On Getting Into Grad School, Part 2

Did you miss Part 1?

Summer 2012: DREU Internship, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

I won’t go into all the great details of my life during this summer internship. Most of it can be found other places on this blog already. The highlights I will mention are: after working at UMBC I began to realize that going to grad school could really happen and that I might actually enjoy it, Amy and others at the school really mentored me and helped me get a deeper understanding of the whole process of grad school applications, and I started actually writing my grad school application material.

Having this internship gave me a perspective into what grad school could be like. I can’t imagine applying to grad school without knowing that experience and knowing whether or not it was something I could handle/enjoy. I was also able to talk with Amy about potential schools and make a list of schools I would consider applying to in the fall. It was the mentorship and guidance that I really appreciated. Just being able to talk to someone who knew the field and could give solid feedback about my ideas was great.

I also got to do some really cool research and see other people working on some equally awesome stuff. I got the chance to write a paper (which I later submitted, more on that later) and present a poster at the end of summer festival. I was even selected to present my work to the entire festival, which was a huge learning experience. I had to put the power point together (make a video for it!), write the presentation, and then speak to a room with at least 100 people in it. It felt like every step I had taken that summer was a new one, going deeper into a mysterious cave of wonder or something.

August 2012: Home Again (And Time To Get To It!)

By the time I had come home and started back at school for my senior year, I had already completed my list of schools I was going to apply to, started a rough draft of my statement of purpose, and signed up (and taken the week before classes started) for the GREs.

It was at this point I made one of my bigger mistakes. I really should have asked for more help. It’s hard when you’re at a small university and very few people truly understand why you would even want to apply to a PhD program. As has been a consistent theme for me, I felt isolated and, therefore, isolated myself. I could have reached out to more mentors (at home and at UMBC), but I decided to go it alone. This was especially difficult to write and edit my statement of purpose(s) and the essay for the NSF GRFP.

I sorted out my references as soon as classes began. I committed one of those faux pas where I only had three letter writers. Fortunately, they all pulled through and I didn’t to materialize another letter writer at the last minute. I used two professors from my home institution that I had worked with on research and with my ACM-W Chapter. My third reference was my mentor from UMBC.

September 2012: Keeping it All Straight

I think the hardest thing from September on was keeping everything organized. I had to keep track of all the materials I was submitting to each institution. It felt like every single one had different essay requirements (not to mention all the other requirements!). Some wanted multiple essays, others wanted just one. And the length was different for each as well. Some only wanted 500 words or less, while others were 2000 words. There was no real way to write just one essay and tweak it for each. I had to write fresh essays for almost every university I was applying to.

Next week: lots of traveling and the submissions in Part 3!

On Getting Into Grad School, Part 1

This blog is probably one that would have been better written in the moment rather than as a retrospective, but as you will see from the timeline I was too overwhelmed with everything else going on to think about writing a blog.

When I was looking to apply to grad school I scoured the internet for information from other grad students and professors looking for anything that would give me the best possible chance at a) knowing if this grad school thing was what I wanted to do and b) giving me the best possible chance of getting into the grad school that was going to be best for me. Now that I’m on the other side of the application process and I’m feeling great about the outcome, I thought I would attempt to share my experience for the next generation of applicants looking for more information.

DISCLAIMER: This is a completely personal experience and should in no way be treated as a how-to guide. Everyone is going to be different, coming from a variety of backgrounds and going into a multitude of different fields of study. Please don’t read this as the perfect way to get into the grad school of your choice; I’m sure there are much easier ways of doing it.

I think the best way to do this is write this out as a timeline of events, with links and info about each of the events. If this gets to be too long, I’ll break this into multiple parts and if something needs more attention than everything else, I’ll break that into its own blog article.

October 2011: Grace Hopper 2011

I went to Grace Hopper in Portland, OR as a student volunteer. It was the first time I got a real good look at what someone could really do with a computer science background. I met a lot of students who were in grad school working towards their PhD. I heard about some cool research being done that I learned was in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI). Up until this point, I thought a computer science degree was good for getting a job at a software company writing code. The seed of the idea of grad school is planted.

