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I am an EE student specializing in Communications and Networks (actually a bit more on sensor networks/signal processing) who plans to apply for a direct PhD program in the top US universities.

I have seen some undergraduates who have been directly offered PhD programs by the top electrical engineering (EE) US universities, e.g. MIT, Stanford, and UCB.

Needless to say, they all have a super high GPA and some have very good GRE scores. (I say some instead of all here, because MIT does not require GRE at all!)

Besides these two characteristics, they have also published several papers whilst undergraduates. Maybe just by coincidence, they are all from Microelectronics. As a layman in Microelectronics, I heard that it would be relatively easy for an undergraduate to publish a paper in this field, because a lot of publications are experiment-based.

But it seems quite difficult for me and other peers who also specialize in Communications and Networks to publish some work during as undergraduates. It seems that publishing something in this field requires more knowledge that is out of the scope of a undergraduate.

  1. Do most of the EE undergraduate successful applicants have publications? What about in the Communications and Networks field?
  2. If an applicant has no final results (papers), but a 9-month research experience, will the experience help? By how much?
  3. How can a undergraduate applicant outperform a master applicant who holds some publications during his/her master study?

Remarks: Any generic answers are warmly welcome!

  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/11825/… – F'x Aug 12 '13 at 10:49
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    @perfectionm1ng Because blokes like me who would happily answer a "generic" question would also want to not mislead you. I don't work in an EE department, and I don't know squat about how those departments choose their students. I'd rather be quiet than to give you information that is not really useful for your specific case. – Willie Wong Aug 12 '13 at 12:43
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    @perfectionm1ng, if you want a generic answer from other fields, please indicate so. If you want a specific answer for sensor networks, please indicate so, as well -- although in that case, your question will likely be closed as too narrow. Short answers: 1. [no clue]; 2. yes, it will help; 3. not possible. – StasK Aug 12 '13 at 13:58
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    @perfectionm1ng Sorry, I didn't answer yours, I actually haven't seen at since it was published while I was sleeping. Then again, 1. if you want to apply to top-tier US universities, needless to say that you're entering into a fierce competitions and publications would definitely help you to get a program. 2. Of course it will help, as you have seen from the inside how a lab works. 3. I would say it is hardly possible, as the Master's student probably has more knowledge and experience in the field. – PatW Aug 12 '13 at 15:56
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    @StasK: Yes, #3 certainly is possible. A strong undergraduate with no publications is much more likely to gain admission than an applicant with an MS who has published crappy papers. (I'm assuming, of course, that the admission committee actually looks at applicants' published papers. Mine does.) – JeffE Aug 12 '13 at 23:52
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While I can't comment about microelectronics or EE specifically, I should point out that many US graduate schools admit external candidates only to a Ph.D. program; there is no option available for admission to a master's program en route to a doctoral program. Consequently, the students met the requirements for admission to the school, period.

Research experience is always helpful, particularly because it gives you a potential letter of reference from someone who can directly comment on your skills as a researcher, which is the biggest thing that graduate departments are looking for. They want candidates who are capable of doing high-quality research, and having confirmation of that—whether or not there are papers already written—is a vital component of that process.

I would also suggest it's probably not worth it to try to compete with faceless peers whose credentials you can't guess. That's a hopeless endeavor that will just make you frustrated and dispirited. Just do the best job that you can with the resources available to you, rather than worrying about "keeping up with the Joneses."

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