This post was written by: Akari Asai, John Hewitt, Sidd Karamcheti, Kalpesh Krishna, Nelson Liu, Roma Patel, and Nicholas Tomlin.

Thanks to our amazing survey respondents: Akari Asai, Aishwarya Kamath, Sidd Karamcheti, Kalpesh Krishna, Lucy Li, Kevin Lin, Nelson Liu, Sebastian Mielke, Roma Patel, Nicholas Tomlin, Eric Wallace, and Michihiro Yasunaga.

This post offers and summarizes student advice and perspectives on the NLP PhD application process, with a focus on programs in the US. We asked twelve recently-successful NLP PhD applicants a range of questions about the application process—this post compiles the broader themes and advice that run through the majority of responses. Make sure to check out the complete set of responses! A tarball is also available for those who cannot access Google Drive.

⚠️Disclaimer⚠️: While we’ve all gone through the application process and have thoughts to share, we aren’t experts or authorities on this (highly random) process. Our advice comes from our unique perspectives and backgrounds, and not everything will generalize. That said, we hope that the differences and similarities in our shared experiences will be useful to consider.

Professors have also written advice to applicants from their side of the process, see Kalpesh Krishna’s compilation of graduate school application advice.

Table of Contents


Pre-application

Deciding to apply at all is not an easy choice, and several respondents took additional time, either in school or in industry, to explore new fields and become more certain that pursuing a PhD was the right decision for them. Choosing where to apply is also an involved process, and involves trade-offs between factors like research area fit, location, and (perceived) selectivity. This section explores this preliminary part of the application process, along with useful insights from applicants on different aspects of this decision.

A lot of the perspectives in this post are aimed towards people already seriously considering a PhD—for instance, seniors or MS students. If you are a student considering a PhD, but still have a significant amount of time before you apply, John Hewitt’s blog post contains useful insights and advice on how to make the most of your time in school. In addition, Kalpesh Krishna’s extensive compilation of application advice might yield things to keep in mind through the years.

Why apply now?

For many of the respondents, starting a PhD was the natural “next step”—they were in the final year of their undergraduate or masters degrees, and had spent enough time doing research to realize that a PhD was worth the opportunity cost to them.

While I did not have any *ACL papers while applying...My goal was to get into a good PhD program and start doing research full-time (which is why I was applying to a PhD program in the first place) rather than get into the very best PhD program.
– Kalpesh Krishna

Waiting to apply also has clear benefits—many respondents felt that they would be stronger applicants after an additional year of research experience (and the associated publications and stronger letters of recommendation that might come with it).

“The year away from academia gave me the clarity on how much I really wanted to do a PhD and how much I love academic life. In this year I used my free time to explore interesting research directions and collaborated with friends. It made me realise that I enjoy research and to be able to do it for a living would be just perfect.”
– Aishwarya Kamath

“I was also unsure at that time what kinds of directions I wanted to go in or if I even wanted to commit so many years of my life to additional school...By the time fall 2018 came around, I’d done a full year of thinking and growing my research skills, so I felt a lot better about diving into the process.”
– Lucy Li

Several people found value in waiting because it gave them the time to reflect on their next steps. For instance, Lucy and Aishwarya used the time to further develop their research interests and think about what areas were exciting to them. In particular, Aishwarya spent a year in industry, which made her realize what she was missing an academic setting and drove her to apply and return.

On the other hand, several also offered caution about waiting with the sole intention of improving your profile. As PhD applications get more and more competitive each year, more papers or experience doesn’t necessarily mean a stronger application since things are inherently relative. Several agreed that having publications at top conferences is not a necessary component of a strong application, especially if one has relatively limited research experience (e.g., applicants from undergrad) or has strong recommendation letters. A recent blog post about the machine learning PhD application process investigates admission statistics at one of the top schools (Fall 2018), and shows admission is not determined solely on publication records, but depends on the other factors, especially applicants’ background and letters of recommendations.

