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Because it worked for Seema... - F*cking with Clusters

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So, part of my crazy getting out of here is having to once again apply to grad school. This is my third time doing it. My first time, I applied to 11 and got in to 0. Second time, I applied to 8 and got in to 2. This time I'm applying to 4, possibly 5 if the UC Merced professor I contacted can convince me that they're actively doing machine learning type stuff. I can't shake the fear that I'm not going to get in to any again. If I could only redo a semester I bombed at Mudd, my GPA would go up by half a point. Half a point would mean I don't get into the auto-trash pile everywhere I apply. Half a point would at least make them look at my pretty damn good graduate GPA. Alright, enough bitterness. This is a constructive post. I've written a general-ish statement of purpose... and ::tiny:: I'd really really really appreciate it if you could give me some feedback. In particular, should I mention the Mudd GPA thing? Should I leave out the personal stuff at the end? More about research? Less about research? Less pandering? More department specifics?

The poet Langston Hughes wrote, in ``Theme for English B'' :
Go home and write \\
a page tonight. \\
And let that page come out of you--- \\
Then, it will be true. \\

\noindent He says it is just that simple, so here goes:\\

My name is Avani Wildani. I am a five foot tall mathy opera-loving vim-using
prolog-fangirl wheelchair-bound computer science graduate student who
would like to transfer into the UC Santa Cruz Computer Science Department.

And no, I'm not going to say that five times fast.

What do you know so far about me? I have decent grades, good GRE scores, and
a tendency to write embarrassingly long introductory sentences. I hope that
this description of my current research, my general research interests, and my
goals upon completing a Ph.D. tells you more about my enthusiasm for and
dedication to both research and learning.

I am currently a graduate student member of the Machine Learning group at the
University of New Mexico. I have chosen to apply to UC Santa Cruz to be near
friends and family who can care for me as I continue to study at a top-notch
research university. Though I am not about to leave my dreams of becoming a
research scientist, I am flexible on research areas and funding types if it
means I will be able to devote time to research instead of the trials of being
disabled and living alone.

My primary research interest is machine learning. I first became interested in
machine learning through a project I did for Sandia National Laboratories
during my senior year of college. I was the team leader for a group assigned
to write software that would take a multi-dimensional dataset cast into two
dimensions, cluster it, and analyze cluster validity. Sandia used our tool to
correlate data from infant leukemia studies, which made me feel good about my
work and drove me to seek more interdisciplinary projects.

In the UNM Machine Learning Group, I have worked on several projects. For
example, I have used Weka to model the correspondence between gene activation
and learned behaviors in mice. I have also implemented support vector
analysis with various kernels for very large data sets, and I used this to
evaluate relationships between fMRI regions of interest to predict
hierarchical relationships in functional brain areas for schizophrenic

I am currently working to identify schizophrenia subtypes using both fMRI data
and incomplete heterogeneous survey data collected from patients. Since it is
unlikely that this data is linear, I am modifying Ng et al.'s spectral
clustering algorithm to handle hidden values based on Sanguinetti's technique
for cross-entropy minimization for hidden variable analysis in Kernel PCA. I
hope to tie up the loose ends of this project before leaving UNM, and very
much hope that I can apply the techniques I have learned at UNM in the UC
Santa Cruz Machine Learning group. In particular, Professor Warmuth's work on
randomized PCA would be interesting to extend using kernel methods. Also, I
find Professor Haussler's work in bioinformatics and genomics interesting because
I prefer working with data that could give real world insight. I would enjoy
applying machine learning models to this area. Also, my recent research
called me to read Professor Haussler's paper on probabilistic PCA, and I'm
actively working on the analogous probabilistic interpretation for spectral

My ideal situation would be to work on bioinformatics and learning. Two
aspects of machine learning interest me: the thrill of watching screens of
data turn into meaningful patterns, and the possibility of one day gaining
insight into animal thought through building advanced artificial pattern
recognition systems. So you don't think that I am a crank, I should qualify
that I know how far-fetched this goal is. However, if distributed computing
and processor technology continue to grow as they have, I feel that one day
we'll be able to model a sufficiently complex system to gain some
understanding of ourselves.

