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I graduated from my undergrad program last December. My grades and GRE scores are good but my school is relatively unknown. I don't really have research in the sense that I haven't published anything, and I don't believe anything I've done to be particularly novel. The school I went to was a teaching college, there wasn't a strong emphasis on research.

That said, I have been known (as my recommendation-writing professors will surely vouch) to do projects wherein I pick a topic, read a bunch about it, and then implement what I've read about. At present, I'm writing a ray-tracing renderer, and I plan to implement a lot of advanced features by the time I actually apply to grad school, such as photon mapping and an BVH data structure. I also plan to implement a few more shiny bells and whistles based on techniques I've read from different SIGGRAPH papers, but I don't believe I will be doing anything that no one else has done before, especially in the 4 months left until my application is submitted.

For what it's worth, however, this project is 100% my own. I never took a graphics class while in college. I work 40 or more hours a week a software developer, and I do most of my work by waking up at 5:30AM and working until I start work at 9. I do most of my research (into papers and topics) when I get home, and during the work day when I have a few minutes.

My question is, how valuable is the information I just listed? Does the attitude demonstrated above make up for the fact that I don't really have terribly original research? What about the fact that my professors probably aren't that well known?

This applies mostly to the top tier of schools. I will be applying to several non-elite schools as well, but it is with the top schools that I am most worried about my lack of research. Do I have even a small chance to get into a top school, or am I simply noncompetitive as a candidate?

-- As for work experience, I have 8 months of experience as an intern at a fairly high profile research institute, but the truth is the work they had me do while there really wasn't research. My current job is developing mobile applications and websites. I find it very underwhelming, and I imagine graduate schools will as well.

  • Certainly better than nothing and admissions will recognize that. Also it means you've been READING the literature too, which is also a plus (not as major as research and publishing, but a plus). For top schools I may be worried with just typical good gpa/gre, though "top" is vague. I interpreted it as top10. Also, MS or PhD? Should be focusing on what the profs are researching instead of blindly applying to "top" schools. – rch Aug 7 '14 at 7:33
  • At the moment, I'm leaning towards PhD since I think I want to head in the direction of research. I have also been looking at professors, which is limiting me somewhat in terms of which schools I'm looking at. As for "good grades and gre", I graduated with a 3.9/4 and I got a 166 in quantitative on a GRE practice exam, though that was without studying, so I expect to do better when I actually study for and take the real one. – ThatGuy Aug 10 '14 at 22:37
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How valuable is the information I just listed?

Very, since it shows that you are capable of reading and understanding the literature, and capable of implementing what you read (the true test of understanding).

Does the attitude demonstrated above make up for the fact that I don't really have terribly original research?

I doubt that any faculty, anywhere, expects undergrad students to have published research. I think the attitude you describe is very valuable for grad school.

What about the fact that my professors probably aren't that well known?

Well, having a famous professor vouch for you certainly counts for a lot. But not having that network at an undergraduate level shouldn't preclude you from getting into a good graduate course, especially if you have some nicely implemented projects up your sleeve.

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I am coming from a very similar background (high performing student in an average CS program, with no formal lab experience). As far as your chances at a top program, this question was recently discussed. I don't think anyone can say for sure except the committee members, but it's definitely possible.

I was accepted with a few independent research projects, none of which had any real "results". What I did (YMMV) was review the literature and come up with incremental modifications or advancements, or in one case an experiment for which the outcome was pretty obvious but which had never actually been performed.

In my interviews, the emphasis was not even the details of these projects, but how I could relate the skills I had gained to the topics my potential advisers were interested in. As Dylan mentioned, even top programs don't require that incoming students are already accomplished researchers (what would be the point of attending?) but that you show initiative and capacity for research.

My advice then, would be to use the 4 (+- 1) months you have until you submit to spin your implementations into independent research projects. Try to push just past the limits of the research you reviewed. If possible, you should document these projects by submitting technical reports somewhere (e.g. your undergrad dept. might be able to assign a technical report number and host the document).

But even if you can't do that, try to clarify in your own mind how the experience of independent study might have prepared you for research, so that you can communicate that effectively. Good luck!

Oh I almost forgot, everything I have ever read about non-research work experience indicates it's basically unimportant... however, if you happen to apply to non-CS programs that need programmers and you have work history showing your ability to build non-trivial programs it could be a significant advantage. This might backfire if your adviser wants you more as a programmer than a researcher, but nevertheless it could help you get in.

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