PhD Applications FAQ

Every fall I get a flurry of emails asking about PhD applications. Sometimes people are interested in the general application process, and sometimes they have specific questions about Cornell. But since these questions tend to be similar, I’m writing out my answers here to save myself time in the future!

One of the reasons I put this FAQ together is because similar blog posts helped me a lot when I was applying to PhD programs. There are tons of resources out there, but personal and domain-specific resources were the most helpful for me.

What’s my background, and what do I know about PhD applications?

I’m currently a PhD candidate in Information Science at Cornell University, where I work with David Mimno in natural language processing, cultural analytics, and computational social science. At Cornell IS, the PhD students are heavily involved in the applications process, and I’ve reviewed applications for the past four years (reviewed materials, conducted interviews, observed faculty feedback). I worked in industry and got a master’s degree before starting my PhD, and I applied to PhD programs in NLP in 2015.

My answers will be tailored to my subject areas, so I wouldn’t rely on these tips for other fields. Applications were competitive when I applied, but they’ve become much more competitive since, especially in NLP and ML. I applied mostly to programs in the U.S. and one program in the U.K., so I can’t advise on the application process in other countries, and I’m from the U.S., so I can’t advise on immigration questions.

I’m sure that faculty can offer more advice about PhD applications, since they actually make the decisions and recruit students, but I hope that my perspective as a graduate student is helpful. In any case, people often ask me these questions, so here are my answers! :)

General Questions

Should I do a PhD?

This is such a hard question, and no one can answer it for you. I think that if you really want to do a PhD, you’ll know and nothing will stop you. But here are some pros and cons that I would consider.



Where should I apply?

Focus on advisors, not universities. Your advisor will determine the majority of your experience, so I would recommend looking around for specific faculty whose work you find interesting. Ask friends or colleagues if they have recommendations for potential advisors, start following people on Twitter, and pay attention to the authors of papers that you like. Don’t worry about university rankings (these often don’t make sense after undergrad). I was given this advice by many people when I was applying, and I’m grateful that I followed it (even without really understanding why at the time).

If possible, apply widely (I think I applied to about 7-10 programs) and keep your mind open at this stage. There will be plenty of time to select between your options later, and until you start talking to people at different programs, it can be hard to tell from the outside which are the most exciting opportunities. If cost is a barrier, most universities have fee-waiver programs that you shouldn’t hesitate to use.

Which parts of the application are most important?

This depends on the person evaluationg your application, but I would say that your statement of purpose, letters of reference, and research experience (or publications) are the most important parts. I would put the most effort into these, and not worry as much about GPA, GRE, CV, and other details. Some people will indeed care about GPA, GRE, or the prestige of your credentials, but in my experience, most people are aware that different opportunities have shaped the applications of different people. For things like the GRE, study a bit and give it your best shot, but don’t waste too much time on it; many programs are no longer even asking for GRE scores.

Should I email professors before applying?

Different professors feel differently about this. Some faculty don’t respond to any pre-acceptance emails, while others prefer to hear from students ahead of time. Keep in mind that faculty get tons of email every day, and during application season, they’re getting lots of emails very similar to yours. They simply can’t respond to all of them. While I think it’s unlikely that you’ll hear back, I don’t think it hurts to send an email that is polite, clear, brief, and personalized (emphasis on personalized!). But it’s definitely not necessary!

Is it better to go straight from undergrad or is it ok to work in industry for a while?

I personally recommend working in industry (or traveling or teaching or making art or whatever you want to do!) in between undergrad and grad school. This gives you some extra life experience and maturity, and maybe most importantly, it reinforces that there is a whole world outside of academia that you can always return to. This can give you the confidence to speak up when being mistreated because you know that life will go on if you leave the PhD. That said, going “straight through” can sometimes be the right choice, and you’re the best judge of your own path. Practically speaking, this will depend on your potential advisor and program (some programs do skew much younger), but Cornell IS has generally been welcoming to “nontraditional students.”

And just to make this plain: you’re not too old, it’s not too late, and you should apply!

I’m thinking of applying to PhD programs in a few years. What should I do now to prepare?

The best thing you can do is get research experience. Whether this is through an internship, an industry position, or academic experience during undergrad or a master’s program, doing research will help you both (a) understand whether research is something you want to do full time and (b) strengthen your application. It will also help you find letter writers who are familiar with your work in a research setting.

My own path involved getting a master’s degree and working in industry before applying to PhD programs. I did research with a professor during my master’s and also wrote a master’s thesis on my own project. These experiences shaped my application and interests and serendipitously led to my current work at Cornell.

Cornell Questions

What’s the difference between Information Science and Computer Science?

