Advice for applicants to graduate programs in Computer Science.

Since becoming a faculty member, one of the most popular questions to pop up in my email inbox concerns whether I’m taking new students, whether I have internships available, or whether I can admit you to a CCIS graduate program at Northeastern. If you’re wondering what kinds of strategies might be effective in furthering your goals along these lines, please read on for my advice.

Graduate Admissions

As background for those of you that are not Northeastern students, let me explain how graduate admissions works in the college. Many people ask whether I can unilaterally hire them into our research group, or into the M.S. or Ph.D. program at large.

Unfortunately, admissions doesn’t work this way.

Instead, there are committees for each of the degree-granting programs here in CCIS – e.g., one for the Ph.D. in Computer Science, one for the Ph.D. in Information Assurance, etc. These committees are responsible for, among other things, evaluating applications and making offers to potential students. As an individual faculty member, I don’t have the power to instruct an admissions committee to accept particular students.

Email Campaigns Do Not Help

A consequence of this fact is that mass email campaigns conducted by aspiring students are not effective in furthering your goals, and will almost always hurt your chances of joining the department.

Put more bluntly, DO NOT SPAM. Why?

  1. It’s easy to spot when you’re using an email template. For instance, often I’m informed that I’m actually working at Brown, or am actually researching underwater sensor networks (both are real examples). Even without obvious mistakes, the layout and language are invariably almost identical from campaign to campaign. And, our faculty does talk to one another, so if you spam the entire department, we do pick up on that.
  2. We generally don’t have the power to do what you’re asking of us.
  3. We literally receive hundreds of these emails during the hiring season.
  4. Because of the impersonality, the mistakes, and the inability for us to respond in a meaningful way, we tend to perceive these emails as a waste of our time. This does not help you.

At best, all you are going to get for your troubles is a one-line response along the lines of:

Thanks for your interest, but unfortunately I can’t (admit|hire) you. Best of luck in your search. Annoyed Professor

At worst, if we are asked about your application because you reference us as a contact, because you spammed us, we probably won’t have very nice things to say.

Strategies that Work

You might be asking yourself, “Well, if mass mailing is not the answer, how can I increase my chances of getting accepted to the program?”

The answer is two-fold. First, you want to demonstrate the ability to perform novel research. As researchers, we are incentivized to admit students and hire research assistants that are able to function as researchers. There are many variables that contribute to this, but good indicators include having published research papers in respectable venues, writing and maintaining interesting software that relates to our research, or having worked in a security research group. In all cases, novelty is highly valued.

Second, academia is reputation-based in many respects. Therefore, applying with good recommendations is key to having your application noticed. A letter from someone who knows you well that advocates on your behalf in a convincing and eloquent way is a powerful addition to your application packet.

Joining our Research Group

For those of you that are already part of the program – whether graduate or otherwise – we might be looking for students. Feel free to drop by or email us about your interests!

Sometimes, however, we might decide not to hire a student. This can happen when we don’t currently have space, when all of our RA funding is currently allocated, or when our research interests don’t happen to align. Please understand that we take student hiring quite seriously. If we can’t realistically support you through the completion of your degree, whether financially or academically, it would be irresponsible for us to take you on. So, please don’t take it personally if we decide that we won’t hire you; it’s usually in both of our interests.


Thanks are due to Doug Tygar for his applicants FAQ, which greatly inspired this document.