January 2012: Industry Job Interviews

Between Grace Hopper and early 2012, I subjected myself to several really uncomfortable industry interviews. Let’s just say coding on the fly, in a high pressure situation and recalling complex algorithms and data structure optimization is *not* my strongest skill. It’s at this point I really start to question what I am doing and why I am trying to push myself into something that clearly isn’t working out.

February 2012: DREU Internship Application

At the very last minute, I decided to apply to the CRA-W’s DREU internship. It’s also around this time that I started working with a professor at my campus on his smart grid research. He had asked for volunteers, so I decided that it was worth the experience.

It was also around this time I decided that I wanted to pursue a career more in the area of HCI. I was taking the elective “Intro to HCI” offered by my school (which turns out was that great of an intro) and thought my interdisciplinary studies in Psychology and Computer Science were a good fit for this area. I applied for a scholarship to attend CHI 2012 in Austin, TX through the ACM-W.

March 2012: DREU Acceptance and Matching Results

At the beginning of March I received an email saying that I had been accepted to the DREU program for the summer. I was really excited and very worried at the same time. I hadn’t done any extensive traveling and never really on my own. They said they would email me soon with my matched mentor and the location I would be traveling to for the summer. I looked at all the past mentors and their universities. Where would I be living that summer? Who would I have to work with? The only things I had heard from friends that had completed REUs was how awful it was. The mentors just give you some project and are too busy to actually mentor you. The projects aren’t of much consequence or the results end up being something you can’t get a publishable paper out of… I started wondering if I had done the right thing.

I was up all night worrying I would be shipped off to some strange place I couldn’t survive and have a mentor I wouldn’t be able to work with. However, I was not in agony long. It was at school the next day when I got my match-up. The rest, as they say, is history. You can read plenty about my DREU internship on my blog space. Dr. Amy Hurst was the best mentor a person could ask for. She was exactly what I needed at a time when I didn’t even know what I needed or what I was doing with my life.

April 2012: CHI 2012 in Austin, TX

My first real research conference was CHI. Talk about amazingly overwhelming. It’s a lot of people. And I had never been to Texas before. And it was my first time on a plane in years. I really enjoyed it, nonetheless. I think my overall impression was excitement that so many people from so many different places were all passionate about the same thing. There were more computer-oriented people and there were more psychology-oriented people, but they all meshed together to make something pretty exhilarating.

People ask me what my favorite talk was and I don’t even remember. I think if I went back to the program notes and see what I went to, I would probably recall. I have learned a lot since I was there though. How to go to conferences and pick what talks you want to see is an important skill.

CHI is also where I met Dr. Amy Hurst for the first time and some of her students. All in all, it was a good first experience into a world I was soon to submerge myself in.

The saga continues next time in PART 2…

Because It’s a FAQ…

I just wanted to write a short blog entry about this whole “grad school” thing because I’ve been getting some questions about what exactly it is I’ll be doing in the next few months.

This fall I’ll start towards my PhD in Informatics from the University of California Irvine. My research area is in Assistive Technology and I think I’ll be doing my work in the area of tech helping kids with Autism and chronic illness. I really won’t know my research space until I get into the work and get a feel for what I’m doing.

The way grad school works, at least in the field of tech and computer science, is that when a school offers you acceptance there is usually some sort of funding package that comes along with it. For instance, a lot of schools will offer 3 years of funding, which usually covers tuition and then gives you a monthly stipend. In order to earn that monthly stipend, depending on the school, of course, you work 20 hours a week doing research or TAing. In my case, I’ll be expected to TA one year and then do research projects for the remaining time in the program. After you second year or so, you have usually settled on an advisor and a research path and can start getting grants for the work you are doing. This will be in lieu of “working” for the department. I have been getting some questions as to how I’m going to live while getting my PhD and there is the answer: I’ll be getting paid to do it. Yes, it won’t be as much money as I could be making as a programmer straight out of my bachelor’s degree, but if I wanted to be a programmer, I wouldn’t be going to grad school. I’ll still be making way more money than I’m currently earning, and I guess that’s the perspective I’m going in with. I’ll be quite comfortable with what I have.

I’m going to grad school because I love doing the research. This is what I learned from completing my DREU at UMBC last summer. That really was the one of the best experiences I have ever had in terms of my own personal growth. At this point in time, I haven’t really thought PAST earning my PhD; it’s be a long road just to get this far. I’m sure that in due course, it will become apparent where I want to pursue my career, whether it is in industry or academia.

