I remember that when I was younger and used to view the world of science through a rosier lens, I was deeply moved by one particular scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind. It was that scene where the Nobel committee sends an investigator to verify whether John Nash is sane and ends up watching other professors ritualistically giving away their pens to Nash as a token of his achievement and joining Princeton as a faculty.
Much later, I found out it was just a dramatic add-on to the screenplay and no such tradition exists in Princeton. Nevertheless what was beautiful about it was the moment of recognition and the joy of being associated with a community & brotherhood who appreciates the sophistication and impact of your achievements. As a kid who wanted to step into science, it was a huge motivation.
As years went by, career choices were made, compromised with tiny weeny aspects of life to be where I am now, I realized in due course that science is always not so exciting. You toil, do your share of hard work and most of the time your work doesn’t get translated into something impactful. You don’t bring an overnight change in people’s lives. Also what you do doesn’t make sense to your next door neighbour or your friends and they stereotype to be someone of the order of ‘Sheldon Cooper’. But I also learnt to be appreciative of the fact that science is a team effort and it is an engine which we all drive together & somewhere all of it is connected.
Everyday as I enter Lineberger comprehensive Cancer Research centre at UNC where I work as a graduate student, I see a community of people working their ass-off to push the field forward. True that science is not philanthropy. Everything we do is not purely for the benefit of the community and often we have to orient our research to individualistic needs and under circumstances where pressure to publish and receiving grants guide research goals. But no career aspiration can make an individual spin the wheel for years unless he/she is truly emotional and passionate about what they do each day for the rest of their lives.
Just because Dr. Aziz Sancar and his colleagues made some breakthrough in understanding of DNA repair mechanism doesn’t mean that we are an inch closer to the cure for cancer. But today I rediscovered that cumulative passion and emotion as I saw the same community gathering together at UNC to recognize and celebrate the success of Dr. Sancar. Somewhere life came a full circle.
Applying to grad school is definitely overwhelming and no less stressful than the actual grad school experience itself. So, when one of my college juniors pitched a string of questions towards me and I was writing back to him I thought of sharing them as well in a common forum, because I had been in the same page a year back from now and faced the same doubts and confusion as an international student.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed are my personal and doesn’t necessarily reflect how the system works. All the best for your applications. Enjoy! 🙂
1. How to choose a University ? Did you email professors in whose work you had interest? How much important is the university name/rank important over the lab ?
I think mailing professors you are interested in is an important thing to do. But again most of them would get back to you with a courtesy reply that he is not interested to talk before your formal acceptance into the program. Many of them wouldn’t reply at all because they would be receiving so many of those mails. But if he is showing interest and after a productive Skype conversation willing to pitch your name to the admissions committee then that is the best thing that can possibly happen. In case the faculty doesn’t respond within a week, please try to mail his/her students by looking at the professor’s portal and try knowing about funding scenario and vacancies for coming year. Typically they have student/ secretary contact details as well.
Now, since we are talking about US schools I think university is as important as the lab. Most of the schools will allow you to do a few rotations or at least have multiple meetings before choosing a PI. When you are going to a grad school, what you are looking for is a comprehensive training for next step in your career (academia/industry). A lab is definitely your station but imagine yourself making a housing choice. You would definitely focus on factors like neighbors, locality and commute apart from the house itself right? Similarly, the university you would like to be in is very important. However, ranking doesn’t really make a lot of sense! One university may be not so good overall but one of its center may be a class apart. It really depends on the program/department/school/centre you are going in. For instance, I am in a Pharmacy school here which is #2 in US and has the best cohort of nanomedicine researchers in the country. One of my batchmates did her BS in Biology from MIT which is any day a higher ranked and more famous university than UNC but she is here because probably the research suits her more. So try to do your background research well without thinking of names!
Last but not the least, the factor which is least talked about but turns out to be highly important. Choose your university in a locality that would suit your personality. Because you will be staying at least 5 years in that place. Try to know about the climate, people, living expense and modes of recreation in that area. Grad school is stressful, you need to be a happy scholar and truly belong in that place to be able to overcome it! 🙂
2. How did you decide upon which department/program to apply? I have a minor in Chemical engineering while my two internships & B. Tech/ M. Tech project have been under faculties associated with Mechanical Engineering even though I have done no formal courses in Mechanical engineering. Suppose you get enrolled in Biomedical engineering. Do they allow you to take up projects with say Chemical Engineering faculty?
What really matters is your research experience. If your research experience outweighs your academic training, you will be hired (I stress on this word, because they are essentially investing on you. They need someone who is not necessarily in his/her comfort zone but not too away from it so that the most of the time he spends in struggling to cope up). Focus on the concentration of faculties in a particular program that is consistent with your research experience and opt for it. For example, if Program A has more faculties that does the kind of research you have done in past than Program B, go for Program B even if your degree reads something else. However, it is a problem if what you want to do in future has no correlation with what you had done in past if the future research interest doesn’t match with your academic training.
