A Message for Prospective Graduate Students

by Steve LaValle


This message is intended primarily for students who are applying to graduate school, or are starting graduate school, and are considering working in my research group. For students who are already here, you can sign up for an advanced course or reading group that I am organizing. Other possibilities are even dropping by and talking with me, or sending e-mail to set up a visit. First, however, please read this message, especially before trying to visit.

Thanks for your interest: First of all, I would like to thank you for taking the time to look at my web pages. I appreciate your interest in my research and in the activities of our group. Due to increasing internet connectivity and a large interest in my research area, I receive an overwhelming number of e-mail messages from prospective students. Unfortunately, there are too many messages for me to give a response to each one. I regret that I cannot reply to messages that are so important to the people who send them. For this reason, I have decided to write this message to help give some useful information to you.

Learn about what we do: If you believe that my research area might potentially be interesting to you, please look carefully at my web pages to learn about our research. You might even want to try downloading some of our papers (if you are unable, please let me know). In general, I am more likely to reply to a student who has taken the time to get some idea of what my research involves, especially if they can explain why they would be well-suited to make contributions in our research group.

No "openings" in the usual sense: Many students appear to be sending a form letter to a large number of faculty without mentioning of any research activities that are particular to a research group. In this case, I usually discard the message. Even if the message is personalized, many seem to send resume-style information in hopes that my research group has "openings" to fill in the sense of a typical job. For some research groups, this might be true; however, I usally do not operate this way. I usually do not offer funding directly to students before I have been able to get to know them. Thus, it is highly unlikely (although it happens once in a while to an exceptional student) that I would offer a research assistantship before getting to know a student well. I prefer that students take a course or two from me, and that they have a chance to spend some time here. After a semester or two, they can refine their interests and determine whether my research area would be most exciting to them. I could also have the opportunity to determine whether we are a suitable match in terms of technical background, motivation, personality, etc.

GREs are worthless: With regard to sending resume-style information, it is useless to report GRE scores to me; they are not a factor in any of my decisions (general motivation for this can be found by reading The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould). I am less likely to respond to a message that contains GRE scores.

My goals for students: I am very excited about the possibilty of working with exceptional M.S./Ph.D. students. I intend to give strong personal guidance that will maximize their chances of building a rewarding and enjoyable career in research. Important goals that I have for students are: 1) the identification of fundamental research problems by developing a thorough understanding of current literature; 2) the development of a strong technical background that enables the proposal of independent and innovative solutions to challenging problems; 3) the presentation and publication of research in the most prestigious journals and conferences; 4) the development of personal communication and presentation skills that are needed to maximize visibility in the research community, and increase chances of future success. If you find this emphasis and my research area appealing, I believe our group could provide you with a vibrant and exciting educational experience.

How to possibly squeeze in: Admissions to Carnegie Mellon are based on merit, and teaching assistantships or fellowships are usually awarded to the admitted students. I would suggest contacting a professor whose research interests really match yours, as opposed to a blanket mass-emailed statement. I will ignore those. Also, try to apply for fellowships so that you can be self-funded; in this way, you can come to graduate school, and then spend time trying to find the right research group. At present, my research group is pretty much full; however, I am sometimes willing to make an exception. The ordinary path into my group is to become a graduate student here and then take an upper-level course from me. If there is strong mutual interest between me and a student, chances are good she or he can start working in my group.

In any case, good luck with your prospective graduate studies.

Best wishes,

Howie Choset (and Steve LaValle, from whom I copied almost all of this)