For instance, Kalpesh and Akari considered waiting a year since they did not have any top-tier NLP publications at the time, noting that:

  • Things get more and more competitive each year, so more papers doesn’t necessarily mean a stronger application since things are inherently relative.
  • Applicants with master's degrees are expected to have more publications and experience than undergraduate applicants.
  • There is a large amount of uncertainty involved in research / writing papers, so things are not always going to pan out for reasons out of your control.
  • They thought that they were still reasonably strong applicants for many of the places they were applying to.

Kevin and Akari also mention that, if you have the resources, you can apply multiple times.

If what you really want to do is to immediately get into a grad school and continue doing work that you are excited about, you should apply.
– Roma Patel

Choosing where to apply

When choosing where to apply, the majority of respondents focused on a few factors:

  1. Overwhelmingly, the strongest factor for everyone was faculty: finding schools with professors that you’d want to work with, and with a strong presence in allied fields. Several mentioned applying to places only if there were 2 or more relevant faculty.
  2. Location was also a key factor for many: finding schools in places that you think you’d be happy living in for 5+ years.
  3. Lastly, many also considered proximity to industry connections / possible external collaborators.

Some also took the relative prestige of a school into account, with the thinking that prestigious schools attract strong peers, which means that you can learn more and work with amazing people.

There’s also a case to be made for applying to a mixture of (1) programs that you’re relatively confident you can be admitted to and (2) “top choice” programs that might have a bit more randomness in the admissions process (of course, all the schools you apply to should be places you’d be happy going to). However, it’s easy to be a bit too conservative when choosing where to apply—remember that you only really need 1 offer. The majority of respondents applied to between 8 and 13 schools, though almost everyone was happy with the number of applications they submitted (Kevin, who applied to 4, thought it would have been helpful to apply to more).

NLP applicants in particular are lucky—there are amazing faculty scattered around the world in a variety of different environments. Start with a large list before filtering down, and focus on finding the right fit for you personally.

Talking to Faculty Beforehand?

I did not email faculty beforehand - I don’t think this helps (and in the case of a poorly crafted email, could actually hurt!).
– Sidd Karamcheti

The majority of students did not email faculty before applying. Some faculty ask students to reach out—this will usually be explicitly mentioned on their webpage. In the absence of such a notice, a reasonable policy is to not send an email.

But that said, if you are in the vicinity of a school or doing an academic visit -- feel free to reach out to the faculty there and ask if they have a half-hour slot to meet!
– Roma Patel

I emailed one prospective advisor and asked to meet at a conference. In general, I think this is a good strategy, especially if you have research-related things to talk about with them. (Which hopefully you will, if they’re a good advisor fit!)
– Nicholas Tomlin

Several respondents were fortunate to meet potential future advisors at workshops or conferences / if they happened to be in the area, and found them to be quite receptive to short research meetings. It’s good to go into these meetings with a sense of (1) what you’d like to get out of it, and how to use this meeting effectively, (2) an awareness of their recent work, (3) a mental list of questions that you think have informative or interesting answers.

...one of my undergrad advisors emailed a couple prospective grad advisors on my behalf, and asked them to look out for my application. I think this was particularly helpful and is maybe something worth mentioning to your undergraduate advisor.
– Nicholas Tomlin

It is appropriate to selectively ignore advice about cold-emailing—Prof. Yonatan Bisk has a great guide that walks through the why, when, and how.

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Statement of Purpose

The statement of purpose is an opportunity for you to convey what you’ve worked on and what you’re interested in. Above all, make sure the statement is genuine and uniquely you. The “accept/reject” dichotomy of applications might make this process seem like a game—leading many to believe that it’s better to win the game (that is, be accepted) than to lose. While it’s tempting to shape each application to say what you think faculty might want to hear, being yourself will lead to the best outcome in the end. Remember that programs and students are both looking for the right fit—the statement is a fantastic opportunity for both sides to assess this.

