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I have a son (currently 16) who is a junior in computer science at a well-known university. We are Canadian. He is very passionate about AI research and has published several first-authored papers in highly ranked journals and conferences (top 1-5% in Scopus).

Given the competition in graduate applications in AI, does he stand a chance to be funded in CS Ph.D. programs at 18 (I cannot afford his graduate study)? Will his age be a problem to be admitted to top programs? Should he apply for Master programs first? He has a perfect GPA and GRE.

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    Has he had any contact with some of the people under which he might wish to study? I don't know about computer science, but I'm pretty sure many people in highly ranked universities would already be aware of such a person if this was mathematics. It'd be kind of hard to keep secret someone age 16 who has already published and attended strong conferences --- those attending will talk, others hear about it, emails are written, . . . – Dave L Renfro Oct 30 '19 at 15:46
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    I suggest that in the US and probably Canada, that a PhD program is the better choice, not a separate MS. Many places give an MS along the way simply by asking for it or writing a mini-thesis. Not a consolation prize, just a waypoint. Direct movement from BS to PhD application is the common path (US, anyway). – Buffy Oct 30 '19 at 16:49
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    Has your son been living away from home during his bachelor's degree studies? Does he plan to live away from home for the PhD? I am asking because graduate students generally get less support and less supervision than undergraduates. – Patricia Shanahan Oct 31 '19 at 15:42
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    One thing I did not hear, does your son want to go into a PhD program? Plenty of research type companies that may not care about a PhD given the youth and passion. – NDEthos Nov 1 '19 at 14:34
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    @Buffy In Canada, having separate MSc and PhD programs is far more common than in the US (wherein the MSc is often pro forma, as you describe). So in Canada, one typically applies first to an MSc program, then, near its completion, to a PhD program (often but not always at the same university as the MSc). Disclosure: I am more familiar with mathematics than computer science. – Greg Martin Nov 1 '19 at 16:45
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[For context: I am a professor of mathematics at the University of Georgia. I've served on my department's Graduate Committee, which does graduate admissions, for about eight years. From 2016-2019 I was the Graduate Coordinator, hence the faculty member most directly involved in the graduate admissions process.]

Regarding your son, you told us:

1) He is a junior studying CS at well-known university. He has perfect grades and GRE scores, and he has multiple first authored papers in highly ranked journals and conferences.

2) He is 16.

To my mind, the first point is highly relevant. In mathematics a student with that profile would probably get into some of the top PhD programs in the country. I am confident that the same holds in CS. Moreover, in both of these fields, admission to a top program comes with full funding the vast majority (over 95%) of the time.

I am also assuming that since your son is 16 now and in his junior year, he will be 18 -- i.e., an adult -- when he starts graduate school. Given this, the second point does not seem relevant to me. Some people will find your son's achievements (even) more impressive given his age. Others will have some concerns about the maturity and readiness of such a young student for a PhD program. But when it comes to admissions and hiring, times have changed: in the last few years faculty have received much more training and specific instructions (including on legal obligations) regarding admissions and hiring than in years past. Deciding not to admit a qualified student because of his age sounds like a discriminatory practice to be avoided. Conversely, giving more weight to a student because of his age sounds like a discriminatory practice against the other applicants...also to be avoided. A small number of committees may still be influenced by such thinking, but overall it should be the case that your son will be considered only on point 1) and I think that it will be the case.

In summary: your son has an excellent profile that will most likely lead to multiple fully funded offers at prestigious CS programs in the US. (By the way: yes, he should apply directly to a PhD program.) You do not need to, nor do I think you should, do anything out of the ordinary because of his age.

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    Just as a note, some programs (in math, at least) have admitted students this young for many years. I agree that this would not be a barrier in such a case. – kcrisman Oct 31 '19 at 1:24
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    I love it that you can ask a question on SE and get a first-hand answer from a professional in the field like this. @Chris good luck to your son, and I feel saying congrats even though being a father myself I often think "I didn't do anything really, it's his own doing" ;-). – Peter - Reinstate Monica Oct 31 '19 at 9:50
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I strongly recommend that your son (or you) speak with the professor he is working with at his university for guidance on your questions. With that being said...

