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Background:

I'm a non-US undergrad majoring in Computer Science. I will have published a couple of research papers in a few months before I graduate, have worked on a couple of research-based academic projects, made some significant contributions to a big FOSS project, have done an internship from a small US startup, and a project in a big company (the size of Microsoft, Yahoo) - kind of a university-company mentorship. I intend to pursue my Ph.D from a US university.

3 questions:

  1. If I join a US startup after relocating to US, work there (coding work - PHP, Python, iOS development) for a year or two before taking the GRE test and applying to MS/Ph.D programmes, will it increase my chances? I really want to work at a startup and want to found my own.

  2. What if the work at the startup is based on data analysis and machine learning (along the lines of which I intend to pursue my Ph.D)?

  3. Also, does having already founded a small startup (supposing I've got an investor or two too) help my chances in gaining admission? Considering I will co-found my own startup anyway someday, for sure.

  • You intend to pursue your PhD in what? – Fomite Dec 11 '13 at 18:38
  • @EpiGrad I'm still figuring that out; but most probably it'll be roughly on the lines of large-scale text classification or large-scale graph analysis (eigenvectors, centrality measures). – Nilesh Dec 11 '13 at 21:06
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The answer to all of these questions and more is going to be: Maybe.

Experience will help, but testimonial in the form of reference letters will be better. If you work at this company and it gets you a dynamite reference letter, testifying to your skill, it may help you. On the flip side, for a PhD, skill may not be sufficient--- for a PhD your research background (what you already have) may be much more important than the work experience.

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    I would like to add that startup coding experience is unlikely to help unless it is research related. – Shion Dec 11 '13 at 19:47
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    a dynamite reference letter, testifying to your skill — Specifically, testifying to your skill as a researcher. Letters testifying to your skill as a programmer are unlikely to be very helpful. – JeffE Dec 11 '13 at 20:15
  • @JeffE - I see. Unfortunately, in my institute (like many middle tier universities in my state), undergraduate research work (good publishable research) is rare - few students do it and the general atmosphere is not really conducive to it. A handful of students like me do independent projects with a little help from faculty mentors. – Nilesh Dec 11 '13 at 21:10
  • If I get access to the proper infrastructure (eg. a cluster for running my hadoop jobs, or the funding to use commercial solutions like AWS) while working at a startup, I can probably do some independent research and be able to publish papers. Would that help? Or is it essential to be affiliated with some research lab or academic institute, since everyone is stressing on reference letters? – Nilesh Dec 11 '13 at 21:14
  • It's far more important that you show potential as a researcher than have actual formal research experience. Intellectual maturity, curiosity, creativity, attention to detail, persistence/stubbornness, confidence, clarity, independence, and a history of finishing your projects are all important indicators that your letter-writers can write about. – JeffE Dec 12 '13 at 1:29
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In answer to your three questions:

1) Working at a startup shouldn't hurt, and may help your application if it supports the part about "wanting to found my own."

2) Sure, the more relevant your work is to your proposed course of study, the better (all other things equal). Just don't get trapped in a lot of "mickey mouse" work in data processing.

3) Most universities pride themselves on training "leaders" in the field, and "tech founder" (to some fundraisers) sounds like "future large alumni donor."

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