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I am working upon a product as core developer which will be launched in USA market in few months if successful. Can this factor improve my chances for getting accepted into a PhD program at a top university (say top 20 in US)?

Normally good universities like CMU, Standford, MIT, Cornell are more interested in student's profile like research work, undergraduate school, etc. I am now passed out from very good university it's ranked in top 20 of India only. Neither did I do research work till now. But being one of founding member of company and developing product for same, I want to know if this factor can help and to what extent.

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Several of my able friends attempted a Ph.D., and only one succeeded. He is not happy with what he got either :) It took him 2.5 years to get coursework out of the way and 4.5 years to complete his thesis. Yes, his salary is higher than mine right now, but that can change, plus it will take him 20+ years to catch up to lost wages. Not that there ever was a wage competition between the two of us ... I have a question - why do you want to do a PhD? You think it would be cool? It is your only ticket into USA (your GPA is out of 10.0, not 4.0 as in USA)? Because you want to do research/be a prof? –  Job Dec 30 '10 at 23:06
As per my only ticket to USA thing, let me make u very clear i will live in my own country. As per reason of doing Ph.D. if u read newspaper u must be knowing your USA, France earns money by selling technology to countries like UAE, India, Saudi Arabia(recently 40 billion $) etc. India needs to have more patents, more technology, more research potential to compete world. –  Maddy.Shik Dec 31 '10 at 7:19
and its not about money, research work is very satisfying thing as a profession, in age of 40,50, .. solving research problems is really beautiful. –  Maddy.Shik Dec 31 '10 at 7:21

7 Answers 7

up vote 7 down vote accepted

No, industrial programming experience will not (directly) help you get into a top 20 school.

I say not directly because there are many other factors that are more important:

  1. Your academic record -- I don't know how to "translate" your GPA score onto the 4.0 scale used in the States (typically, the Graduate School will translate/scale transcripts before it goes to the committee), but if you aren't in the top 10% of your class, you can pretty much cross the top ten schools off your list. [Note: There are some obvious exceptions.]
  2. Your letters of recommendation -- You should have at least three letters from former professors who have worked with you and can attest to your abilities. They should be able to describe not only how smart and hard working you are, but how you are creative and insightful. Don't ask anyone for a letter unless you've gotten A's in all of their courses. Ask them in person and read their body language; if they seem to hesitate, do not push the point, ask someone else instead.

    A letter writer will have an easier job if you've worked with them and they can concretely describe what you've done. For example, saying "I challenged <So-and-so> with <an important task> and they tried three unique approaches, using their background in statistics to handle it, and discovered a way to solve an unrelated problem on the same project." You don't necessarily have to blow them out of the water like this, but it is much easier to write a strong letter with something concrete to work with than it is to say "<So-and-so> took my class and got an A, just like 20 others."

    Bringing this back to your situation: You can ask your manager to write you a letter, but it will not carry much weight. You can use it as a fourth letter, beyond the requirements-- if its really strong, it might help a little.
  3. You personal statement -- Your personal statement is how you convince the committee that not only are you capable of succeeding in a PhD program, but that getting a PhD for you is actually a good idea. That means you are well motivated. It won't fly simply to say "I want to learn more" or "I want to focus on this area" or "It's my dream to have this privilege." No. It must be convincing that your career goals make a PhD necessary.

    On that, if you do not want to do research or teach, you should seriously reconsider your decision.

    Your personal statement must be logical and well written. It will also need to be flawless (no typos or strange formatting). To be frank, it will have to be written much better than the first version of your post. To be fair, I understand you did not have people look over your question before you posted, but it will be a must for your personal statement. The best thing you can do for yourself now is work on improving your writing. The personal statement is also a nice opportunity to explain any gaps in your record, for example, due to special circumstances.

    Bringing that back to programming experience: You may have had an epiphany that academia is the right place for you while working in the industry. If so, you can say it in your statement. Just avoid the cliche of starting your essay with "When I was five I stubbed my toe on a computer and instantly I fell in love...".

    For general writing advice on these essays: After you write your first draft, you can completely remove the first paragraph. It almost always tends to be "throat clearing" that is unrelated to the point of the statement.
  4. Your GRE scores -- Do well on them, be in the 80-90th percentile or better. Do well on your TOEFL as well, if applicable.
  5. (Bonus, But Very Helpful) Your Publications -- If you have work that has appeared in peer-reviewed journals, conferences, or even workshops, these will help you tremendously! In particular, doing research with a professor and getting it published can help overcome any gaps you have in your academic record. It will show without a doubt that you can participate in research.

