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Graduate Admissions: How to apply for the Masters and PhD programs in the Software Agents Group at the MIT Media Lab

Most importantly, the deadline is in mid-December for the following year's September admission for MS and PhD applications. First, see the official information for all applications to the MIT Media Lab.
Now, here are a few words of additional, unofficial advice for applicants to the Software Agents Group.

What We Are Looking For

We are looking for people with diverse backgrounds. Software Agents is an interdisciplinary topic, and we are not limiting our admissions to straight-A computer scientists. Expertise in computer science is a plus, of course, but we also encourage people with unconventional backgrounds or relevant knowledge and experience in other fields to apply. The two core competencies are Human-Computer Interaction Design and Artificial Intelligence. People who have broad backgrounds, including other fields such as graphics and visualization, cognitive science, artificial life, psychology, mathematics, economics, library science, educational applications and the arts are welcome.

The term "Software Agents" is used differently in different communities. At the MIT Media Lab's Software Agents group, we focus on the sense of "agent" as being a helpful assistant in the user interface, like a travel agent or real estate agent (but hopefully, NOT like the Microsoft Paper Clip!). The term "agent" is also used in the fields of Distributed Artificial Intelligence and Multi-Agent Systems to mean a software entity that can be autonomous, have goals and intentions, and communicate with other such agents to perform cooperative problem solving. These kinds of agents do not necessarily appear in the user interface. These two senses of agents are related, and we are interested in the second sense as well, but our focus is primarily on agents which provide assistance to a user directly in the user interface, via learning, proactive anticipation of the user's needs, adaptation and other techniques.

Personal Qualities
Above all, we are looking for people who are creative, who can think 'out-of-the-box' about the future and envision new possibilities, then work hard to create them. We like people who can competently address every aspect of a project, from the fundamental principles that motivate a project, to the craft of actually building concrete prototypes that demonstrate the ideas.

We are looking for people who can be self-motivated and take responsibility for your own work on long-term projects without the need for day-by-day, step-by-step direction. A faculty advisor is just that -- an advisor, not a boss. You should also be able to collaborate well with professors, your fellow students, visitors from industry and academic colleagues.

It is absolutely essential to have good presentation and writing skills.

You probably do need to have good programming skills by the time you embark seriously on a project. We do not have programmers who can work for you. If your background doesn't demonstrate good programming skills, you should be prepared to work very hard to acquire them rapidly. Best is if you can program in both a language that is suited to AI or rapid prototyping applications [Lisp, Prolog, Smalltalk] and also a more conventional procedural language [Java, C, C++,C#].

Your Application

If you would like to introduce yourself or ask questions, you may send a short e-mail message to Please DON'T send your resume, CV, or any other e-mail attachments (you don't know how many files I've got on my disk called "resume.doc"!). If you would like us to look at any material, put it on your own Web server, and send us the URL. I will try to look at it, but I can't guarantee a quick response. In fairness to all applicants, we can't give you any advance notice of your "chances of getting in" before the official applications process.

The Media Lab admissions office will give you detailed instructions on preparing the application.

The most important parts of the application are the Statement of Interests [the short essay in the front of the application], and the Portfolio [samples of your work such as articles you've written, software demos, tapes of your rock band, or any other tangible representation of your work]. The Statement of Interests tells us who you are, why you want to be here, and what your vision for your work is. It also gives us a sample of your writing and self-expression.

Don't neglect the Portfolio. Include anything you are especially proud of and you think represents you well, regardless of whether you think the subject is 'relevant'. We are trying to see how you think and what you think about, rather than match it narrowly to our interests. Especially welcome is to show us projects that you've pursued passionately from your own motivation, rather than something that someone told you to do for work or school [although if you're proud of your coursework or job work, we want to see that as well].

Of course, we like to see good grades and good recommendations, but we're not making choices based on who has the highest grade average or the most flowery recommendations.

Interviews are not required, but if you are in the Boston area and available and would like to visit the lab, please let us know.

If you have specific questions about graduate student life at the Media Lab, please contact us via e-mail. However, please do not phone or e-mail simply to 'check the progress of your application'.

Financial Support

The Media Lab is fortunate in that all Media Lab graduate students are supported by Research Assistantships. This pays tuition and a modest stipend for living expenses. You do not need outside scholarships.

The Research Assistantships include the obligation to participate in research and educational activities of the Media Lab, including sponsor relations and teaching. A big part of the Media Lab's role is providing education and presentations on the Media Lab's research to the companies and organizations which support us. You will become an active part of those activities. In other words, as we say at the lab, 'Demo or die' :-).

Note to PhD applicants

Please be aware that even if you already have a Masters [MS] degree at another university, you must normally complete a MS degree at the Media Lab before being accepted to the Media Lab PhD program. You must reapply for the PhD at the conclusion of the MS, and completion of the Media Lab MS does not guarantee acceptance into the Media Lab PhD. It is usually two years for the MS, followed by four years for the PhD.

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