In addition to my machine learning background, I have a working knowledge of
and interest in networks, particularly routing algorithms in non-traditional
network topologies, ubiquitous computing, and adaptive intrusion detection
systems. I am early enough in my graduate career that I would be willing (eager,
even) to test the waters outside of machine learning if I saw an interesting
problem come my way. In particular, I would love to know more about the
Hybrid Systems Modeling Framework for Data Communication Networks project (it
is not accessible at the moment).

At Harvey Mudd, I worked on network algorithms research with Professor Ran
Libeskind-Hadas. In particular, we studied graph algorithms and combinatorial
techniques to determine, as a function of the number of wavelengths and nodes
in our model, the minimum number of conversions to and from the optical
signals in ring-based network topologies. I also wrote a survey paper that
covered the state of split-packet, aka ``wormhole'' routing circa 2002.

At UNM, I was briefly involved in an scalable systems project that designed
boards to attach to porcupines to use 802.11b/g to monitor the animals even
when they burrowed. I was also a member of a networks research group at
Harvey Mudd headed by Professor Mike Erlinger. Our group finished implementations
of IDXP and BEEP in C and Java to create a working IDS that used a prototype
of IDMEF and IDXP. Professor Erlinger is a primary author of the IDMEF draft, and
I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to help refine a protocol that is
going to grow up to be a RFC.

My plan after graduation is to go into academia or, if I can not get a
position in California, pursue a research position in government or industry.
I want to end up somewhere where I can continue to work on interesting
problems and have access to intelligent colleagues. Ideally, these colleagues
will be from a range of disciplines, since machine learning is nothing without
vast amounts of data from the experimental sciences, and I am much more
compelled by research projects that have the potential to help others.
I prefer academia because I enjoy both teaching and learning from my students.
As an undergraduate, I was responsible for grading and tutoring classes
ranging from upper-division Algorithms to Differential Equations. I graded
Discrete math for one of your current students (Dr. Greg Levin). I was also a
member of the Computer Science Staff, which is a group of student systems
administrators who maintained the SGI and Solaris boxes and helped students
and faculty work more efficiently. At UNM, I was the lead TA for a 200
student introductory Java class. I was in charge of leading labs, writing and
grading assignments, and supervising 4 other TAs. While I would prefer to get
back into research as soon as possible, I would not mind additional teaching

% I don't like this part!
Harvey Mudd College is a rigorous undergraduate institution that does not
inflate grades. I may have a 3.7 from UNM, but I am much more proud of my
2.8 from Harvey Mudd. This is a perfectly reasonable Mudd GPA that put me
almost squarely in the center of my graduating class of high school
valedictorians and National Merit finalists, and, additionally, I have
attached a list of the setbacks I overcame to graduate in four years.

I like the computer science department at UC Santa Cruz, I like the work you
are doing, I feel like my interests fit within your department, and I would
be glad to be a part of it. I guess it really is just that simple.\\ \\

\noindent With respect and thanks,
Avani Wildani

Update: Version 4.01, with many thanks to everyone who's helped on this! I just gave it to my advisor to rip apart... but I'm still really unhappy with the ending :-(

Thanks a lot for any and all comments. I'm going to back to being a stress-monkey now.
take a penny
[User Picture Icon]
Date:November 21st, 2006 04:03 am (UTC)

Typo alert!

\noindent He says its just that simple, so here goes:

"its" -> "it's" or "it is"

I sort of didn't read much past then because I was scrolling down to post the comment.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:November 21st, 2006 04:40 am (UTC)
What I'd like to write to you about now.
I'd like to end on a personal note.

Don't explain yourself, just do it.

I don't know what I want to be when I grow up.

Even if it's true, this is exactly the sort of thing any personal-statement guidelines I've read strongly advise against. I'm sure you can cast your ambiguity in a positive light.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:November 21st, 2006 06:45 am (UTC)
"National Merit" should be capitalized thusly (and maybe also "Discrete Math"). Decapitalize (decapitate?) "scores" (following "GRE").

Add a comma to the sentence "These included a project..." to separate the two projects.


I would recommend dropping the last sentence in the paragraph talking about your GPAs.

