I just finished my first year as an undergraduate student majoring in computer science at a state school not known for computer science. Due to AP credits and such, I have the opportunity to graduate in two more semesters (which will make four in all). To facilitate this, I am taking a class at a different institution this summer. Near the end of last semester, I went through a month or so of anxiety with regards to what to do after graduation. Eventually, I decided that I want to go into academia. Based on what I’ve read on the internet,

  1. There are considerably more CS PhD’s than open faculty positions
  2. Because of (1), it is important that I get a PhD at a prestigious university
  3. PhD applications are highly dependent on research experience and letters of recommendation

I currently have a 4.0 GPA, but my undergraduate college will not help me on applications. Further, I have no research experience. I intend to find a research opportunity when I return to school this Fall, although I don’t know that any of the CS professors at my school are known at the top CS graduate programs.

I am also aiming to talk to some professors at the university I am taking a summer class at about any small possibility of me assisting them in their research over the summer, as this university has a more highly ranked CS program than the one I attend.

My primary interest in in computer security.

Basically, deciding that I want to undertake a PhD kind of puts my schedule on overdrive. I will be taking the GRE and applying to programs in the Fall, so anything I have on my application kind of has to get done over summer.

Have I made any glaringly incorrect conclusions? And

Is there anything else I can do to improve my chances of being accepted into a top PhD program?

  • What's your hurry? Are there financial considerations that are pushing you to compress the normal timeline in such an exaggerated way? Commented May 11, 2017 at 6:24
  • It's really not that big of a stretch for me to graduate this early, besides the one summer class, I'm only taking an average of 15 credits each of these four semesters. If I didn't take the summer class, I would be paying for an entire extra semester for four credit hours toward my degree (because of the way my school's prerequisites work, this class is kind of a bottleneck). I'm not compressing my schedule per se, and for me to not graduate this early, I would be filling my schedule with free classes, which I can't justify paying for.
    – bluepanda
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 17:00
  • Yes, I'm familiar with those bottleneck courses, good description. Glad you found a place to take it. It's true that undergrad research experiences strengthen an application but I think not having that is far from being a deal breaker. But do read the application instructions carefully at the programs you want to apply for. // Make sure one application is for a master's at a safety school; that way, if you don't get into a top PhD program (as seems to be your goal), you can do your master's at a mid-level school and then apply again for a PhD at a top school. Commented May 12, 2017 at 3:06

1 Answer 1


The following constitutes my $0.02 with regards to your inquiries. First of all, some fragments of your statement caught my attention. I list them below:

"Eventually, I decided that I want to go into academia. Based on what I’ve read on the internet" - I would suggest you try and get some input aside from information you've gathered from the internet. Your current CS professors might be a good choice. Ask them about what PhD programs, about their experiences, about their opinions, etc.

"[...]but my undergraduate college will not help me on applications." - This fragment leads me to believe you attend a college (undergrad-based) and not a Research-1 university. Is this the case?

To answer one of your questions (the last one), see if (Summer next year) you could join a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Those are usually big resumé boosters when it comes to Ph.D. program applications.

  • Yes, according to the wikipedia page, my college is in the R-2 category. As far as REU goes, I was under the impression that I would be applying to PhD programs in the Fall, and acceptances would come in in the Spring. Are you suggesting looking for an REU the summer after I graduate?
    – bluepanda
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 1:37
  • You should be pushing to get into an REU program next Summer (2018). The REU program experience should be already in your resumé when you start applying to Ph.D. programs. If I read correctly, you are taking a course at another university during this Summer. If so, and if this university offers an REU program, I would highly recommend that you enquire about their REU programs, e.g., find out about their requirements, find out about research topics/projects, speak to the faculty member(s) in charge of REU programs, etc. Hope this helps! Good luck!
    – M.P.R
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 13:54
  • My expected undergraduate graduation date is Spring 2018. Would you suggest I work in the industry for a year, applying to PhD programs that Fall?
    – bluepanda
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 16:56

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