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Choosing a Ph.D. program in Computer Science

by Rachel Pottinger

Applying to a Ph.D. program can be a very confusing and overwhelming process as I learned when I applied two years ago, and more recently as a member of my department’s prospective students committee. Thus, I’ve put together an overview of the process. Please note that this reference is primarily for people interested in Ph.D. programs, and all costs are as of 1999.
The most useful advice for people deciding whether on not to go to grad school is Advice for undergraduates considering graduate school by Phil Agre. It covers deciding whether or not to go to grad school and how to get research experience, and I defer to it on these topics. My discussion focuses on the application process, but first I’ll discuss the basics of Ph.D. programs.

What happens in a Ph.D. program
Please note that this is geared towards programs in the United States; I know that it is different in other countries.
The most important thing to realize is that schools do not require you to have a masters degree when you apply. This is very important; masters students almost never receive funding, while Ph.D. students usually do. If you are planning on applying to a Ph.D. program eventually, you might as well apply to the Ph.D. program from the outset; you can always drop out if you change your mind.

Ph.D. programs almost always involve first getting a masters degree and then getting a Ph.D.. Even if you have a masters degree from another university, you will often be asked to show that you have sufficient breadth. This varies from department to department, so you’ll want to look closely at policies if you are in this situation. Proving your breadth requires probably either taking classes or taking exams or both. This is generally followed by a project and presentation. This phase usually lasts for a year to two.

After that, you’ll probably be required to read a number of papers in the field that you have chosen, and then write a synthesis paper and give a presentation on your conclusions. This generally occurs between your second and fourth year. Finally, you choose a Ph.D. thesis topic, propose your topic to people, research and present.

The whole program takes between four to eight years on average. This can vary widely from department to department

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