In recognition of it being “application season” (I am, in fact, taking a break from a fellowship application to write this blog post), I thought I’d put together a post with advice about the Media Lab application process. It is, for better or worse, an opaque process, even to those of us who have managed to make it in. There are other good resources for application advice, including the Media Lab's Quora page and the Media Lab director, Joi Ito's Quora post on admissions. I should also add the disclaimer that the following thoughts are all my own, not officially sanctioned by the Media Lab, and do not guarantee admission by any means.
The number one, most important thing to understand about the application process is that you are applying directly to a research group (or groups), not the Media Lab at large. Let me unpack that a bit, as the administrative structure at MIT can be quite confusing. At MIT, there are several administrative breakdowns: Schools, Departments, Labs, and research groups. There are 5 Schools at MIT, including the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P, which houses the Media Lab), the School of Engineering, and the School of Science. Then, there are about 30 different departments, each housed within one of the schools. For example, SA+P houses the Architecture Department, Urban Studies Department (DUSP), and the Media Arts and Sciences Department (MAS, which is the department from which most Media Lab students get their degree). Then, there are interdepartmental Labs, such as the Media Lab, and CSAIL. These Labs consist of different research groups, which are (as far as I know), the smallest form of administrative organization. Several things to note:
So, what does all of this mean for the Media Lab? The Media Lab is a Lab that houses ~25 different research groups, each headed by a Professor or Research Scientist, almost all of whom have appointments in the Department of Media Arts and Sciences, which is within the School of Architecture and Planning. The most “traditional” course through the Media Lab (if you’re coming from outside MIT, like me) is to apply to the 2-year S.M. in Media Arts and Sciences (MAS) program (which gives you the option, in your second year, to apply to the PhD in Media Arts and Sciences program. You cannot apply to the MAS PhD without already having an MAS Masters).
However, as alluded to above, you don’t *need* to be in the MAS department to do research at the Media Lab. There are a number of students from other departments (often Course 2, 4, 6 and 11) who conduct research at the Media Lab, even if they are fulfilling the course requirements from a different department. And (to make sure you’re thoroughly confused), you can get an MAS degree *without* doing your research at the Media Lab if you do your research instead at the Center for Bits and Atoms, a different Lab that happens to be housed in the same buildings.
Your MAS Application and Groups at the Media Lab
Back to the application. As I mention above, the most important thing to understand about the MAS application process is that you are applying directly to a research group (or groups), not the Media Lab at large. In your application, you can choose up to three research groups of interest. Your application will go directly to the PIs of those groups, and they will indicate their interest in you to the MAS admissions committee. You are admitted to the MAS program as an advisee of one of these PIs; there is no “shopping around” or rotational program, as is common in many other grad programs.
What this means is that it is super, super important that you understand the group(s) you are applying to. Almost any question about life at the Media Lab can be answered with: “It depends on your group”. Here are some ways that groups can differ:
Portfolio and Statement of Purpose
The two main components of your application are the Portfolio and the Statement of Purpose. Each of these should be crafted with your three "research groups of interest" in mind. That is, on the application, you can choose up to three groups that you apply to directly. The PIs of these groups will read your application. Your Portfolio and Statement of Purpose should be broad enough to apply to these three groups, but specific enough to be interesting and relevant. Some groups conveniently group together so that it's relatively easy to write an application that's applicable to all three. Others stand apart. If you're set on a particular research group and don't think there are others that could easily match your application, it's probably best to focus on writing a strong application for that single group.
The Portfolio can sound a little scary (especially if you aren't coming from an architecture or design background), but it doesn't have to be. The Portfolio should basically be a clean, clear catalog of projects you have worked on. This can include previous research projects, personal projects, class projects, essays, websites, initiatives, etc. Some groups have specific portfolio requirements or requests. Other times, it's up to you how to organize and display it. Most people put their portfolios on a website. I presented my portfolio as a PDF file and as the "projects" section on my website. I also chose to divide my portfolio into four broad categories that I felt were relevant to the research groups I was applying to: Data/ Software/ Visualization, Hardware, Writing, and Design. While some groups prioritize design more than others, I think it's most important to present your content in a legible way that clearly shows your contributions and insights.
In your Statement of Purpose, you should make a strong argument for:
The Statement of Purpose is not unlike something you might write for other graduate programs. I recommend reading Jean Yang's excellent grad school application advice for more thoughts on the Statement of Purpose, recommendation letters, and beyond.
A final piece of advice: if possible, get in touch with students and professors in your groups of interest before and during the application process. This comes with a major caveat, which is that you don't want to come off as nagging or annoying. If you can find a natural or organic way to make contact though, these conversations can be incredibly useful. Ways of doing this could include: offering to collaborate on a project, attending a conference or Hackathon at the Media Lab, or engaging with the group in a thoughtful way using social media. These conversations could give you a chance to learn more about the group and decide if the research and culture of that group is actually appealing to you. They will help you figure out the "depends on the group" criteria discussed above. They could also help the professor and students learn more about you (your interests, background, philosophy), which could make you a more attractive candidate.
MAS Recruiting and Diversity Programs
I would be remiss if I did not mention several great programs the Media Arts and Sciences Department organizes or sponsors. These programs are ways to connect with the Lab before or during the application process. Several of these programs specifically aim to increase diversity at the Lab. They are:
Good luck with your application! Feel free to email me if you have other pressing questions that you think should be answered in the following FAQ.
I've noticed that many Media Lab students did not come straight out of undergrad and gained some industry (or other) experience before coming to the Lab. As an undergrad who is eager to get to the Media Lab, should I focus my energy on my Media Lab application, or plan to get a few years of industry experience before applying (in hopes that this could improve my chance of admission)?
This is a tough and ultimately very personal question. I'll start by saying that I know people at the Lab in each category (straight from undergrad vs. taking time off) who are happy and successful.
As I touch on earlier, I think a lot of the application process is about communicating how your story makes you uniquely qualified to be part of a particular group. What experience do you bring to the group that will allow you to mesh with their research, and what unique skill set do you have that can move their work forward? Ultimately, for the general candidate, I would suggest pursuing a few years of industry (or other) experience before applying because I think this gives you the time to build a stronger argument for why you should be at the Lab. It's not that professors inherently prefer people with outside experience, but I think that experience can enhance your story and sharpen your reasons for wanting to be at the Media Lab. Also, time away from academia can give you valuable perspective on how you want to focus and structure your time at the Media Lab (which is a notoriously unstructured program).
Again, it's a very personal question, and my answer is obviously influenced by my experience (I worked for 2 years between undergrad and grad school). While I understand your eagerness to get to the Media Lab, I would ultimately suggest taking this time not because it might improve your chances of admission, but because it could make your experience more focused and contextualized when you get here.