Advice for applying to PhD/Masters programs after working for a bit (no robotics research background)

Hi everyone. I realize this post is similar to some others, but I didn’t see anything about the “it’s been a minute” since college part, so I thought I’d ask.

I have a computer science and engineering degree from UCLA ( think EECS) and about 3.5 GPA. I graduated 4 years ago, and have been working as a software engineer ever since. However, I now want to go to grad school, but in robotics, specifically for a PhD/Masters. I don’t have any robotics related research, but I do have a couple of things that might be going for me?

  • I was head of the AI division in the ACM club at UCLA, did some talks through the quarters about Machine Learning, supervised, unsupervised, etc.
  • I did a bunch of robotics in highschool, both independently and with a club (FTC competition). I was that kid with 3 mindstorms NXT’s running LeJOS/ RobotC and ROS at some time, building bipedal robots, hexapods, etc, understanding gait, building underactuated mechanisms when money was tight and I couldn’t buy more motors, etc. Basically, I was heavily invested, but lost my way for a bit.
  • I did independent research my senior year under a professor studying Markov Decision processes and their used in probabilistic reasoning about collaborative AI in games (think Ratchet and Clank, except Clank is trying to help you in a way that maximizes YOUR utility, not it’s).

My questions:

However, now that I’ve spent 4 years working, I’m a little out of touch with those professors. I can get great letters of rec from where I work, but how much does that help?

I’ve done my research about the schools, and I know that if I can’t get into the PhD’s, I’d at least want to get into masters. Do schools do that automatically for you, or is it college dependent? I think it’s the latter based on some cursory research?

Should I even be looking at the top schools like MIT/ CMU? On my radar are CMU, MIT, UPenn, UMich, Northwestern, WPI. Or should I just know that without actual research experience, getting Masters is my realistic expectation and work with that? I’m actually looking at the faculty too, and not just the names, so I’m aware which ones have more research areas and which ones have less.

Also, I’m trying to find the “specific area” of research I’d enjoy, so I’d appreciate some advice there. I know for sure I enjoy AI, but I also want it to apply to things like prostheses or SLAM. Rather, making agents in software and not seeing it, with my own eyes/hands, apply to a robot in real life is a little unsatisfactory for me.

Thanks for the help. I’m excited but slightly overwhelmed, now that I’m trying to commit to this. I have plenty of work ahead of me

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