completed internships at IISc, IIIT Hyderabad and got started at Xerox Research Centre India. I even managed to snag one publication. But that alone wouldn’t be enough to prove my worth. I knew I needed a killer SOP that would drive home the point that I’m fit for research.

I collected code from all my projects, organized it, put it on GitHub, and linked it on my SOP. My SOP was weaved into a story of my progress through undergrad while trying to convince the admissions committee that I was ready for grad school. None of the “We bought our first computer when I was aged 6…” nonsense. Let’s break it down.

I had my SOP chopped up into three sections, so, here’s some advice:

  1. Introduction
    1. One line introducing your field of study. Try to be creative here and by that I don’t mean use fancy words. Try to concisely state a fact or two from your field of study and why you’re motivated to do research in it. Makes a better opening statement than “I started learning Python before my mother tongue”, right?
    2. Maybe another line or two citing examples/work that make your case stronger. The more current the work, the better as that would mean that research is fairly active in this field. This also shows that you’ve done your research and know what you’re talking about. Again, be concise, don’t ramble on.
    3. The second paragraph of your Introduction should be a 3-4 line summary of how you think your experience thus far has set you up nicely to enter grad school. Be careful not to boast, the tone you take is very important.
  2. Undergraduate Experiences and What I Learnt
    1. Although not necessary, I would prefer a chronological order to list your work. That way, you can even explain how you were building your skills along the way.
    2. For each of your internship/project that you want to mention here, have a paragraph. Again, don’t exceed 3-4 line per paragraph as doing show only shows that you cannot concisely yet wholly talk about your project.
    3. As an added bonus, DO include links to any papers/code on GitHub that this work lead to. It’s a nice touch.
  3. Why [collegeName]?
    1. This is an important section. Here, you have a chance to make or break your case. Obviously, if you aren’t prepared enough, you will come off sounding insincere and that’s not a good first impression.
    2. Consider this as due diligence. But, this doesn’t mean that you jot down names of papers of your prospective advisor and state things directly from them. Anybody can read papers and state what they understood. (I’m assuming that you understand the paper in the right way, if you don’t, more negative points.) Unless you have something meaningful to contribute, it’s better to avoid suggesting/saying anything. Although, it’s very unlikely that you’ll have anything significant to add, so, it’s just best to suggest how your interests gel with your advisors’ interests.
    3. If you have worked on something that you think is very relevant to the advisors’ research, quote it here. Doing so, you’re making sure that the advisor has read the most relevant piece of your application.
    4. Be nice, sign off by thanking the committee for spending time reading your application.

I think that rounds up to a good looking SOP if done right. It’ll be a no-nonsense piece, something refreshing for the committee to read. Obviously, feel free to take as much or as little of those points. They worked for me, they may or may not work for you.

A few other ideas to score some brownie points:

  1. Have an academic/porfolio website. In this day and age, there are many platforms that can help you get set up in a matter of a couple of hours. If you don’t mind a xyz.github.io URL, you can even host your website for free using GitHub.
  2. Make your CV, SOP and any other document that you need to write in LaTeX. It definitely is worth your while to learn it if you plan to be in academia.
  3. Any emails to the staff, be corteous and as helpful (stating your application number, exact problem explained concisely, etc) as you can be. Do NOT rush them or send them mails asking when the result will be out. Such requests are annoying and you’ll never get a reply.
  4. It is also a good idea to talk to students of the potential advisor. You can be slightly informal with them and get a lot of information about the university/department/location and mainly the professor.

That wraps up the “applying” part of the process, which is crucial, but not the most crucial piece of your application. Funnily enough, the part that I consider the most crucial isn’t even on your application. If you haven’t guessed already, it is mailing the professor.

This is the bible of emailing professors. Patience is key while emailing prospective advisors.

The professor’s time is a million times more important than yours. So, DO NOT waste their time.

I had emailed my prospective advisors thrice. The first one, sometime in July/August, asking if they’re taking on students for the following Fall. Yes, 4-5 months before you even apply. Most students are highly impatient, and most professors will not reply within a couple of weeks even. You need as big a buffer as you can manage. So, emailing them in July means you need to have zeroed in on them sometime in April/May which gives you a couple of months to read their work and decide if you want to apply to work with them or not. Coming back to the email, it should be short with a useful subject line (be very aware of spam filters and make sure your mail is not tossed before it’s even opened). In this email, you introduce yourself, state your interest in working with them and then pop the question. If you do get a reply, that’s a good sign. The second email, I sent when I finished applying, letting them know in a “quick update” email. The third, when my application was complete after all my recommendations had been submitted. This one should contain your application number so that the professor can easily locate your application and line or two telling them that you can send across anything specific they’d want to look at. Obviously, in every email, make sure that you have no typos and your grammar is on point.

Take this link very seriously. It contains very specific, concise, and highly useful information. Moreover, it is information you can trust coming from Prof. Emery Berger at UMass, Amherst.

Actually, the video that I shared above is more relevant once you have your admit and are about to start your Ph.D., but, oh well!

P.S.: No, I will not share any of the material I used in my application. Applications are meant to be done yourself and it gives you a chance to pitch yourself to the university. There are a lot of upsides if you do this task the right way. So, good luck to you! I hope you land your dream advisor!