I'm a master's student in CS at a top-20 school (in the US), in my second year (although it feels like my first year since I had to play catch-up last year and mainly took undergraduate courses).

My current strategy for applying to PhD programs is to apply only to top-5 this year, and if I don't get in, apply to a fuller range of programs (top 50 or so) next year.

But because I don't have any publications in spite of having worked on 3 research projects, it doesn't sound like I have much of a chance of getting into top-5 programs this year anyway (and applying actually kind of sounds like a waste of time). So if and when I get rejected from them, I would take the next year to try to get a publication and also retake the GRE (my quantitative score is 164--in the 87th percentile when apparently the top programs expect a percentile in the high 90s).

However, although my GPA is 3.9 now, who knows what it'll be next year. Or if I'll manage to get a paper accepted. So does it make more sense for me to just try to get into whatever PhD program will take me now or to take a year to work on strengthening my application? As this post says, apparently the bar you have to clear to be considered an acceptable candidate rises every year anyway, suggesting that anything I do over the following year won't have much of an impact on my prospects.

  • What have you got to lose by applying to all the programs this year? Oct 5, 2017 at 7:18
  • @astronat Say I apply to all programs this year and I only get into my least favorite choice. Odds are I'm just going to turn it down because I'll think "eh, I'll just try for better places next year." So I'll have wasted however many hundreds of dollars on application fees and the time it took to apply.
    – user124384
    Oct 5, 2017 at 14:27

1 Answer 1


Your chances getting accepted by applying out of the blue to top institutions is close to zero given that your application doesn't sound particular in any way. Most applicants GPA is between 3.8-4.0 and your GRE scores are ok. Start contacting some specific professors you would like to work with, even if not top-5, even top-10 or 20 will be better if you have a good research connection with a professor. Don't be obsessed with these rankings. If you have free time and money to throw away, sure, go ahead and apply now, but don't expect anything out of it more than the learning experience. You will also not get any feedback from the rejections, so you will never know why you were rejected.

  • In terms of how to reach out to professors, multiple posts on here have stated that you shouldn't bother emailing them. So am I left only with meeting them at conferences? I went to a conference recently and almost everyone was totally unapproachable. Am I supposed to ask my advisor for personal introductions? That seems like an awkward request. Because I've seen posts here that say it's not necessary to have a personal connection to professors at places you want to go to, it sounds like I should just skip applying this year and strengthen my application.
    – user124384
    Oct 5, 2017 at 14:25
  • @user124384 it really depends on the field and countries and departments, in some fields you will have much higher chances if a professor indicates an interest in working with you and has funding you will likely get accepted. Oct 6, 2017 at 13:06

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