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Revision as of 00:29, 23 February 2017 by Peter Johnson (talk | contribs) (what is research?)

This page is a repository of information about graduate studies in Computer Science. It is intended to be a resource for students applying to graduate school as well as for those who are considering it.


Graduate degrees awarded in CS are (usually) limited to Master of Science (MS) and Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Some schools have separate admissions for the two degrees. Some schools (eg, MIT, UW) don't have a distinct MS program, in which case the MS is often earned along the way. (For a variety of reasons, some students bail with the MS.)

MS (coursework)

No research. Take ~2 years of more advanced classes. Often does not include financial support. As a revenue stream, some schools (eg, NYU) accept anybody with a pulse into their MS program and offer no financial support. This option is widely held to be the most financially advantageous.

MS (thesis)

Yes research. Take ~1 year of more advanced classes and then spend ~1 year "doing research". Sometimes includes financial support (usually depends on the faculty member with whom you're working: if they have a grant under which your work falls, you can often get tuition covered by a research assistantship---see below).


Tons of research. Amount of coursework varies, between 1 and 2 years. After that, it's all research, all the time. Duration is usually 5-7 years total.

What is research?

The creation of knowledge.

Reading papers

But first, you have to know the current state of knowledge, which means reading bazillions of research papers, taking notes, thinking, talking, synthesizing.

Inventing knowledge

Once you've gotten the lay of the land, you're going to have ideas. Put them into motion, build something new and different, measure it, report your results.

Experimental vs Theoretical

Original research (as opposed to, eg, surveys of existing research) in CS usually falls into two camps: experimental and theoretical. An experimental research paper often reads like this: "there exist systems/applications that solve problem X; I built something that solves the same problem; I measured my solution against pre-existing solutions and it's better by a factor of Y". A theoretical research paper often reads like a really long, elaborate proof of the sort you write in, eg, CSCI 301, albeit with more context.


What can you do with a graduate degree? With an MS, your opportunities are more or less the same as with a Bachelor's degree. A PhD opens up some different doors, however.

Industry (product)

You could be employed as a better (maybe) code monkey.

Industrial research

Companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and IBM employ people with PhDs to solve really hard (and, some might argue, really fun) problems. Extremely few companies these days, however, pursue "blue sky" research: that is, research without a marketable end goal in mind.

Government research

The big national labs like Lawrence Livermore, Sandia, Oak Ridge, PNNL, etc.


Institutes of higher education generally fall into two categories: teaching-focused and research-focused, with surprisingly little gradations in between. The main differences are: how much time you spend with undergrads, how much time you spend writing grants, how much time you spend doing research.

Research focused

"R1 institutions", indicating status conferred on them by the government as research-intensive schools. Generally speaking, lots of research, lots of grant writing, much less interaction with undergrads (because they don't do the kind of research you're being paid to produce). Examples: MIT, CMU, all the Ivies, almost all big state schools.

Teaching focused

Liberal arts colleges, teaching colleges, undergrad-only schools. Generally less research (especially because no grad students), much less grant writing (if any), and much more interaction with undergrads. Examples: all the NESCAC schools, community colleges.





thesis proposal

thesis defense






research assistantship

teaching assistantship


What's it take to apply? Find out!


Applications are usually due in the November/December timeframe.


Applications usually consist of the following materials.

Letters of Recommendation

Usually three. Professors are your best bet (this is not an opportunity for family friends to give character references). In order of priority, consider:

  • professors with whom you've done research (at Midd or elsewhere, eg, on an REU);
  • professors with whom you've worked on other things (eg, independent projects, grading, tutoring);
  • professors in whose classes you have performed well.




It's the SAT for grad school. The scores are valid for 5 years, so even if you don't intend to apply right away, consider taking it while being academical is still fresh in your mind. It's easy to get super stressed about standardized tests, but this one is not a big deal. Really.

GRE subject

The GRE company has subject-specific tests; some schools might ask you to take the CS version. My perception is that very few schools do.

statement of purpose

A written statement describing why you want to go to grad school. It's essentially a longer cover letter. Highlight things about you that make you an attractive candidate; highlight things about the school that make you particularly interested. Good ideas: drop names of faculty doing research you are particularly interested in; discuss research projects you've done; discuss non-research computer science-y projects you've done.

Midd application-shepherding process in the fall

During the Fall semester, the CS faculty will hold meetings to shepherd students through the application process. We'll help you:

  • identify schools to apply to;
  • gather your application materials;
  • edit your application materials;
  • gather your letters of recommendation;
  • submit applications.


  • Can I work for a few years and then go to grad school? yes!
  • Do I have to know what I want to research? no!