Thursday, October 07, 2004

Groups versus Departments

In the US the terms Assistant Professor, Associate Professor and Professor represent different stages in one's career but they all play a similar role in research and advising students. An assistant professor is nobody's assistant.

The names get their meaning from a structure you still see in many other countries (Germany is a good example). Here you have research groups, where a lead professor has nearly complete control of hiring and the budget. The equivalents of assistant and associate reflect the temporary and permanent faculty members of those groups.

How does this affect graduate studies? In Germany a grad student joins a group and works within that group. In the United States a student joins a department usually without a specific advisor in mind and often not initially committing to a specific subfield of computer science.

So to those who send me and other American computer scientists requests to join our groups, the US system doesn't work that way. Instead go to the departmental web page and follow the appropriate links to find information on how to apply to that department. If you have a specific researcher that you want to work with, use the personal statement to say this and your reasons for it.

Trust me, we read the applications carefully and choose Ph.D. candidates as best as we can. It just doesn't help to send personal requests, I just point to our web page and trash the email.


  1. Do you think seeing applications is like grading homeworks/exams or like reviewing papers?
    With a department getting 500+ applications(for medium sized departments), I think it would be hard to `read carefully' or review applications. I think it would be more like grading homeworks in a course where students have more or less the same idea and you browse through them to see if they seem to have understood the problem.

  2. I thought I was the only one who graded that way!

    I have a vague feeling that I should be checking each step of each proof to make sure it is correct, but in reality this is just not feasible.

    In some cases, all they need are some magic words like "induction on length" in order to get all the points.

    I think reviewing applications is done more carefully than grading because:

    (1) It is really important, and everyone doing it knows that.

    (2) Its only done once a year, so you can afford to spend a lot of time on it.

    (3) The information is "less dense", so your brain can actually manage to process all of it(unlike some student's 10-page long "proof" which is nothing but a waste of time).

    In general, I do feel that applications are looked at fairly carefully.