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I'm a undergrad in CS and Math. My plan for college and beyond is to double major in Computer Science and Math, go to industry for a couple years then get a masters in Comp/Electrical engineering. From there I'll go for a PhD in Computer Science, focused on Theoretical Computer Science.

My questions are:

  • How many B's and below (in core CS/Math classes) are dealbreakers for grad school committees? Is a 3.0-3.6 harmful for acceptance to (good) grad schools?

  • For the above question, does industry experience help or hurt apps even with "low" GPAs?

  • I've done research with various professors in fields from engineering, physics,mathematical biology, and even sociology/anthropology - with only one research experience (so far) in computational biology (However, most of the research has involved CS concepts). Would this various research hurt or help my app?

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  • From the GPA format, I trust you are in the US (and applying to grad school in the US)? Also, you may want to specify that GPA range a little more precisely; there is a huge difference between a 3.0 and a 3.6.
    – cag51
    Feb 20 at 2:24
  • Yes I am. I'm reckoning to aim to stay within that range. But lets say I get a 3.3, worst 3.0 Feb 20 at 2:58
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    By the time you get to the PhD application you will have had plenty of time to build a cv that demonstrates your interests and abilities. So don't overthink this - just enjoy do the best you can. Feb 20 at 3:02
  • Depending on how many semesters you have left in college, and what PhD program (e.g. top ~30 or not) and post-PhD career (academia or not) you're aiming for, I might have to disagree with Prof. Bolker. Math and CS PhD applications in the US are extremely competitive and your GPA matters a lot. That being said, I hear there are ways to make up for a low GPA by e.g. publications and excellent recommendation letters, but I should say, I doubt I've ever come across a classmate/friend/collaborator who's gotten in (top 30) without a good GPA, so at best it is a rare event and hard to pull off
    – nara
    Feb 20 at 3:28
  • I think it's better to leave the answer to a prof who's been on admission committees. But to the best of my knowledge, TCS PhD positions are mostly occupied by younger students with strong undergrad background, rather than those with industry experience. In the US, I heard from my professors that an MSc makes sense only if you can't get in with your BSc (e.g. your undergrad GPA isn't good enough or you didn't have enough courses). Keep in mind, you also have options outside of the US, and as far as I know, in some countries they care a lot less about GPA, but you most probably need a masters.
    – nara
    Feb 20 at 3:36

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I'll answer assuming that this is for the US.

A few B's is fine, but in you major(s) you want almost all top marks. A GPA near 3.0 will not be favorable to graduate admissions. Most of the competition at top grad schools will have GPA's at or above 3.7. And there will be a lot of competition.

Industry experience will do nothing for you for a career in TCS except at a very few companies (Google, IBM, Oracle). The kind of "research" you do most places is focused on products, not knowledge, just the opposite of graduate (and faculty) research. And being away from academia for a few years can hurt in other ways. You want letters of recommendation from academics (primarily) who remember you. You don't want to get too settled into a life style that requires high income, as you generally need to give that up at least for the years of grad study and maybe beyond. Academics can expect to earn around half of what industry folks do at the same career stage.

Actual research of any kind as a student will be helpful, but you are mostly describing applied research, not "pure" or TCS. Still helpful, though, as not all undergraduates have an opportunity to do any research. Even better if your name is on a few publications. You don't need to be "first" or "sole" author for this to be beneficial at this level.

Your first paragraph, however, suggests a sort of scattered approach, rather than a tightly focused one. That could be a consideration depending on what your overall career goals are and what real specialization you eventually want to pursue. Note that EE and TCS can be quite close or very far apart.

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  • thanks for the write up. What do you mean scattered approach? Yes, TCS and EE doesn't usually compliment, but for my research purposes it does. Also when you say my name on a couple of publications, does that mean I have to publish with a prof? What if I publish in journals that are non CS/TCS (or even STEM, but apply STEM topics)? Feb 21 at 20:02
  • If you do research with a prof see if you can work a publication out of it. At the undergrad level don't worry much about the venue as long as it is reputable. And note that your "research purposes" need to align with those of a university. At some EE and TCS are in different departments, even different "schools" within a university.
    – Buffy
    Feb 21 at 20:09

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