If your statement is genuine and makes clear why you want a PhD, it will resonate with the people you want it to resonate with.
– Sebastian Mielke

Timeline: When to Start and Finish Writing

With respect to starting writing, it is sometimes good to leave it late enough to wrap up any ongoing research projects at the end of the summer so you can write concrete things about them. For finishing writing, it’s good to have a near-ready draft at least a month before.
– Roma Patel

Try to set aside a fixed period of time to work on your statement. While starting earlier rather than later is usually better, try to start writing a draft once you think your current projects and interests are concrete enough to write something substantive. Strive to have a preliminary draft that you’re happy with at least a month before the deadline. You can then send this to your advisors for feedback; continue editing and iterating until the deadline and/or you’re happy with how things look.

Structuring a Statement of Purpose

The goal of the statement is to talk about your past (research) experience, and how that has prepared you for a career in research (why you’re qualified for grad school).
– Sidd Karamcheti

Your statement of purpose should uniquely describe your research experience and elaborate on the process you went through as you undertook your first few research projects. Give enough detail about your past work to allow them to assess the value of the work and also to concretely show that you knew what you were doing at every step of the process. Then fold this into your research as a whole. Try to leverage insights from both the actual work as well the experience of doing research, to formulate how you would undertake future projects during your graduate school career.

Many professors do tell you what they’re looking for in a SoP (JHU CLSP for example has hints at https://www.clsp.jhu.edu/apply-for-phd/phd-admissions-faq/), so do use that resource.
– Sebastian Mielke

Tailoring Each Statement for Specific Universities

I only tweaked the final paragraph. In this paragraph, I specifically mentioned 2--4 faculty that I wanted to work with and provided a one sentence rationale.
– Eric Wallace

Our survey respondents were quite divided on this question. A few respondents significantly tweaked their statements for each university to reflect the subset of their interests relevant to the prospective advisor’s research. However most respondents kept 80-90% of their statement identical and only modified the last 1-2 paragraphs with university specific information - such as the names of the professor they were interested in working with. Most agreed that it is good to have at least some university-specific information to form a connection between your own research goals and a prospective advisor’s research directions.

It is good to have concrete reasons laid out in your statement as to why you want to go to this school and work with these faculty on interesting problems. So definitely tweak the section of your statement that stresses on this.
– Roma Patel

Getting Feedback on Your Statement

Your recommenders will get a better sense of your research interests so it can help them write your recommendation and they have also been through similar processes.
– Kevin Lin

It is good to have a near-complete draft of your statement ready in time to send to your recommenders before they begin to write your letter of recommendation. There are multiple benefits to this. Reading your statement will help them better understand your research interests, which will not only allow them to concretely write things about you in their letter, but might also bring up useful pieces of advice from them based on what they know of the people working in that research area. They will also usually give you feedback on the overall statement—they have possibly read countless statements over the course of their career and will be able to fairly judge and evaluate this in context. Your research advisors and recommenders are likely both extremely knowledgeable and also have your best interests at heart, so remember to ask for feedback and advice on your application!

Using this as a Learning Opportunity

In my statement, I mostly talked about my past experiences and how they feed into my current research interests. I tried to paint a picture that enables the reader to better understand how I reached / why I do the research I do.
– Nelson Liu

Write out your journey as a researcher from the beginning to the present. This will convey important information about you and your research, which can be illuminating for both your reader and for yourself. Chances are that you will write dozens of similar statements in the future, whether they are research statements for fellowships, project proposals, or grant applications. Use this as a learning experience! Writing your statement of purpose is not only good practice for the future, but also a rare invitation to reflect upon your interests and motivations.

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Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation are often cited as the most important part of a PhD application. In our survey, every respondent marked letters as either the most or second-most important component. Given that the admissions committee is optimizing to admit candidates with a high likelihood of reliably producing excellent research, a letter from a fellow academic that effectively claims you’ve been able to do so is a strong signal that you’re a good candidate.

What to look for when choosing letter writers

Your letter writers should be people who know you well enough to speak about your skills and your strengths as a PhD candidate ... people you have worked with who are doing relevant research in the field and people you have genuinely been advisors to you…
– Roma Patel

It can be helpful to view letter writers as your primary advocates in the admissions process. They want their excellent undergraduate students or research assistants to succeed, and they’re singing your praises in order to argue for your spot in graduate school. From this view, it may be clear that they should know you, your strengths, and your goals. Of course, some of your letter writers will know you better than others, but each should be able to at least advocate for your excellence in how you worked or interacted with them.