However, I must object to your notion that a non-top-20 school is somehow worse. Based on your research area of interest, there are schools not in the top 20 that can be in the top five for that specific area. For instance, if your research is in software engineering, you should consider UC Irvine too. There may also be a small school with a professor you'd like to work with in particular.

The bottom line: Research experience will help you get into a top 20 school, not industrial experience. If anything, schools in the 30-50 rank will care more about your industry experience, but even then it will not count for much. The above items are far more important.

Disclosure: I am an assistant professor at UTSA, a research university. I graduated with a PhD from UCSD in 2009.

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Add publications to that. Having peer-reviewed publications as an undergrad is a big plus. –  Dima Dec 31 '10 at 1:23
@Dima: Thanks for the suggestion! –  Macneil Dec 31 '10 at 2:51
@Macneil: I read from CMU site that colleges ranked below 20 mainly look upon GRE score and GPA rather and very less focus upon research work. That is why i asked benefits of being product core developer in relation of only top 20. From my perspective, even top 50 will do good, then only thing is that name of college i pass out from should be well known in India so that i can continue research work back in home either by joining research lab of IBM, Microsoft etc or i can be lecturer in some good college like IIT. –  Maddy.Shik Dec 31 '10 at 7:53
@Macneil: As you mentioned, research work can help me a lot to get good college. So i have planned that i will do research work under some professor of IIT either directly if they agree otherwise while doing masters and then only i will apply for foreign university Ph. D. program. But one of my friend from CMU told me that product developer thing will help you in a huge way so u better not concentrate upon research work as of now and concentrate on GRE general and subjective preparation and also your job. What is your opinion? –  Maddy.Shik Dec 31 '10 at 7:58
@Macneil: I can not finance my Ph. D., with my low academics, all i can do to improve my chance is to get good GRE General score say(1400+ at least) and also good subject test (to cover up my low grades). Will this be enough to get my Ph.D. in a decent university with all of financial concerns taken care by university itself. –  Maddy.Shik Dec 31 '10 at 8:01

Unfortunately, no. This probably will not help you get in to a Ph.D program, or if it does, help you very little -- unless your program has some relationship with the fundamental research you'd be working on as part of your Ph.D.

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With my GPA 6.92/10 and my profile i mentioned above i still want to fulfill my dream of doing Ph. D. from good top universities and then doing research with top researchers. What all things i should do and focus upon. Like one of thing can be to do research under some prof. I am not able to convince any prof in India in IIT for research assistance, they help only those who come under some program in college. some people told me that in Europe some prof can convinced for research assistance. If u have knowledge regarding same, please tell me. –  Maddy.Shik Dec 30 '10 at 21:44


The process of getting a PhD, almost as a rule, has very little to do with lots of coding or programming applications. Being a founder of a popular app will be a character factor: "will this person drop out" for admission, but it does not answer the prime question for PhD seekers:

Can you do original research (c.f. IEEE or ACM papers for examples of research)?

Typically that quality is demonstrated by undergraduate or Master's research. It would also be demonstrable by research at an industrial lab such as Google or Microsoft Research (but from what I can tell, they hire PhD's).

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Perhaps too minor for me to edit: I think you mean "prospective PhD student," and not "PhD candidate." A candidate is a PhD student who has passed all qualifying exams, formed a committee, and "advanced to candidacy" by getting the committee to approve a thesis topic. At the University of California, they even give you an obscure degree called a "C. Phil" when you advance to candidacy. –  Macneil Dec 31 '10 at 3:23
@Mac: Duly noted. –  Paul Nathan Dec 31 '10 at 5:15

I looked into doing a PhD on several occasions.

What I took away from it was this:

  1. A PhD is not something you get to affirm you are the world's greatest programmer.
  2. A PhD will not necessarily help you be a better programmer. It may help some, but the investment doesn't look so hot if that's your goal.
  3. A PhD is what you go after if you primarily want to do research into programming and related fields rather than building apps.

Because most PhD programs are research focused, being a top programmer for most kinds of apps really isn't going to help you too much with the admissions process. It will help some, but its just saying to them you have a brain (maybe), not much else.

I may have gotten a little different perspective because of my goals. The only reason I was looking into PhD was because one day I might want to teach programming (not computer science), but got a strong feeling I was at least looking at the wrong kinds of schools if that was my goal. Most schools I looked into were closer to actively discouraging folks from PhD if they "only" wanted to teach.