With regards to funding age restrictions, it should not be an issue. Also, funding for CS PhD programs (at least in the United States and Cananda) is almost always guaranteed with acceptance and is thus not a separate competitive process. For example, University of Toronto's CS PhD program explicitly states guaranteed funding periods with acceptance (link: https://web.cs.toronto.edu/graduate/about). There are other sources of funding that are competitive, such as the United States' NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, and do not have age eligibility requirements; however; the NSF Fellowship I just mentioned is restricted to US citizens.

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  • Would it be a bit awkward to ask his adviser, as he is planning to continue his graduate study in the US? – Chris Johnson Oct 30 '19 at 16:35
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    Hmmm, in the US, funding for doctoral studies is normally a TA position, not a grant without other responsibilities. But I doubt that the age would be a large impediment for such a position - most good places anyway. I was once an advanced grad student and one of our fellow students was about 18 and a TA. – Buffy Oct 30 '19 at 16:35
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    There shouldn't be any awkwardness about asking. And your son should look at a lot of universities on both sides of the border (and elsewhere). He sounds like someone who would be desirable. – Buffy Oct 30 '19 at 16:38
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    Funding could also be a Graduate Research Assistantship, though TA tends to be more common (this depends on school). Chris - I considered putting this in my answer, but since you asked: it would not be awkward. Professors that mentor students tend to want their students to succeed regardless of where they are working, and going to graduate school somewhere else is quite common. – kjacks21 Oct 30 '19 at 16:42
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    WRT "awkwardness and related". For someone who is really excelling at a young age, there are advantages in not staying at the undergraduate institution. He has probably learned about as much as he will from their faculty already. Move on. Move up. Work with people who have a fresh perspective. Maybe not true for someone who is fragile in any way and needs nurturing, but otherwise, seek new horizons. – Buffy Oct 30 '19 at 16:58
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The other answers speak effectively to the general case, and I agree with them, but thought an answer focusing on the specifics might be relevant too.

I suspect you are already aware of the strong parallels between your son's case, and that of another Canadian student with an interest in computer science, Erik Demaine, who was admitted into a funded PhD program in computer science at the age of 14, and went on to become MIT's youngest ever faculty member. Admittedly this was in Canada, but it would be difficult to imagine a US school turning down a similar opportunity.

If funding is a concern, your son may also want to look into fellowships and scholarships. If your son is a US Citizen, he may be competitive for an NSF Graduate Fellowship.

It sounds like your son may only have Canadian Citizenship however. Luckily, NSERC provides two sources of funding that your son can take with him to a US School: The PGS-D award, and the MSFSS award. The PGS-D, as I recall, can be taken at an institution outside Canada. The MSFSS award can be used to cover the cost of an exchange, rather than a permanent position.

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    Thanks for pointing out some possible funding sources and an interesting role model to inspire my son in CS research. He enjoys doing research and wants to apply his research for societal changes. I don't know if he could be that successful, but it would be nice to see him doing research at the right place and gradually realizing his dreams. – Chris Johnson Oct 31 '19 at 10:39
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I'm going to give a Canada specific answer.

Since your son is Canadian, I'd highly recommend that he do a MSc before pursing a PhD. There are a few reasons for this:

  • A PhD is a long, huge, often painful commitment, and someone who is 18 might not know what they want to do with their life. If he decides he'd rather do industry than academia, an MSc will allow for that.
  • Doing an MSc is common, almost expected, in Canada
  • A Masters in Computer Science will be funded at pretty much every Canadian university, probably guaranteed to 18000 a year.
  • Doing an MSc will give your son more publications and experience, which will increase his chance of getting extra PhD funding. There's some prestigious scholarships like the NSERC CGS-D and Vanier awards, and doing an MSc first might help bolster his application.
  • PhDs require a lot of "soft skills." Things like networking, pitching your work at conferences, defending your work against criticism, giving talks, etc. Even if your son is a genius, which it seems like he is, there are some things that you are just better at with more years under your belt. I know at 18 I wouldn't have been mature enough to deal with these things.
  • The social differences between an 18-year-old and his colleagues will be less pronounced in an MSc program. Many people with PhDs are married, having kids, etc. It's certainly not universal, but I suspect he'd have more in common with Masters students.

You might be interested in something like UBC's PhD track Masters program, where you start in a Masters but then can transfer into a PhD if all goes well. I suspect other schools have similar things.

As a singular data point, there's someone in my research lab who can't have been more than 19 when they started their MSc. I've never known someone to start a PhD so young.

