Prof. Vijay Chidambaram generously answered some all-important questions that students have with respect to their graduate essays/SoPs.
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This article is a must read for anyone currently working on their essays/SoP. It gives the direct perspective of the professor in CS from the renowned University of Texas, Austin.
Vijay Chidambaram is an Assistant Professor in the Computer Science department at the University of Texas at Austin. He joined UT Austin in Fall 2016, after completing a post-doc at the VMware Research Group in Palo Alto, California. He did his PhD with Prof. Remzi and Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He did his undergraduate work at the College of Engineering, Guindy in Chennai. His work has resulted in patent applications with Microsoft, Samsung, and VMware. His paper in FAST 2017 was awarded one of the two Best Paper Awards. He was awarded the SIGOPS Dennis M. Ritchie Dissertation Award in 2016, the Microsoft Research Fellowship in 2014, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison Alumni Scholarship in 2009. He has published in top OS conferences such as SOSP, OSDI, FAST, and NSDI.
Q1 - Does mentioning extracurriculars in the SOP count a lot? How much of it should be written?
Extracurriculars do not affect admission decisions. Admissions to Masters and PhD programs are based purely on your potential for learning advanced material (Masters), or research (PhD). Extracurriculars such as sports, quizzing, dancing, organizing events, etc. do not affect the decision.
Q2 - Do professors ignore minor grammatical errors if the ideas are otherwise good?
While it is important to spell-check and grammar check your SOP (so that it looks professional), minor grammatical mistakes are okay. Professors will ignore such errors, as long as the meaning is clear.
Q3 - Does an undergraduate degree from a reputed institution make the application more favourable? Should that be emphasized in the SoP?
A handful of indian institutions are known in the US: the IITs, the NITs, and perhaps IIITs. Professors have worked with students from these institutions, and hence they are able to gauge the quality of their students. For students from other institutions, professors on the admissions committee will not be able to judge how good they are based on just their academic credentials, since grades may be inflated; students should demonstrate their potential via other more standard mechanisms such as the GRE or an internship with Google Summer of Code.
Q4 - Work experience or research experience - what is more impressive?
It depends on the work or research being done. For example, for my research group, kernel experience is a big plus. So if you had worked in the Windows Kernel team, that counts more than working on Microsoft Word. Research experience is good if the professor you are working with is active in research, and can gauge your research potential. Contrary to widely believed myths, publications is not what admissions committee primarily look for: it is easy to publish in “IEEE” venues that are of poor quality. Rather, the committee looks for a strong letter from the professor where they can gauge the student’s potential for future research. If the student has published in a reputed venue, that’s a big plus, but the research experience is what is essential.
Q5 - Students begin their SOP with a quote or an incident - is this an obsolete hook now? Is there any particular way professors expect the students to start? Students are most confused with the beginning.
In my opinion, a simple start is the best: “I’m X Y, a student in university Z in India. I am writing to apply for the Masters program at the University of Texas at Austin. I am interested in systems research, especially storage. I have worked on storage research with Prof AA in university Z, and have been working with NetApp since 2015” is a great start.
Q6 - If you had to assess the SOP on 3 parameters, which ones would be the top ones?
For a PhD SOP, it is all about the research. For a Masters application, the SOP doesn’t actually matter much, but can help explain low grades in a few semesters.
I would typically look for signs the student can handle our tough Masters courses. If the student has done well in advanced courses, that is a good sign. If the student has done well in research, that is also a good sign. Advanced technical projects outside of university also help. If the student has worked in industry, I look at what they worked on in industry: the more technically challenging the work is, the better.
Note that the list above does not include things such as leadership, extracurriculars, or passion. While those are all good things, fundamentally the admissions committee is only looking for one thing: can you learn advanced material (for Masters), can you do research (for PhD)?
Q7 - What is the best way to convey reasons for average/poor performance in undergraduate courses? For example, does offering an example of improvisation in work/professional life work?
This is pretty tough. If the student had health problems that resulted in a low score for one semester, they should explain in the SOP. Admissions committees do tend to take the whole picture into account, so one bad semester in an otherwise stellar academic career would not sink your application.
Poor scores can be offset by strong letters. For example, if a professor says “This student is brilliant, but does not score well on exams since they take too many courses, and try to do too many things at the same time”, that can help.
Q8 - Candidates with 3+ work experience are often confused as to what to emphasize more on - professional experiences or academic ones.
As I mentioned before, it depends on where they get their work experience. Not all work experience is the same. The deciding criteria should be “what are the most interesting technical things I have worked on?” - the student should talk about that, whether it is in industry or academia.
Q9 - In terms of mentioning research interests, is it better to present a concrete interest/idea or a more general one?
Mentioning vague interests such as “networking” or “distributed systems” is not really useful. The reason you mention what you would like to work on is so that the professor who is reading your application can tell if there is a match between their lab and the student. Thus, it is useful to describe in some detail what kind of projects you would like to work on. You should try and tie what you want to work on with projects going on at that university.
Q10 – How is changing concentration area from the undergraduate degree to MS, perceived by professors. For instance, a students with a Civil engineering degree wishes to pursue MS in CS. How does one justify this?
The student needs to have worked with a professor in CS, who is willing to write a strong letter describing the student’s potential in CS. Without such a strong letter, it is very hard to switch areas, especially drastically different ones such as Civil Engineering and CS. Switching between ECE and CS is common since there is a lot of overlap in the courses taken. Regardless of the reason for the switch, what the admissions committee is trying to evaluate is: can the student do well in the new area? Have they provided any evidence to show that they can do so?
You can also check out the original Twitter thread where some Dos and Donts are highlightd by the Professor. Prof. Vijay regularly interacts with students and tech enthusiasts. Find his interesting ideas on twitter @vj_chidambaram