Inquiries About Graduate Admission

Last revised December 7, 2017

In the fall of each year I get a lot of inquiries from people who want to gain admission to one of the graduate programs (masterís or Ph.D.) in Carnegie Mellon Universityís School of Computer Science (SCS).Some of these inquiries are just form letters, apparently broadcast to hundreds of faculty members at many different schools; others show some familiarity with my current research.Usually these are accompanied by some sort of resume, and often the students look very good.Sometimes the students request some estimate of their chances for admission or want me to advise them on what additional preparation they need.

We do want to encourage the best students in the world to apply and ultimately to come to CMU.†† Unfortunately, the number of such inquiries makes it impossible for me to give a thoughtful, individual answer to each of them.So here is a composite answer, addressing most of the questions that students have raised.

1.     In our system in SCS, admission to our various graduate programs is handled by an admissions committee in each department, not by individual faculty.Faculty do make known to the committee(s) how many new students we would like to take on in the coming year, the general areas in which we want students, and how we plan to fund any students we do take on.We may write a recommendation letter for student applicants that we actually know from personal contact, but until all admissions materials have been received, that is the extent of our input on individual students.After the materials are all in hand, then we may review the relevant folders and indicate which students we would most like for our own projects.

2.     So, unless you personally know a faculty member, it does you no good to contact CMU faculty directly to lobby for your case.It especially does you no good to send a generic form letter saying that youíre interested in something like ďAI, theory, robotics, and graphicsĒ.Just apply to the SCS programs of your choice and try to write a good statement of purpose, indicating clearly your interests, skills, and experience.

3.     Iím not in a position to comment on your chances for admission to one of our grad programs until we have received the complete application package, including recommendation letters.

4.     The admissions committees want to answer two basic questions:(1) Can this person pass our graduate courses without a lot of drama?For that, we look at past grades and test scores, and perhaps take into account any mitigating circumstances.And (2) is there clear evidence that this person can do good research, and not just get good grades in courses?For that we look at publications, previous experience in research projects (at school, as a summer intern, or whatever), and the recommendations.Most of our applicants do well on the first question, so the second one is far more important in deciding who we actually accept.

5.     If, before applying, you have the opportunity to work on some sort of research project in your university or in industry, it is a good idea to seize that opportunity and to make the most of it.If you can work with a well-known researcher, that makes it easier for us to evaluate any recommendation they might write.

6.     Another important factor in admissions, for students whose native language is not English, is whether we are confident that your command of written and spoken English is sufficient to allow you to function in our courses and research projects, and ultimately to write and present good papers.Weíve had bad experiences with students whose TOEFL scores were weak and who quickly failed in our programs after we admitted them. Unless your TOEFL scores are excellent, I would strongly suggest that you provide the video requested in our application materials, and that you try to speak spontaneously on the video Ė not reading or reciting a statement from memory.That can provide some evidence that you can speak English well enough to succeed in our program.In some cases, we may try to have a phone or Skype conversation with the applicant if they look very good, but weíre not sure about the English.

7.     If you come from a little-known school or donít have a very solid CS background, you might consider trying to get into a good but less-selective school to take additional courses and do some research, and perhaps to get a masterís degree.Then apply to CMU for a Ph.D. or a second masterís program (which often can lead to Ph.D. admission later).Itís a longer path, but many have been successful in following it.Another path is to gain some experience in industry before applying.

8.     Students who indicate some flexibility and a reasonably broad range of interests will have a better chance of admission that students for whom there is only one plausible advisor.If that advisor doesnít have funding the year you apply, or prefers some other applicants, then weíre unlikely to admit you, since you would have nobody to work with.So if that flexibility is there, do describe it in your statement of purpose.But donít stretch the truth too much Ė itís not good for you or for us if we admit you and then you canít find an advisor whose work interests you.

About working with me as a grad student:

1.     Iím a Professor Emeritus now, meaning formally retired, but I still am working hard on AI research, and I still am able to advise grad students. The primary reason I requested this change in status is that I now want to focus on doing the research that I think is most important, and not on whatever topics happen to be most fundable right now.

2.     My work is now mostly in the area of symbolic knowledge representation and its applications, particularly knowledge-based planning and knowledge-based natural language understanding.

3.     I have also begun looking again at some old ideas I had for building faster-learning deep neural nets, but this is preliminary work.I am not yet ready to start building up a research group in this area or to take on new grad students.

4.     I am interested in taking on a few new graduate students to work on knowledge-based AI (Scone and related work). I have time and attention for a few additional students, and lots of good project ideas. However, as of today, I am not sure whether I will have any funded slots for new students in the next academic year.

5.     I am most closely associated with the Language Technologies Institute and the Computer Science Department, so if you want to work with me, it would make the most sense to apply to one of the programs in those departments.However, it is allowed for students in any graduate program to be advised by any faculty member in SCS, so I could in theory advise and support a student in some other department.The choice of department should probably be governed by which set of course requirements makes the most sense for you and your goals.

6.     Even if I do get funding for one or two new students, I expect that there will be some strong competition for these positions, both from newly entering students and from some students already here.So unless you have a solid background in AI and knowledge representation and can implement your ideas, it is unlikely that you would be invited to join our group.I also put a high value on excellent communication skills in English.

7.     If you have some external source of funding Ė a fellowship, government funding from your country, or personal/family money Ė the odds for you are much better, since you would not be competing with many others for an existing (or non-existent) funding slot.

So, good luck in finding the best program for you.And if it makes sense, donít be afraid to apply to one or more of our graduate programs at Carnegie Mellon to see what happens.