Rylan Schaeffer

Kernel Papers

10 August 2021

Advice on PhD Applications

by Rylan Schaeffer

By now, I’ve been asked for advice on applying to PhD programs a sufficient number of times that I can justify writing down my advice. As a disclaimer, I applied to PhD programs 3 times Fall 2018: Princeton Neuroscience; Fall 2020: Oxford Computer Science, Oxford Experimental Psychology; Fall 2021: Stanford Computer Science, MIT BCS, MIT EECS, Berkeley EECS, Princeton CS, Harvard Applied Math, UCLA CS) and was only ever accepted into Stanford CS and MIT BCS, so clearly I wasn’t the strongest candidate.

My advice:

  1. Have a professor on the inside who wants you badly. That’s how I got into Stanford CS and MIT BCS. I strongly doubt I would’ve gotten in otherwise. At least two other friends got into Stanford Physics and MIT Physics on the same basis.

  2. Publish before applying. Publish in high impact venues, prolifically.

  3. Apply broadly. The process is high variance.

  4. Email professors in advance (around, say, August or September) to put yourself on their radar.

  5. Optional: This isn’t always applicable, but enthusiasm and relevant in your personal statement may play a significant role. The only places that accepted me were my top choices, and I think that’s partially because I was a good fit. For instance, when I emailed Noah Goodman, I told him that his ICLR 2019 talk was hands-down the best talk I attended at the conference and I knew what I wanted to work on with him and so on. In contrast, when I applied to Berkeley, I had no one I was excited to work with and my personal statement felt weak.

tags: graduate-school