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Visiting The University of Pennsylvania CIS Department

Last weekend I visited UPenn. Philly is a nicer town than I expected. And UPenn is a very nice school. Here is some notes I took on Fri night after spending the day meeting with people at the school. These are of course only my person opinions based on spending a day and a half meeting people and wandering the city. None of this should be taken as factual information about UPenn.

  • Lots of people doing interesting work.
  • A very busy department. Some competition for time between students and other responsibilities.
  • Very nice people; both faculty and students.
  • If I followed the Lolliproc path I would be working on a secondary project which could make publication a bit more work. However Steve Zdancewic seems interested and I think i could do it without too much trouble.
  • Andre DeHon‘s work on streaming data processors also seems interesting. However I think that would need to be a secondary relationship because I don’t know it I would be happy doing just architecture.
  • Stephanie Weirich‘s work on dependently typed languages like trellis could be very interesting. I don’t know if they are looking to implement yet or not. It is not at all parallelism oriented. Also some people think trillis is just taking the wrong approach to the problem, so it might turn out to be a dead end.
  • Lot’s of type theory skill.
  • A big focus on security and program correctness. Which I really don’t care about since I want to develop new languages.
  • Department takes itself very seriously. Which is good and bad.
  • Could be a very stressful school. However the actual hours per day expectation seems reasonable (very high some weeks however flexible so other weeks you can catch up on sleep). So it’s a full time job + overtime.
  • Very active PL group. So I would learn lots of interesting things on any PL-related subject.
  • Also there is interesting architecture work, so maybe I could actually start to merge those threads but I don’t know.
  • Split culture the students and the faculty are not on a level and have seperate “living spaces”. That being said it is a first name department and there are club meeting once a week where students and faculty hang out and talk about various things.
  • They never gave us a break on Fri. It was a really intense day and they didn’t seem to think anything of it.
  • Everything was scheduled for Fri instead of Sat. One of the students mentioned that this was because the faculty didn’t like to come in on weekends. This does not seem reasonable to me since this is a open house and the faculty should be all in. I worry that this means that the faculty don’t feel like they need to do anything inconvenient to make the department work. That could make it hard to finish a thesis if my adviser refused to go out of his/her way to help me when that was needed.
  • Reasonably lax graduation requirements.
  • Would probably still take me 4-5 years.
  • Nice funding policy. I would have to TA for two terms. After that any TAing would be bonus and paid (at least a little) on top of the funding.
  • Living on the funding is fairly easy even with a pretty high standard of living.
  • First couple of semesters are harder but then it calms down a bit.
  • Nice city.
  • Bikable, looks easy to get around. Not as nice as Portland but not bad.
  • Reasonably cheap food and drink.
  • People seem to like it here and I think it’s honest.
  • 2-3 hours from NYC by a cheap bus ($15 each way day of) or a train ($25). So I could see me NYC friends on a somewhat regular basis.
  • 3 months of sunny days per year.

It is going to be very hard to choose between UPenn and UTAustin. They are both very good schools and are in nice cities. UPenn has the notable advantage that I would be near NYC without being in NYC. I still have a lot of friends there and I miss the people and places.  However I need to make sure to make a good academic choice (based on how the department and the school is) and not blindly choose one place over the other because I want to be able to hang out with my old friends once or twice a month. It’s going to be hard. No matter where I go I will be closing some doors (at least for the time being) and I have to make my choice on fundamentally incomplete information because I really do not know how it will be to go to any of these schools, since I will have only visited them for a couple of days.

This coming weekend I go to Austin, TX to visit UTAustin. Then I will start trying to compare in earnest. I have over a month to decide, but I don’t want to put it off too long because it will probably not get easier as I wait longer.

PS: If you have any comments on either of these schools or town or recommendations or random thoughts on the subject tell me. I’m looking for all the input I can get.

Posted in Grad School, Life (other than code)

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