How I got 4 Ph.D. offers in the US with a CGPA 2.79 — and what you can learn from it

The PhD Process Over-oversimiplified:

PhD Process Oversimplified
  1. Professors have experience and funding and want to do interesting/ impactful research and then publish papers.
  2. But the professors do not have youthful energy and abundant time to do those research by themselves.
  3. Hence they hire young (usually) graduate students to work on these research days and night for (usually 5) years, and publish them in top journals and conferences.
  4. These publications help advance science, change lives, and at the same time give the professors recognition and reputation in their field. Which brings them more funding, and more freedom to do interesting research.
  5. The graduate students get a PhD degree and earn a better career. (Some of them become professors, and continue the cycle.)

So, how do you get admission with low grades?

Lesson 1: DO *NOT* GET LOW GRADES.

If your GPA is low and you have a chance to improve it, take the chance. If you are still in undergraduate school, try to do well in the remaining courses. If you are a graduate, getting a local MS degree and getting higher grades could be helpful. But, note that, not all grades are equal.

  1. Grades on departmental courses and courses related to the field you are applying to are more important than non-departmental courses. If you are a CS student, your CS courses are going to impact your profile more than non-CS courses.
  2. Recent grades are more important than older grades. Many universities explicitly look for grades for the last two years of university. As they say, What Have You Done for Me Lately? 🤨

Lesson 2: RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH

Your conversation with the professor will be a researcher to a researcher, not an interviewee to an interviewer.

If you are a graduate,

try to get an academic research position in an active and friendly group, even if it pays less. Or take a job that allows/requires you to do research and publish you to peer-reviewed journals/conferences. Having a professional research experience is going to give you a significant edge during admission interviews. Even if your research area doesn’t match with the professor, you will have a lot of common grounds to talk about. Your conversation with the professor will be a researcher to a researcher, not an interviewee to an interviewer. I have been fortunate to get a full-time job at my university as a Research Assistant, where I worked with a brilliant group of graduates and undergraduates and two amazing professors. This time as an RA helped me flourish my research skills and gave me some *very* strong points to talk about in my resume, SOP, and interviews.

If you are an undergraduate,

try to find some active research groups in your university in topics you are interested in and approach them. Look at the group’s recent publications to understand if they are active. Most groups would happily welcome a hard-working undergraduate because that would mean they now have a little load off their hand 😅. It is compelling to start your brand new research project, but please do not do that. At least for your first project, try to join an existing research group where there will be senior students and/or RA’s to guide you. In this way, you would learn a great deal about the general research process that would otherwise take you a tremendous amount of trial and error to figure out on your own. This will also be your easiest ticket to have your name on a paper.
Note that, in the beginning, you might have less freedom in the project, and the task you are provided may not be most interesting. But hold on to it, in a very short time you will earn your place in the team and you will become an expert in your little subtopic. I did my first research in university first year, and it was a great joy when I would study something extensively, and my teacher would try to ‘learn’ those from me.
Remember, participating in extracurricular research will often come at the expense of your grades. You will have to take an educated risk on how many grades you would sacrifice for a research paper. In my university final year, I had a paper submission deadline the night before one of my final exams. Two of my co-authors bailed on the project, but I ended up writing most of the paper and submitting it as the first author. The paper ended up getting The best student paper award in the conference, and it has a shining place in my resume and it became a conversation starter for many of my admission interviews. Now, I don’t mind the slight decrease in my grades because of the paper.

Lesson 3: Networking

Usually, we think about a PhD admission as a rigid game of numbers: “if you have > X GPA, >Y GRE score, you will get to the top Z1 universities” , “if you have <X GPA, < Y GRE score, you will get into the top Z2 universities”, etc.

In reality, admission decisions are made by humans, and many human factors come into play in admission that are not usually discussed.

Networking is important, not only in PhD admission, but in the entire Academia. Your networking attempt for admission should start long before the admission process. Here are some ways you can, and should use networking to your advantage:

  • Ask your undergraduate supervisors if they have professors in their contacts who might be interested in your profile. You can contact current PhD students from your university and ask them about professors who are accepting students. Reach out to your second degree, third degree contacts, you will be surprised how many of them will be happy to help you. If you find such mutual contact, send the professor an email mentioning your mutual contact, you will be more likely to get a reply than otherwise.
  • Visit local academic/research seminars and conferences that interest you and try to connect with other researchers who are speakers or visitors. If you are interested in their work, you might reach out to them and ask if you can help in their research. Or you might also invite them to work with your existing research group (of course after discussing with your supervisor). Such networking might spawn fruitful collaborative research papers, shining recommendation letters, or even admission offers.
  • You can use email, social media for networking as well. While you are doing your research, feel free to reach out to other researchers who are working in the same area. If you get stuck and can find no way out, ask for help. Make a conversation, build lasting impressions. However, be careful not to spam researchers and waste their time. Once you have started a conversation, ask them if their lab is taking PhD students. I once started a Twitter argument with a professor about her work and later reached out to her saying, “Hi, we met at Twitter. Are you taking PhD students?” It didn’t work out finally but we had an insightful conversation.

Lesson 4: Ask for Assignments/Projects

Unless you are from a highly reputed university with marvelous grades, have a personal connection with the professor, or have a very eye catchy publication or some other achievement, you will have a hard time setting yourself apart in the PhD applicant pool. Is there a way to set yourself apart if you don’t have all of those? Here’s a way that worked for me: ask the professor for a project or an assignment.

  1. You are not afraid of taking a challenge outside your comfort zone.
  2. You are willing to learn new things and apply them.

I had a PhD offer BEFORE I submitted the application.

So, bottom line, try asking for projects, it won’t hurt.

How To 1: Find professors in your area of interest

As mentioned earlier, the first place you should look is in your contact. After that, you should *definitely* look for some outside sources.

Conference Rank

How To 2: How to email a Professor

Here is a format that worked for me. I got many responses when I followed this format appropriately.

Sample email to professors (copyright: Prof David Evans)
  1. Introduce yourself
  2. State your intention (getting a PhD under him/her)
  3. Mention personal connection (if any)
  4. Why do you want to pursue research under him/her
  5. Make sure to attach your CV as a google drive link (or it may get spammed).
Inigo Montoya method of introduction

How To 3: Talk about Research in Admission Interview

… spitting out a lot of technical jargon would make them sound “smarter”. This is, however, not true.

When professors ask about research projects during an interview, many people (myself included) make the mistake of talking too much about the technical aspects of the research thinking that spitting out a lot of technical jargon would make them sound “smarter”. This is, however, not true. Being able to explain your research in clear and simple language makes you far more interesting to talk to. Here’s a drill for you, for every research/project in your resume, answer these questions in one line in a language so simple that a smart 12-year-old can understand,

  1. What problem you were trying to solve, and why is that important?
  2. How did you approach the solution?
  1. Auburn University
  2. UC Riverside
  3. UMBC
  4. University of Rochester

Some Random Resources:

5 Minute Guide to PhD Applications: http://www.pgbovine.net/PhD-application-tips.htm

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Masum Hasan

Masum Hasan

Researcher in NLP and Machine Learning | masumhasan.net