Here’s my collection of notes from this year’s visit days that I will be actively updating until early April.

Table of Contents

Advice

Meeting Professors. Visit days are good for determining whether a professor is a good fit as an adviser. Consensus seems to be that having an adviser who is a good personality match is equally, if not more important than whether their current projects are interesting.

Below are the questions (some of which I got from Ranysha Ware–thanks!!) I would ask faculty I seriously considered working with:

  • What they wanted to accomplish in the next 5-7 years (the length of getting a PhD).
  • What qualities they thought made a graduate student successful.
  • What qualities they thought made a graduate student’s PhD successful.
  • A description of their current projects.
  • How many students do they have?
  • How many students are they looking to take this year?
  • Would they want to advise me?
  • How do they feel about co-advising?

And some things to keep in mind:

  • Do they seem hands-on or hands-off? Which style is preferable?
  • Are there multiple faculty that I would be okay working with? Finding an adviser is kind of like proposing: in the best case, it’s 4-6+ year commitment. In the worst case, at least you will have other options.
  • Are they new or senior faculty? The common case is that new faculty might have a more well-defined research agenda and are more incentivized to have your project succeed (tenure).
  • How have their past students fared? How do they set their students up for the career their student wants to pursue post-PhD?

It’s also perfectly acceptable to e-mail them and arrange for another time to meet if you have more questions.

Meeting Students. I think it’s equally important to meet students of faculty you’re seriously interested in working with. Are they happy? How do they describe their adviser(s)? Are the projects in the lab large or smaller? What lows have they hit and how have they sprung back from those lows?

Expectations. Visit days can leave you very tired. Keep that in mind and set your expectations appropriately. For example, I thought I could spend a half-day exploring Pittsburgh after visit days. I ended up working in a coffee shop. The coffee was very good though.

Also the east coast is cold. So cold. Check the weather forecast and either pack lots of layers (base layer, sweater, puffy layer, and waterproof layer) or a good coat! A scarf, pair of gloves, and a hat that covers your ears will also be essentials you thought you’d never need if you’re from a warmer area.

Flights. Most graduate schools have you book flights for their visit days. They reimburse after the visit day. Allocate some money in your reimbursement budget for travel within the city (e.g., getting to/from the hotel). If you have a lot of visit days, signing up for a frequent flier program at any airline can get you some rewards. You can also get points by charging the fare to certain credit cards.

Speaking of credit cards, it could be worth looking in a credit card with nice travel benefits if you have a good credit score. For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve has a hefty annual fee of $450 (effectively $150 since it gives you a $300 travel credit). It comes with some nice benefits, like covering the $85 TSA pre-check application fee every five years, giving you access to a fair amount of airport lounges around the world, and providing trip-delay/luggage insurance.

After visit days, if you no longer find the benefits to be worth the annual fee, You can downgrade it to a Chase card without an annual fee (e.g. Chase Freedom) before the next annual fee posts. Of course, read the fine print, do some research, etc. etc.

Schools

MIT (03/01 - 03/02)

This was my first visit day and woah, they packed a lot into a two-day schedule.

Perceived Pros

  • There are so many systems faculty at MIT doing interesting work. It’s like a candy store.
  • I spoke with three professors that are doing work I’m very interested in.
  • Initially, I had the impression that a fair amount of faculty seemed to be oversubscribed in terms of students or other commitments (e.g., startup). This is mostly true, but, it turns out two out of the three professors I spoke with are new and hungry for students :-)
    • I think I would try to be co-advised by a new professor and more senior professor if I decided to go here.
  • The graduate students I met seemed very happy and satisfied.
  • The projects at MIT are usually driven by a smaller group of students. MIT comes off as one of the least industry-motivated (e.g., a recent project was writing an operating system in Go) schools out there. The professors have a genuine interest in what they’re doing. That’s cool.
  • There are substantially less courses required to graduate (only 4!!).
  • If you are advised by a professor in CSAIL, you do not need to worry about funding or having to TA. Most students only complete their one required semester of TA-ing and some end up TA-ing more for fun.
  • Mike’s Pastries has really good cannolis.
  • The subway makes getting around the city easy.

Perceived Cons

  • There doesn’t seem to be a lot of physical office space on the 9th floor. A few students work in the common area and are waiting for an office space to open up.
  • It’s cold in Boston. It snowed on Saturday, but it was really pretty.
  • Housing is expensive (>=1k for a single). At this point, it seems like the only cheap housing is in Pittsburgh.
  • The “dinner” on Saturday consisted of a small appetizers. I ended up eating at a restaurant across the street with some other admits who were also hungry.
    • This restaurant had really bad Chinese food. Oops.
  • My roommate slept on a sofa-bed because the hotel ran out of double rooms :-(

Suggested Improvements

  • Designated time-slots to meet with students. I had ~6 half-hour meetings with professors throughout the two days, but having at least one meeting with a student would be very beneficial for a prospective student. I ended up having to hunt down students and arrange meetings with them ad-hoc.
  • Having some fun activities earlier on in the day. I was dead tired around 9 p.m. every night and all of the social activities would be after 9.

CMU (03/04 - 03/05)

Perceived Pros

  • Lots of space! So many nice CS buildings. GHC is a beautiful building with a lot of natural light and large windows. Also, a lot of faculty.
  • The faculty seem very collaborative and friendly towards one another, though the collaborations are ad-hoc.
  • The school seems to care a lot about its graduate students. You are guaranteed funding. There is a day every semester (“Black Friday”) where all the faculty gather to review all the graduate students.
  • The Visit Day was well organized. Official meetings included meeting current graduate students!
  • The Milkshake Factory is decadent.
  • The graduate students seem more chipper and happy.
  • Lots of things to do in Pittsburgh. There’s a dinosaur museum.
  • YOU COULD PAY OFF A MORTGAGE WITH YOUR STIPEND (!!!!!!). Housing cost is very low.

Perceived Cons

  • A professor I met with asked me if I knew what a Unix pipe was (?!?)
  • Outside of CyLab, the office arrangement is different from other schools: it didn’t look like there were research labs and graduate students share offices with students in other areas. I think there are both pros and cons to this, one of the cons being that you may need to move offices a few times before being happy with your officemates.

Suggested Improvements

  • The last day’s dinner was a bit hectic since it was ~50 of us ordering from a restaurant. I don’t think there was enough physical space for all the admits and current graduate students.
  • Some passing time between back-to-back meetings.
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