Ph.D. Application Tips

Last update: 2023.1.25

The purpose of the article is to provide information regarding Ph.D. application from the perspective of an international applicant. The article is structured in accordance with application timeline.

Do research

Generally speaking, Ph.D. applicants should have research experiences prior to their applications. For applicants, it is important to find out what doing research means to themselves:

  • Do they like reading previous works and doing summary?
  • Are they having fun talking with experienced researchers?
  • How do they feel when facing challenges and obstacles?
  • Are they capable of learning things by themselves?

Typically, pursuing a CS Ph.D. is a 5-year commitment. The applicants should make that decision very carefully. For universities, the research experience and its outcome, i.e., published papers, indicate the possibility that the applicant will succeed in the future.

Applicants should first decide the research domain to start the research journey. They can pick whatever they are interested or simply the hottest topics. But make sure that there are researchers working on that selected domain and they are available to advise the applicants. It is very important to learn from professionals at the beginning.

Applicants may have serveral choices when deciding their research advisor. In my opinion, advising style, labmates relationship, and research outcome are three worth-considering factors. Applicants can ask senior students to learn more about their advisors.

If applicants feel like not digging deep into one domain before application, it is okay to give themselves a bit more time. Applicants could pursue a research Master degree (like me) or be a research assistant in the lab.

Application Materials

The purpose of the application materials is to convince committee/professor of your research passion and ability. The materials should be related to the research experience as much as possible.

Select Schools

Remember application deadline of different programs. Typically, applicants should submit applications in December for next year’s admission. Note the required materials could vary among programs and schools. In CS area, applicants can learn about the publication-based school ranking at CSRankings and CS Open Rankings (Also CS Stipend Rankings).

Test Score

In most cases, international applicants can use TOEFL iBT to prove English proficiency. Check out minimal-score requirements. Many programs no longer need GRE. Again, this depends on programs and schools.

Recommendation Letter

Recommendation letter introduces applicants’ research strengths, achievements, and chances of future success from the perspective of applicants’ previous research advisors. The letters should focus on research experience instead of academic performance or course works (as they are revealed by GPA). Remeber to leave enough time (e.g., one month) for writers to compose letters.

Ideally, the letter writers are active in research and familiar to the professors of interest in the applied schools. Applicants usually need to submit 3 letters. So grab every research opportunity to get more connections. Remember to keep active and positive communications with the writers.

Statement of Purpose

In general, SoP should include:

  • What applicants have achieved in their past research?
  • What specific research topics they are interested in?
  • What faculty they want to work with?
  • In which way the applied school satisfies the applicants needs?
  • What are the applicant’s occupational goal with Ph.D. degree?

It is a good strategy that applicants tell the difficulties/failures in their research path and how they finally overcame them, as most SoP only writes applicants’ success. In cases that applicants fell short in certain aspects (e.g., low GPA in a course), explanations (like busy researching) would be helpful. Many programs have instructions to write a good SoP, e.g., suggestions from MIT EECS.


Some programs give interviews before admission while some not. Ph.D. interviewers generally ask two types of questions:

  • What are the applicants’ research projects?
  • Why is the applicant a good fit to the program?

To answer the first type, just elaborate on the project, e.g., what problem it solves, motivations, challenges, contributions, and solutions. In terms of the second type, interviewers will ask a list of specific questions, e.g., why do you want pursue Ph.D., what are your (dis)advantages, and what is your preferred lifestyle. Prepare in advance. Here is someone’s interview experience. In some cases, interviewers ask technical questions to evaluate applicants background.

Applicants can usually ask interviewers a few questions. The following questions might be helpful:

  • What is your ongoing research project?
  • What is your advising style?
  • Do you have any advice for first-year Ph.D. students?
  • How are Ph.D. students typically funded?
  • What is the possibility that I will be admitted?
  • What percentage of the interviewed students will be finally admitted?

Some applicants prepare slides for interviews. I prefer not. Make eye contact with the interviewers. Pause and give interviewers time to think. Let interviewers ask questions. When the interview is completed, give positive feedback via emails.

Useful Links

  • Admission timelines for some universities and programs: link
  • UC Berkeley admission procedure: link
  • Worth-noting things from former CMU CS Ph.D. admission committee chair: link
  • Resources for Ph.D. applications: Alicia Y. Tsai’s blog, Chris (Yuhao) Liu’s blog, Jialin Lu’s repo

Good luck!

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