Jul 13, 2013

USC vs. UIUC ?

Well, this seems like a controversial topic or perhaps its like comparing apples and oranges, but here is my view of these two schools based on personal experiences. Point to note: I completed my M.Sc. in Computer Science at USC and then went on to a PhD. in Computer Science at UIUC.

Location: First off all, let's talk location. USC is located in absolute downtown Los Angeles....and this area just as in most downtowns of big cities is not quite known for being safe. You would often hear about occurrences of mugging, robbery etc through campus announcements. But, if you pay heed to safety precautions you should be just fine. Just that the USC area is not an area you would typically hang out after class or with friends and don't even think about taking a stroll by yourself. I got by easily without being affected just by taking some common sense safety steps. Now on the positive note, if you have a car while you are in school, then you have access to a lot of good food (Thai, Korean, Chinese, you name it) and entertainment! I truly enjoyed my time in LA, experiencing the big city traffic, the 'dangerousness' of the city and working at USC's ISI and ICT. Would I do it again? Most likely, no at least not  near the downtown area. The USC campus itself is fairly small in comparison to other well known universities. The student facilities and health care options are just so-so not as good as other big schools. Hey, its a private school, they can do better! The weather in LA is nice and sunny all throughout and slightly cool in the winter but very pleasant. 

UIUC on the other hand is located in a small University town, slightly south of Chicago. It's about a two and half hour drive from Chicago. The campus is huge and beautiful I would say. In general the UIUC campus seems to be safe and some parts of the campus seem to be safer than others. But of course you still have to be careful at nights especially. The winters are extremely cold, you cannot get by with your nice summer outfit. You do need to bundle up pretty well and plan ahead if you need to go out to classes or run errands (I stayed home for the most part - too weak for winters). Because UIUC is in a University town, you can only imagine how much entertainment the city would have to offer - yes, limited. You would probably find more corn fields than movie theaters or restaurants. You could however drive up to Chicago or other nearby cities for more options. On the flip side, if you are actually working on your PhD, entertainment is probably the last thing on your priority list - so this should not be much of a concern at all. Its pretty easy to get medical care within the UIUC campus. They have a pretty big student health facility where you can get your immunizations, flu shots, etc. 

CS Department: Moving on to the CS department. USC's CS department seems to leave students in the dark. If you have a problem, or concerns they tend not to work with you to resolve it. Instead they throw out standard 'canned' type of responses and insist in repeating the same message in different ways without really trying to get into details. You are probably better off talking to an automated question answering system, if they even had one. In terms of funding, most of the funding is reserved for PhD students either in the form of RA or TA. They have occasional merit based funding or RA type of jobs for M.S. students but that is totally dependent on Professors and the availability of such jobs in other departments. Doing a CPT at USC was not very easy either. At the time I was there we had to go through a supposed advisor (Margery something) who approves the CPT whom every student was afraid of. She was rude and shouted at students if the offer letter had mistakes or she was irritated or not happy about something. Unprofessional alright, but it is what it is! I don't quite know if things have changed since I left. In summary, I would say that USC's CS/Engineering department is not very student oriented.

When I enrolled at UIUC I was pleasantly surprised by how much importance and effort the department puts into student happiness. They do everything in their capacity to see that their students succeed and get what they need. It almost feels like a family where they take you on as a member. I would have to especially commend Kathy Runck who is very efficient with helping students and answering all sorts of administrative questions as well as Mary Beth and Rhonda Kay who always seem to get back to you almost immediately should you need their help. All in all I am very happy that I chose to join UIUC for my PhD as this is when you can get into all sorts of administrative complications and messes. What worked for me was also the fact that I had an excellent advisor who was not just a good mentor, but also a very understanding person who works with you to see that you meet your future career plans. Another thing that I found out about the department is that once you graduate, it does not mean you are completely out of the picture. Once you have established connections and trust, these connections will always be there (so take advantage of it!). Funding is available for both MS and PhD students. For M.S. its mostly in terms of TA. But for PhDs it can be scholarships, TAship or RAship.

Opportunities for research in NLP / Text Analytics:  USC is very very well known for its NLP research. They work on a variety of problems ranging from Machine Translation, to Question Answering to Common Sense Reasoning. You would find a lot of well known research folks in NLP at USC's ISI. Jerry Hobbs, Eduard Hovy, Kevin Knight, Daniel Marcu are just amongst a few. Here is a more complete list: http://nlg.isi.edu/nlpeople/. You will find some more NLP folks at USC's ICT as well. UIUC is also well known for NLP and research in all types of text analysis work, however there are fewer faculty members in these areas. We have Dan Roth, Julia Hockenmeir, ChengXiang Zhai (was my advisor), Roxana Girju, and Margaret M. Fleck. Apart from Prof. ChengXiang Zhai, the NLP work at UIUC is more foundational and theoretical. Prof. Zhai works mostly on applied text analysis and management, covering topics in information retrieval, opinion mining and summarization, text summarization, bioinformatics, medical informatics and many more.  

Ranking: In terms of ranking, both schools are top tier schools where UIUC's engineering program ranks 5th and USC's program ranks 9th. In terms of the CS program in particular UIUC ranks 5th still but USC ranks 20th. These rankings are based on U.S news.

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