There’s often a tradeoff between (1) how well you know the letter writer, (2) how cool the work you did with them was, and (3) how well-known they are. As a first approximation, attempt to have all 3 letter writers know you through some kind of research collaboration. Simply doing well in their class, or TAing for them does not necessarily make for a strong letter. On the other hand, an industry researcher who can vouch for your research ability may be able to make a stronger statement. This brings us to (3) how well known the letter-writer is. Perhaps unfortunately, letters from well-known members of the field are (very) highly regarded. This may be due to fame bias—the professors on the application committee can rest assured that they know so-and-so from X university consistently recommends only excellent students. As suggested at the beginning of this paragraph, this will play some role in the tradeoff, but keep in mind that a famous professor who doesn’t really know you won’t write a strong letter.

Each of the components mentioned above—personal knowledge of you and your work, successful research and fame of the writer were mentioned by our respondents.

I chose professors with whom I had completed somewhat successful research, and who were likely to be known by my prospective advisors. For better or worse (probably worse), connections between letter writers and prospective advisors seem to matter a lot.
– Nicholas Tomlin

When to start looking for recommenders

People get started in research at different times, but by the time of application, you need three people who can advocate for your spot in graduate school (though again, not all need to be equally strong or know you equally well). When should you start building these relationships? The easy answer is “as early as possible”. Research takes a long time, as does getting settled in a field and starting to make real progress. This creates a definite bias towards those who start research earlier and collaborate widely (3 professors means a lot of connections to make). However, everyone’s research story looks different, and no student should think it “too late” to go for a PhD (though a master’s and/or further years of research experience may be necessary.)

To back this up, note the wide range of times that our respondents started working with the people who would end up being their LoR writers.

Note that this histogram includes one data point for each letter writer for each respondent. (Not everyone mentioned all three writers, and one mentioned four.) I counted “summer before 3rd year” as “2nd year.” That’s a lot of letter writers from the third and fourth (!) years. Many respondents who met their letter writers after their third year did indicate that it would have been better to start earlier, but the data somewhat makes sense—as you progress through your studies, you gain more research experience.

Asking for specifics in your letter, and getting them submitted

Recall that your letter writers are your advocates—you should feel empowered to bring up all the awesome things that you did with them, and ask (but not demand) that they mention specific things. These requests may be to tailor their letters to your statement of purpose. Think that your efforts in conducting replicable science in a world of AI hype are awesome? Your letter writer may agree, but likely wouldn’t think to mention it if you don’t remind them.

I made sure to send a reminder email 2 weeks, then 1 week, then a few days before applications were due.
– Nelson Liu

Likewise, remember that they’re human and busy, and very well may forget your letter if you don’t send them a few reminders. PhD applications tend to have lenient letter of recommendation deadlines but it’s better to keep on top of them with tastefully-spaced reminder emails—better to not test the waters in this context.

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Publications

I think that having a published conference paper greatly increases your chances, but I think that papers are merely a signal for something more important: can you complete the full research process, from idea inception to experiment execution to writing things up?
– Nelson Liu

Most respondents felt that publications are an important part of a strong application, but are not necessary if you have stellar recommendation letters talking about your research aptitude. Admission into PhD programs in computer science (especially at top schools) is quite competitive, and many candidates have publications, especially candidates applying after year-long research positions such as AI residency programs.

Publications are just tangible evidence - if you can show other evidence that you are able to do research, that you learned something, that you have skills/conclusions that you’ve taken away from the experience, then you should be fine.
– Sidd Karamcheti

Publications are a good way to show concrete research output. This acts like “hard evidence” of research aptitude, which is the primary criterion used to judge PhD applicants. Alternative ways to show concrete research output could be excellent research code releases or insightful blog posts.

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Transcripts / Grades

Almost all survey respondents thought that grades and GPA scores play only a minor role in NLP PhD admissions. It is wise to not stress too much about improving your GPA, especially if compromises the time spent doing research. Things might be different in more theoretical fields though, where coursework might be closer to research.

