Yotam Gingold
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Hi David,

Nice to hear from you. I'd be happy to talk about my experience at NYU and about grad school in general. Are you looking at Master's or PhD programs? I recently graduated with my PhD from NYU, and I was in the PhD program the entire time, so my experience with the Master's program is limited. If you are thinking about getting a PhD at all, it's worth avoiding Master's programs for two reasons (which I'm guessing you already know):

  1. You will get paid as a PhD student as opposed to paying a lot of money as a Master's student,

    and

  2. Master's programs are typically professional programs --- you get a Master's degree to improve your job prospects --- while PhD's are a completely impractical degree useful only for going into academia or a research institute or for a limited number of research positions in industry. As a result, Master's programs are often course or project based and don't require you to do any research or write a thesis. Courses in the Master's program are also easier than their PhD equivalents, except for the special topics classes (more specialized than just operating systems or graphics) which Master's and PhD students take together. These things are certainly true at NYU.

If you want a Master's degree for professional reasons --- and there are probably many good reasons to want that --- I'm not the right person to talk to, since I've already said all that I know about them. :-) From now on, I will assume that you are thinking about getting a PhD.

Why? If you don't know why, and you aren't incredibly stubborn or persistent (and lucky), then you might want to reconsider getting a PhD. Attrition rates are high. Of the students who joined the program the year after I came in, half of them dropped out after a few years. (My year wasn't so bad.) But grad school isn't always good times. There is no work/life balance, and by some point in the second year you will begin working closely with an academic advisor. Whoever this academic advisor is, your relationship with them will be medieval (master and apprentice), and you can be certain that no one ever taught them how to be a good manager/master. You can be equally certain that they did not attain their present position as a result of innate talents in this area. Ignoring the extremely rare cases where your advisor is an excellent manager and master --- I honestly cannot think of anyone I know in any department anywhere who is in this situation [revised later: I know of one and I suspect there may another; I will have to ask him the next time I see him] --- the upshot of all this is that at best you will tolerate your advisor, generally not mind the work, and perhaps sometimes even like it. At worst, you will suffer tremendously for 3-5 years of your 5-7 years in grad school. The first year will be fun; you will mostly be taking coursework, getting your feet wet in someone else's research, and hanging out with other students. The second year will be similar, but you will begin some research in earnest; you will probably enjoy it, although there will be some negative undertones as you may have convinced yourself to enjoy a topic you hadn't intended to pursue back when you were applying to graduate school. In the third year, your schedule will start to slip, and you may want to change research areas, but at this point you are only two years away from the end of the supposed five-year PhD program. While you may or may not switch topics, by the end of the third year you will lie to yourself that the end is in sight (being naive, you believe that two years is "in sight"). Your fourth year will see some setbacks; you may question your research direction and have some negative feeling towards your advisor (he will be either too hands off or too hands on), but the sunk costs (4 years!) are pretty intense, and you believe you will get your PhD if you hang in there for another year-and-a-half or two. If you are wise, you will quit (that is, if you haven't already). In your fifth year, you will dislike your research and your advisor and you will continue to suffer; the sunk costs have only gotten worse, but now there's only one more year to go and taking six years is common --- the norm, even. Throughout your sixth year, you will be thoroughly unhappy, hating your advisor and struggling with your research. Motivation will hurt your research progress as much as lack of direction. You will pretend that you will be done in a year, but time will move in a strange way and, at the end of year six, you will still have half a year to go. You will continue to have "six months to go" for the remainder of your PhD. One possibility: At the end of your seventh year, you will simply get a job and stop showing up to the lab. Finishing your PhD will be left to the background cycles of your life.

I did not experience the worst case and made it through graduate school mostly unharmed.

To say something specific about NYU, the PhD program is designed to minimize coursework and get you doing research as quickly as possible. That's kind of cool. It would be much cooler if they did something I have heard of from biology students, where everyone is forced to rotate through four different research labs over the course of a year before deciding on an advisor.

Yotam