Advice for Applicants

Advice for applicants to PhD programs in Computer Science

Some of the most popular questions to pop up in my inbox are whether we’re taking new students, whether we have internships available, or whether I can admit you to the PhD program. If any of these questions are on your mind, here’s some advice and insight into the process.

Graduate Admissions

First of all, I don’t control who is admitted to the PhD program. There’s a committee that decides these things, and in any given year odds are I’m not on it. Even if I am, the decision isn’t up to me – it’s up to the committee.

Email Campaigns Don’t Help

Sending formulaic mass emails – i.e., spam – is almost certain to hurt your chances of being admitted to the program. Why?

  • I receive many of these inquiries, the volume of which I can’t possibly respond to. But, by cluttering my inbox it makes it more difficult to deal with other email. This is, as you might imagine, frustrating.
  • I typically don’t have the power to do what is requested anyway – see above.
  • After the 10th message asking whether there are any RA spots available in Prof. X’s esteemed research group at Y University where X != me or Y != Northeastern, things start to get really old.

At best, you’re going to get ignored. At worst, if your name comes up in an admissions meeting and it turns out you’re a spammer, nice things will not be said.


So, how do people get into the PhD program and join our research group? The best way is to apply through the normal route with an application that shows you’re capable of doing novel research. That could be by having worked on and published an interesting undergraduate or master’s project. Or, it could be by talking about some intriguing research ideas. However you choose to do it, the key is that there is some demonstrated potential for generating new knowledge and communicating it to the wider academic research community as part of a PhD.

However, even if the above applies to you, it might be the case that we won’t admit you to our group. Sometimes research interests don’t align, in which case you’re probably not going to be as productive as you could be. Or, we might simply not have available funding – we take student support seriously, and if we can’t commit to supporting a student for the duration of their PhD, we don’t. If the research fit isn’t good or the funding isn’t there, then not working together really is in both of our interests.


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