Do feel free to email me if this didn’t clear things up for you. I’m quite happy to talk about all the in’s an out’s! =D

Google.GetAJob() 2013

Recently, I had the great fortune of attending Google.GetAJob() at the Google office in Washington, DC during the Tapia Conference (more on that in another blog!). This is a program Google puts on for students that have a minority status in the computing field. I know they hold this events for certain universities, but since my university is so tiny, it’s great they decided to put this on for Tapia Conference attendees.

I did have to fill out a survey and be selected for this workshop. I think checking the box “have done multiple technical interviews and never had an offer” might have tipped the scale. No way to know. Doesn’t matter, I’m just happy to have had the experience.

To sum up in one word: empowering.

I feel like the Googlers there took the power of the technical interview situation and put it back in my hands. All of the sudden, these engineers weren’t these amazing, untouchable computer gods (don’t get me wrong, they are still amazing at what they do), but instead they are just people. In fact, they are women and minorities- many of them who have recently graduated and were in the same exact position I am in now (except I want to go to grad school and put off that amazing Google job for a few more years, but I digress).

Since I got all this great info on the in’s and out’s of the ominous technical interview, I thought I would pass it along to the magical internet land. So, here are some of my notes and thoughts. I realize some of them may seem obvious, but I want to have this all together in one location (for my own future reference!).

How the application process works at Google is as follows:

  1. Apply to the job you want.
  2. Your resume is reviewed by real human beings, not machines, and then passed along if it is found qualifying.
  3. 1st round of interviews on the phone. There will be probably 2 of these and they will be technical. The coding is usually done in a google doc or something of that ilk.
  4. If applying for a Full Time position, 3-5 technical interviews are then done on site. If applying for an internship, there is a host matching process to see if there is a good place for you.
  5. A hiring committee then decides whether or not to extend the offer.

The entire process will take ~1-2 months, unless there is a specific time crunch (other offers, etc).

Obviously, this is very Google specific, but I know most of the big tech companies are going to do something at least similar. Facebook, for instance, (I know since I just did a first round of interviews with them) does a phone screen (or conference/campus screen) which is a technical interview. If they like you, they will fly you out to Menlo Park for ~3 interviews onsite.

Another important thing to point out: no matter what position you are applying for, whether it is software engineer or ux researcher, you will have to do technical interviews.

An interesting Google tidbit is they highly encourage their employees to publish their work. This doesn’t apply to all work, but if the research isn’t something they want to hold on to for a while for obvious reasons, they will encourage it to be published.

Resumes. These are what get you the first interview, so they are very important. Since this was a workshop for students, I’m going to be describing what a typical student resume should strive for.

The most important things should be top, front, center. Education (when you are graduating, gpa, name of school), what position type you are looking for (internship versus full time), and languages. For languages, list them including proficiency. The Googler reviewing my resume recommended using the phrases “Proficient in: language list” and “Familiar with: language list”. This keeps is clean and easy to figure out what exactly you know. Also, never include the word “expert” unless you wrote the language yourself because it’s just asking for trouble in your interviews.

Next on the resume should be relevant experience. I originally had projects/experience listed separately from my work experience and my reviewer recommended lumping them all together in one clean section. Sort this list by relevance, not chronology. Remember, anything closer to the top will get noticed first (and possibly be the only thing that gets noticed during the skim). So, if you did something amazing on a project, put that first. Sell yourself.

Another big thing that I heard several times was that Google was sad to see so little in terms of Open Source projects on student resumes. List any projects and especially highlight any open source work. If you have time, maybe go DO an open source project because it will a) make you a more awesome programmer and b) help you get a job. The reason open source is coveted is because employers can easily just go look at any code you have written and see your abilities. They can get a really good feel for how you program without the pressure of an interview.

Do include towards the end of the resume your other great stuff: awards, honors, publications, patents, conferences, presentations, and interests. Google wants to hire interesting people, so if you are doing something interesting in your spare time (do you actually have spare time as a cs student???) then add it.

Key Resume Ideas:

  • Sell Yourself
  • It’s okay if your resume is more than a single page, as long as your most valuable info is on the front at the top
  • Be interesting!

