TL;DR — I briefly discuss the interviews I had with various PIs/groups based on my applications for the CS Ph.D. program in the US and Canada.
You can see more about my profile on my portfolio page! A quick summary of my profile — 2+ years of research experience in data science, privacy, and NLP. Worked in a leadership role at a research-based non-profit for more than a year. Co-founded a research center with faculty from MIT, CMU, UdéM, etc. I got my letters of recommendation from 1) MIT Professor 2) University of Montreal (Dept of Maths and Statistics) Professor and 3) Research Mentor from Swiggy (He did his master/Ph.D. from Oxford and UCL). Papers — 1 journal first author, 4 workshop papers in AAAI, NeurIPS, EACL, and IJCAI. Additionally, I have a couple of journal papers in the Health Informatics space under review as well. Check out my CV to know more about my academic profile. I applied to 15 schools for Ph.D. and I heard back from 5 of them with interview calls!
UC Berkeley (MS CS): This was one of the shortest interviews I had (the interview was scheduled for only 25 mins). The prof was an extremely established researcher in the field who had co-founded multi-million dollar companies, and had a prolific research record (H-index over 150 :)). They had reached out to me via mail and asked if I could meet on that day or the next. I met them on the same day. They wanted me to briefly introduce my past work and my future interests. They also discussed the research center I co-founded and how we raised money for that etc. Additionally, I felt that they wanted to know about my past research which I had the opportunity to put into production, and what kind of impact it had. We dug deep into a couple of my past works and discussed them. Finally, they asked me to mention the current challenges in terms of ML for Health and what are my thoughts on mitigating them.
MILA: The PI reached out to me mentioning that I had cleared the internal profile review at MILA. They asked me for a convenient slot over a 2-week window and mentioned I could make a slide deck about my research/past work etc if I wanted. Later, we met on the call and We went over my 3 slide presentation — about my research, experience, and interests (both academic and non-academic). We discussed privacy, and robustness in neural networks and why they are important to study. The PI asked me questions about my research and why that method was better than say differential privacy. Additionally, there was a discussion on why MILA? Why the PI’s specific group? and Why Montréal? Then we started to discuss my future plans after my Ph.D., my reasons for doing a Ph.D., and what the PI recommends differently for Ph.D. students who want to go to academia vs industry. We also discussed their thoughts on industry internships, expectations in terms of papers and research from students, etc. After a few weeks, they invited me to one of their lab meetings and a member was giving a technical presentation of their work. I also got a chance to interact with the group through that call and later connected with many of the lab members to know more about the culture, expectations, why they chose Canada over the US, etc. Finally, I also had another round of discussion with the PI about research directions, and thoughts of working on newer domains (the PI was interested to start something in Healthcare as well, and given my past exp in the domain was asking about my interest to continue on that if an opportunity arises).
NYU: This was my first interview call. NYU was not on my initial list of schools (because there was only so many places you could apply to due to resource constraint). I met a professor at NYU through a mentorship program organized by LeT-ALL (the Learning Theory alliance). They helped review my application material as part of the mentorship program. I found the work they did to be interesting and I mentioned that I would like to work with them! Well, as things turned out, they weren’t looking to hire students this year! But, they did recommend applying and in fact made a warm introduction to one of their colleagues (one I had mentioned I was interested in working with). I had an in-depth discussion with them that lasted for about an hour where we went over my past experience — understanding why the problems I worked on were important, why we (my collaborators and I) chose a particular solution, etc. They further went on to ask more from related research and how my method was better than the current literature. Later, they also asked what my favorite courses were in undergrad and why they were so. We also discussed 3–4 new topics they were interested to get their hands on — I tried connecting them to either my past work or to papers that I had read. After this, we also talked about why I wanted to do a Ph.D., what I was expecting from the degree, what my end goals were, etc. Later, I followed up with a mail with a few papers that I had read on the research directions we had discussed and also added a few of my thoughts to them. They replied back with their thoughts and told me that I am on their list in the topmost position and they would be pushing for my admission. A few days later, I got an email from another 2 profs, who were interested in my profile and they wanted to co-advice me (I had not mentioned any of their names on my SoP). I had a call with one of the profs and it was also a great discussion, primarily about what my biggest strengths and weaknesses were? What do I plan to do with my career? Why I chose to apply to NYU? Why New York? My current research with Ramesh? etc. Later we also discussed the problems the prof was interested to pursue and he wanted to know my thoughts on this. This was also a very casual conversation which even included us discussing my native place (Kerala — which the PI had visited a few years back!)
UMass Amherst: The PI reached out to me via email. Mentioned that my application looked interesting and would like to have a chat. I was given 2 slots to select from. They asked me to prepare a slide deck on my past research experience, future goals, ideas interested, etc. During the presentation, they asked a few questions about my research interests. Two important questions I got were— 1) Why do I want to try a different group and not just apply to Ramesh’s group; 2) Why have I worked on so many projects/areas and if I had no specific interest. A few days later they invited about 7 of the candidates they were considering to their lab meeting. We were introduced to various research each of the team members does. Later, they asked each of us prospective candidates to connect with 2 to 3 grad students/post-docs to know more about the research as we were relatively interested in similar directions. The PI had mentioned that post the lab interactions they would solicit feedback from both the candidates and also the lab members before they make the final call. Post the interaction with the designated lab members and a few others, I was interested in the research that was happening in the group and found that the PI was someone who gave a lot of freedom to their students and also had multiple funded projects as well. After a week, I responded back to them based on things I understood, and my plans if I get an opportunity to join the lab (in terms of interest in working on projects, etc)
Georgia Tech: I had reached out to the PI before applying. I knew them from a talk I attended and had interacted with them via mail exchanges. He invited me for a discussion about Ph.D. admissions to his group. The call was casual where he asked about why I wanted to do a Ph.D. and what I considered my Ph.D. would look like — a theoretical one vs an applied etc. Another important (or interesting question he had was — what would be the first paper you are excited to work on if you join my group?). We further discussed advising styles and how the faculty was flexible based on the student’s requirements. We also briefly touched upon my learnings at PathCheck and in the acquisition and usage of Health data — what I found most interesting? What I found most challenging? Which were the problems or gaps that I had identified and if I had thought about solutions? How challenging it is to get access to medical data? etc. We also briefly discussed some other research areas that the PI wanted to enter into and what I thought about those. The prof also wanted to know what I considered my biggest strength in terms of research. Additionally, we also discussed the research center I co-founded and my opinions on collaborative research — how I find new collabs, work with diverse people, what I enjoy in it, and what I find challenging in it? They ended the call by mentioning that they look forward to working with me. They also mentioned that Georgia Tech has a committee-driven decision and that offers are rolled out in multiple rounds!
As you might have noticed, I have tried to write the interview experience without revealing the identity of the interviewer, but in case any of you want to know more, I would be happy to talk about it personally as well — you can reach out to me here: https://twitter.com/rohanalchemist