Dear Prospective Student,
Presumably you're reading this because you would like to be a graduate
student, possibly at Carnegie Mellon University, and possibly working with me.
This web page is an attempt to give you more information while managing my
e-mail load so I can spend more time on my current students, teaching, and
various obligations. Unfortunately, I am far too overloaded to respond to
individual queries regarding admission.
None of this is official policy of anyone, and much of it varies from
professor to professor and from school to school. The below are in Q&A
format in the tradition of FAQs:
- Will sending you e-mail increase my chance of admission?
In most cases not. I get hundreds of e-mails each year from prospective
students. Unfortunately, most of them are essentially spamming attacks on all
university professors in my field or in my department. It's difficult for me to
sort it all out, and spending time on that takes time away from my current
students who legitimately deserve my primary attention. The other professors I
have asked completely ignore such e-mail. I can't afford to spend time
responding to spam, and have few efficient ways of knowing what's spam vs. what
are well-considered, individually composed, earnest queries. In every case I've
seen, spending time making your application look good is more productive than
e-mail campaigns. Sending me e-mail that includes a resume and a lot of other
information is a waste of effort because I simply don't have time to read all
the resumes I get sent via e-mail -- put that effort into your official grad.
- Who decides who gets admitted to be your student?
For ECE admissions I personally make my own admission decisions. There is no
committee deciding for me who I get to admit (although I have to have a good
story to tell the department if GRE/TOEFL scores are way below average for our
students). I see summary information on every application sent to the
department with "Computer Engineering" checked as the first choice
area, and depending on how many open positions I have and the number of
applications submitted, I fully read dozens or sometimes hundreds of folders
when making admission decisions. For the ISRI program we use a committee
approach in which several of us read each folder, and pretty much every
professor who is a potential matchup reads the folders of admitted students. It
all takes a lot of time.
- How do you pick students?
Ultimately it is my personal judgement call on whether you will succeed at CMU,
and whether you will be interested in working on the research topics I am
planning to work on. Additionally I am limited in the number of students I
physically have time to supervise and the number of students I can fund. Every
year there are very good students that I can't admit simply because I have
limited time, facilities, and support money. In the coming several years I
expect to admit about one or two students per year to my group out of the many
hundreds of applications we receive for the computer engineering area. I only
admit PhD students.
- I can't pay for graduate school; what are the chances of assistance?
Your chances are 100% if you are accepted for the PhD program. I fully fund all
of my students, including tuition and a stipend that nicely covers living
expenses in Pittsburgh (pretty much the same stipend as other big name schools,
but far lower cost of living). Typically students get a research
assistanceship, and some get a full or partial fellowship. It is typical for
your admission letter to tell you which kind of funding you will receive and
guarantee it for one or two years contingent on satisfactory progress. As a
practical matter, it would be an extremely unusual situation for you to ever be
asked to pay tuition while you are here -- I haven't ever done that. If we
don't think enough of you to pay your tuition, then you probably shouldn't be
in the PhD program. Coming with your own fellowship funding is nice, and gives
increased flexibility on the projects we can work on, but doesn't affect your
chance of admission directly because I select based on abilities and match of
interests rather than on funding. Complicated letters and bank statements
proving you can pay your own way are completely ignored -- don't waste your
time on them in ECE or ISRI even if the CMU official policy is to send them for
NOTE: the 100% chance of funding does not apply to MS-only programs.
I don't admit students to those programs since they are based mostly on
coursework and not a research-based degree. Be sure that you understand the
rules for the particular program you're applying for. For a Ph.D. student in
ECE or a Ph.D. student in ISRI, you can anticipate full support per the above.
- I got a miserable GRE score because I was sick that day, etc.;
what should I do?
Your best bet is to take GRE's early in the season and take them again if you
have a bad day and get a bad score. I'd love to have a better assessment
mechanism than the GRE. But the fact is we have to have some calibrated
measurement source and that is the one that is available to us. The applicants
I admit are usually near or above the 90th percentile on all three GRE scores.
(I personally consider verbal skills to be important, because a major product
of research groups is written material. If you can't communicate what you have
learned, then there isn't much point doing research.) Beyond the GRE scores, we
also look at your undergrad GPA, recommendation letters, and essay. High GRE
scores by themselves won't get you in, but low scores will be a problem. I note
that there have been some apparent problems with the integrity of GRE scores,
especially outside the US. This means I must put more emphasis on things like
recommendation letters from people and schools whose reputation I know of.
- How many of your students actually graduate?
There are department policies in place to make sure every student gets more
than a fair chance to get a degree. We have a low "drop-out" rate,
and a high rate of doctoral students passing the qualifiers. Once you come we
expect you to succeed; there is no artificial quota for washing out or
otherwise culling students. Every step is one where you succeed on your own
merits rather than as part of a competition. In general about 1 in 8 don't pass
the qualifiers even after two tries, and another 1 in 8 don't make it all the
way to graduation for a wide variety of reasons. Thus, probably 3 in 4 who want
a Ph.D. achieve that. My attrition rate is about average or slightly better.
The numbers don't tell the whole story -- really it is all about whether you
have what it takes.
- How long does it take to get a degree?
Ph.D. student time varies all over the place, from a record of four semesters
after M.S. to almost eleven years, although I don't ever want to have one of my
students take ten-plus years to graduate! 5 years past B.S. is a common goal to
set and is achievable for most students if they remain focussed on their work.
My students tend to graduate in average or slightly faster than average time.
Further details are better discussed once you've been admitted and are deciding
whether to come here.
- What research areas will we work on together?
