The WiGRAPH guide to applying to PhD programs

Written by the WiGRAPH Executive Team
Posted on November 7, 2022

With crispy leaves and cinnamon on the breeze, the season of graduate school applications is upon us. Are you applying to PhD programs in computer science this fall? We've compiled a list of frequently asked questions and resources to guide you to the finish line!

What are professors looking for in an application?

Every professor has a unique vision for their lab and so there is no universal answer – look at each professor's website to see if they have a section addressed to potential applicants, an FAQ, or similar. If so, they may answer this question and you can tailor your application materials accordingly.

Last year, MIT EECS released a compilation of professors' responses to this question – although it mainly focuses on the essay portion, most professors address what they look for in an application as a whole.

How do I write a statement of purpose (or personal statement, etc.)?

The MIT EECS Communication Lab and EPFL EPIC Guide have published excellent comprehensive guides on the structure and content of a statement of purpose. This year, Zhaofeng Wu, Alexis Ross, and Shannon Shen from MIT CSAIL released a public database of statements of purpose written and shared by computer science PhD applicants – browse through these examples for inspiration!

Should I cold email a professor I am interested in working with?

Maybe! First, look at the professor's website to see if they have a section addressed to potential applicants, an FAQ, or similar. If so, they will likely answer this question – if they do not wish to be contacted via email, then respect their wish.

If you have a specific question for that professor (e.g. is their lab full or are they taking new students), are on the fence about applying, or are very enthusiastic about working with that professor, then it is up to you whether to send a cold email. Begin by briefly introducing yourself, then succinctly explain why their research caught your attention and what potential projects or extensions of their work you could imagine working on as their student. If you have publications or a portfolio, then include a link to your website, CV, or Google Scholar page rather than listing them in the email body.

If you are on the fence about applying, try to avoid framing such a question around the application itself (e.g. what are my chances of getting in?), but rather around the research you envision doing with that professor (e.g. this is my vision, does that align with your lab's vision?).

A professor may not respond because they are too busy or are uncomfortable responding to such emails – don't take this as a negative response! As long as you mention their name in your application package, they will see it.

Can I get financial assistance for applying to PhD programs?

Maybe! Many computer science graduate programs offer financial assistance on an individual basis. Search each program's website for mention of a "fee waiver" – in many cases, there will be a link to an application form for financial assistance. If you have questions about such programs or whether a school offers one, send an email to their admissions help desk.

There are also programs that provide financial assistance to underrepresented groups, such as oSTEM and Queer in AI's Graduate Applications Financial Aid Program.

Can I get feedback on my application materials?

Yes! Check out Chinasa T. Okolo's or Andrew Kuznetsov's curated lists of programs that offer feedback on application materials and their deadlines for 2022.