As you approach the end of your undergraduate degree program, you may face the tough decision between entering the work force and continuing on to graduate school. While you may already have a good idea about what employment entails, the prospect of pursuing graduate school can feel uncertain and even overwhelming. The following information will provide a better understanding of how you prepare to apply, what the application process is like, and factors to consider in making your choice.
Please note: UW CSE majors who are interested in applying to our Combined B.S/M.S. program should review information on that site; this site is geared toward students applying to graduate programs outside of our department.
CSE holds panels and workshops for students considering graduate school who are in the midst of the application process; stay tuned for details on these events each academic year. If you have general grad school questions after reading these pages, contact our CSE Ph.D. program advisor, Elise Dorough, or our PMP advisor, Kate Gayle.
Preparing to Apply
- Common misconceptions about graduate school
- What happens in graduate school?
- General timeline for applications
- Participating in undergraduate research!
- Choosing schools
- Funding opportunities
The Application Process
- Organizing your application materials
- Taking the GRE
- Writing your Statement of Purpose
- Obtaining letters of recommendation
Preparing to Apply
Common Misconceptions about Ph.D. Programs
Before describing what a Ph.D. program entails, let’s clear up three common misconceptions about graduate education.
- Graduate student means several more years of coursework in order to earn your degree. Not true. At most schools, you take courses the first year or two, but the primary focus in a Ph.D. program is research. Some programs don't even have coursework as a requirement.
- You must earn a master's degree before applying to pursue a Ph.D. Most often not the case. Many programs admit directly into the Ph.D. program, and students complete a master's along the way.
- Going to grad school will impose a big financial burden. Most often not the case. While many schools do not offer support to students in a master's-only program, most financially support their Ph.D. students.
What Happens in Graduate School?
This section provides a sense of what to expect in a Ph.D. program in the United States. We offer some information about a master's-only program for comparison.
Graduate programs outside the U.S. may have different requirements you should be aware of if you hope to study abroad. Further, be prepared to receive strong encouragement from UW faculty to pursue a graduate education at another institution. Graduate study is a time to enrich your learning in computer science and engineering, and each school offers a different approach to research in these fields. By attending different schools for undergrad and grad, you will best prepare yourself to become an independent researcher.
On average, a Ph.D. takes 5-6 years to complete and generally consists of three phases: (1) getting a broader view of computer science, (2) obtaining an in-depth background in a specific area, and (3) conducting original research in order to write a dissertation. Departments have various ways of organizing this; we'll use the UW CSE program as an example.
- Phase 1: One to two years; culminates in qualifying exams and master’s degree. You explore the broad scope of computer science by taking classes to show mastery in different areas. Simultaneously, you work on developing a guided research project with your faculty advisor. This is an opportunity for you to get your feet wet in research. When the project is complete, you must pass the “Quals” (qualifying evaluation) by: (1) writing a paper (of about 10 pages), and (2) giving a short presentation (of about 30 minutes) about your work to your advisor, another faculty member, and interested others. Faculty then discusses whether you have passed Quals and earned your master's degree. Although the formats may differ, most Ph.D. programs have a qualifying evaluation that includes comprehensive coursework and exams.
- Phase 2: Two to three years; culminates in General Exam that enables you to proceed to dissertation writing. In this phase, you obtain additional background in your specific area of research through an in-depth study of a current problem as defined by you and your faculty advisor. This project prepares you to take the General Exam, which measures your ability to analyze and synthesize research. In the General exam, you submit a written report on the problem to your Ph.D. supervisory committee and make a public presentation on your work. Alternately, you may read several papers on an area and then pass an oral exam. At this point, you are ready to move on to an independent research project of your own. Most frequently, the General Exam incorporates a dissertation proposal.
- Phase 3: One or two years; culminates in dissertation defense and Ph.D. degree. The final hurdle is writing your dissertation. You will spend your final years on independent research and writing your dissertation. To earn the Ph.D., your supervisory committee must accept your dissertation and you must then present and defend your dissertation in a public presentation as your final exam.
There are many types of master's programs (e.g., master's en route to a Ph.D. or a master’s only for pure professional development). Investigate to determine which best fits your goals.
