Interview with Anton, Johns Hopkins University

Anton, a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University, told us about his love of programming, the pros and cons of living in America, and the paperwork required for admission.

Tell me a little bit about yourself. Where you studied, where you started as a programmer, and what you do now.

I mean programming, I've been interested in it for as long as I can remember. For the first time I wrote a real program in Basic in 6th grade, and till the end of 11th grade it was my passion no.1. Then I went to St. Petersburg University of Information Technologies, where my horizons expanded greatly, thanks to the abundance of mathematical disciplines. Around the end of the third year I realized that I was more interested in scientific activities. At the same time I managed to work at VK, JetBrains and Bank “Tochka” this helped me to appreciate what advantages a career in the industry has over a career in the academy, and vice versa. A couple of years ago, the benefits of academia outweighed that, and I decided to try to apply for a PhD.

Why did you choose this particular country and university?

In the beginning I didn't have a clear plan. I roughly understood that I wanted to do science at the interface of computer linguistics and computer science. I made my final decision after I went to an international ACL conference and realized that I would be very interested in living and growing in this research community for the next few years. The next step was a matter of technique: I used the site CSRankings to understand what universities in this area are the most active in the world now, and on the basis of this data I formed my “top 10” universities which interested me. For simplicity, I decided to focus on U.S. universities, as most of the places of interest to me was located there, in addition to the application system for PhD in all American universities is about the same. It was also important that admission to PhD in the U.S. is possible immediately after the bachelor's degree, and often there is a combination of graduate and postgraduate programs. Unlike undergraduate and graduate education, PhD programs in the U.S. are often free, which was also important for me.

What documents were required for admission?

The requirements for admission to American universities are very different from those of Russian universities, and they are much higher. It took me about four months to gather the full package of documents. The complete package looks like this: Tests of English (TOEFL and GRE), Transcript of diploma with current grades, Two letters of motivation (Statement of Purpose / Personal Statement) and CV, 2-4 letters of recommendation from famous people in your field. The need to take language tests and transfer grades from the Russian diploma to the ECTS system, I think, will not come as a surprise to those going abroad. The important thing is that almost all American graduate school websites pay much more attention to letters and previous academic experience, and less – to test scores and “average score”. So a big part of your effort if you have a good level of language ability is to focus on writing the motivation letter and finding people who have weight in your academic community who can write you a good letter of recommendation. It usually takes about three such letters. I should also note that there are two types of letters of motivation in the U.S.: the Statement of Purpose and the Personal Statement. The difference is that the first one shows your professional side, and the second one shows your personal side. The first would be appropriate to mention your academic interests, previous projects or subjects that you remember, plans for the future. The second asks about personal development: where and in what family you grew up, what difficulties you encountered and how you overcame them. Here, for example, it is possible to mention that you “first-generation college student” or about material difficulties in the family. From what I understand, the Personal Statement gives additional opportunities to people with “atypical”backgrounds or minorities and can be a bonus for scholarships or grants.

Was it possible to get a scholarship?

It turned out to be unexpectedly nice here: as a rule, everyone who goes to PhD programs in the US has a guaranteed stipend. In Computer Science programs it is usually between 1,500 and 3,000 USD per month before taxes. For me, this was an important factor, because having a good scholarship allows you to focus on learning and research and not be distracted by part-time work. As far as I know, scholarships in PhD programs at universities in Europe and the UK are also usually enough to live on. Having an external scholarship helps a lot with admission (the university doesn't have to compensate your tuition and pay you a salary). They are not easy to get, and many of them are only available to US citizens. There are personal scholarships from Google or Facebook, but they are very few (a few dozen a year). Students from all over the world apply for them, including those already studying for a PhD. There is also a Russian grant program “Global education” in which one of the conditions for participation is to have an offer for admission to a foreign university. But, as far as I understand, American universities expect that this or that scholarship will be guaranteed even before submitting documents at admission (and, accordingly, before receiving an offer’a). However, all these circumstances were not a problem, since Johns Hopkins University guaranteed a decent stipend to all admitted PhD students. In addition, I had no problem with the fact that I was a PhD student at Johns Hopkins University.

What was the hardest part about getting in?

The biggest surprise to me was the marked emphasis on writing motivation and recommendation letters. Instead of the US admissions office's oral exams and tests, it's much more interesting to find out what attracts you to your field, what your plans are after you study. And also the opinion of your previous supervisors about your work and personality. It was even a little bit offensive that “life”; did not prepare us for that :) For students in America, writing such letters – the norm and a necessary stage, starting from entering high school. I had to ask for help from friends who had been there since childhood or had recently moved there; some of them had to read about 10 versions of my letters before I finally sent them off to universities. It was also quite unfamiliar that the acceptance deadline was in December, eight months before the actual tuition started. It was also quite unfamiliar that the application process ended in December, which was eight months before the actual tuition started.

How much money do you spend on average per month?

Scholarship for students in my department right now is about $2,400 USD per month after taxes. People usually spend about 400-800 USD a month on housing, another 800 or so USD goes on living expenses. That leaves a third to half of the stipend available for savings, which is pretty good overall. Savings are necessary in America, because even health insurance is very expensive here. But it is not uncommon for students in their second or third year to buy their own car (another necessity in American realities) or even take out a house with a mortgage.

How many hours a day do you devote to your studies and how many part-time jobs?

As we recently learned thanks to Nature, most PhD students spend 40+ hours a week working and studying. I'm no exception in this regard: in my first semester, I worked about 60-70 hours a week. I think at the initial stage there is nothing surprising in this: on the one hand, you need to take classes, on the other –  engage in “finding yourself” and the topic of the future thesis. Both are time-consuming at first. My older PhD students I know are thinking more about work-life balance.

Calculate your level of happiness on a 10-point scale.

Differently. During New Year's break (we have it for about three weeks) happiness was at a high, in the neighborhood of 9-10:) Sometimes it can be sad. Admittedly, it was more about moving to a new country than about school or work. I know that here are very worried about the mental health of students, there are full-time psychologists who help to overcome difficulties and not to fall into despondency. And, of course, no one understands a PhD student better than another student, so everyone tries to support each other.

What advice would you give to students considering going abroad?

Not to be afraid of the challenges, to try, and to get in.

2022-01-14 07:24:11
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