uci > ics > franz > prospective graduate students

Dear Prospective Graduate Student,

There are many false myths about the graduate admissions process at U.S. universities. This has unfortunate consequences for everyone involved. During the Fall months, I get about 10 emails every day from prospective students who claim that “their research interests match mine.”

Unfortunately, my colleagues often get the identical emails from the exact same students — and that includes faculty colleagues who are in completely different areas.

This “shotgun approach” to sending emails to multiple professors is extremely unproductive. For me, it means that I have to wade through large numbers of “application junk” mails to get to the few genuinely interesting emails from qualified students.

Equally importantly, most of the senders of such “application junk" mails don't understand that it also backfires on them. Admissions at UCI (similar to other major research universities) is made by a committee. Individual faculty members cannot admit students on their own. The committee collects information from the faculty about what applicants they have “been in contact” with. Typically, if prospective students have been emailing different professors in completely different areas, that will work against them and may significantly reduce their chances of admission.

Now, if your goal is a Master's degree, you should not email any professors at all. Master's students do not normally "join a research group." You obtain an M.S. degree to better yourself, and like most universities, we expect you to pay full price for that privilege. Studying for an M.S. degree is very similar to undergraduate study: you attend classes, just that these classes are at a higher level than undergraduate classes. You typically will not see professors outside of the classroom. Occasionally, M.S. students in their second year will get invited by a professor to participate in a research project, which may culminate in a thesis, but typically this applies only to those M.S. students who do so exceptionally well in classes that they get "noticed" by a professor. In some rare instances, the professor may even pay the MS student a salary and/or take over the student's fees. But this is extremely rare and most certainly will not be decided until you have been at the university for a considerable amount of time and have made a personal impression on a faculty member. Most M.S. students do not write a thesis and do not ever participate in any research. As an M.S. student, you should expect to pay your full tuition and your cost of living out of your own pocket.

Conversely, if you are admitted as as Ph.D. student, we typically will pay all of your tuition and fees and even pay you a monthly salary. At present, the Computer Science department at UCI promises to fully support all admitted Ph.D. students as long as they are making "satisfactory progress," with no explicit time limit. That is a promise potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. As a consequence, admission to the Ph.D. program is orders of magnitude more competitive than admission to the M.S. program. Many applicants who are rejected from the Ph.D. program would have been accepted if they had applied for the M.S. program instead. But it is either or, so choose wisely. You may also want to read Doug Comer's very relevant web page “Notes on the Ph.D. Degree”.

If you are interested in applying to the Ph.D. program at UC Irvine (or any other university for that matter), do yourself a favor and take the following pieces of advice from me:

  1. Apply: The only way of becoming a graduate student is by applying. An application fee is due. Every year, there are students who think they can avoid paying the application fee by “sounding out” faculty who might admit them “just like that”. This is discourteous and stupid. In fact, your application is incomplete and won't even be available to faculty members for viewing until you have paid the fee. You really should not even start emailing professors until your application is complete and the fee has been paid.

  2. Be Passionate: Getting a Ph.D. shouldn't only be about immigrating into the United States — yet for many of our applicants, that appears to be the prime motivation. Ask yourself: does the area that I am applying for really interest me sufficiently that I want to be spending 5-6 years working in it, 60-80 hours a week? Successfully completing your Ph.D. requires an enormous amount of self-motivation. The dirty little secret of graduate education is that the drop out rate hovers around 50% — chances are very high that you won't make it unless you seriously love your research subject. The prospect of a better life after graduating is not normally sufficient to pull people through the hardship that graduate school really is.

  3. Do Your Homework: Before you email any professor at any particular university, you should familiarize yourself with that professor's research. At the very least, read the whole web site. Reading a few of the papers doesn't hurt either. And then, if you indeed find one or two professors in the whole United States who really match your interests, only then is it legitimate to write to those one or two professors. And yes, if you are that “rare match” that every professor is looking for, then indeed the professor will run through the necessary exception paperwork that will virtually guarantee your admission. But this is rare, and don't expect any professor doing this for you unless you really are the rare student who completely fits into the existing research group. When in doubt, don't send the email to the professor (see above).

  4. Be Truthful About Your Credentials: Among my faculty colleagues at Irvine there are professors who read and write Chinese, Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Spanish, German, French, Italian, Russian, Romanian, Czek, Arabic, Farsi,... to name just a few languages. Most applicants should safely assume that we will be able to read their foreign documents in the original language, and that we know the relative rankings of most foreign universities in their respective countries. Please don't insult us by claiming that you come from “the best university” in your country when that is clearly not the case, or by claiming that “this document states that I was an Assistant Professor in my country” when we have people who can read the original and know better. Any such misrepresentation will not work in your favor.

  5. It's Not A Game: Believe it or not, we have had letters of reference from non-existing professors in the past, and outright forgeries as well. You should assume that we verify the references of all admitted students, and that we report any discrepancies to the police — both here and in your home country. This is not a game and if you commit a crime in the process of applying, expect to be punished.

Having said all that, I do welcome legitimate questions from prospective graduate students. To answer the most common questions in advance (and repeating the most important one on funding):

  • Funding: As in most research universities, virtually all of our Ph.D. students are fully funded, meaning they get a monthly salary or stipend and their tuition and fees are fully paid. Our M.S. students are not funded. If you do bring your own funding (for example, by having a national stipend from your home country), your chances of admission will be higher — but you cannot buy your way in: we won't admit students who don't meet the admissions criteria even if they promise to build us a new building. Do not send email to professors asking “if they have funding available” — funding decisions for new applicants are made by the same committee that also does admissions. If you are admitted without funding (e.g., as an M.S. student), this means that a deliberate decision not to fund you has been made — so sending emails to individual professors at this point is pretty useless but will make you notorious before you even get here.

  • Advisor: Typically, incoming students will get an offer for a teaching assistantship for their first year and they will come in without an advisor. During the first year, they will then try to find a faculty advisor with matching interests and in subsequent years they will be funded on research assistantships. If you are a good student, then the faculty will be competing for you as their student. If you are a bad student, then you will have trouble finding an advisor and you might even be asked to leave if you don't find one. The case where an incoming student already has an advisor is the exception, but it also happens — this is usually only the case if a “close match” has been determined in advance (see above).

  • Admissions: Our admissions are extremely competitive. Every year, we have to turn away hundreds of highly qualified applicants. The best way of ensuring that your application will receive full consideration is to have your file complete by the deadline.

If, after reading all of this, you still want to get in contact, please send me an email and mention the code word “Hogwarts 2.0” in your subject line. If you omit this keyword, I will assume that you haven't read this page and that your email is “application spam” — and I will report you to our admissions committee as an “application spammer”.

Good luck with your application,
Michael Franz

last update: 15th September 2015 - franz@uci.edu