“Grad school or industry?” God, who knows. You haven’t even finished college yet. How the hell are you supposed to know what you want to do with the rest of your life? Research sounds fun – maybe you’ve done a bit already – but grad school is a big commitment. And you have an offer from that company you interned with. It was a fun internship! The money sure sounds nice right now. Plus, you could really use a break.
It probably seems like everyone else knows exactly what they want right now. It’s not true. I promise. This was me in 2011. I see it all the time in students I mentor.
The reality is that it’s really scary to decide what to do with the rest of your life right now. You’re young and you have few priors.
Everyone is sure in retrospect. It’s easy to look back and rewrite your story so it’s consistent.¹ But probably most of us were unsure.
I’m not going to tell you what to do. That’s your job. But here’s the beautiful thing: You don’t need to figure it out right now. It turns out there’s no real way to go wrong in computer science.
Let’s say you go to grad school. You get a stipend (enough to get by). Two years in, you decide you hate it. Guess what? You just got a free masters degree. Drop out. Don’t stay because it’s What Someone Like Me Would Do™. Snag a cushy software gig. Make some extra cash with your new degree.
Now let’s say you go to industry. Two years in, you think boy, I really would like my Ph.D. Well, you can still do that.² Apply to grad school. Quit your job.³ Grad school will be fun with your newfound certainty, savings, and perspective.
But make it easy to change your mind. It’s OK to change your mind! If you only do something because past-you wanted to do it, you’ll be miserable. Set yourself up to go back to school.
Well, that’s neat and all, but how do I actually do that?
Good question, strawman student!
Before You Leave
Talk to your professors.
They probably seem kind of intimidating right now, but they are your best allies. If there’s a class you like a lot, get to know your professor. Go to office hours. Ask her about research.
I remember feeling like I didn’t know enough to do research. This is silly; research is discovery. You learn from it. Talk to professors and grad students about doing research. I recommend working with a grad student on an existing project rather than doing a thesis. Better incentives. More guidance.
Try to publish something.
In undergrad, I was so scared of the publication process that I never submitted my research anywhere. Try to get your work published, even if it’s just to a workshop. Worst case, you learn how the process works. Best case, you strengthen your application a lot.
Tell your professors you’re planning to go to grad school.
If there’s one thing adults love, it’s younger people saying “I want to be you when I grow up.” Your professors will be happy to hear that you want to get your Ph.D. They might not believe you. That’s fine. Some may offer to help. Again, your professors are your best allies.
Identify professors for recommendations.
Think ahead of time about who will write you good recommendation letters. If you’re not sure, you can test the waters. For example, senior year, I applied to give the graduation speech, and the associate dean of my college told me my recommendations were great. This made my choice easy later on.
Get the GRE out of the way.
It’s really annoying to study for a test and take a test when you’re working full-time. Get it out of the way before you graduate. Your scores last five years!
After You’re Gone
Stay in touch with your professors.
If you email your professor like “hey, remember me? I want a recommendation letter” and they haven’t heard from you in the last n years, they might say no or write a weak letter. Make it easy for them. Stay in touch.
Again, your professors are your best allies, so you want to maintain connections with them. The payoff can be huge (think, getting you in touch with professors at your favorite school, helping you with your application).
Since every student I mentor thinks this is an extremely awkward⁴ thing to do, here are a few excerpts from emails I sent to my professors while in industry:
I’ve decided that I’m going to go back to school two years from now. One thing I noticed is that I dork out about PL as much as I dork out about theory, which is weird because I had always assumed I’d only want to go back for theory. So suddenly I’m not sure what I want to do specifically. I don’t know exactly what I’m expecting in response to this, but any information that I can use to make a decision would be super helpful. And I honestly don’t know how these decisions work; do I need to know what I want to do before I get to school, or can I make that decision once I am already there? You were always pretty enthusiastic about me going to grad school so I figure you’re a good person to contact.
If you’re cringing at how awkward this email is, good. Me too. But this professor responded with the name of the professor who is now my advisor and told me he’d be in town for a conference in the field I’m now studying and got me in touch with professors at in the lab I currently work with. Awkward is OK. This is computer science. Though I wouldn’t recommend saying you “dork out.”
My team at work does a series of technical talks. My manager wants me to do one on FindBugs, since I got kind of excited when I saw that we were actually using it during our build process. I’m willing to do this but I’ve never given a technical talk before. I’m wondering if you have any advice. The talks are generally 30 minutes to an hour, which makes it hard to go into any real detail. The audience is all technical, mostly software engineers. They are all extremely bright people with strong backgrounds in computer science, but it’s a safe assumption that most of them probably don’t know anything about static analysis. Please let me know if you have any ideas or resources.
I’m just wondering if you’re doing OK in the aftermath of Boston. I knew a lot of people out there and I know a lot of runners who are in the same position. All 18 members of my current club who were there as well as all 12 members of my old club who were there are safe and unharmed. I hope you are doing well.
Go to conferences!
Pick a field you like. Google the top conferences in that field. Sign up for one every year or two. You might be able to get your employer to pay for this. Go to the talks that sound interesting. Skip the ones that sound boring (hang out in the hallways and talk to people). Talk to your old professors there. Talk to new people. Don’t worry about sounding dumb. If you’re not even in grad school yet, nobody will expect you to know anything.
Conferences are fun. You’ll learn about the latest research. You’ll meet people. Maybe they’ll remember you when they’re on your admissions committee in n years.
Power play: Find a professor whose work you find interesting, read his work before the conference, go to a talk for a paper he’s on, write down a question during the talk, then approach him casually in the hallway and ask him the question after the talk.
Keep up with the latest research.
Even if you can’t go to conferences, find the papers that are accepted to those conferences and read a few every year. Don’t worry if you don’t understand them at all. That’s normal.
Get involved with your local research group.
This is another really awkward thing to do, but if there’s a research group at your local university doing work that you think is cool, you can reach out to them and see if they have group lunches or social events or reading groups or talks that you can go to. Just mention that you’re planning to apply in n years and are currently in industry.
Also, you should actually talk to people while you’re there. I went to a theory talk by a UW grad student before I applied and was too scared to actually talk to anyone. Then I just sort of silently left. #MissingThePoint
Get help with your application.
If you’re close with any professors and grad school friends, don’t be scared to ask them for help with your application. They’ll give you good advice. Also, they won’t judge you if you say something stupid. You probably will. That’s fine.
Don’t get used to industry income.
It’s nice to spend some money for fun things, but saving is a good way to ensure that fear of a grad school stipend (which is honestly not bad in this field) doesn’t keep you from returning to school. As a bonus, you’ll be able to afford luxuries like an infinite supply of Jimmy John’s during your first deadline.
- Academics call this “writing a research paper.”^
- Every professor ever will tell you that you’re only dumb enough to go to grad school when you’re still in college, but I’m a constructive proof that this isn’t true.^
- You should probably actually get accepted to a school before you do this.^
- It is actually awkward. And I am actually awkward. So there’s that.^