The Technical Interview. I am going to be honest. So far, I have really been terrible at these. I am the sort of person, who when their intelligence is questioned freeze up and look way dumber than one can possibly imagine. I know that this part of the getting hired process is always going to be the hardest thing for me. I have accepted that and can live with it. I just need to get good enough to get through.

Biggest take home message for the technical interview. Know your programming language of choice inside and out. Be good at it. How do you do this outside of your course work? Do your own projects! Make an app, code up a game, or do something you think is fun and interesting. It doesn’t have to ever leave your computer if you don’t want it to, but it’s important to just practice, practice, practice. Remember how I was talking about the whole open source project. Join one of those cool open source communities and start working on their code. It’s a great way to get coding and meet a whole new support group.

Data structures, algorithms, and generally being able to problem solve will also be must haves for the interview process. Big companies will expect you to know the general structure (and be able to code) things like stacks, queues, graphs, hashmaps, trees, etc.

At the end of the day this is what they are really looking at during a technical interview:

  • Do you know the language you picked? Can you code?
  • Can you analyze a problem and then algorithmically optimize that solution?
    • You don’t have to be optimal at the first go, just get a solution out and then start talking optimization.
    • Does the code you wrote on the board work? Would it compile?
  • Before saying you’re done, test your code! Be sure to keep edge cases in mind (it might be a good idea to write these down before you even start coding).

One big thing that I saw today in the mock interviews and have been guilty of myself in the past, is jumping right into coding before mapping out your idea, writing out test cases, and generally clarifying the problem. If the interviewer asks you to define a function, it’s totally okay to ask all the questions you need in order to write the most productively. Today some of the students in my group didn’t know how a stack worked, so they just froze up and freaked out. Ask questions! Is the string you are working with in ASCII or UTF-8? How is the data being stored in that tree? What kind of data are we sorting? And so on… Then draw pictures, write out ideas, outline the solution, write snippets of pseudocode. These things will help when it comes to finally coding up your solution. First, it will help you not get lost in the code. “What was this loop supposed to iterate on, again…?” And it may help when it comes to testing and optimizing too!

One final tech interview tip: listen to the hints your interviewer is giving you. They really do want you to do well! Think of the interview as more of a coding amongst friends situation (yeah, I find that advice a little hard to follow as well).

Doing mock interviews was an excellent experience for me, not because I practiced writing code up on a whiteboard or solving these problems on the fly, but because I got a chance to see just how NOT behind I am in terms of my abilities. I am in a constant state of not believing in myself when it comes to my coding abilities. I dread telling people I’m a senior because then they expect me to be able to code things. But honestly, the students I coded with today were all over the place in terms of their abilities. So maybe I can do this afterall…

That about sums up my notes from today. It was an AMAZING experience. Everything I have heard about Google’s work place seems to be fairly accurate: nice space, cool toys, and great food. Everyone there was extremely nice to me. I definitely recommend if anyone has the opportunity to attend one of these workshops in your neighborhood. If you don’t get the chance, I hope these notes will help you along the way to your own CS career.

Just remember to seek out new opportunities and seize them! Good luck on your endeavors.

ASSETS 2012 Conference

To be honest, I started this blog immediately after I returned from the ASSETS 2012 conference, but everything else in this semester got away from me and I didn’t post it. I’m on winter break now, so I am finally able to catch up on things.

I have finally returned home from my journey to Boulder, Colorado. Firstly, we drove. We should have realized what a crazy idea this was when we stood in a room full of Ringlands, told them our plan to drive down to Boulder and back in a week, and no one even batted an eye.

Family eating lutefisk dinner.
Some of the Ringlands eating at the lutefisk dinner in Poulsbo.

With a belly full of lutefisk (because nothing says the start to a great road trip than unending plates of lefse and lutefisk) we left Poulsbo, WA to arrive 36 hours later in Boulder, CO. I’m going to admit upfront that I missed the keynote Monday morning.  We rolled into the hotel as the address was about half-way over.  If only we hadn’t stopped for that 2 hours of sleep in Rawlins, Wyoming!

First impressions:

*ASSETS is much, MUCH smaller than any other conference I have attended (less than 100 people versus a couple thousand plus).  This allowed me to get to know a lot of the people there.

*ASSETS is a single-track deal.  This was great!  I didn’t have to choose between two awesome papers.  Everything is in one room.  With the exception of the keynote, I didn’t have to miss any of the conference.