Not much! You take different core courses (IS courses focus on HCI, society, data science, design, and networks), and you’ll regularly attend different talks and be surrounded by different people. But we all sit in the same building (some even in the same office!), many of the faculty (like my advisor) advise students in both departments, and we have many shared events and academic interests. All the CS and IS talks are open to students in both areas, and in my own lab, there is an even mix of CS and IS students.

What do you like best about Cornell Information Science?

Other than my advisor and the larger NLP research group, my main motivation in coming to Cornell was how friendly I found the students in IS. I felt much more comfortable here than at some of the other programs I applied to, which had less diverse students. Cornell IS tends to have a mix of younger and older students, and since I was coming from industry, I felt like the students here understood me better. I also love the wide range of academic interests in Cornell IS (human robot interaction, human computer interaction, design, science and technology studies, law, data science, art…), and I’ve been inspired by the faculty to push myself in directions I never expected and wouldn’t have experienced in a more traditional CS program. We’re even required to do a “minor” in another department and have one person on our committee from another department, which I love.

What’s it like working with David Mimno?

David is an excellent advisor, and I’m incredibly lucky to work with him. I would describe his advising style as hands-off (in the sense that he gives me space to try things and explore) but very present and supportive.

What is David looking for in an applicant? Is David taking students this year?

I can’t speak for David on these questions, but he has a helpful page on his website.

What’s it like living in Ithaca?

There are pros and cons. It’s a beautiful college town that’s very walkable and has great public transportation, cute cafes and restaurants, and lots of nearby hiking, waterfalls, and farms. However, the winters are long, dark, and cold, and Ithaca is 4.5 hours from NYC, 5 hours from Montreal, and 4.5 hours from Toronto; we’re in the middle of nowhere. We have a small airport and bus lines that go to NYC and other cities, but it can feel isolating. On the other hand, because Ithaca is so small, you’ll see your friend and coworkers all the time. Coming from a city on the west coast, I found the transition challenging, but a lot of people love it here.

Are you happy with your decision to go to Cornell?

Yes, absolutely. There have been ups and downs of course, but I think I made the right call for my personal goals. The quality and diversity of the academic community here is exactly what I wanted.

Tips for Your Application

Statement of Purpose

In my opinion, your statement of purpose should answer these questions:

Different people evaluate statements differently, but I also think your writing style is important. You want to convey excitement and originality, while being very specific about what you want to do, what you’ve done, and how you view your research area.

The most important tip is to have someone in academia and in your field read your statement of purpose. If you have a friend or colleague who is currently a graduate student, they can give extremely valuable feedback. The more people who can read your statement the better! (But I’m sorry, unless we already know each other, I don’t have time to read yours!)

I highly recommend this writing guide for the statement of purpose from UC Berkeley, and while this is about medical school, I found this Reddit comment really helpful when I was applying.

Curriculum Vitae

Your CV should be easy to read and should include your academic qualifications, your work experience, and your research experience and publications. You can also list class projects and unpublished work; just indicate clearly that they are unpublished or under review. Unlike in industry, it’s 100% fine if it’s longer than one page. If you’re applying from outside the U.S., it might be worthwhile checking out some CVs of PhD students in the groups you’re applying to, so that you get an idea of the CV norms. For example, you don’t need to include a photo on your CV. This resource is more industry-focused, but I like these tips from Ask a Manager.

Letters of Reference

Since I’m not a professor, I don’t have as much experience reading and writing these. However, my impression is that these letters are very important. If you’re still a student or are planning to apply not this year but in the future, it would be smart to start thinking now about who your letter writers could be or where you could find letter writers. I think it’s ok to ask people in industry (I had at least one industry letter), but they should be familiar with your work and ideally have worked with you on research.

I got in! Now what?

Congratulations! The main challenge left is to choose between programs. If you can visit the campus in person, especially during the official visit days with other students, I would highly recommend doing so, as it can influence your decision a lot.

Visit Days

Visit days can be a lot of fun! This is your reward for all the hard work of applying, and now the different universities are going to wine and dine you. (Enjoy it now because it won’t happen again for a very, very long time.) You’ll get to meet a lot of people, including faculty, current graduate students, and students in your “extended cohort” (students who end up choosing other universities but who study the same topics). Talk to people, relax, and take time to soak it all in!

Some tips for the visit days:

If you find yourself talking to a reliable and sympathetic student, here are some questions I might ask them:

Choosing Between Programs

Ultimately, you have to follow your heart. You’re only going to do one PhD (hopefully), and it’s a huge commitment of time, energy, and money. You don’t want to have any regrets, so while it’s good to ask others for advice, it’s ultimately up to you!

When I was deciding between programs, I found this video about making hard choices very helpful. In a nutshell, when faced with equally good options, you can consider such a choice as an opportunity for self definition. What kind of person do you want to be? The kind of person who went to University A? Or University B?

Here are some practical factors I would consider:

More Resources

Here is some more advice on PhD applications that might be helpful.

November 27, 2020