Rejected except for one: Graduate School

Robert McKeon Aloe
6 min readNov 5, 2019


I didn’t grow up dreaming of going to Notre Dame. I only knew of them from college football and the movie Rudy (fantastic movie!). A friend went there after high school, and I went to University of Detroit Mercy (UDM). However, I applied to Notre Dame for graduate school because their computer science department had some computer vision stuff. Little did I know, it was where I was meant to be.

I probably should have applied to more places.

Application Process

In general, the application process for graduate school was painful for three reasons: each school had a different process, there were limited computer vision programs at the time, and the uncertainty of the process was stressful.

I only applied to five schools: CMU, MIT, Notre Dame, University of Michigan, and RIT. I really wanted to go to Carnegie Mellon (CMU) because they had a robotics lab. It seemed one of the few places with computer vision research. I figured MIT was a long shot, but why not. Notre Dame, Michigan, and RIT were all interesting, but I didn’t perceive them as places I wanted to be.

I thought I would have had a leg-up in the process because I was finishing a bachelor’s and a master’s in electrical engineering within four years (as opposed to 5 years), and I double majored in Math. I think this hurt my chances because I didn’t have any publications until after the application process had ended. What they may not have seen and what I didn’t emphasize was that I was doing the degrees quickly. I was doing them in a way nobody had done it in the program before (full disclosure, one person the year ahead of me was on track to graduate with a master’s and bachelor’s in four years, but he didn’t complete one of his classes).

I’m not sure if I was embarrassed or was afraid of being asked how I was doing this. I really didn’t have a good answer. An applicable answer was that I was just a touch crazy in goal setting and driven to accomplish them.

Where would I go?

What would I work on?

Would I be successful?

The stress of even applying weighed on me greatly. I often had writers block when composing the necessary essays even though I had been writing philosophy works for the past year that totaled close to 1,000 pages. It isn’t that I couldn’t write when interested, but I was so full of fear. My mother helped me out quite a bit.

One thing that hurt my application process was the insistence on what I wanted my research to be. I didn’t leave open the door to work on other things. I was told to propose a topic, but mine was far too narrow. I’m not sure why I thought that was a good idea.

Perception is key during the application process. The best people aren’t going to the best schools. The best matched people are going to the places they align with research and experience-wise. I also had my heart set because I was so in love with image processing and computer vision.

I was young and foolish; what a wonderful time to live.

Interviews, or rather, an interview

MIT rejected me. So did RIT and Michigan. I was invited to interview at Notre Dame. CMU took much longer to respond.

I went to Notre Dame in January, and the weather was spring weather, which was strange. Rumor had it that Father Sorin stopped in South Bend during the winter on his way to found a university in California, and he remarked he would leave once the weather got better. Thank you lake-effect snow.

The interviews went pretty well, and I met some interesting people. I felt like a fish out of water because I was coming from EE, and I was interviewing in computer science. My interests only lined up with two groups, and one of them was doing the autonomous robotics. I was enthralled, and I wanted to work in that group.

Ultimately, I ended up in the other group, the Computer Vision Research Lab (CVRL). Initially, I was hesitant to go there only because the money mostly came from government grants to do biometric systems. The reality is that the majority of computer vision money came from the military, and while I loved computer vision, there was a war going on in Iraq and Afghanistan at the time, which I wanted no part, even so indirectly. The professors who ran the group were really warm and welcoming though, and I thought at the time, maybe it would be a good time.


The worst part of the application process is the waiting. I didn’t hear back from Notre Dame for two months or more, but I wasn’t worried because I was convinced I would get into CMU. Little did I know, this was not to be.

I didn’t know it, but I was on the wait list. They sent out letters to the top candidates, and as the deadline for them came closer and closer, my second worst fear was coming true. I heard the final day, and I don’t know how close I was to making the cut.

I was mad, nay, furious! Don’t they know I am?

The selfish, self-centeredness in me threw me into self-pity. Finally, after talking to people, I could see my part, and after a few days, I resolved to find another path forward. Years later, I gained a deeper understanding of how candidate selection for anything works especially once I became a hiring manager.

Can anybody hear me?

I panicked. I had not planned on what I would do if not for CMU. I didn’t want to study anything else. I contacted Michigan, and I found out they didn’t accept me because they didn’t have anything research-wise that aligned with my interested. I was quick to ask for admission anyhow, even if it meant no stipend. I was so intent on going somewhere.

Michigan accepted me without a stipend, and I went to the orientation. I knew at that orientation that the battle would be uncomfortable because I wasn’t interested in any of the areas of research. I didn’t even stay more than an hour because I accepted this wasn’t the right path.

I went to an advisor at UDM, and I asked for help. Could he call Notre Dame on my behalf and find out what had happened? He did, and he found out that the professor I so badly wanted to work with wasn’t taking on students. However, if I was open to other professors, I was welcome to start in the fall on a stipend as a teaching assistant.

I went to Notre Dame, and I ended up in biometrics in CVRL. While my field was extremely small when I graduated in 2010, it exploded in 2016 with Face ID in 2017 solving one of the major problems in the arena of computer vision.

In retrospect, Notre Dame was where I was supposed to be. I met a nice lady who lived next door, and two years later, we were married. I became confirmed in the Catholic Church at Notre Dame. I was in a challenging yet supportive Ph.D. program, and I’m grateful for that experience in South Bend.

When I had interviewed, some grad student gave us a tour, and on that tour, we went into the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. He didn’t know anything about any building aside from their name, but when we walked through those big wooden doors, I felt something. I felt at home, and deep down, I felt I would end up going to graduate school at Notre Dame even though it was a deviation from my planned trajectory.



Robert McKeon Aloe

I’m in love with my Wife, my Kids, Espresso, Data Science, tomatoes, cooking, engineering, talking, family, Paris, and Italy, not necessarily in that order.