Table of Contents
Visiting Graduate Programs
You can visit a graduate program before or after you apply/get accepted. This page provides some guidance about what to expect of a visit and how to prepare yourself.
For more information about computer science graduate school in general, see the Graduate School page.
Preparing to Visit
Contact a program well in advance that you'd like to visit. Talk to your advisor about if he or she has contacts at the school. Otherwise, their web page often will have an email address to contact for information.
These visits typically last about a day. The grad program will customize a schedule for you, based on your research interests. Tell the visit organizer up front if there is a faculty member that you are particularly interested in meeting when you visit. Typically, you'll meet faculty in your desired research areas and maybe some others that you may not have realized that you'd be interested in. You'll probably also meet graduate students at different stages in their career and in various research areas.
Many programs host specific days where all their accepted students from North America are invited to visit. The visit days are often listed in your acceptance letter. Typically, the visit day or weekend is very structured. You'll get a feel for the program, your possible classmates and perhaps the University and living in the area in general. Since there are other students involved, you'll probably see more formal talks from the Chair, faculty, and graduate students, rather than only one-on-one discussions with faculty.
If the program doesn't have a visit day, then you should contact the person who sent your acceptance letter about visiting well in advance of when you would like to visit. Follow the advice from Before Acceptance if there is no scheduled visit day.
Questions to Ask
Your goal is to ask the right questions to help you figure out if the program is a good fit for you. For a program to be a good fit, you should be able to identify several faculty members that you would like to work with, identify graduate students that have similar backgrounds and personalities that you can relate to, and feel that you could live in the area for 5-7 years. Ask many people the same questions to see if you are getting consistent answers.
- What are the course requirements for a master's degree? for a Ph.D.?
- For how long do students typically take courses?
- What are the major milestones to earning a Ph.D.? (Typically, these include a breadth requirement, called a qualifying or preliminary exam, and a Ph.D. proposal, and a Ph.D. defense.)
- Is there a breadth requirement? (Sometimes called the preliminary exam or the qualifying exam.) If so, how is it structured? When is it taken?
- When do students start doing research?
- How long do students take to graduate?
- What do faculty typically expect of students–what do they make students do to “prove” themselves once they get there? For example, are you expected to attend every single colloquium, even if it's way outside your area? Is it considered bad to spend time going to something outside your area (even if you find it interesting)?
- If you are interested in contact with undergrads, what possibilities are there for doing that? Or is working with undergraduates frowned upon?
- How are students funded during the first year? Later years?
- What do students do outside of graduate school?
- What kind of social support groups does the Program offer?
Your goal is to determine if you'd like to work with this person for 3+ years. Good questions will also let the faculty member know of your interest and preparation for graduate school. Ideally, you will have some knowledge of the faculty member's research area before you meet with the person, but you might not. Often, the faculty will lead the conversation, so if there is something you want to know, you may have to be assertive. However, always, be tactful when asking questions.
- How many graduate students do you advise? Is that a typical number?
- How do students typically start working with you?
- Do your students work on large group projects or individual projects?
- How are your students typically funded?
- What have your students done after graduating?
- What is the work you're most proud of?
- Which of your work do you expect to have the biggest impact?
- What are projects/research problems are you currently working on? (These could be different than what they've recently published or what is on their web page.)
- Do you collaborate with industry? Other schools? Other departments? Other professors within the department?
- Specific research questions from publications you've read. For advice on reading papers, see research resources.
Only After You're Accepted
Ask these questions after you've been accepted or after you've decided to attend the graduate program to help you pick an advisor.
- After the preliminary/qualifying exam, how long do students typically take to graduate?
- Do you have students that just don't finish? why?
- What is your mentoring style?
- What do you do when someone isn't making good progress?
- How do you motivate people?
Your goal with graduate students is to learn about their background and their experience in graduate school and to figure out if the graduate program is a good fit for you. You have a little more leeway with the types of questions that you can ask students, but remember that they may be judging you as well and may give feedback to the faculty who may be considering working with you. These are some questions you may want to ask, and always ask them tactfully.
- How far along are you?
- What was your background before graduate school? (Undergraduate degree in CS? Undergraduate-only program? Research experience?)
- How do you like the program?
- What are the qualifying exams/preliminary exams like? (Different schools have different names for the breadth requirement)
- What was the most difficult milestone/hurdle? How many students don't finish because of that hurdle?
- What kind of social support groups does the Program offer?
- What are some reasons that students leave without graduating? This is a tricky question; you want to find out about why students don't finish and what the Program's/advisor's response was. Of course, students leave on their own accord too. You just want to get a feel for why students leave without graduating.
- Who is your advisor?
- How did you find an advisor?
- When did you start working with your advisor?
- How many other students does your advisor have?
- How does your advisor fund students?
- How long does it take students to graduate with your advisor?
- Do you work on group projects or individual projects?
- How narrowly focused are the faculty?
- What opportunities are there for cross-disciplinary work? Do faculty of different disciplines co-advise students? (If cross-disciplinary research is of interest to you.)
- Can students switch advisors easily?
Quality of Life
- How do you like living in the area?
- What do you do in your spare time?
Questions Asked of You
NOTE The people involved in the graduate program are not allowed to ask you about your race, age, sexual orientation, marital status, etc.
- Why do you want to go to graduate school?
- What research have you done?
- To answer this question, have your “elevator talk” prepared. You want to have a brief statement of background, the problem you were solving, your approach to solving the problem, and a summary of results–all in about 30 seconds to 1 minute.
- Why did you take that approach instead of alternative X? (Know your related work or understand the intuition behind your solution.)
- What problem are you trying to solve?
- Are you continuing on the work?
- What is the future of this work?
- What classes did you take? (Checking if you are well-prepared for graduate school)
- What operating system(s) do you use/know?
- What programming languages do you know?
- What were your favorite classes?
Sara Sprenkle is the main author of this page. Valerie Barr, Holly Esquivel, Emily Hill, and Lori Pollock contributed ideas and gave feedback on this document.
Our advice is based on our experiences and the experiences of our colleagues, students, and friends. There are many different approaches that will lead to your own personal success, which may or may not include a graduate degree.