An example of a master's-only degree program is the CSE Professional Master's Program (PMP). A part-time, evening program, PMP targets professionals who want to pursue a master's degree while continuing full-time employment in the local software industry.
While CSE instructors teach courses for both Ph.D. and PMP students, the PMP emphasis is on teachers bringing their research into the classroom so students can apply it to their work projects and products. In contrast, the Ph.D. program seeks to provide enough breadth and depth to allow students to join faculty in research and ultimately follow in their footsteps if they so choose. It is assumed that PMP students, who are mostly Software Developers and Software Engineers, will continue on their technical paths.
PMP students fund their own education or receive tuition assistance from their employers. You may find this program an ideal option after working in the field for at least two years after graduation.
General Timeline for Applications
The timeline below is a general calendar to identify the steps you must take before applying to a Ph.D. program. Each item on the timeline is described in further detail in the various sections on this page.
- Junior year: become involved in research; start looking at schools that interest you; attend graduate school info events
- Summer/early autumn after junior year: sign-up and take the GRE; prepare fellowship applications
- Beginning of autumn senior year: ask faculty to write letters of recommendation; prepare resume; fill out application forms; write statement of purpose
- End of autumn quarter senior year: request transcripts to be sent to schools; submit fellowship applications
- December to early January: application deadlines (will vary by school)
- February/March: visit schools
- April 15th: acceptance of offers with financial assistance due
Participating in Undergrad Research!
Participating in a research project as an undergraduate is critical for your graduate application. Not only does research help prepare you for graduate school and decide if it is right for you, it also provides the opportunity to develop relationships with faculty who you will later ask to write letters of recommendation.
Applications for graduate programs are typically due in December or January for the following autumn, so waiting until fall term of your senior year to start a research project is too late. Allow enough time to become an active participant in a project and work closely with a faculty member. The best time to start a project is during spring or summer of your junior year; you will then have a quarter or two of research completed by the time you apply for graduate school. Of course, you should get involved with research even earlier if you have the opportunity.
Undergraduates in CSE seek out research projects in various ways.
- Occasionally, faculty posts opportunities to the news blog, but you will need to be proactive.
- Check out the departmental research page.
- Talk with faculty and grad TAs who taught courses that you particularly enjoyed.
- Attend an ACM Research Night.
- Solicit advice from peers working in your area of interest who may know of ways for you to get involved.
- Review the undergraduate research site to understand the steps involved in registering for research credits.
Active participation in the classroom is another important way to establish connections with faculty. Since you will need at least three letters of recommendation (and you probably won't work with three different faculty members on research), your performance in the classroom and on assignments gives instructors a better sense of who you are and what you are capable of accomplishing. Utilize office hours--not only when you're having trouble in the class but when things are going well--to establish connections with faculty. Remember that professors will write even stronger letters if they have more to say about you than the grade you received in their class.
Choosing graduate schools can be a daunting process. Since application fees range from $50-$100, you'll want to make informed decisions on where to apply. Factors to consider are:
- Research in areas that interest you
- Size and reputation of school and, more importantly, the department
- Job prospects when you complete your course of study
Plan to spend a significant amount of time looking at different schools. Initially, you may wish to gather general information, using resources such as:
Peterson's Education Center
U.S. News & World Report
Talk to others who have been through this before, i.e., faculty and current grad students. This will help narrow your focus to a range of schools. Students often choose one or two ‘safety’ schools (likelihood of acceptance is strong), a few that are reasonable (you'll probably be admitted to one or more of these), and a few ‘reach’ schools (acceptance less likely, but you want to give it shot anyway). A faculty member familiar with the programs at other schools can give you a realistic perspective on your best chances for acceptance.
Funding for graduate students typically covers tuition, a monthly stipend, and health benefits. Students in computer science Ph.D. programs are usually guaranteed funding for the first 1-3 years in the program. However, active graduate students making reasonable progress toward their degrees are almost always funded throughout their entire graduate education.
Financial support can come in the form of teaching or research assistantships, departmental fellowships, external fellowships, or some combination of these. The benefit of a fellowship is that you do not have to work as a TA or RA to receive this money. Fellowships give students the freedom to select any research project that interests them, rather than being limited to projects where funding is available.
