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I am 23, I have a Russian diploma in Computer Science and I am interested in getting into PhD in Computer Science in the US. But after reading this post and some google search I realized that I have some major problems in my application.

  1. I don't have any research experience and results to show:
    when I was 17 I moved in (big Russian city) to attend university there and I had to work really hard (40-60 hours per week) in night shifts to pay for myself (rent, food, books, etc). So I have got major health problems and haven't got any time (and other resources) for high-quality study. Now, a year after graduation, I still don't have enough time for this kind of project because I have to work hard towards exams. I also have to work hard to earn money for application because of the difference between dollar and ruble.
  2. Recommendation letters from my university professors probably will not have any weight outside my country:
    my university hasn't any famous projects or labs or publications even according to the standards of my own country. Of course, I remember that the most important thing about recommendation letter is that what does it tell about my professional and personal abilities. But will it make any sense since it's written by someone totally unknown for admission committee?

Also, I figured out some good points for my application:

  1. I am very motivated and I already know what it's like to be alone in big city by myself. I already know what it's like to work hard and live on very limited amount of money. I know the difference between what I'm capable of and what I'm not.

  2. I am good at doing an independent work. I did my diploma in digital sound processing and learned all the maths I needed during 3 months without guidance and without any background in this field (when I started I didn't even know what is a bitrate). Then I worked as a research C++ developer in one karaoke project, again in DSP field. There I learned how to work with angry bosses, how to summarise any completed work to present results to managers, how to deploy mathematical models in real project and how to do it fast and so on. This project had some business problems so I quit and started to freelance. For this purpose I had to develop a system for organizing myself and skills to set goals and to meet my own deadlines.

  3. I have a lot of practical knowledge. I worked as a linux system administrator in a big hosting company for about a year, I can write on C++, python, php, Objective C and Java. I know how to work in team and how to communicate with different people.

  4. For last two years I did great amount of work with myself. I quit smoking and drinking alcohol. I totally stopped to take caffeine in any doses, I lost more than 15 kilo (results of my health problems), I gained a lot of muscles and started to do some yoga. During all this time I learned a lot about neurophysiology, cognitive sciences and the basics of biology. I've got really inspired by all this knowledge and now I'm looking forward to work with neuroscience.

  5. I have already took the TOEFL iBT test and have score of 104.

  6. I have a GPA 4.98 from 5.0.

So my question is: how can I make my good points to overweight my problems?

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    The graduate committee will care about your academic good points, not your personal stuff (learning to live in a big city and with limited funds, quitting smoking and starting to exercise -- it's all irrelevant). Also don't say you learned how to work with "angry bosses." Do you see how that could look strange to faculty, i.e., your potential thesis advisors? Be realistic about the schools you apply to: find out from professors at your school if previous students have attended graduate programs in the US, and if so where. (Кстати, в каком «большом русском городе» находится Ваш университет?) – KCd Jun 28 '15 at 7:59
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    At first, thanks a lot to @Enthusiasticstudent for editing my question in more proper way that I did. – foobar Jun 28 '15 at 11:23
  • @Kimball, thanks for the links. I've already read this but didn't come up with keywords for the another two. They were really helpful. – foobar Jun 28 '15 at 11:29
  • @foobar The search bar results aren't always so great anyway (the possible duplicates suggested when you ask a question are much better). Tracing through some of the links in the "Related Questions" sidebar is often helpful. – Kimball Jun 28 '15 at 11:36
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You can ask that the application fee be waived due to financial hardship.

Then try to take the attitude, there's nothing lost by applying -- and what the heck, you might get in!

Try to choose the departments you want to apply for based on the research interests of the faculty, and the courses that are regularly offered. (It is not enough to go by just the catalog, since some institutions have mouth-watering courses listed in their catalogs but they somehow never actually get offered. So look at both spring and fall schedules of classes.)

The Comp Sci department at U of Wisconsin - Madison used to, and probably still does, encourage people to apply for their graduate program who have worked in the field, as you have. That might be a good one to apply for if you find several professors whose research interests appeal strongly to you.

Computer Science is a field that generally needs to employ a large number of teaching assistants (TAs). The better your English (in practice, not just in a test result), the more effective you will be as a TA. A TA typically grades homework and exams, and offers office hours, where students can come in and ask questions and get help with their homework (both paper and pencil and writing and debugging programs). TA work takes, on average, 20 hours per week, or possibly a little less -- but don't count on it! If you get a TAship, your tuition will be covered (i.e. you won't have to pay a cent) and you will get a stipend to live on. You might want to continue your freelance work in the summers, to bring some more income in -- otherwise you might have trouble paying for an occasional plane ticket to visit friends and family back home, or elsewhere.

