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
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:
- Apply: The only way
of becoming a graduate student is by applying. An application
fee is due.
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
faculty members for viewing
until you have paid the fee. You really should not even
start emailing professors until your application is complete
fee has been paid.
- 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?
requires an enormous amount of self-motivation. The
little secret of graduate education is that the drop
rate hovers around 50% — chances
are very high that you won't make it unless you seriously
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.
- Do Your Homework: Before you email any professor
at any particular university, you should familiarize yourself
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
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
- 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,...
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
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.
will not work in your favor.
- 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
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.
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
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
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
come in without
During the first year, they will then try to find a faculty
advisor with matching interests and in subsequent years
they will be funded
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
— 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
The best way of ensuring that your application will
receive full consideration
is to have your file complete by the deadline.
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,