Take an intro to NLP course! Take machine learning or a specific linguistics course or anything else that clearly shows that you have studied the topics you are excited about in depth.
– Roma Patel

Interesting classes off the beaten path may let you stand out from the crowd.
– Sebastian Mielke

The choice of coursework typically acts like a skillset evaluation during PhD admissions, checking whether candidates are familiar with the fundamental techniques required to conduct their research. Coursework can also help present a coherent academic history when combined with the statement of purpose. Some courses might help an applicant stand out from the crowd, especially if they’re uniquely relevant or off the beaten path.

Sometimes, the exact preparation matters less than evidence that you’re capable of learning important background material. E.g., despite me not having strong probability/stats background, a few professors said they were impressed by my (completely irrelevant) pure math background.
– Nicholas Tomlin

While coursework does not play a major role in admission decisions, many respondents mentioned that courses are a great way to learn the fundamentals and get interested in a particular field, often acting like a precursor to research.

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Standardized Exams: GRE / TOEFL

I get the sense that the GRE doesn’t really matter unless you do abysmally.
– Nelson Liu

Nearly everyone agreed that scores from required standardized tests are not deal-breaking as long as you meet a minimum threshold. Having a suspiciously low score could raise questions, but barring failing the exam, this should not significantly impact your entire application. That said, this is a required checkpoint on your application, so keep aside time to get this done correctly.

There is no glory or shame in taking too much or too little time, so it is better to not compare to others and keep aside the right (and possibly minimal) amount of time you think you need to prepare.
– Roma Patel

Try to give yourself at least 1-2 weeks of study time before the actual test. Don’t consider the amount of time you see others spending on this — assess yourself and allocate larger amounts of time to topics that you are uncertain about and think could use the extra effort. Remember to review all the topics you need to, take a few practice tests, and then just take the exam and don’t stress about the score.

It is usually not worth the extra time, effort, cost (or effect) to redo the exam. So prepare well once, take the exam, and don’t stress about the score once you are done with it. For what it’s worth, future years will likely see this disregard and ambivalence towards scores on tests heightened — lots of schools have already removed the GRE requirement, while others have definite plans of doing so in the coming years.

In general, international students must submit their TOEFL (or IELTS) scores to demonstrate competency in the English language — however for some schools, international students who have received degrees in US schools or received their instruction in English do not need to submit TOEFL scores. Unlike in GRE, applicants MUST score higher than the minimum requirements if universities sets minimum scores. The minimum requirements vary from program to program. For example, the Cornell CS PhD program sets the minimum scores for each section (Listening 15, Writing 20, Reading 20, Speaking 22), while the MIT EECS PhD set the total minimum scores to 100. Make sure that you meet TOEFL scores before the application deadline. Unfortunately, the applicants whose TOEFL scores lower than the minimum are likely to be “desk-rejected”.

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Interviews / Post-application Calls

Interviews in USA are less formal - more general discussions about research interests. Interviews for Europe in my experience were more in depth, as they expect you to already have knowledge of your field (since you can only apply after a Masters), have a research plan and expect you to have already surveyed literature in your chosen field of interest.
– Aishwarya Kamath

The interviews and visit days will differ significantly over the range of schools you’re considering—both in their intended purpose and in the amount of information you can glean about the school and faculty from this one interaction. Some schools do pre-acceptance visit days, with offers conditioned on the interviews and ensuing discussions. Others do virtual interviews over the phone or video calls. And of course, some schools choose not to conduct interviews.

While each interview experience is largely dependent on the candidate in question, most of our survey respondents agreed that these conversations follow the same general pattern.

The general format was like:

  1. “Tell me about a research project you worked on (pick one that is most exciting and introduce)”. The professor would ask some questions, like “why did you consider this model / run this experiment?”, “what is the conclusion?”, “what did you learn through this project?”
  2. “What is your research interest?”, “What are you interested in doing for your PhD (and your career)?” -- it’s good to think in both short term and long term
  3. “Do you have any questions?” -- you can ask any questions about the lab, like the culture, research goals, how advising/meeting works.
    – Michi Yasunaga

This is mostly a means of trying to get a sense of what you are like as a person and what your research interests are, to assess both compatibility and mutual interests. Your interviewers will generally ask you to talk about the research you have done — and will interrupt with questions about things that they are interested to hear more about. Overall, this is less of an assessment of your knowledge, rather than them getting insights into how you solve problems and talk about research.

