PhD Admissions: FAQ

This guide is written for applicants interested in the PhD program in Computer Science at Johns Hopkins with an interest in the Center for Language and Speech Processing.

CLSP also includes students from PhD programs in ECE, Cognitive Science, Applied Math and Statistics, and others. Some of this guide may apply to other PhD programs, and non-CLSP students. You can view statistics about the students in each departments program here:

Application Process

Interested in applying for a PhD? Read this first.

Additionally, several PhD students have written helpful guides to the PhD applications process:

Student Perspectives on Applying to NLP PhD Programs

A Survival Guide to a PhD

You may also be interested in How to Be a Successful PhD Student co-authored by JHU CS Professor Mark Dredze.

You’ve decided to apply! Fantastic. You’ll find the application here:

And general CS information here:

The most important question we seek to answer when reviewing applications: will this individual excel at research. Every part of your application is helpful only insofar as it answers that question. The 4 major components of an application are essay, letters, grades and GRE.

Essay. This is one of the most important parts of your application. It lets us get to know you, and allows to create a narrative of your academic career and future plans. Before you write the essay, start by thinking about you want us to learn about you. Make a list of important achievements, perspectives and goals. Build the essay around this list. We are looking for students who have made the most of the opportunities they have had, and who are smart, creative and motivated. Keep in mind that we’ll also have your CV and letters, so we don’t necessarily need a list of accomplishments. However, the essay can fill in the narrative around what you did, specifically, why you did it. What motivates you? What are your research interests and why? These details aren’t found elsewhere in your application, so focus on them in the essay.

There are a few things we suggest not including in the essay. It’s tempting to give a rationale for why you are applying to our program. But if it’s uninformed, don’t bother. Consider: “I want to apply to CLSP because it’s one of the premiere academic groups in NLP.” We know that already 🙂 If you do have specific reasons to be interested in our program (e.g. location, specific project, faculty, etc.) be sure to mention them.

In terms of motivation, be specific! Don’t write: “I’ve wanted to do a PhD in CS since I was 6 years old.” We don’t trust that 6 year olds make good decisions. If you write “I have always found language fascinating”, why?

In terms of mentioning faculty to work with: it’s a good idea if you know, but skip it if you don’t. If you explain your research interests in detail, we’ll be able to do a better job matching you with an adviser.

We suggest this post from our colleague Nathan Schneider on what readers look for in a statement of purpose.

Letters. The two most important aspects of a letter. 1) Select someone who knows you well and 2) Select someone who knows how to write a letter.

First, it’s tempting to ask Prof X. to write a letter for you because she is a well known person in the field. It’s true that we trust letters more from people we know, but it’s only helpful if the letter contains meaningful information. If Prof X writes, “I’ve met the applicant a few times and they seem sharp” that’s not useful information. It’s more important to select someone who knows you well, and can discuss your achievements in detail.

Second, it’s important that the letter writer knows how to write a letter. Academic research programs look for different things than a company. We often read letters from work supervisors that say nice things, but don’t speak to the qualities we find most important in a letter. Of course, it’s a balance. You want someone who knows you well, but they still need to know how to write letters.

We understand that three letters are a lot, especially for an undergrad applying directly to a PhD program. We don’t expect each candidate to have three amazing letters. Your choice is about balance. You want people who know you well, can write good academic letters, and know our field. Use the choice of three people to create this balance.

Grades. There isn’t much you can do about this; you have the grades you have. It’s important to understand, we don’t use any grade cutoffs or thresholds in admissions. We want to see that you did well, and excelled in whatever program you were in. We look at the classes you took. Did you push yourself to take upper level classes? Did you do well in classes most directly related to our research area? If you have special circumstances that explain some of your grades, be sure to include a description in the letter.

GREs. These are the least important part of the application. We don’t use any thresholds. GREs are helpful in filling in background otherwise missing from the application. If you have many accomplishments, we don’t care how you did on a standardized test. If you have had fewer opportunities to demonstrate potential, we need to rely more on grades and GREs. In short: try to do well, but don’t let a bad GRE score get in your way.

