I am currently working as a software engineer at a big tech company which I have about a year in. I am currently thinking of steps I should take to prepare myself in the next few years to apply for a PhD in CS for evolutionary computation or other branches of ML as I always planned on pursuing after a stint in the industry.

For background, I graduated a year ago with a bachelors and masters in computer science from the same university with a concentration in ML, and graduated with the top GPA for my masters, however I did not do any research publications. The extent of my research during my masters was writing papers and doing research for my courses, but they were never published although some of my professors did suggest I should’ve published them at the time.

I looked on here and online and see that this is a weak spot for me. As such, I am asking this question as I feel it would make sense to take advantage of my current situation to get some experience before going for a PhD, since I’m not sure I would have a good time getting admitted into a program being that I am a non-traditional case.

My question is: should I try pivoting my career to get some research experience at a research lab in the industry, like Google Brain or Meta AI, before trying to apply for one of the more top PhD programs? Are there other career moves or general things I can do to help with the lack of research I have? What are some common features of admitted people who came from the industry?

  • 3
    If you are already in a position to get hired by Google Brain or Meta AI as a researcher, why do you need a PhD?
    – cag51
    Commented Oct 22, 2023 at 23:13
  • I just listed those as I don’t really know any other industry research labs. I noticed that there are software engineering roles at these labs, so I was wondering if it made sense to work somewhere like those labs as a SE first before going into actual research
    – Cizox
    Commented Oct 22, 2023 at 23:59

2 Answers 2


Actually, since you are in the US, it isn't really necessary. The PhD program is to teach you how to be an effective researcher in your field, not just to verify that you already are. You don't earn a degree to prove that you don't need to earn it.

What you do need, however, is to make contact with your old professors who still might remember you and get them to write good letters of recommendation that say you are highly likely to succeed in a doctoral program and thereafter.

This probably isn't hard after only a year, but it might be worth it, if possible to visit them face to face for the ask. We teach a lot of students and concentrate on the current ones. Seeing your face might bring back useful memories that will help in generating a good letter.

You might even go back to one or another undergraduate mentors if you did well there, though your masters level professors are probably more likely to remember you.

This assumes you did well, of course, and that your other elements, such as GPA are also in line.

Some research experience can help, and I don't want to discount it, but it isn't really needed and good letters are. You especially might want to talk to the professors who encouraged you to publish.

  • Thank you for the response. Do you feel like there is some “cutoff” where it becomes less meaningful to ask for old professors for LoR? I ask because I am just curious as to what is the ideal time I can spend in the industry before reasonably returning to academia for a PhD, as I do like doing industry work and researching. I’d like to see if there’s a middle ground for the two.
    – Cizox
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 0:01
  • Don't think of a cutoff, but if people in academia forget you it will be hard to get good letters. If you keep in contact it is less of an issue.
    – Buffy
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 0:04

The best thing you can do is searching for a lab you would like to join as a PhD student and contact the Lab head. Since recently there has been a lack of PhD students in CS, I am sure they will be happy to help you. I don't think you necessarily need publications, but if they think you do, you can still start to collaborate with them prior to joining a PhD program.

  • 1
    "Since recently there has been a lack of PhD students in CS," Since when ? Where ? Please clarify.
    – Nobody
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 9:04
  • Since the pandemic, but even before that it was difficult to retain PhD students since industry is paying way more.
    – AkiPhD
    Commented Oct 23, 2023 at 18:40

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