I didn’t enjoy the whiteboard interview.
– Nicholas Tomlin

This sometimes happens. If professors want to assess a specific component of your application, or want to know the extent of your knowledge about a certain topic, they will ask you technical questions that can range from explaining or solving an algorithm, writing out equations or explaining computational and implementation-specific aspects of things you have done. Most of our survey applicants however, did not have to go through this and their interviews largely consisted of general research conversations.

You should definitely know your own work inside-out, but don’t stress about having to know every intricate detail about every subfield in NLP.
– Roma Patel

While it is not important (or even possible) to know everything little thing about every research area in NLP, you should be aware of work being done in areas related to you. Most importantly, if you have written about something in your statement, you should be able to confidently speak about it and answer any questions that they throw at you. Take time to look into every detail and ensure that you know the fundamentals of your work before your interview.

Remember that this is a two way street—while they’re assessing whether you’d be a good fit for their program, you should be probing whether this place / professor is a good match for you.
– Nelson Liu

There is usually a part of the interview where the interviewer steps back and asks you to ask questions — use this time to probe at any uncertainties or lingering questions that you have. If you have questions about their previous work, thoughts about future possibilities, or even just general questions about the program or the department, use this time to clear any doubts and get all the answers you will need to make a decision.

if you don’t know something, it is okay to say that you don’t --- ask questions that help you understand it more and treat it as a learning experience.
– Roma Patel

The only thing I will tell you not to do in an interview: pretend. Professors are good at spotting that kind of thing and they will strongly judge you for it. Just be honest and genuine. You are starting your PhD. You don’t need to know things -- just be willing to grow.
– Sebastian Mielke

Also, don’t worry if you do not know everything the interviewers ask. Just try to be as honest and genuine as you can, and show that you are willing to learn and grow, instead of pretending to know the topics.

I think the interviews as an initial conversation really affected where I seriously considered—the places with interviews that I thought were more fair / reasonable gained legitimacy. In the best case, it was basically a research conversation with a senior researcher, and a great opportunity to get feedback / hear what they think about the field. Overall, I thought they were quite valuable, and I wish that I had treated them less as assessments and more as opportunities.
– Nelson Liu

Make the most of your interviews! All applicants agreed that overall, the interviews were friendly and engaging experiences. Think of this as an opportunity to speak about and answer questions about your work and to have a mutually engaging research conversation.

One useful piece of advice from one of my undergrad advisors was to, “Talk about your research ideas! Remember that what most faculty really want is to be able to discuss the research that is important to them — and if you can do this and make exciting progress through these discussions, you will both mutually have a productive and happy career together.”
– Roma Patel

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Deciding where to go

If you’re fortunate to be considering multiple options, congratulations! It is a hard problem, but a good one to have—be aware of your privilege. The choice between graduate programs is an intensely personal one, and there are a variety of academic and non-academic factors to consider, all of which will influence your health, happiness, and productivity.

Something that people do not always remember when making a decision is that your advisor is possibly someone you will be talking to for upto 3 hours every week for nearly 6 years of your life. It is good to rethink whether or not you will be happy doing this with the faculty in question, if the two of you see eye-to-eye, can comfortably talk about both research-things and also life-things when they come up, and that they will encourage and help guide you in everything you need to do the research that is important to you during your PhD.
– Roma Patel

In general, most respondents agreed that the most important factor is your primary advisor—who will you be working with during your PhD? Do you have mutual research interests? Are your communication and working styles compatible? Would you be comfortable talking to them about your struggles, both academic and non-academic? Do you have much to learn from them and their group? Do you feel supported by them? While it is hard to assess these deep questions before spending time to work with them, conversations and interactions during visit days will help you get a sense of whether things feel right. Trust your instinct—if things feel odd or unnatural, even during these initial conversations, you have plenty of reason to reconsider and be hesitant.

