I am currently an undergraduate student at a large state university.

I have good grades (>3.90 GPA) in Biochemistry and I am now adding computer science courses. I am doing equally well in those (>3.80 GPA). But the majority of my research is in biochemistry. I did my honors thesis, worked in a wet lab for two years, and have two research publications. But these all have nothing to do with computer science.

I am really happy with the people in biochemistry and molecular biology, but not with the field itself. My biology advisors tell me I can probably do very well for myself in biochemistry. But I want to do computer science, since that is where my interests really lie. I like making algorithms out of strange algebras that don't exist and really fancy statistics that pretend they can think, and that is almost non-existent in my field of molecular genetics. I am not a fan of bioinformatics.

I already have research experience. But it might not be the right type of research experience. Nor do I have CS internships. Just lots of biology. Should I apply for those phd programs now, or should I wait until I have more research in computer science before I apply for Ph.D. programs?

Now suppose I apply for these top ten Ph.D. programs and I am rejected. How are reapplicants viewed within the academic cs community? Can I try again after a stint in your average brand-name company?

  • Why not just apply to a mix of top and middle ranked PhD programs as well as a few MS programs? – Austin Henley May 15 '15 at 19:03
  • That's a really good point. But I also want to know about the higher phd places – lkadjfao May 15 '15 at 19:17

In navigating my own applications over the years, I'm led to believe that the most important thing they want to know about you is are you going to be a good researcher. That you have publications in a technical field helps you a lot, it demonstrates you know the process one must go through in pursuing original work.

I will say that going straight to a PhD at a top 10 university in the field is somewhat of a leap without having much CS background, they won't have much evidence that your research interests are well-developed and that you are really serious about sticking with studying computer science at that level for 5+ years. But if they like what they see from your research and undergraduate coursework and recommendation letters (VERY IMPORTANT), then they will often just have you take a handful of pre-requisite courses at the beginning to get you caught up to where they think a beginning PhD student should be, e.g. taking some upper-level undergraduate classes that give you a good breadth of CS knowledge.

You would have a much better shot at getting into a Masters program in CS coming from your position, if you are willing to fund it yourself or take out loans. Oftentimes your PhD funding comes from a member of the faculty and so they need adequate convincing that you're worth the money.

My advice would be: apply to a few top 10 PhD programs you think you'd be a good fit for, apply to a few middle-tier PhD programs to give you some options, and then apply to a few MS programs if you think you'd be willing to go that route. You'll probably get an MS acceptance somewhere, you have a good shot at getting into a middle tier school, and you never know! They may just really like your application bundle and you might land a golden seat at a top 10.

And if you don't like the results, spend a year or two doing things to improve your application (CS research, online classes, work through problems in well-known textbooks, get a MS degree, read A LOT of papers and develop very specific research interests, etc.)

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