As the other answer said, the points from your outline that you will want to emphasize in your application are: - motivation - your initiative in doing independent academic and paid work (this is often called being a "self starter") - the list of computer languages you have worked in - your experience with DSP - your company experience working in a high-paced development team using mathematical models (put that in your CV, please -- note "high-paced" means rushing to meed deadlines; "team" is code for impatient jerk bosses) - your interest in multidisciplinary research related to neuroscience -- you can use this as a topic for your application essay, but please don't list the types of things you learned; instead, describe, à la science fiction, if you have to, some dream of what you'd like to do with your present and future computer science knowledge and skills to further the field of neuroscience - your GPA - some well-written recommendation letters.

If your department could come up with some sort of prize or honor to give you, that would be helpful. There doesn't have to be any money associated with it.

I have no idea how to interpret your TOEFL score, sorry.

In my experience, research experience as an undergrad is icing on the cake for an applicant in computer science. If you don't have it, I don't think that will count against you. However, the truth is that if we look at you, the whole person, we would have to say that you do have research experience. Research is being given a problem, or finding a problem yourself, and figuring out how to solve it, and then explaining it to someone else.

My personal opinion is that your weak suit is your English, and that it wouldn't be a bad thing for you to take some time off the formal studies to get immersed in functioning in spoken English, either through travel or by spending a lot of time with tourists or exchange students.

The reason I say this is what I mentioned about computer science departments needing people who can do office hours for students with questions.

I know there are people active in Academia SE who may disagree with me, and say that it is detrimental to take a year off one's studies.

Your best chance of getting a TAship (i.e. funding for your studies) will be to start the program in late August (13 months from now), so you'll want to get your applications in by about February 2016, and you'll need to spend some time working on your essay, and taking the GRE. So if I were you I would work enough to pay your bills and build up a little bit of savings for a rainy day, but mainly concentrate on improving your conversational English. Around November you could start working on your essay, and please find a local mentor to help you edit it after you've written your draft.

Try to choose three schools to apply for, and make sure that one of them is not too hard to get into. But make sure that all of them feel like a reasonable match for you, in terms of weather and research interests.

You will apply for a doctoral program, but they will probably want you to get a masters degree before you start the PhD. That's okay, they're generally pretty organically connected.

  • Thank you very much for your reply! the terms for the resume and the approach to the essay you suggested are very helpful. Also, it didn't occurred to me that my English skills could be of such importance -- most of the universities's faqs and other resources say that TOEFL (or any other English exam) score is only for the guarantee that I will be able to communicate with people on minimum level. – foobar Sep 5 '15 at 15:27
  • Well, universities want to attract tuition-paying students! But if you want to pay your way through, as a teaching assistant, you'll want to be comfortable communicating with the undergrads. – aparente001 Sep 5 '15 at 15:31
  • Yes, of course. But there's usually a requirement for the foreign students because of which they can't have a TA before they live in the country for about 1-2 years (it's different from school to school). So I thought that my English skills can't have much weight anyway. But now the most important question is how often can this requirement be avoided if student has great language skills. – foobar Sep 5 '15 at 15:41
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This is a pretty specific question but I'm going to try and answer it broadly.

Generally speaking, applicants with no research experience are not appealing or competitive candidates to professors for graduate school. When professors want to admit a student to work with them, they want someone who is going to be able to hit the ground running somewhat - who knows the basics of how research works, who has some ideas about what interests them, and who knows how to do some basic research tasks. Furthermore, they're looking for students who aren't going to realize halfway through their first year that they hate research and decide to drop out. (Which makes me turn the question back on you: Why do you want to get a PhD, if you have no research experience?)

That said, if you have no research experience and you still want to apply for a PhD program (which I don't recommend), you'll have to demonstrate that you have acquired the knowledge and skills to succeed in a PhD program in another way. Being able to live alone isn't the way - they expect that as a basic part of being an adult.

-Recommendation letters will go a long way. Your professors don't have to be famous or personally known by your graduate program committees. They just need to know you very well, and be able to comment on your ability and potential to do research and succeed in the field. -If you had to do research-like tasks for any classes - like a final project or capstone - you can discuss that, and what you learned and how you will translate that to research in the program. The research C++ developer position is a good example. You did research; use that experience as a basis for further explanation. -Motivation is good, but you can't just say that you are motivated - you need to demonstrate it in an academic sense. What academic things have you done to show that you are motivated?

However, you will probably need to apply to an MS program first and get some research experience that way.

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