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I'm sure if I work in industry for a couple of years and then apply for grad school, I would not be disadvantaged compared to straight applying to grad school from undergrad.

What if instead I go work in industry for 5-10 years?

Specifically top Ph.D. programs in CS, like CMU, MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, etc.

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I work at the first "etc." in your list of CS departments, and I regularly evaluate graduate admission applications.

Rather than guess at the answer, I looked through my department's actual Fall 2019 PhD applicant database, and read the faculty comments on the applicants I found with degrees granted more than five years ago. The non-traditional applicants that we offered PhD admission all had most or all of the following features:

  • They had excellent academic records from strong undergraduate programs (but not necessarily in computer science).
  • They did not have embarrassingly low test scores.
  • They had significant recent course work in computer science, typically as a non-degree student, with excellent performance.
  • They had strong reference letters from academic sources, either their old professors (who still remembered them) or from more recent instructors from non-degree classes.
  • Most importantly: They had worked in a research capacity during their time outside academia, either within their company or collaborating with academics.

(The first four points are not that different from successful traditional applicants.)

Non-traditional applicants that missed one or more of these features were viewed with more caution. In particular, some otherwise strong non-traditional applicants without recent CS coursework (or equivalent work experience) were recommended for admission to our MS program instead of directly to the PhD program. Again, this is not that different from traditional applicants.

So here's my advice: If your industry job does not have a significant research component, you are probably better off applying to MS programs first, as a stepping stone to a later PhD. (Keep in mind that there are two types of MS programs in computer science: course-based/terminal/professional programs, and research-based/thesis programs. You want the latter. All online master's programs are the former.) Even before shifting back to graduate school full-time, you should carve out some time to take one or two advanced courses as a non-degree student, and to interact with the instructors enough that they can serve as good references.

Always remember: The main thing that PhD admissions committees at top CS programs are looking for is compelling evidence of research potential. As Buffy says, being a code-monkey at Microsoft or Twitter won't give you that.

  • Wow this is really good feedback. Thanks – A_Happy_Student Jun 13 at 19:22
  • Why is it so much more important for nontraditional applicants to have research experience vs undergrad applicants? – Elizabeth Henning Jun 17 at 0:21
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It probably would depend on what you do and how current you are in the field at the end of that period of time. A lot can change in CS in five years. If you stay current through your job or otherwise and can demonstrate it then you are probably fine. But a job in industry isn't usually about research and a doctoral program is. A masters program would be a bit simpler.

But like anyone you would need to make the case in your admissions materials that you are a good candidate for success in the program. And you will have a lot of competition from a lot of people who are pretty current in the field.

But, after five or ten years your goals may change. And going from a well paid industry job to the life of a poor student can be quite a change. But if you keep evaluating options over a period of time you can probably be flexible in your needs and goals.

The direct path is probably simpler overall, of course, provided you can manage it. If you can gain admission now, it might be worth doing it. If you can't get in now, it is hard to see your chances improve except via very special work experience. Being a drone at Oracle won't help a lot.

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