Last paragraph, third sentence, move the last comma back a word (before the "and", not after).

It seems long to me, but when I was doing this whole thing, I had at least one school that imposed a 500-word limit.

Good luck!
[User Picture Icon]
Date:November 21st, 2006 07:06 pm (UTC)
Thanks! Did just about all of that now :-)

UCSC actually wants *4* pages, so this is the long version. I need to cut it down to 1 page for Irvine.. but I'm more worried about having the long version be good.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:November 21st, 2006 08:31 am (UTC)
i would remove all contractions. i know that using them makes you sound personable, but you're accomplishing that in other ways already.

any place where you use "really" or "a lot" you can probably substitute a more exciting word

I believe it's Ph.D.

"on several projects. These
included a project using Weka to..." i'd go with "include" in the present tense. also, that is a longass sentence. could you break it in two?

its unlikely..." another "its" alert. getting rid of contractions might help you catch these.

"...my recent research
called me to read..." perhaps correct, but sounds odd

(more in next comment)
[User Picture Icon]
Date:November 21st, 2006 08:48 am (UTC)
i would say "so THAT you don't think i'm a crank..."

"if distributed computing and
processor technology to grow as it has, I feel that one day..." something's wrong here. maybe "for" instead of "if"? or maybe "for... to continue to grow as it has..."?

i would say "would be willing" rather than "am willing"

Project. (It is not...)

The presentation of the future plans isn't hitting me right. It's unspecific enough that it's not contributing much. If you keep it, make Google singular. But I'd recommend a full conceptual overhaul on that paragraph.

is systems administrators correct, or is it system administrators?

mentioning that Mudd doesn't inflate is cool, but the treatment of the undergraduate grades came off wrong. particularly "I don't want to come across as
arrogant, but I don't expect to have any problem with classes at UC Santa
Cruz." no way. if you have to say you're not trying to sound arrogant, it's too late. i'm also not sure how i'm taking the "with medical" stuff. on the one hand, it's important for them to know that you faced challenges. on the other hand, if i were reviewing the application and saw that, i think it might trigger some sort of unspecified guilt, and guilt is bad.

I'd take out the law school reference.

I would skip the bagging on the desert. If you must mention it, move it up to where you first referenced wanting to switch programs.

ix-nay on "neat"
[User Picture Icon]
Date:November 21st, 2006 09:12 am (UTC)
Wow, I didn't know you were doing that kinda stuff (brain stuff)! That's awesome!

Anyhow, I have full confidence in you..my only suggestion is possibly to be more to the point..since that seems like how admissions people work. Other people gave good advice...I'm not sure how UCSC feels about your desire to transfer there being filled with qualifiers about how you dislike UNM, even if it's true; I would focus on trying to emphasize positive qualities of UCSC, even if it's not the first thing on your mind.
[User Picture Icon]
Date:November 21st, 2006 02:31 pm (UTC)
However, if distributed computing and processor technology to grow as it has,

I think you're missing a word in that sentence!

My main comment would be that I'm not sure whether the chatty, friendly tone is a good idea. I don't know how UCSC works, but sometimes your app goes through not only the CS profs, but also the "graduate school admissions committee," who are probably more formal.

Other thoughts . . .
* Don't say what you're going to say, just say it. It's like when they teach you 5-paragraph essays in school and everyone starts out with "In this essay, I will talk about X." Maybe instead of "Here I've described X" you can say "I hope my discussion of X will allow you to see my dedication" or something.
* Maybe I am just thrown off by Kendra's experiences applying to UT, but you might not want to mention that you want to go to UCSC to be with your husband. I think "family and friends" should be sufficient.
* Along the same lines, instead of talking about being unhappy in NM you can maybe say something about how your experience has taught you that location is just as important as the work you are doing, and you cannot commit 100% to the work AND be happy living somewhere you don't like.
* Tell them your good grad GPA *before* you tell them your not-as-good Mudd GPA. And take out the line that basically says UCSC's classes will be easy. Any sentence beginning with "I don't want to come across as arrogant" is probably going to come across that way whether you said anything or not. ;)

Anyway, those are my suggestions. Pimp your research and teaching experience, play down any problems or setbacks.
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