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  • Ignoring the son's age - a person who already has significant published research may not need the extra experience and publications. Just saying. – einpoklum Nov 2 '19 at 22:29
  • In Canada, lots of undergrads get publications through the USRA program, but it doesn't necessarily mean they're well prepared for the rigors of PhD work. O certainly wasn't. – jmite Nov 3 '19 at 0:00
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Currently a CS PhD student in the US in a highly-ranked program. Anecdotally, there is a student in our department who just started at age 18 and is fully funded. I can't speak to how Canada's departments will view such an application, but I can't imagine it would be any different than here based on my interactions with faculty there. As mentioned in @Pete L. Clark's (super awesome) answer, your son's age will not matter.

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I'm in a similar position. I'm a junior (also at a well known university) at 15, set to graduate at about 17 years old. I'm also working in the field of AI, with 3-4 publications to my name, one first authorship, in good journals and conferences. I've also done a couple of internships (though this is not so relevant to PhD applications).

When I entered university early, I became aware of a few other people who had done similar things - several of these people DID go to graduate school at 18-19. Though I can't speak to the funding levels, I do know it is possible.

From my own personal experience, advisors for undergraduate research may encourage the student to join their own graduate teams, particularly if the student is of high caliber. That may be an avenue to pursue.

I would even consider this to be an advantage - it certainly is uncommon (though I find it funny that your son is in nearly exactly the same position as me!), and having quality publications shows that his age has not held you back in the past. Good luck!

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@Buffy pointed this out in their comment, but allow me to expound on what getting a PhD in the sciences in the U.S. looked like financially.

Getting into a PhD program in the US in a well-funded field like biology, chemistry, physics, computer science, engineering, mathematics, physical and mental health studies that are funded by the National Institute of Heath, etc., provides the following:

1) You don't pay tuition.

2) You work as a teaching assistant and receive a stipend (and fellowship if your field is particularly well-funded and/or you are an exceptional candidate) which is, in most instances, plenty to live on.

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  • I haven't the necessary reputation points to comment on the post below (jmite's) so allow me to offer a rebuttal here. Getting a MSc in CA is certainly a good option, but only if your son DOES NOT want to go to the US. In the US, the structure of a PhD is very different from what it is globally. Globally: PhDs are not course-based at all, they are all research. Thus they require a masters. And so your son getting a masters from the awesome unis in CA would be a huge step towards getting a PhD in CA or Europe or Asia. – Lopey Tall Nov 1 '19 at 13:11
  • However, in the US: PhD programs combine masters and a Global PhD into a (roughly) 5-7 year program. And from my own and many friends experiences, foreign students coming into a US phd WITH A MASTERS still have to take the courses like everyone else anyway (unless they can ace the qualifying exams on the spot — which is not rare, but it certainly hard). Thus, paying for a masters in your home country (while is no where near as financially detrimental as it is in the US — seriously, no one (even US citizens) in the sciences should get a masters in the US) could be wasted money and time. – Lopey Tall Nov 1 '19 at 13:13
  • Canadian CS masters at the top universities, which it sounds like OP's son is almost certainly qualified for, are almost always funded (comparably, but perhaps somewhat less than, US PhDs). I knew several people who had done a 2-year Canadian masters at a top school before doing a PhD at my top US PhD program in CS. They certainly on average didn't finish 2 years faster than those starting from just undergrad, but neither did they feel they had wasted those two years; they were able to get up to speed on research faster and focus less on courses even if they still had to take them. – Dougal Nov 1 '19 at 20:24
  • This is absolutely valid @Dougal and I am currently getting my masters (funded) abroad for that very reason ;) Moreover, OP's son, given his aptitude, and the increase in his amptitude after residing for a year or two at UBC, Toronto, etc. other world-class unis for CS in Canada, it is very likely that he could take the quals on the spot at many US phd programs and thus past over the "masters component" of a PhD in the Us – Lopey Tall Nov 1 '19 at 20:51
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Every university in the U.S. has different policies regarding each element of your/your son's predicament. Some accept students into Ph.D. programs immediately from undergrad; some only accept into Masters programs; some accept into Ph.D. programs provisionally-- that is, they must meet some benchmark of performance at some point during their first few years before they're approved to continue into the Ph.D. level. Part of your task in researching all this is to pick out a few prospective universities (btw, the use of diminutives such as "uni" is an unfortunate and rather vulgar practice), research their specific policies regarding their Ph.D. program, and let that influence which universities you apply to. Funding will not be an issue; even in the super-commodified U.S., the university will work that out (some combination of teaching or research assistantship or stipends)-- and, given your son's accomplishments, they may even offer financial incentives to attract him. Oh, and-- if your son receives a teaching assistant award, is he qualified yet to teach? Teaching is itself a skill which requires time and effort to acquire, and your son would want to work on those skills, out of consideration for the educational welfare of his students (skills such as "public speaking", group dynamics, leadership, empathy, patience, etc.).

