Daniel Smolyak ‘22

Title: Computer Science Ph.D. Candidate 

University: University of Maryland, College Park  

Major: Economics B.S., Computer Science B.S.

Tell us about your undergraduate experience and when you first thought about grad school.

Beyond my undergraduate classes for my Computer Science and Economics majors, I participated in a variety of extracurriculars, including my honors program (Gemstone), clubs/organizations (Technica tech team, Maryland Shakespeare Players, UMD College Democrats), and work/research positions (Software engineering internship @ Microsoft, research position in the iSchool). I can't think of a single moment I first thought about grad school, but my early experiences in undergraduate research in Gemstone and the iSchool exposed me to what a research-focused graduate program would look like, and the more I found those experiences rewarding, the more strongly I considered applying to graduate school. One pivotal moment was when I attended one of the largest research conferences in my field at the time – seeing so many fascinating presentations from other researchers, and in particular grad students, pushed me to follow the same path.

What did you do after graduation? Did you immediately enroll in a master's or PhD program? Or did you get a job first and enroll later?

I applied for graduate programs my senior year in Fall 2019 and immediately enrolled the following year, in Fall 2020, also at UMD. Starting a new program during a fully virtual school year certainly wasn't the greatest experience, but it helped significantly that I was staying at the same school and department.

Describe what led you to focus on academia?

The biggest draw to academia for me was the flexibility in topics that I could work on for my research. As I approached senior year I was still undecided between going into "industry" ( i.e. software engineering positions), graduate school, or something in between. I eventually decided on graduate school because I loved the open-ended nature of research, and I wanted my work to have "social good" applications and to have the ability to change my methods/technical focus throughout my program. My projects now focus at the intersection of machine learning, healthcare, and ethics/fairness.

What is a typical day or week like for you?

I just finished my course requirements last semester, and because I have a research assistantship (as opposed to a teaching assistantship) my days and weeks are largely focused on my research. The bulk of my time is spent on the research itself, which involves a combination of reading existing research/papers, writing code to build models and conduct analyses, and writing up my work in papers and presentations. I'll also have an occasional working meeting with fellow grad student collaborators, and weekly check-ins with faculty supervising my research projects. Beyond that, I make an effort to take part in extracurricular department activities, whether its research talks, social events, or engaging in grad student advocacy (support grad student collective bargaining rights!)

Which undergraduate experiences helped to set you up for grad school?

Many of my undergraduate experiences were great preparation for graduate school. My experiences in the Gemstone Honors Program were instrumental in developing my data science skill set, exposing me to research, and as an added bonus, introduced me to my current research advisor. Undergraduate research positions, one in the iSchool during the year and another at IUPUI over one of my summers, further sharpened my research skills, helped expose me to other research fields as I was trying to decide what field I was most interested in, and connected me to faculty that would eventually write my recommendations for graduate school.

How did your ECON coursework helped you as a grad student?

My ECON coursework has helped me as a grad student in a couple ways. As far as quantitative skills, my econometrics classes and the models I learned there have been a great foundation to build upon as I've continued to use econometric models in my current research projects. On the qualitative side, ECON coursework encouraged me to think about how these models (and technical tools more broadly) can be used to answer questions and provide solutions to real world challenges.

What advice do you have for students thinking about grad school?

Try out research early! Of course not all grad programs are research focused, but research offers the opportunity to build skills useful in any environment, whether its quantitative, communication, or self-organizational. Not only that, it's a chance to apply what you've learned in coursework to more fascinating topics, and to interact with faculty that can eventually write letters of recommendation. There's a plethora of opportunities for research on campus, and if you see faculty working on a topic of particular interest, don't hesitate to reach out!