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When applying to a computer science PhD position in US, does it make sense to mention various significant achievements (finishing in top 5% percent) in programming/data-mining contests (topcoder, kaggle, hackerrank).

These competitions have their weight for tech giants, but does a PhD hiring committee takes them into consideration? If so, it would be nice to know how much weight do they have and what is the best way to present them?

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  • Anecdotal note: I list several competitions I won on my CV under the Awards section. Mar 27, 2015 at 21:00
  • I'd also love to get some input from people who've been on hiring committees on this topic, as I've talked with an awful lot of HR/hiring managers in industry who speak highly of competitions - but I've never heard a professor mention the concept, outside of mathematical competitions.
    – BrianH
    Mar 30, 2015 at 21:19

3 Answers 3

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Yes, they matter to PhD hiring committees, because they show potential.

I believe you should include such achievements in a "Distinctions" or "Awards" section in your CV.

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    Is there any way to back up this statement, because this sounds like an opinion. Mar 16, 2015 at 19:03
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    Strong programming skills are valued everywhere, including the academia, and especially in the (applied) Computer Science domain, I guess there is no need to back that. Personally, I have known many persons who, although they had great ideas, could not implement them. This gives an advantage to somebody that, not only can they implement their own ideas, but they have proved they can do it with great efficiency. At least if I were in a PhD hiring committee, I would give this some weight.
    – george
    Mar 17, 2015 at 13:00
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    @SalvadorDali This question is asking for opinions. There are no rules that every committee follows and even if one person from a committee tells you they do/don't look for it, it doesn't me that they actually do/don't. Mar 27, 2015 at 20:07
  • @AustinHenley I agree that it can be seen as an opinion question (as majority of questions here), and I assume that there is no rule specifying how important this particular factor is, but I assume that there are some guidance of how people use this information. If one person (who actually sits in the committee says that they do not look at it and 10 people agrees with him, this still provides a lot of information (also it does not mean that no one uses it). Mar 27, 2015 at 20:49
  • @SalvadorDali I was only responding to your first comment. But I think the only answer you'll get from the question is "yes, some people care, but we won't ever know much exactly." Mar 27, 2015 at 20:57
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Definitely yes! It shows you're willing to take an extra mile, and show extracurricular enthusiasm in the subject.

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  • True! Activity and enthusiasm always beat inactivity. "Doing things", as opposed to "not doing things", is a plus. Nov 13, 2015 at 17:26
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I doubt there is a given weight to any of an applicant's documentation. Every applicant is different, and every PhD research is different.

  • An applicant might do well in certain competitions for coding, but a PhD research is certainly not only about coding. Most of it is literature review, writing and formulating the problem and finding a solution (which has nothing to do with coding)
  • An applicant may have wonderful scores on each and every subject (in Bachelor/Master maybe), but if it is not completely within the field of the PhD, a committee will most likely look at how capable this applicant is for the research
  • An applicant with a very good CV who writes an application letter that does not indicate any interest or is poorly written is most likely not to be chosen compared to an applicant with a reasonable CV who shows strong interest and enthusiasm

Certainly, listing achievements and publications helps if you like to have a career in academia. In tech companies they hire you specifically for your programming skill, and that's most likely what you do there, not too much else. In academia it's the 'full package' that you need to provide.

To conclude: I doubt there is a grading system and equation that evaluates the 'best match' for a PhD position.

Edit: I am not saying that you should not mention them in an application. All achievements, honors and awards gained in the field will benefit your application. It can be beneficial to even shortly explain the details of the competition and your result, so the committee understands their importance.

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  • Thank you for your feedback, and I agree with you that every applicant is different. The only thing is that I think you are missing what kind of competitions I am talking about. They are not about coding (hardest problems take less than 200 lines of code) they are about ingenuity and applying hard algorithms in an interesting way. As for data competitions, a lot of high profile people in data analysis participating there, some of them producing publications with significant citation index en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Netflix_Prize Mar 31, 2015 at 5:50
  • Thanks for your clarification. Indeed, like I mention, listing achievements certainly helps. Referring to the competition, it sounds you could add the competitions to some kind of 'honors and awards' section. In your question you specifically asked for the 'weight' a committee puts to these achievements, and that's why my answer is written this way. I've added a bit extra to the answer.
    – DoubleYou
    Apr 7, 2015 at 0:23

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