As an undergrad at a school with a large NLP community, I really benefited from having senior researchers around (e.g., grad students and postdocs)---I have so much to learn from them! I felt like I wanted to keep having such an environment in graduate school, which actually ended up being one of the defining factors in my final choice.
– Nelson Liu

Many students also took note of the NLP community at every school they were considering. For instance, some prefer larger groups with many senior students and postdocs, while others prefer smaller, more-intimate groups. There are benefits and drawbacks to both sorts of research environments, and it ultimately boils down to personal preference and taste. It’s important that you feel like you have enough people around to talk about research and life—while your advisor is an important figure in the PhD, you will spend the majority of your time talking to and working alongside fellow students. Make sure that these are people that you’d love to be around for the next stage of your research career.

Sure, you’re picking a place to do research for the next 5+ years of your life, but you also need to be happy / have a life outside of research...I went climbing during a lot of my visits, mostly to assess convenience.
– Nelson Liu

Another important factor to consider is the location. Several expressed weather / culture preference (mostly on the east-coast-vs-west-coast divide). Many also wanted to be in a place that was affordable for students and conveniently located to their favorite hobbies or recreational activities. While research fit is certainly important, you won’t be productive if you’re miserable—put your happiness and your health first, and make sure that you’ll be happy as both a student on-campus and as a resident of the area.

Prestigious schools attract strong peers, which means you can learn more and collaborate with amazing people.
– Eric Wallace

Several also considered the relative “ranking” of a university or program (though this is almost impossible to objectively evaluate without implicitly considering the other factors). While rankings can tell part of the story, they’re not substitute for your own feelings and intuitions about where you belong.

At some schools, it was very clear who my advisors would be, while at others, it wouldn’t be decided until I’d enrolled. I preferred the former scenario since it involved less uncertainty.
– Lucy Li

It’s also useful to consider the program’s requirements and logistics around advising. Are you guaranteed to be able to work with the advisor(s) you are interested in? Does the department have extensive qualification exams or requirements that might be hindrances to your productivity? Will you have to worry about funding?

Personal feelings actually do matter. If you feel (even slightly) uncomfortable, these negative feelings will grow during the five years.
– Akari Asai

Once you have done an extensive comparison on all parameters (professional and personal), you might be stuck between 2-3 very good options. Try reweighting the parameters and see if the balance shifts towards one end. If you are still confused, don’t worry :) If it’s so confusing, both places are surely very good. You will need to work very hard wherever you go, and you won’t lose much choosing one over the other. Go with your heart.
– Kalpesh Krishna

When it comes to the final decision, everyone agrees to go with your heart and feelings of what seems right to you. We’re all logical and analytical people (perhaps to a fault), but if you can’t make up your mind about where to go / are stuck between several options, pick the one that you feel the best about inside. One way to discern this: Suppose you’re picking between two places (this strategy generalizes to N). Take a coin, and assign one place to heads and another to tails. Tell yourself that the result of the coin flip will be where you end up going. Flip the coin, and observe the result. Are you relieved? Would you have preferred the other side? The answer to these questions might help you better understand how you really feel about the decision.

Whatever you do end up deciding, though, don’t regret it—the decision is done now, and you just have to put in the work to ensure that it is a good one.
– Nelson Liu

Making the most of visit days

I didn’t end up going to most visit days -- which is not something that you should do. Go to every visit day! Talk to the other students visiting, the other students currently pursuing PhDs there and to the faculty there. Keep a list of standard questions about schools (requirements, professors, exams, time taken) and make a note of these for every school so that you have an easy way to compare at decision-making time.
– Roma Patel

Many of our survey respondents recommend making the most of the visit days. Treasure this priceless opportunity to talk to professors (both in and outside of your field), meet PhD students, and get to know the other students in your cohort. As you continue your academic career, you’ll be seeing all of these people around in the future—get to know them now!