CLSP vs. CS and ECE

CLSP is an interdisciplinary center that includes students and faculty from the computer science (CS), electrical and computer engineering (ECE), cognitive science and other departments. CLSP is an organizing group around research, but your PhD program is run by a department.

If you are interested in working with faculty in CLSP, you first need to decide what department best fits your interests. Once enrolled in that department as a PhD student, you’ll have the option of working with all faculty in that department, including those who also affiliate with CLSP.

If you are unsure which department best fits you, consider both the faculty and the graduate program. In terms of faculty, which professors best fit your interests? We have many students interested in faculty broadly in CS, including NLP, Machine learning, and medicine (for example). Second, look at the graduate programs. You’ll be taking classes in your first two years. Which department’s classes are the best fit for you?

You apply directly to the departments, not to CLSP. You can indicate your area of interest on your application as related to natural language processing so it will come to the attention of the CLSP faculty.

Should I email professors before I apply?

CLSP accepts students every year in every area of speech and NLP. If your question is “will you have slots,” there is no need to ask. Apply!

If you have specific questions about a faculty member’s research, you are welcome to contact them ahead of time. However, keep in mind that faculty members receive dozens of emails from applicants and often don’t have time to response. This is especially true of long emails that focus on the applicant without specific questions for faculty. If you email faculty, we recommend you keep it short, to the point, and specific to that faculty member’s interests. Don’t be offended if they don’t reply.

Does CLSP value a diverse community?

We are committed to a diverse community within the center, as diversity is a key element of the educational experience of our students. Diversity presents itself in many different forms such as socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or place of origin, disability, unique work or life experience, etc.  Our goal through the admissions process is to cultivate an environment that values diverse backgrounds, approaches, and perspectives.

Johns Hopkins University does not discriminate on the basis of gender, marital status, pregnancy, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status or other legally protected characteristic in any student program, activity administered by the university, admission, or employment.


Do I need to have a CS degree?

No! We are an interdisciplinary center. Applicants have degrees in CS, ECE, linguistics, cognitive science, math, and many other areas. While we want to see some experience with CS, we take students from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Do I need to have published papers?

Certainly not. While many of our applicants have publications demonstrating their research experience, we care more about what you did with the opportunities you were given. Some students come from major US universities with active research programs, in which case students have the opportunity to publish. Other students come from smaller schools without these opportunities. Each year we accept many students without publications, and reject students with multiple publications.

After Being Accepted

How will my advisor be assigned?

You will be assigned an initial academic advisor, who may or may not become your eventual thesis advisor. All students are admitted with at least two potential advisors. Additionally, students are required to complete research qualifying projects early in their studies with two different faculty. If you review publications coming from the center, you’ll observe that many have more than one faculty member, and individual students will publish with different faculty. Many of our students are co-advised, and changing advisors or adding a second advisor is relatively easy. If you are a PhD student in Computer Science, you will be able to work with any CS faculty member, subject to mutual agreement.

Will I receive funding?

Our PhD students are all fully funded. Funding includes a yearly stipend, tuition grant and health insurance. Our students are primarily funded on research assistantships, with some amount of time on teaching assistantships (teaching is a requirement of the CS PhD program.) Additionally, we have many students with external fellowships. To the best of our knowledge, no CLSP student has ever left the program due to a lack of funding.

Our CS PhD stipend was $32,400 in 2018-2019, and it increases each year. Additionally, Baltimore offers a lower cost of living than many other major US cities.

Many CLSP students participate in summer internship programs within industry, which pay considerably higher salaries.

What is included in the student healthcare policy?

The student healthcare package contains medical care via Cigna, vision care via EyeMed, and dental via Delta Dental. The full policy details are available here:

What is JHU’s policy on parental leave?

“All eligible full-time graduate students and postdoctoral trainees shall receive no less than 8 weeks of fully-paid new child accommodations”. For more information, see:

Lingering Questions

Feel free to contact us with additional questions not answered here. You can reach out to a number of current graduate students who will be able and willing to answer your questions by filling out this form or email [email protected]

Center for Language and Speech Processing