Srđan Milaković and Dimitrije Jankov applied to the Computer Science Ph.D. program at Rice University after completing a summer exchange student research project here in 2016. Originally from Croatia and Serbia, the two friends first met in CS courses at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia and discovered they had followed similar paths in their home countries.
“My friends in elementary school would talk about the computer games they were playing but I didn’t have a cool computer like theirs, so I learned how to program to make my own games,” said Jankov.
“I didn’t get to play those cool computer games either, so I also started programming in about 6th grade,” said Milaković.
After several years at Novi Sad, they both signed up for the Computer Science Student Advancement Program (CSSAP). Originally proposed by Rice CS senior research scientist Zoran Budimlić, the CSSAP is a collaboration between the Computer Science Departments in two Serbian universities and Rice University, plus the Serbian American Chamber of Commerce of Houston. Through the program, Rice provides a summer research experience for several exchange students each year.
Why Computer Science?
Jankov: The year I ended up winning third prize in a national programming contest, I realized I really enjoyed solving problems those kinds of problems, so I focused on it in university.
Milaković: For me, it felt similar to math. By high school, I was participating in both computer science and math competitions, in parallel. It was easy to practice for the CS competitions because I was able to do everything in computers, but it was hard to imagine how the competition problems would be applied to real-world challenges.
What made you choose the University of Novi Sad and then Rice University?
Jankov: I seriously considered the university in Belgrade, but I didn’t want to live in a big city. My quality of life would be way worse, so I chose Novi Sad. And Rice is really nice! First of all, the campus is fantastic. Also, people are really pleasant to work with. Serbia has a different notion of the relationship between professors and students; here, they are more approachable and there are more opportunities for discussion, it’s okay to ask how someone understood a concept. And the students are treated more as equals as if they are working with another colleague.
Milaković: I finished my pre-college education in Croatia, but almost all of my relatives lived in Serbia, so that is where I looked for universities. In Belgrade, I would have trouble with transportation, and I’m from a small town – one of the locations where they filmed Game of Thrones – so Novi Sad felt more comfortable to me. Novi Sad is smaller, so the Rice campus feels really large and spacious –especially compared to Serbia, which is really dense. Then there are all these beautiful trees!
What brought you to Rice originally?
Milaković: A student a year or two ahead of us posted about his summer research experience at Rice; I checked it out and Rice looked amazing. Then a professor at Novi Sad asked if I wanted to go and of course I did, but I was in an internship and had to ask for three months off to participate. With such a huge demand for programmers, most of the CS students are working part-time while still completing college. There were six of us from Novi Sad working at the same company and two of us asked off to go to Texas!
Jankov: In our last year at Novi Sad, after we presented and handed in our projects at the end of one course, the professor said he really liked mine and Srđan’s and he asked us if we’d like to go to Rice. I had other internships offers – mostly in the industry– but I didn’t want to be a code monkey. I can do web apps and industry work later. The idea of spending my summer in research at Rice was far more interesting.
Milaković: We arrived in Houston last July, and Zoran’s wife met us at the airport. She drove us to the Rice Police Station to get our IDs. And I thought, ‘this university has its own police station?’ and then I was meeting the chair of the department, Dr. Vivek Sarkar. I was going to be working on one of his research team’s projects, but I was amazed he had time to speak with me.
Jankov: Yes, Vivek remembered my name and he wasn’t even my adviser!
Why pursue a Ph.D.?
Jankov: Well, a Ph.D. program usually means research, which means I will get to do more of my own things –cool things my adviser wants me to work on – not just be making material products. And I’ll get to make something new, instead of reusing other people’s programs. To work in the industry, most of the companies I have heard of say, ‘Come and use this software, this framework, to make this and that.’ Research is more wide open. We can experiment and have the freedom to choose to work on something that may or may not end up being a profitable venture.
Milaković: My reasons are similar. Like Dimitrije mentioned, the companies we’d heard about were usually working on websites and applications and they are almost all the same, really boring. Working on a Ph.D., the research in on interesting stuff. I’ll try to get a research position after my Ph.D., maybe in a research lab, to keep that freedom of working on new things every day.
What areas of research are you considering?
Jankov: I’m looking at databases and systems. Developing the system that can store and process the data and using machine learning to run it more efficiently.
Milaković: High-performance computing, or as some people say “parallel computing.” I mentioned that I had gone to national math competitions in high school. That same kind of algorithmic problem solving is what got me started working in parallel computing here at Rice. Parallel computing gives a new dimension to the algorithms.
Recommendations for other students interested in pursuing a Ph.D.?
Milaković: I had a very narrow window to apply for graduate schools and Rice offered the chance to study with Vivek Sarkar and now, I am working with Zoran. My advice might be to start your search early and look for the programs that interest you most.
Jankov: International students may feel hesitant about applying for Rice’s prestigious CS Ph.D. program — at least it was a big issue for me. But I say, “You should apply, you will not regret it!”