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How to write papers

Q: If I'm writing a paper, what are your expections?
A: Full notes are available at http://acs.ist.psu.edu/papers/how-to-write-papers.txt. basically, you should keep co-authors informed about progress and state, not let it sit, and acknowledge appropriately.

FAQ on Summer Internships

Q: Can I apply for a summer internship with you and your research group?
A: It is difficult to do summer internships. Unless I know you, or know your site or advisor very well, I don't usually take summer interns. I do take interns from formal prakticum programs, and if you are in a special summer research program (e.g., sponsored by NSF, CRA, or Fulbright, or PSU), the odds are better.

FAQ for Prospective PhD and Master's Applicants
Many faculty members receive a large number email from prospective graduate students. Because of the volume of mail we receive, we are very rarely able to answer your inquiries individually. If you have sent me an email, you will often be directed to this FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions).

tl;dr summary: please don't send me emails about getting admitted into our PhD or Master's program because it won't really help, unless your circumstances are truely unusual (e.g., you have a Fulbright, other fellowship). If they are unusal, please help me see it. Also, read the rest below to improve your chances.

Q: What are my chances of being admitted?
A: Admission at Penn State is increasingly competitive. Historically, for IST (my home department./college), admission has consistently been about 30%. We are eager to accept the best, most intellectually exciting students. If this is you, we highly encourage you to apply.

If you want to do a PhD in Computer Science, Psychology, or Industrial Engineering, I'm interested in those areas as well. Some of my best students do degrees outside of IST.

Q: Will sending you email about my interests help my chances of being admitted?
A: Mostly no, but it depends. I get a lot of form emails which have clearly been copy and pasted and sent to all the faculty. Emails about antenas and areas in electrical engineering or on topics that I clearly don't research may get deleted punatively.

If you're going to send me email to improve your chances, at least read some of my papers first and demonstrate that you have the ability to ask smart and interesting questions, otherwise you're just wasting everyone's time.

Q: Will sending e-mail to other professors help my chance of admissions?
A: No, see above. Most faculty receive a large amount of e-mail regarding admissions. An e-mail contact will not usually persuade a faculty member to pursue an application, unless it is to call out some outstanding issue, like a fellowship you have, a mentor (one of mine) has told you to contact me, or you have recently published an article building on one of my tools.

Q: What does Penn State look for in deciding admissions?
A: We look at a range of factors, including grades, test scores, and letters of recommendations. One particularly important point is evidence of ability to do research. If you have done research, your chances of being admitted are far better. I highly recommend stressing this in your application.

Some things that indicate ability to do research include having research publications, having a solid Masters' thesis, or having done significant work on a research project as an undergraduate or MS student or in industry.

Another important point is evidence that you can write well. This demonstrates that you can think clearly and present potentially difficult ideas well.

See Hong's web page on graduate school advice for more tips and Phil Agre's notes on choosing an advisor.

Q: What are common mistakes in PhD applications?
A: No, this isn't really a frequently asked question, but I felt it is worth putting here. Here are really common mistakes:

  • Don't really know what research is
  • Don't have past experience in research (not a complete showstopper, but seriously reduces your chances of being admitted)
  • Don't have a good idea of what kind of research you want to do
  • Can't articulate what you want to do in graduate school
  • Don't understand the difference between our Master's program (which is a terminal degree meant for professionals that want to end up in industry) and our PhD program (which is a research oriented program)
  • Don't know what your advisor researches

Q: Can I be your PhD student?
A: After discussion, maybe. At Penn State, departments and colleges accept students, not individual professors, but potential advisors and potential projects (read: funding), have a strong influence. Once the students are here, they are formally matched with advisors, but informal matching often occurs earlier. Applications are handled by an admissions committee that evaluates all applications.

Also, be sure to read this article in Communications of the ACM to get a better sense of what makes a good PhD student.

Q: Can I be your postdoc?
A: Maybe, it depends on funding, your ability, and alignment of research interests. If you have your own funding, odds are far higher. I have had several post-docs, and we have always gotten articles out.

Q: To work with you, does my name have to start with 'J'? (oddly enough, still applies from Hong's web site).
A: Yes. You'll see that among the faculty, postdocs, and PhD and UG students I work with, their names are John, Jon, Jeremiah, Jong, Jaehyon, Jenn, Jeanette, Jill, Jason, Josef, Josef, and Justin.

(This is a joke if it's not obvious... I also work with folks whose names have a 'J' in the middle of their name too, like Nigel and Kukreja).

FAQ on Recommendation letters and references
Q: I'm applying for X, can I get a letter of recommendation?
A: I'm happy to provide recommendation letters and/or serve as a reference for students who have taken a class from me or worked with me on research projects. To write a thorough letter, I need the following:
  • A Resume or CV
  • GRE scores (raw and percentile) for graduate school admission letters (assuming you are applying to a grad school that requires them)
  • A copy of your statement of purpose (again, for grad school only)
  • Who to send the letter to
  • Any forms I need to fill out (or links to web pages)
  • When the letter needs to be submitted (at least a week, two or more weeks preferred)
  • If it has been one or two years since we last interacted, a summary of key or memorable interactions that we have had, e.g.:
    • "I was the student in office hours who had the idea about a cool interaction technique..."
    • "You looked at my final project and said that I was the only one who ..."
    • "I usually sat on the right side of class and asked lots of questions."

Before passing this to me, I usually require a phone call. Half the letters I get asked to write are ones where I'm probably not the most appropriate person. It is worth the short discussion to find that better person, or, to talk about how to get better people the next time.

This page is initially based on Jason Hong's very useful initial version, done with permission.

last updated, 30apr23.