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I am a computer science engineer with around 3 years of experience designing and implementing large scale software systems. I chose to join a job right after my masters, to get a feel of what the industry holds. Having spent my bit here, I now want to get back to academics, especially back into my areas of specialisation. I hold a masters in computer science with a specialisation in Information Security, but no publications. I have a decent (mediocre?) GPA of 8.8 in my masters. I also managed to publish a thesis during my stay in college. However, there is no publication associated with the subject matter of the thesis itself.

What should I do to build upon my profile? Here's a list of things I'm already trying -

  1. Contributing to Open Source Software in Security.
  2. Changing my job to fit a more "security" based profile. However, as I have not worked directly in this area for the past three years, this is proving to be a tad difficult.
  3. Trying to learn the ropes of ethical hacking (think bugcrowd for instance).

What I have NOT done (yet)-

  1. Directly contacting professors/post-grads (or even peers who got into research) working in the areas I'm interested in.

I'm not sure if all this, even though time consuming, would lead to any concrete results. Can my industry experience lead to anything? Am I on the right track? What are other things I could do?

To be more specific, I'm looking for pointers to things that can be done while in the industry to construct a research profile.

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  • Where are you applying? – Davidmh Oct 5 '15 at 12:42
  • Also, what percentile is GPA 8.8 in your program? – Davidmh Oct 5 '15 at 13:39
  • @Davidmh : Like all students, I'm hopful of making it to the top tier universities in security, like Berkeley, UIUC and Duke. However, I'm still researching the lesser known universities with strong labs in my areas of interest. I'm in the top 5 in my batch. – learningTheRopes Oct 6 '15 at 3:54
  • Did you produce a thesis in your masters? That would be one publication off which your research potential can be assessed. – user38309 Oct 6 '15 at 5:17
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I also took roughly 2-3 years "off" from academia to work in industry before starting my PhD (not computer science related). I actually think such stints are useful if you frame them in a certain way. You could talk in your statement of purpose about your journey to applying to the PhD, including why you went into industry after the Master's degree instead of continuing to the PhD. Many students struggle in their statements to convey why they wish to obtain the PhD and/or why they feel that they can ultimately finish the degree. In your case, you can talk about going into industry to figure out whether you truly want to go back into academia (the "if you love it, let it go" approach), and then talk about how what you're doing in industry directly applies to what you wish to study. I think many programs would welcome such an application.

I'm less familiar with what 8.8 means, so I cannot comment on whether this is a detriment or not. Having no publications after completing a Master's degree and 3 years post-Master's degree may be a weak spot that you should address in your application. At least in the U.S., graduate admissions can be influenced--sometimes heavily--by personal connections. To that end, I would recommend contacting potential PhD supervisors very soon to introduce yourself and inquire about any openings s/he may have for PhD students. It does take a non-trivial amount of time, but I do think it's worth it.

  • Good answer, I also was in industry for awhile after/during my Masters but before PhD, and I was admitted to a top optical science program. However, I had a publication in a good journal and I had worked with a Professor at the University prior to my matriculation... – daaxix Oct 5 '15 at 15:45
  • My masters was mostly a industry related masters, and not research oriented. It was only for a span of two years. I agree with the personal connections bit. Infact, I'm already jotting down a list of potential professors to contact. However, I guess its important to show some relevant work in the professor's area before actually contacting them, and that's why I've not yet done that. – learningTheRopes Oct 6 '15 at 3:58
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Several things I would recommend to begin doing as you are gearing up for applying to PhD programs:

  1. Read the research of the professors at the top 5-10 schools you are interested in. Nothing interests the professor as much as those who are interested in their research -- and the only way to convey genuine interest is to have genuine knowledge of their projects. You can typically find their publications in their CVs and research lab websites, as current projects. Note that often (for unknown reasons) faculty CVs that are online may be 3-5 years out of date, as might be the websites of their research labs. For this reason, it's a good idea to directly query academic research databases (IEEE etc.) for most recent conference proceedings or journal pubs with their names. Read their publications and check out any open-source tools they have made available online. Also, check out the names and research centers of any other faculty (at same or other institutions) affiliated (co-publishing, co-leading grants, etc.) with these professors. This can be a good way to narrow down the list of "backup" programs to apply to (see point #2).

  2. It is not uncommon to apply to about a dozen PhD programs to get an admission. Rather than putting all eggs in one (or three) baskets of top 3 programs, plan on applying to at least 5 "backup" programs that might not be top tier, but that are also strong and are situated in places you would not mind living for a good chunk of your life.

  3. Think broadly and deeply about your research interests. You mention narrowing down to "security", but in the academia I imagine there are 100 different flavors and sub-fields within that broad area, depending on different technologies, theoretical and analytic frameworks, etc. (As one strategy, Wikipedia can be a great way to deepen/broaden perspective and gain general familiarity with some of the key concepts and players in the various sub-domains of a broader domain.)

One key aspect that should be communicated in letters of application to a department/program is one's research interests, and how they tie in with the research directions of the department's faculty. Having a clear sense of a handful things you would like to study will help you tailor your application letters to various departments.

This will provide you with the flexibility but also the focus and self-reflection needed to craft strong applications to top programs as well as an overall well-rounded application strategy across all programs to which you might apply. Good luck!

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