Study for the Ph.D program

A third-year college student asked: “My parents want me to study for the Ph.D. degree in Computer Science but I am not sure that I want to go that far. How long will it take to complete this degree? How do I get accepted into this program? I do not like research, is it possible to get a Ph.D. without doing research? Please advise.”

I wrote to him: “The Ph.D. degree is the highest degree a student can obtain in a university and it is all about conducting research. It follows a Master’s Degree, even some universities allow exceptional students with a Bachelor degree to go straight to the Ph.D. program. On the average, it would take about five to seven years to obtain a Ph.D. program after getting the Bachelor degree. (About two years of classroom study and another three years or more of conducting research.)

The fact is the Ph.D. is about conducting research, it is important for students to study under a well-known research professor so the most important to getting accepted into a Ph.D. program is about selecting professors to learn from, NOT about the degree itself or the coursework. There is no such thing as having a Ph.D. degree without conducting research unless it is a “fake degree.” If you do not like to do research, I would NOT recommend going for this degree.

What the Admissions Committee is looking for are students who have a Master’s degree with excellent achievement (GPA and courses work in the main subject) and a high score in the Graduate Exams (GRE) and possibly have done some research projects to determine whether the students can do research under the guidance of a professor who will be the thesis advisor.

Students need to write a Statement of Purpose in which they should clearly show their accomplishments of what they have done and the direction what they want to do in their research. (i.e., A Research Proposal) It is very important that students know exactly what they want to do when applying and that is why having a career plan is necessary. The Statement of Purpose must also be supported by several letters of recommendations from professors who know the students well and citing their accomplishments where the Admission Committee will use them to determine if the applicant can do research or not.

The Statement of Purpose is the most important document in the application and it is the paper that the Admission Committee read carefully. It needs to reflect who you students are (i.e., your educational goals, and accomplishments) and why you do you want to apply to the program (i.e., Your career goals and future plan) as well as why do you want to apply to this particular university (Your reasons to apply and who do you want to study under etc.) The Statement of Purpose can distinguish you from hundreds of other applicants and determine whether you can get accepted or not. A well-written Statement of Purpose is very important and you will need to spend a lot of time on it. A poorly written one will automatically get a rejection. (Note: As a member of the Admission Committee, I have seen many poorly-written Statement of Work copy from the Internet or even hire someone to write for them. Sometimes I have seen three or four “identical” Statement of Work with the “same details” from different candidates.)

Basically, The Statement of Purpose is the only opportunity you have to let the admission committee directly get to know you. They will also base on the letters of recommendation from others to determine whether you are qualified for the program or not.

Note: The Ph.D. program is about conducting an“ORIGINAL” and “INDEPENDENT” research that fits with the current research within a particular university. That means what you suggest in your research proposal must “Fit” with some professors who are doing research there.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University

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