Talk to students most of all -- disturb them when they’re working to see what it’s like in the lab!
– Sebastian Mielke

Before each visit, it’s useful to think a bit about what you’d like to get out of it. This might result in a list of questions you’d like to answer, or people that you’d like to talk to. Don’t be afraid to contact PhD students in the department and ask to meet; the majority are happy to do so, and would love to give you advice, hear about what you’re working on, and talk about their research. Talking to students is of the utmost importance; they will tell you what it’s really like in the department, and it’s useful for getting a sense of the overall department culture and graduate student community.

My advisor, in her infinite wisdom, gave me a useful piece of insight that had not struck me before. "What most people don't realise, is that the people that you are meeting and talking to over these visits will likely be in your life, for the rest of your life. Go to as many visits and talk to as many prospective students as you can — some of your closest friends and advisors will come out of these interactions."
– Roma Patel

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Misc. Topics

Residency Programs as Precursors to your PhD

I see a couple benefits of working in AI residency which I did at AI2. 1) if you aren’t sure if you want to do a PhD, this is a pretty good way to find out, and after the residency you will be in a reasonable position to pursue both industrial and PhD positions. 2) You will be exposed to a new set of people, and it is helpful to learn from different ways of doing research 3) I personally changed my research direction towards more NLP and this was a great way to explore different research topics and build up the skills I needed to pursue those topics.
– Kevin Lin

Be really really clear why you’re doing the residency - the reason to do the residency/work is to do something you could not otherwise do at grad school/if you’re not sure about grad school.
– Sidd Karamcheti

It’s really important to consider why you want to do a residency program. As our survey respondents mentioned, there are a few different paths that lead to residencies—foremost among them is if you’re not too sure about wanting to do a PhD, and you want some more research experience (working with a couple of different mentors with possibly different areas/interests than what you were exposed to as an undergraduate) before making a final decision.

Another reason a residency program is a good idea is if you’re sure about doing a PhD, but had limited exposure to different areas as an undergraduate. Especially if you’re considering PhD programs where you’re paired with an advisor/placed in a specific area outright, having a year to explore a bunch of different areas and work with different mentors with different styles will let you make a more informed decision. It’s totally possible that the residency program will introduce you to areas you would never have otherwise considered!

That being said, it’s worth noting that not all residency opportunities are created equal—several different companies are just in their first or second year of offering their residency programs, meaning that they’re subject to growing pains—without structured onboarding/tutorials you might spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to use company infrastructure, or you might spend a lot of time trying to figure out what different folks at the company are working on, and how research works in industry.

More importantly, you need to make sure your residency mentors are committed to the same goals that you are—a mismatch in expectations between you and your residency mentors is going to significantly sour your experience! If you want to explore a bunch of different sub-areas of your chosen research area, make sure your mentor is on board to try a few different projects over the course of the year! If you want to instead work on more long-term projects/existing initiatives at the company, make sure that your host is willing to connect you with these existing teams, and that there’s some structure in place that will let you (1) learn, and (2) contribute.

Finally, don’t feel like you need to do a residency to get the industry experience, or to explore different research areas. There is definitely a large amount of time you can spend exploring different areas in grad school, and you’ll have multiple summers to do internships where you’ll possibly get to work on projects very different from your core research agenda.

FWIW, you will likely intern at a lot of the places during the course of your PhD and will have a similar experience, so if the only reason you are considering a residency is because you think that is an experience you will never get at a later time --- this is likely not true.
– Roma Patel

When submitting my application, I was pretty sure that I would defer for a year if I got an offer---there’s no rush, and the extra year might give me some interesting perspective.
– Nelson Liu

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In Conclusion

If you’ve read this far, we hope that this discussion was useful. The admissions process is inherently stochastic, and there’s much that you can’t control—relax, have confidence in yourself, and goodluck!

Another good advice I received from my friend was “Don’t reject (by?) yourself”. I remember how uneasy and stressful I felt at the time of application, as I did not have strong publication records, and came from non top undergraduate schools in the US. Sometimes people value your unique back-ground, experience in other fields or find really positive signals in the letters of recommendation. Don’t hesitate to apply for good schools, because “I think I’m not good enough”.
– Akari Asai

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