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First may I say what a legend your son is. For context, I'm a funded PhD student in the UK and I'm currently VP Lead Cloud Engineer for the central banking and regulatory arm of Barclays Bank (a division known as RFT). I also advise the UK government on national security strategy and countermeasures to cyberwarfare affecting critical infrastructure. At the heart of it, I'm just a guy who loves my craft. I jumped from a junior engineer to a VP in less than a year (something I occasionally have regrets about). When I finished my MSc I was admitted to the faculty at my university because they wanted to perpetuate our relationship, I began teaching on the apprenticeship, MComp and MSc Cybersecurity courses.

Your question reminds me a lot of Akrit Jaswal, otherwise known as the 7 year old surgeon. He applied for a PhD at Imperial College London as a young child. He was refused admission, but that doesn't detract from the fact that he was performing surgeries at that age. The reason he was refused admission is because he was deemed to have insufficient life experience to make a real contribution. They also thought that he needed to be allowed to have a childhood.

Granted your son is a bit older, this does remind me a lot of Akrit Jaswal. Whilst at the core of it, theoretical computer science is heavily mathematics and totally impersonal, many of the problems that research contributions need to address have a temporal dimension to them. Many of the innovations we see are not as a result of a genius finding the solution to a difficult mathematical problem, but lie in the humanity of what we do.

Before I entered software development and cloud engineering as a full time commitment, I had programmed since I was 8 years old and started to sell my skills at 14. Ironically, when I left school I trained to be a nurse and then became a lawyer (I'm far from a perfect man) - totally different professions. Unfortunately I didn't take the path of CS until much later in my life. The experience life has given me though allows me to be a good researcher. That isn't to say that to be a good researcher you need have lots of life experiences, but it helps significantly. My research area is trustless security, an area which is a hot topic right now given the increasing use of computers as weapons. The problem I'm working with goes much more beyond mathematics and founds itself in human nature, something that is very complicated indeed.

What I would say is that you should consider what you want the endpoint for your son to be. Does he want to be a researcher and only that? Or does he want to take his time to enjoy his youth and figure things out as he goes?

In the UK your son would be turned down for a PhD not because he isn't absolutely fantastic (which from what you say he clearly is), but because his contributions would be limited by his age. Many PhD students worldwide are considered successful if they publish just a single research paper, many PhDs can be submitted with just two good journal publications in solid journals. One of the final tests however is a viva which taps much deeper into the context of your research. A good admissions tutor would be able to detect the likelihood such a young man would be prejudiced through a lack of life experience and wider context. Another measure of a successful researcher is a wider understanding of the implications of their research and an ability to network and promote their research - I think this is where your son would fall down at his age. I don't say this in a negative way, but purely to give you a realistic view of what is required.

I began publishing as soon as I started my MSc, but this is not a measure of success. The reason I have been the leading author in the publications I have been involved in to-date is because I have networked with a large group and collaborated in a way that would not have been possible had that collaboration not existed.

I hope this provides a better view of where your son would sit in relation to a PhD. Ask yourself this, what are you trying to achieve? Is your son trying to obtain a qualification or make a wider contribution? If the latter, is he in a position to do that right now?

This is the fundamental difference between a PhD and any other type of qualification. It's not a benchmark, its an award for contributing to the state of the art, going much more beyond core academia but to the connection between the output of the PhD and the benefit of that output to the rest of the world and the impact it is able to have.

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    This doesn't seem very relevant to the US, which is what OP is asking about. Here, it's fairly normal that a PhD student begins immediately after finishing their undergraduate degree. Whether that happens at 18, 20, or 22, they are not expected to have substantial life experience. – Karen Nov 2 '19 at 1:31

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