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Ask HN: How to get into Machine Learning PhD Program as a self taught developer?
5 points by throwaway_phd31 15 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 7 comments
I am 31 years old and have been working in tech for over a decade now. I would like to go into ML research and have been studying on my own. I have a degree in History.

I was wondering if there are any programs that allow non-traditional backgrounds to get admitted in the CS Phd. As far as I know, all the labs will only let you admit in the program if the CS department admits you. And not having a background or degree in CS is a huge disadvantage.

Anyone has experience getting into PhD program without a CS degree or non-traditional degree?

Thanks in Advance




One question to ask yourself is what you want to do after the PhD. Do you want to go into Academia as Professor/ML Researcher? Or do you want to work for a big company doing ML Research? If it's a big company, are are you thinking Google/Facebook or a company that does ML research, but is less well known?

If you want to become an Academic at an R1 university, I would really recommend not taking any shortcuts. Your career success depends on your research, and your research depends on your professors and the people you work with. Going to a 2nd or 3rd tier PhD isn't worth it if you want to become an academic focused on research.

Figure out how you can get a master's from a a good program. From there get a PhD from a good school. Avoid the tier 3 schools which offer transitional MS programs for people with non CS backgrounds, but it's really a watered down MS. I'd say the same is probably true if you want to work for Facebook/Google Research.

There are companies that do ML/AI research, but they are not really commonly known. One way to find these companies would be to look at the Sponsors for conferences (e.g. NeurIPS 2019) and look at the names. These companies would probably be more open to somebody who didn't do a PhD at the top 10 R1 schools.

I don't remember which schools off the top of my head, but some schools have take an intensive "pre-MS" year before your Master's. This is for people with non CS backgrounds, or CS people who are coming back to school after a long time.

Don't waste your time and money getting a PhD from an unknown school if you seriously want to go into research in any shape or form.


Do you want a PhD or just to work in ML?

Sounds like the former and if so just offer your services to a professor as a developer and forget about the degree.

The fact that you ask the question shows you have no concept of what it means to do a PhD in CS let alone ML or any other field. It's nothing like a bachelor degree! So educate yourself a bit and approach some people who have Masters and PhD in History (your field) and see just what is required for higher level study (you'll be surprised it isn't as easy as you seem to think). Then actually speak to some people who have done a PhD in CS.

Frankly, you're only 31 years old. Take the time to do it properly, no short cuts.


Some department somewhere will have to take a chance based on direct knowledge of you, your abilities, and potential to be successful.

Some people somewhere have to know you for that to happen. So start talking to those gatekeepers.

Talking to the gatekeepers about a master's degree.

Because that lowers their risk; lowers the bar for admission; is sufficient to demonstrate your Phd potential, and is on the roadmap to a Phd anyway.

And of course there are more likely to MS programs for non-traditional backgrounds than Phd's.

Good luck.


It's practically not possible without a Master's degree. However, these days it is easier than ever to do independent research in ai. If you have some interesting results upload them to arxiv and network with other researchers. Having a bunch of papers published in reputable journals may be a way to get into a PhD program.


You'll need references from respected academics in whatever field you're trying to get in to. Those relationships are typically built during undergrad and or during a masters. I would personally try to get into a 2-year masters program (much more doable to get accepted in to without a cs degree) before looking at PhD programs.


Start submitting your results to reputed conferences, maybe? Getting one or two acceptances will surely strengthen your case and show prospective grad schools that you are right on top of the field as a self-taught outsider and, more importantly, gladly willing to dig further in the next 4-6 years? Good luck!


What I’ve been told is that it’s hard to get into a top PhD program, not so hard to get into a lower-tier school. Also it is easy to get into a top professional masters program compare to getting into the PhD.




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