PhD @ Cornell: The Free Agent system

Deciding which graduate school you’re going to spend the next n years of your life is possibly one of the hardest decision of your life. One of the things that made is particularly hard for me was deciding between Cornell and my other top choice was Cornell’s “Free agent system”. Here is a short post about what the system is and why it worked for me.

How do grad schools work?

For most schools in the US, when you apply to a PhD program, you are usually picked out by one (or more) professors who think you’d be a good. After visiting the school, one the student usually decides which professor they want to start working with. When the student starts at the school, they are funded by the professor and they start doing great things together. However, some schools don’t follow this system.

Cornell’s Free Agent System

At Cornell, and a few other schools, the admission process looks a bit different. When a PhD student is admitted to Cornell, they are told that they are admitted to the department, which is supposed to highlight Cornell’s committment towards the student freedom. Concretely, this means that Cornell guarantees funding for the student without tying them to an advisor 1 for the first few years. This is supposed to allow the students to explore and talk to potential advisors without being worried about funding. This is the Free Agent system at Cornell. Students are free agents till they decide who they want to work with.

The Problem

Cornell’s free agent system was devised when the department was young and the incoming PhD students tended to have comparatively less reserch experience. The free agent system allowed students to explore different areas without being pressured to work on topics they might not like. However, in the recent years, the makeup of people applying to PhD programs has drastically changed — students tend to come in with a lot more research experience and are usually pretty sure about the area they want to work in.

Furthermore, the CS department is also structured in a way that assumes students are free agents their first year. This means that they are expected to take a lot of classes and 2 be teaching assistants (TAs) in their first two semesters.

My Experience

The free agent system was the biggest reason that caused me to delay my decision. For some background, I had started doing programming languages (PL) research in the first semester of my undergraduate degree and was quite certain about what kind of stuff I wanted to work on. Furthermore, I knew that Cornell was the best fit for my interest in doing PL work at the intersection of other fields.

Unfortunately, I was also afraid of not being able to find an advisor and wanted to choose a school where I knew I had an advisor. After about 6 hours of post visit day talks with professors and students in the PL group, I decided to go to Cornell. Even after my acceptance, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find an advisor.

When I started in Fall, I emailed several professors in the PL group and setup meetings. This is where I found the true strength of the free agent system. Since professors expect students to go talk to a lot of people, they expect and often encourage students to do rotations with people they might want to work with. It also makes it easy to reach out to professors and learn about their work. I cannot understate how important it is to me to learn about and have conversations about different research. One of my goals going into a PhD is to have a broad sense of the different kinds of problems in different domains and having access to professors in different areas makes it very easy to do so.

I was also able to start working with my awesome advisor Adrian Sampson and we quickly found a project I’m passionate about.

Caveat Emptor

While the free agent system worked for me, it wasn’t the biggest factor in my decision.

  • At the end of the day, having research that excites you and people 3 who are as excited as you are is the single most important thing when you’re deciding schools.
  • The first year TA problem is non-trivial and causes some amount of stress for new grad students. However, the department is aware of the issues and is trying to move away from this system.

Finally, here is a more detailed post from Jean Yang on what considerations matter when deciding on schools. Good luck!

Have comments? Email me or tweet at me.

  1. Being tied to an advisor is not always a bad thing. In fact, most people decide on an advisor and not a school.
  2. The CS department recently overhauled the course requirement to drastically reduce the number of classes and restrictions on which classes to take.
  3. Importantly, This includes other grad students. Remember, you’re going to be spending a lot more time with other grad students than you will with faculty.