ezyang’s blog

the arc of software bends towards understanding

Grad School, Oh My

It still feels a little strange how this happened. Not a year ago, I was pretty sure I was going to do the Masters of Engineering program at MIT, to make up for a “missed year” that was spent abroad (four years at MIT plus one at Cambridge, not a bad deal.)

But a combination of conversations with various researchers whom I greatly respect, nagging from my Dad, and an inability to really figure out who I would actually do my Master’s thesis under while at MIT meant that at some point about a month and a half ago, I decided to go for the graduate school admissions cycle this fall. Oh my. It feels like undergraduate admissions all over again (which was not really a pleasant experience), though this time around, what I need to write is the “Research Statement.”

One of the reasons I blogged recently about Mendeley was because I was hoping that Mendeley would give me some insights about the kinds of papers I found interesting, and would let me easily figure out the affiliations of those researchers. (Oops, not quite there yet.) Actually, a conversation with Simon Marlow was much more fruitful: I’m currently actively looking into Ramsey (Tufts), Morrisett (Harvard), Harper (CMU), Pierce/Weirich (UPenn) and Mazieres (Stanford). Of course, I can’t help but think that I’ve missed some key players around topics that I regularly discuss on my blog, so if any of you have some ideas, please do shout out.

The process (well, what little of it I’ve started) has been quite bipolar. I frequently switch between thinking, “Oh, look at this grad student, he didn’t start having any publications till he started grad school—so I’m OK for not having any either” to “Wow, this person had multiple papers out while an undergraduate, solved multiple open problems with his thesis, and won an NSF fellowship—what am I supposed to do!” I’m still uncertain as to whether or not I’m cut out to do research—it’s certainly not for everyone. But I do know I greatly enjoyed the two times I worked at industrial research shops, and I do know that I love teaching, and I definitely know I do not want a conventional industry job. Grad school it is.

7 Responses to “Grad School, Oh My”

  1. Bryan O'Sullivan says:

    You could do far worse than Norman, Benjamin, or Greg, to be sure. My biases would tip me towards David, not surprisingly: the Bay Area is awesome, David’s work is exciting and cross-disciplinary in a realistic way, and since he’s younger and less established than the others, you’re more likely to have an exciting time and to be able to find unconventional outlets for your enthusiasms.

  2. wren ng thornton says:

    One key player who plays well with those you’ve mentioned is Amal Ahmed here at IU. I can vouch for her awesomeness as a teacher as well as researcher. You should definitely check out her work if you’re interested in Morrisett and Weirich. Like David, she’s younger and so open to unconventional things; but she’s also well established in the field, which is very important when looking at younger advisors. (Not to suggest that David isn’t, just, it’s something to beware of when looking at younger advisors.)

    Other folks here you may be interested in are Larry Moss (e.g., cf. Vicious Circles), Amr Sabry, and of course there are the Schemers (Dan Friedman, Kent Dybvig,…) if you’re interested in untyped stuff. I’m not actually in the CS department here, so I can’t speak to the bureaucratic side of the department; but I have friends who are, and I can send them your email if you like.

    Other folks you might be interested in checking out are Tim Sheard, Mark Jones, and Andrew Tolmach, all at PSU. Another thing PSU has going for it is the CAT: by far the best organized IT support I’ve seen in academia, and also an excellent place to get hands-on experience and learn all the computer science they don’t teach you in academia. I was in the department there so I can field questions about the bureaucratic side of things (as of ~4years ago), and I have some friends currently there if you want more recent info.

  3. […] Z. Yang recently wrote about applying to grad schools. This paragraph caught my attention: … I frequently switch between thinking, “Oh, look at […]

  4. Edward Amsden says:

    Hey I’m about to do the same thing, and looking at studying with some of the same people/at the same schools.

  5. Justin Bailey says:

    Plus 1 for PSU. The professors mentioned are all well known in the functional language community. I have been there four years (post time) and it has been a mind blowing experience. Feel free to email for more. JustinB@cs.pdx.edu.

  6. Thomas says:

    How about doing something completely different? It’s probably not really feasible if you have to write a research statement. I can only speak for myself, but I feel that a topic gets boring after one or two years. That does not find I’m suddenly not interested in it anymore, but it just means that I will gravitate towards other (maybe somehow connected) topics. For instance: I’m interested in verification, logic, type theory and related foundational issues as well as functional programming. In the past I’ve been working on purely sequential problems. Now I’m switching to concurency and will be looking at other models of computation than I did before. There are of course connections, both in the maths involved and in the field of possible applications of the research, but it’s something that I mostly have to learn from scratch and that feels wonderful.

  7. I do think there will be a decent random element in the specific subfield I end up in. It is certainly the case that there are people who do their PhD in something completely different from their undergraduate… I don’t think I’m confident enough to do something like that. :-)

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