by George Popescu
Sometimes, no information can be more relevant than a personal story. This essay is intended to guide prospective PhD applications at EPFL, especially those interested in pursuing a position in Computer Science.
A life-changing discussion…
10 months before my start day at EPFL I was chatting with a friend about how we will both shape our careers after completing our Masters degrees. At that time I had no interest what so ever of staying in the academic but was only dreaming of my up-coming internship in a Nordic country.
My friend mentioned to me that perhaps doing a PhD is not a bad idea after all, especially if it’s at a well-recognized institution and/or involves working with experts in the field.
So he guided me to one of his relatives with whom I exchanged several e-mails. Those e-mails proved to be life changing. In a matter of days I found out amazing things about the life of a PhD at EPFL student such as:
- being flexible and working on deadlines
- thinking of the same idea for weeks
- freedom for doing an internship in the industry or even visit a foreign university
- having talks at most famous conferences among the greatest minds in research
At that moment, I didn’t have that much money and I asked him how much the application costs. He said that it’s free of charge but it involves a lot of time and effort.
… that lead to me applying…
So my application started in one winter afternoon from my student room. I clicked the direct link to the PhD application and followed the general steps. One great advantage of the application at EPFL compared with other universities is that students are accepted based on their academic performance without the need for finding a direct supervisor from the beginning.
Students can get accepted and then they have one year to find a supervisor. Thus, in the general application I mentioned some fields of interest such as Artificial Intelligence and Cryptography. One of the critical evaluation criteria was the importance of the personal CV. This needed to confirm students’ interest for research.
The second factor was the solid references coming from important people with whom the prospective PhD student had worked with. Here I included my Bachelor supervisor, the dean of my Master’s programme and another important professor who appreciated my work for his course. Of course, by default, the name of the university you graduated is highly important.
…and to getting accepted
Based on my application I was selected for an interview 6 months after submission. Here I must add that the submission day I had chosen was just a few days after the deadline so evaluations we actually closed about 3 months after. The interview took place over the phone and lasted around 1 hour.
For that, I had to prepare in advance after exchanging few e-mails with my future coordinator at EPFL. I read several research papers, summarized their ideas and expressed my great interest in further developing the work I discovered.
A few days later I was to receive the final acceptance from EPFL and the contract would come into my post-box. I couldn’t have been happier both for going to Switzerland and for working on an emerging field in Computer Science. Later during summer, I found out that the words that my professors and referees I mentioned in my application matter extremely heavily for the final answer from EPFL.
Statistically speaking, in the year I have applied, the acceptance rate was one of the lowest ever: only 8%. Around 65 PhD students were selected to start their first year at EPFL out of a poll of around 800 applicants. Some of them would not complete all the requirements for passing their first year and roughly only 45-50 of them would continue their research for the complete duration of a PhD (between 4 and 6 years in total).
Now it’s your turn
My final advice for students highly motivated to start at PhD at EPFL is to read carefully the information provided on the EPFL website and build a solid application for the domain / faculty they are most interested in. Personally, I couldn’t have imaged choosing a better place for a PhD in Computer Science.
The IT infrastructure, the relationship with foreign institutions, the investment in the exchange of ideas which foster creativity are all essential factors that EPFL concentrates on for its PhD students.