You should realize that when I admit I am often staffing a new research project
that doesn't even appear on my web page. That being said, look at my research
interests and current projects to get a flavor of what I do. You will be
working on projects that are the similar or in new (but probably related)
directions. My particular interests are in embedded systems, embedded
communication networks, and system-level dependability. If you are admitted the
department and/or I will help pay for a visit here so we can meet and talk
about what you'd be doing in more detail before you have to decide on a school.
The graduate research experience here is very personal, and involves
significant amounts of one-on-one faculty/grad. student interaction.
- What about cost of living and housing?
This is a key question you should ask of any university to which you apply.
Pittsburgh is a very affordable city, and our grad. student stipend is roughly
the same as the other first-tier schools. So, you can actually live on your
stipend without a problem. The CMU housing office has a searchable rental
database to give you an idea of housing costs at
. I suggest looking up a small apartment in Squirrel Hill at a distance of 1 to
2 miles from campus, which is where I live. Stipends vary a little depending on
your status in our program, but for the 2003/2004 academic year entering grad
students were given $1725/month cash salary in addition to tuition. To see what
that translates into compared to other cities, use a cost-of-living salary
calculator such as at
(when I checked it told me that our $1925 stipend is roughly comparable to a
$2839 monthly stipend in Palo Alto, CA in terms of buying power, although of
course this is just a broad approximation). The numbers are probably higher
now; I don't update this page that frequently.
- I'm not a U.S. citizen -- how does that affect my chances?
Unfortunately, if you are not a U.S. citizen and you don't hold a green card,
your chances for admission are very significantly reduced. One simple reason is
that we get an overwhelming number of applications from overseas. The extra
work and time we spend on cultural acclimation and language skills for these
students means that we can only accept a few of them, and of course this is a
very few out of a huge application pool. If you already have a degree from a
U.S. institution, that helps considerably with this issue. Also, it is more
difficult to obtain funding for non-U.S. students, and so further increases the
effort required to bring them here. Historically about half of our department's
graduate students are non-U.S., although that proportion tends to be closer to
one quarter in my research group.
- So, is there any way to actually improve my chances of admission?
Mere admission shouldn't be your goal. Your goal should be finding a professor
to work with who has compatible interests and making sure you communicate those
interests and your special qualifications for that work. If you want to get my
attention, the best way to do that is to demonstrate you have a combination of
the following (simply having high scores doesn't indicate that you'll be happy
here, and if you're not happy there's really no point in coming is there?).
- Excellent math and analytic skills (GRE scores, publications, won the state
science fair in high school, etc.)
- Above average to excellent English skills, spoken & written (GRE
scores, publications, "A" in technical writing course, debating team,
student newspaper, Toastmaster's Club, etc.).
- Interest in the work I'm doing. Go ahead, make an insightful comment (or,
even better, a valid criticism) about my research -- that will get my
attention! When you apply it is very important to fill out the profile sheet
with your official application and give priority to such areas as
dependability/fault tolerance and embedded systems. It is also fine to list my
name or the names of professors you have a particular interest in right on the
"areas of interest" part of the form.
- Interest in doing research rather than simply getting a quick ticket to a
higher paycheck. I'm going to invest considerable time one-on-one teaching you
research skills and advanced problem-solving skills I learned both in
universities and in industry. That takes time -- we don't just give you a
handful of courses and send you on your way.
- Other evidence that you finish what you start (e.g., Eagle Scout,
4-H Teen Leader, athletics, worked your way through school, or almost anything
substantive). Industry or military experience is an especially good thing to
have, but not required.
- If you can't already speak English with native or nearly native fluency,
your probability of admission is low. If you are non-native speaker, the best
way to provide evidence of fluency is to have lived in an English-speaking
country for a few years, preferably while getting a degree. (Or, come from a
country that historically produces excellent English speakers.) If you really
are fluent but it isn't obvious from your credentials, I can arrange for you to
get an oral interview/assessment with one of our international student
counselors via telephone if you are one of the final few I am considering (but
please, please don't waste either of our time if you just went to a TOEFL cram
school -- that isn't what I'm talking about here).
- Once I apply, how can I find out my chances for being admitted?
In the next few years I expect to keep my student group relatively small.
Probably I will admit one student each Fall. Competition for entrance to
Carnegie Mellon is intense, and there are many more qualified applicants than
there are positions available. Overall, only a few percent of applicants are
Unfortunately, we can't possibly give everyone who applies a status of their
chances beyond whether we got material that was submitted. And, it is
impossible for me to look at information you e-mail to me and give you an
estimate of your chance. If you have read the above and understood it, you will
be able to tell if you have a chance or not. Beyond that, there are too many
variables, and too many constraints. Even a late decision on your application
isn't conclusive, because sometimes an internal financial issue must be cleared
up before we can make an offer. So, if you ask me questions such as "how
am I doing," or "when will I hear an answer," or "here is
my information, do I have a chance," I simply can't answer them and will
not reply. Keep in mind that only a few percent of applicants are admitted, and
many highly qualified candidates are not accepted for a variety of reasons
having to do with funding and capacity constraints. So there is no shame in not
being admitted. Beyond that, it is not wise to make your application to
Carnegie Mellon the only one you submit. But, of course, good students do get
in every year, and you could be one of them.
One thing that you can be sure of is that if you are admitted, we'll make 100%
sure that you are notified immediately (I make that phone call myself).
Unfortunately, my e-mail load is just too heavy to be able to respond to
queries from students. I take great pains to go through the admission packages
submitted. If you indicate that you want to do "embedded" or
"dependable" computing in your application, I'll see your
application. Similarly, you might want to mention the names of various
professors you'd like to work with in your application essay (that is a very
effective technique to make sure the right professor actually sees your
With best regards,
Carnegie Mellon University ECE Department & Institute for Software Research