Rachit Nigam

PhD at Cornell: The Free Agent System

PhD student tries to justify his life choices.

December 15, 2018

Update, 2022: After being at Cornell for couple more years, I’ve developed a more nuanced opinion of the “free agent system” at Cornell CIS. I do not believe that this system scales well as the department has grown. If you are an incoming student to Cornell CIS, I encourage you to set up rotation commitments with professors before you accept the offer.

Deciding which graduate school you’re going to spend the next n years of your life is one of the hardest decision of your life. One of the things that made is 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.

Graduate School Admissions

For most schools in the US, when you apply to a PhD program, students are usually picked out by one or more professors who think you’d be a good fit. After visiting the school, the student decides which professor they want to work with and commit to the school. 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 are admitted to the department, which highlights Cornell’s commitment towards the student’s academic freedom. Concretely, this means that Cornell guarantees funding, usually through teaching assistantship, for the student without tying them to an advisor. 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 research experience. The free agent system allowed students to explore different areas without being pressured into working on topics they might disliked. 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 quite certain 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 be teaching assistants (TAs) in their first two semesters. The CS department recently overhauled the course requirement to reduce the number of classes and restrictions on which classes to take.

My Experience

The free agent system caused me a lot of angst during the decision process. For some background, I had started doing programming languages (PL) research in the first semester of my undergraduate degree and was certain about my future research direction. 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. 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 professors in the PL group to set up 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 research rotations with professors they are interested in working with.

It also makes it easy to reach out to professors and learn about their work. I cannot emphasize how important it is to me to learn about and have conversations about research in different domains. 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 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 caused me some anguish in the decision process, it was not the primary reason I decided join Cornell.

  • My primary motivators were research that excited me, and people who are just as excited about it as me. 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.
  • The first year TAing requirement causes some amount of stress for new 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!

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