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There is a quick way to check if you are any good at teaching programming - start a youtube channel like this guy did: khanacademy.org Programming is one thing that he does not have there. Youtube tends to be a "winner take all" - like when it comes to lectures. If you are competitive, then it is good news. Feedback would help you decide if you are any good, and if they (damn viewers) are worth it :) And it does not require quitting a day job. Technological investment is minimal. I think you should go for it. –  Job Dec 30 '10 at 22:59
Regarding "research focused" and "only" wanting to teach: I hope that all PhD programs in CS are research focused, as I'm not sure what a PhD would mean without original research. Regarding the schools you looked at, it can be a red flag if someone says they don't want to do research, but "only" teach. Why? Because you'll need to get through 5-7 years of doing mostly only research (save for some TAing/grading and course work). And many, many LACs expect research on top of teaching, although more at a 40%/60% load... But I do know PhD programs that would welcome future teachers too! –  Macneil Dec 31 '10 at 1:10
@Macneil - yes I got that. There's more of a societal question of whether we should be tying teaching and researching together. Unless you're going to teach at a junior college or in HS, you usually need a PhD. Probably more than a little related to why we see organizations like Developmentor out there I suppose. –  MIA Dec 31 '10 at 1:34
Well, if you really do want to teach, and do think you could "slog" through 5-7 years of research, please do consider applying to graduate schools. You may realize you enjoy research and want to do both. I can name a nice school for you here in the heart of Texas. :-) –  Macneil Dec 31 '10 at 3:05

Every answer here will (correctly) tell you that a PhD is about research and not development. Also, a PhD is a huge commitment. I recommend going for an MS first since it'll be easier to get into, and it will be easier to finish. Once you have your foot in the door during a masters program, you can ask profs about segueing into a doctoral program. They'll be more likely to sponsor you once you've proven yourself for your masters.

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Another no.

PhD's - and especially the grants needed to do them - are granted on scores, previous research (if applicable) and/or the project application. If you have nothing to show, your best chance is to try to find a professor that is willing to apply for a grant with you. Problem is, each year tons of students finish their masters and fight for those PhD's. So try to prove you're better than them. Good luck with that...

EDIT : Apparently, the situation in Europe is different from the one in the US. In Europe, grants from research funds always require a promotor, most often a professor. There are budgets directed to students, for which you need to apply yourself but you'll need a promotor as well. Hence my suggestion. Given the remark in the comments, this apparently doesn't work in the US.

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Just one point of clarification: In the States, at least, you will not apply for a grant with a professor. You can apply for fellowships and scholarships, but any decent PhD program will support students for their first 1-2 years, after which PhD students are expected to find an advisor to support them (you can also be supported through a TAship). I get dozens of emails from international students each year with this very same misconception. –  Macneil Dec 31 '10 at 1:14
@Macneil: Thx for the correction, I'll adapt. –  Joris Meys Dec 31 '10 at 1:20
Interesting! Thanks for the update... This explains the many emails. Half of my emails all come from the same school, so I was worried someone out there was giving a lot of people bad advice. Another difference is that, in the States (for Computer Science), there is zero expectation that you have a Masters degree first. Most new PhD students come straight from their Bachelors program. –  Macneil Dec 31 '10 at 3:08

In general no, but not always. But I think that's the wrong question to ask, really, because a Phd is certainly not about programming at all, except in a few rare cases. The real question is why you want to do a PhD, and why do you think you will be better than the thousand of other people who also want to do a Phd in the best universities.

I can tell you that professors will glady put your email/letter in the trashbox as soon as they see "I want to work with you because you are a professor at Cornell, MIT, etc.." or something with the same underlying meaning. When you say you want to work for the top university, that's a big red flag right there for any professor. Of course you want to do your PhD in the top university, everybody wants to. You need to say why you think you are a good fit for this professor, with your topic of research.

Note also that trying to do a PhD under a famous professor is actually not that a good idea, especially if you have never done any research before, and if you are a foreigner. Most of them are so busy that they will have no time to spend with you at all (I have witnessed grad students working with one of the top professor of my field, they cannot meat him one to one more than once a year). It is much more important to go along with your professor, assuming of course he has a minimal level (check if he is still publishing in the top conferences, for CS), and to be close to what you want to do. As for why foreigner matters: you will face more difficulties than other (housing, etc...), and the more famous/important the professor is, the less chance he will be able to help you.

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