Advice for Prospective Graduate Students

Like most professors, I get several hundred emails a year from prospective students interested in coming to UCSD for graduate schools and/or joining my research group. It is usually very difficult for me to reply every message. This page provides some advice for prospective grad school applicants. Please read it carefully first before emailing me.

1.       Am I recruiting new graduate students?

Yes, I usually plan to recruit 1-2 new Ph.D students to join my research group every year. I especially encourage women students to apply.  I have graduated 3 women graduate students, two of whom are now professors at top computer science departments (Shan Lu at University of Wisconsin, Madison and Lin Tan at University of Waterloo) and one (Pin Zhou) at IBM Research Lab.  Currently we have 2 women graduate students and 1 woman research scientist in our group - so you won't be alone.

But it does NOT mean that I only want to recruit women students.


2.       What is the admission process?

The information can be found in the UCSD CSE Graduate Admission. Please direct all your questions there. I won't reply any of your inquires related to the general UCSD CSE admission because it is much better to directly contact the admission coordinator listed in the web page. Also please do not ask me about your application status, either.


3.       What are the admission criteria?

Many things count, especially the following things

*         Where you got your degrees.   I know this may not be a fair reflection how talented you are, but if professors do not know you well personally, we have to lower our risk and have to go with the common metric.  In the past, my graduate students are mostly from Tsinghua University (5), Peking(Beijing) University (3), USTC (2), Academy of Science (1), Zhejiang University (3), Nanjing University (2), Fudan University (1),  BeiHang (1), Korean-KAIST (2), India-IIT (5),  Washington University (1) and Greece-Panepistimion Makedonias (1). 

*         Your GPAs.  Having a bad scores on some core computer science courses would definitely raise some concerns.

*         Reference letters and direct inquiries. with people who may know you.  Since these days many US professors have direct contact with professors and researchers in China, it is very easy to just pick up the phone and call them to find out more about you.

*         Publications.  Many applicants these days have publications at even well-known international conferences. This definitely adds a spot light into your application

*         Phone interviews.   many professors do phone interviews.  Do your homework in advance, be honest and sincere.  When I talk with an applicant over the phone, I am not just looking at his/her answers, but also his/her personality, maturity, thinking process, communication skills (in English) and how sincere he/she is.

*         GRE and TOEFL scores: many applicants think that if they have perfect GRE and TOEFL scores, they will get admitted.  Good GRE and TOEFL scores are necessary to indicate that your English is OK, but alone are not sufficient in any ways. Perfect GRE/TOEFL scores won't get your admitted, but bad GRE/TOEFL scores will get you rejected.


4.       If you have only a BS degree, can you still consider applying for the Ph.D program?

Yes, definitely.  Many of my star graduate students were fresh out of college. For example, Shan Lu (now a professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison) had only BS degree when she came to UIUC and joined my group.   Of course, I am not discouraging applications from students who already have MS degrees. Actually many of my students have MS degrees before joining my group.  For BS applicants, I look at the potential; and for MS students, I look at research experience and motivation.

5.       If your former research background is not in systems, can you still apply for our group?

Yes, definitely. Many of my students switched from other fields such as graphics, machine learning, data mining, into systems.  I myself switched from theory to systems.  But you do need to make sure that you have genuine interest in systems since it may take you some extra time and effort to build the system background that you do not have.


6.       Is it beneficial to send me an email?

You should only contact me if you have genuine interest in working with me.  To determine that, you should do your homework first before sending me any email:

*         Visit my web page and my group web page

*         Read a couple of our recent papers to get some flavor on the type of research we do.

*         Check where my former and current graduate students came from originally (see information discussed in admission criteria).

*         Check where my former students found their jobs.

*         (optional) Contact my former or current graduate students to see if my advising style is what you are looking for.


You should not contact as many professors as you can - professors do talk with each other, but to identify a few professors who you might want as your research advisor and then to find which of those seem most promising as advisors and convince them that you would be a worthwhile student.


It may harm your application if you send spam emails to long lists of professors. These emails will never help you, and some professors will maintain blacklists of applicants who do this to make sure their applications are rejected without consideration.



7.       How to contact me?

After you have done the homework above,  you have some genuine interest in working with me, and also feel that you may be qualified to UCSD and my research group, you can send me an email indicating briefly the points in the admission criteria.  Do not expect me to give you instant response since I travel a lot and am usually busy with many deadlines. Send me another message if I don't reply in a couple of weeks.


8.       Financial aids vs. no need for financial aids?

If you have your own financial support and does not need any RAships, it won't significantly increase your chance of being admitted.  The graduate admission committee evaluates your qualification as the #1 criterion. However, given everything else being equal, it is understandable that some professors may pick you instead of the one who would need financial support.


9.       MS vs. Ph.D admission?

MS admission is totally managed by the department and professors are usually not involved at all, because you will spend most of your time taking classes in your MS programs.  Ph.Ds are recruited to work with a professor. But still all Ph.D applicants are first reviewed by the Ph.D admission committee before each professor makes their own pick from the "admissible pool" identified by the Ph.D admission committee.


10.   Can I recommend you to some other professors?

Sorry, I cannot recommend you unless I have personally worked with you. Recommendation in US comes with responsibility and may affect credibility, both of which are not treated lightly in US.


11.   Is it useful to have your parents/relatives/friends to contact me about your application?

No, it is not very helpful.  You are an independent adult now, and are expected to behave like one.  Having your parents/relatives/friends contact me is usually a big red flag about your independence.  


However, after you have applied for UCSD and contacted me first, if you feel that your former/current advisor/mentor can provide some additional input regarding your application and background,  I definitely welcome their emails and phone calls.