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Liangcheng Yu

I am interested in systems and networking. This is my homepage and blog.
Email: leoyu@seas.upenn.edu

Reflection @ Ph.D. Application

15 Feb 2019 » phd

Finally, I finished my zigzag Ph.D. application with many detours. Below are the tips that I personally found it useful.


  • Mandatory language tests: GRE, TOEFL typically weigh little in the CS Ph.D. application and one should not spend too much time on it, just make sure it is above the acceptable threshold (e.g., GRE > 320, TOEFL>105).
  • Selection of targets: First clearly define the personal research domain and sort out the professors working on this area. Then shortlist the targets based on personal preferences and personal competitiveness (e.g., prefer AP, the difficulty of admission). Each application would take significant time and efforts so avoid sending applications to those that don’t really echo your interest.

Tips Tracking the top conferences in the field (e.g., SIGCOMM, NSDI) could help sort out the prominent & active POI. I also used http://csrankings.org to assit the search. Associated search (e.g., Google scholar) is also helpful since typically these researchers are well connected with the same advisor or others during their Ph.D., Post-doc and so on.

  • Cold emails: I personally think it carries little weight and it is totally fine to just send the applications without notifying POI. I haven’t tried much because I started to prepare the applications pretty late. If one started early enough, it might probably make a good impression to POI if one had a DEEP understanding of his/her current research work (e.g., improving the theoretical proof, identifying non-trivial errors or questions to POI’s work).
  • PS and SOP: Statement of purpose should deliver a well-organized and convincing story that you are the right person to pursue the Ph.D. program, which is required by almost every graduate school. Personal statement tells about the non-academic aspect of your life and it is seldom required.
  • Recommendation letter: One negative/neutral tone letter would hurt the whole application. For top school applications, it is most important that the recommender knows you and strongly believes in your potential. Other factors (e.g., fame) of the recommender would add extra stars to the application only if the previous condition holds true.
  • After submission: Most graduate schools set the deadline around 15th December. Try to set it aside and don’t get disturbed during this 2-month waiting. Calm down and focus the mind on the ongoing research, interns, or coursework. My lesson is that whenever feel upset and wondering, focus on the current work.


  • General preparation: Cherish and take each interview seriously since professors are extremely busy! I ruined the first interview since I was with NULL preparations. Later, I found it helpful to make slides that would summarize the highlights of your research and trajectories. Most of the time, it would constitute the main proportion of your interview. Be ready to define your deep research interest and your potential future works from the theoretical and practical point of view. Also, prepare several questions that you would like to ask POI.

Tips Typically questions include: POI research agenda, research style (theory/practice), interactions to expect, questions regarding POI’s papers…

  • Visiting week: Typically, on-site interviews indicate a higher probability of admission since the grad school has to pay your transportation, living and so forth. There would be closer F2F interactions and it is also helpful to get to know the atmosphere, environment, and other factors apart from the research itself.
  • During the interview: Make sure to interpret the questions precisely before answering. Typically, it would be an evaluation of your ability to investigate problems in the domain – identification of the issues, logic, and perspectives to reason (a reflection of your background knowledge and intelligence).

Final Decisions

  • Factors: The definition of “best match” is highly an individual stuff. For example, research interest; strength, engagement (hands on/off, daily/weekly meetings), and kindness of the direct advisor; collaborative environments and co-advising; industrial opportunities (during and after Ph.D.); potential outputs (e.g., publication in top conferences); proximity to the community; ranking of the deparment/group; macro & microenvironment, future career, salary, and life quality…
  • Final decision: Narrowing down to the final decision is tough if there are tradeoffs among the offers. The decision will have far-reaching effects for ~5 years of one’s life and beyond. It could be the case that each offer features at a clear tradeoff (e.g., top-notch deparment ranking and Prof. but lack of mutual research interest, well-match interest but less well-known department and group, best bonus (salaries, life qualities) and top research group and well-known university in the field but less connected with industry and so forth). It is critical to identify the top factors that matter deeply and filter out the factors that are simply considered “important” by others. There are always uncertainties and potential merits to sacrifice with the final decision, and it is important to make the decision that you will not regret.

Tips I like the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking - if you still got really hesitating among 2, 3 options after evaluating the top factors you care about, I think it is the time to just go with the intuition.

  • Rejecting offers: I personally think once you had a deterministic decision in mind, reject the other offers as soon as possible and inform the potential interviewers afterwards because there are people in the waiting list behind you - though it is you right to postpone such information until the deadline (April 15th). Also, I strongly don’t agree with the viewpoint that one should try to collect as many offers as possible to prove yourself or it is better to delay such rejection information for etiquettes. It appears to me as a moral violation and a waste of time.

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