*It’s really nice having such a close-knit, small community.  People were super enthusiastic not only about their own projects, but other people’s work and were very willing to get in there and give each other ideas.

There was a lot of really fantastic work presented at the conference.  It ranged from web accessibility to assistive tech hardware to biofeedback interfaces. The populations being worked with were quite varied from physically disabled to the elderly to the visually impaired and so on. I think the most heartening thing about the conference was to see how much great work is being done to help people.

The grad student I worked with on my DREU project, Michele A. Burton, gave her presentation on the accessible fashion we had been working on. She did a fantastic job. I very much wish to follow in her footsteps.

Boulder itself was absolutely beautiful. I had the opportunity to visit the campus and see the Human-Centered Computing Lab there. It was great to meet some of the students and see what projects they are working on. This is definitely one of my top choices for graduate schools.

We got 5 inches of snow just as the conference was ending. It forced us to stay an extra day, but it was worth it.

Snowy creek and trees.
A creek near our hotel in Boulder, CO.

Fall Week 6

This past week has been EXHAUSTING.  It was a whirlwind of exams and getting everything finished up for Grace Hopper.

GREs were on Monday.  I took about 3 hours and I’m happy with my scores.  They aren’t official for another week or so, but I got an estimate right after the test was over.  I’m glad I have one less thing to worry about when it comes to grad school applications.

Tuesday I had my Web Data Management midterm and Thursday was Algorithms. PHEW!  Both went well, I think.   We also gave the demo for our first team project in Web Data Management.  This was the first time I really had to do a demo for an instructor like this.  I had one demo for Systems in the spring, but it definitely wasn’t anything like this.  Now I know what to expect for next time- the prof actually asking us why we chose to do things certain ways, etc.

After exams finished, I was able to focus back on grad school stuff.  I’m working on getting my three essays written for the NSF grant, which is due Nov 13th.  I know that the deadline is going to come at me way too fast, so I want to get rough drafts written for everything.  I have a personal statement draft for grad school applications done, so I’m hoping to use at least some of that for NSF.  I’ve also got a draft of my previous research done.  All that’s left is the research proposal.  I have an idea for it, but I have to do some more background research first to make sure it’s viable.  I hope so because it will be pretty good, and go fairly painlessly (I hope) once I have the research bit done.

My CREU research is also experiencing some forward momentum, as I’m starting the process of collecting wattage data.  I’m hoping after I get back from Grace Hopper to have some more done!

Off to Baltimore!!

Fall Week 1

First week of school is already over.  I definitely hit the ground running.  I am taking Physics 2, Intro to Networking, Game Design, Web Data Management, Analysis of Algorithms, and Social Psychology.  Phew.  It’s going to be a bit of work keeping all my homework straight.

I also had my first CREU meeting.  I’m looking forward to doing some research this school year.  Find this whole “work/life” balance thing is going to be tough, but I have to just keep this up until I graduate in spring.  I’ll be doing more work with energy usage and the smart grid.  Our paper was accepted to the IEEE SmartGridComm, which is happening in November.  I’ve applied to travel funding, but I won’t find out if I get it or not until the end of September.

Lots of exciting things in store this fall.  Counting down to grad school application due dates and everything else super fun like that!

Week 8

This week I finished up putting tags into the clothes. I also did a lot of writing this week.  I submitted two poster abstracts- one to the campus Research Festival and one to Grace Hopper.  I also started a draft of the final paper for this project I have been working on all summer.  Luckily, actually quite enjoy the writing process.  I’ll be finding out this coming week if my poster abstracts were accepted.  Next up:  making a poster!

On Thursday, I went to the ADA Celebration on campus.  We put some of our projects on display, including the clothe I have tagged.  It was really great meeting people and talking a bit about the work we have been doing.  We also heard speeches from Dr. Hrabowski and Governor O’Malley.

UMBC HCC Group at the ADA Celebration July 26, 2012
UMBC HCC Group at the ADA Celebration July 26, 2012
Me at the ADA Celebration
Me at the ADA Celebration

This coming week I’ll be working more on my paper and designing my poster.  I hope the RFID reader parts come in, so that I can build the last system for the project.  I’ll also be playing around with an NFC enabled tablet to see if I can get it to read the tags we have in the lab!