External fellowship applications are usually due before graduate school applications, so it's important to start working on these early as well. This web page has a list of fellowships available to graduate students. Please note that while some awards are for current Ph.D. students only, there are awards, such as the NSF, for pursing graduate study.
The Application Process
Organizing your Application Materials
Most schools have online applications but know that some schools have specific requirements for the way materials are submitted.
In general, your application will include:
- Application form(s)
- Statement of Purpose
- GRE scores (General and possibly Subject test)
- Three (or more) letters of recommendation
- Curriculum Vitae/Resume
- Additional materials for international students (scores for TOEFL, TSE, etc.)
Since most application deadlines are in mid-December, you will want to make sure you have any hardcopy materials ready to submit by the end of autumn quarter.
Taking the GRE
Most schools require scores for the general GRE exam; the CS Subject Test may only be recommended or not required at all. Information on test dates and test center locations for both the General and Subject GRE can be found on the GRE site. The computer-based GRE is offered year-round at various locations, and scheduling to take the exam is usually not difficult. However, the GRE Subject Test has very limited offerings, so be aware of the available times.
Writing the Statement of Purpose
Writing the statement of purpose can be a time-consuming process, and you may need to write several drafts before your statement is finished. Carefully review information about what the school is looking for and cover those topics in your statement. In general, admissions committees are interested in hearing why you want to attend their particular graduate school, what area(s) of research interest you, and what you have accomplished that demonstrates your interest in research. If there are no guidelines on the length of the statement, make your document no longer than two pages of double-spaced text.
It's important to have people read your essay and provide feedback. While faculty and current graduate students are excellent resources, so are other seniors. Read and provide feedback on each other’s statements.
Obtaining Letters of Recommendation
Since your primary focus in a Ph.D. program is research, your strongest letters will be from faculty you have worked with on research within computer science. Letters from well-known faculty will be especially effective. Do not wait until the last minute to ask faculty to write you a letter. Most schools have an online submission request for letters, so you'll want to make sure your recommenders are ready and expecting this.
You can help your recommenders prepare by providing them with your:
- Updated transcript
- Resume/Curriculum Vitae
- Statement of Purpose
- List of work done with the professor (courses, projects, etc.)
Take the extra time to make it easy for professors to write you a recommendation. That way, they can spend their time saying good things about you!
Understanding the Notification Process
Schools will typically notify students of their acceptance by a faculty telephone call, email, and/or postal mail. How and when you will receive notification will vary depending on the school. Expect to hear anytime between early February and mid-March.
Many, if not all, of the schools you are admitted to will invite you to visit the department. Visit days are a recruitment opportunity for the schools and an opportunity for you to get a taste of what graduate school will be like at different institutions. In most cases, a school will pay all or part of the costs for you to visit for a day or two. Planned activities include research presentations and demos, meetings with faculty, activities with graduate students, and time for you to hang out and explore the area. This is your chance to assess the best place for graduate study and for your lifestyle.
Making Your Decision
The deadline to accept offers of admission with financial assistance is April 15th. If you wait to accept an offer after that date, it's possible that you will lose your funding. However, do not feel pressured to make a decision before April 15th! Take as much time as you need before the deadline to consider your options. Don't be afraid to ask lots of questions of faculty, staff, or graduate students to help you in this process. Since more than one school may meet your research and academic interests, other factors to consider are the community and environment within a department and the city/area where you'll be living (remember, you'll be there for 5-6 years). Keep in mind that there is probably more than one school that will be a good fit for you, so try not to think of the decision in terms of right or wrong.
Helpful Links & Resources
CRA website resource - lots of helpful information here!
"Why Choose a Ph.D. in CS?" (slide show)
Graduate School Information Guide [PDF]
Justine Sherry's Advice on Applying to Computer Science Grad School (for UWCSE students) [PDF] Books (CSE undergraduate advisors have a limited number of copies for loan)
- The Ph.D. Process: A Student's Guide to Graduate School in the Sciences by Dale F. Bloom
- A Ph.D. Is Not Enough: A Guide to Survival in Science by Peter J. Feibelman
- Tomorrow's Professor: Preparing for Careers in Science and Engineering by Richard M. Reis
- Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. by Robert Peters
- Applying to Ph.D. Program in Computer Science by Mor Harchol-Balter