For the second part of the question, there are many adjunct faculties in a particular program. My present PI is a Radiation Oncology faculty who is adjunct to the Molecular Pharmaceutics Program (my degree granting program). New collaborations can also be established , but at times it may be a little tricky (but not impossible). However, try to stick to present panel of professors affiliated with a program and choose universities accordingly. At times though, the database is not properly updated in websites, so try to mail the Program co-ordinator in case of confusion.
3. How important are my major and minor degrees? Will my chances decrease if I apply in mechanical instead of chemical and bio-engineering?
I got rejection from most Chemistry Programs and instead received acceptance from competitive Biomedical and Life Sc. Programs. But again when I looked at my CV and my ‘bio-heavy’ research experience and thought for a while from a recruiting panel’s point of view I realized the rationality behind it. But then I can’t blame myself much. I didn’t have any idea back then how the system works in US.
4. Did you email professors before applying to a graduate program? Do they give you hints about possible vacancies in their labs?
It depends on how much say the faculties have in selection process. If they have a strong influence and see a prospective match in you they would probably push your name. So I strongly insist on mailing. But again I already covered it.
5. What about GRE & TOEFL scores? Any idea about how they affect one’s selection
TOEFL- As long as you are clearing cutoff it is sufficient. A high score however prevents the hazard of taking an English course in initial semesters if you have a TA based funding.
GRE- It is really difficult to say. An impressive GRE score does add on. But so many people bring good scores on board that it is really difficult to differentiate on basis of that. However, a good score on AWA in general (>=4) and that on Quant is important if you are applying for a STEM Program. For international students, if you are applying in a core program, Subject GRE score matters a lot. Because they do not necessarily know reputation of your university and need a universal scale to evaluate your academic training. However, an application is evaluated holistically. Ultimately your grades, research, SOP, Standardized Test scores and recommendations everything matters!
When you sit back and quietly wait for a change, it’s weight often troubles you. The same happened for me when I was in the transitory period between my college and graduate school. Being in the suburb I used to live, it wasn’t possible for me to get myself engaged professionally for those 3 months and let us be honest here, I wanted to have the last booster dose of being pampered by family and indulgence of home cooked food before setting off.
There is however a problem with transitions. When you can’t see it clearly and only anticipate, it gets scary and dreadful. You have a half-baked idea of what to expect, you start grasping the things you are going to lose- your cozy inner cohort and the physical companionship with people you love, the status quo in your life and try to prevent yourself from getting sucked into the darkness of uncertainty that awaits you.
As the D-day approaches, an interesting shift often takes place. Your emotional response either gets amplified several times, or it often gets numb! The latter happened for me. So before I could correctly register the rapidly changing frames, I found myself in an airplane and 28 hours later in a locale which was going to be my residence for at least the coming five years, 8.5k miles away from the country where I spent 22 years of my whole life.
Chapel Hill wasn’t exactly an alien township for me. My sister has been a postdoctoral researcher here and I had been to North Carolina in my last trip to United States, enjoying a dip in the famous beaches of Wilmington. 🙂 But this time it meant business!
The first week involved a flurry of activities. The stagnant life of past few months suddenly received a tug and I let myself loose in the motion. And wasn’t it overwhelming? UNC Chapel Hill doesn’t have many international students. In our program, there were only 12 international students in a batch of 79. In fact I was the sole flag bearer of my nation. That also meant I stuck out among others! In order to harmonize and integrate, I had to quickly adapt myself to gel with my new gang of American peers. It wasn’t exactly so comfortable to change oneself so fast! But thanks to the jolly good bunch of my friends who were so kind and cordial, within a week I ended up moving to the steps of Y.M.C.A in a baseball game and relishing Moonshine while enjoying live Bluegrass music (a friend of mine remarked it to be a very ‘Southern’ thing to do 😀 )!
Though it was precisely my doctoral studies that defined my voyage to states, I would rather save science and grad school for another post. Let us talk the about science of people today. After arriving here, I had a lot of experiences in quick succession. Now every experience has it’s brighter and darker shades. It is never possible to like everything in entirety. That’s neither the fault of the circumstances nor the individual.
Those who have visited India likes to talk about the hospitality of people there. But Americans themselves are also very accomodative and warm people. But are they all same? No, because every culture has its own brand of interpersonal relationships.
In India, talking with a stranger is generally not greeted with enthusiasm. But here (though I had an idea of the same from my previous trip) I started enjoying my candid conversations with people of all gender, race and age while waiting for a bus, in the cafe and with the cab drivers late at night. I really treasured those tiny bits and pieces of reflections which I trapped in the process. I couldn’t do something like that in India. However, I also had to acquaint myself with segregation dynamics of finance and personal relation maintained by people.
I lived in a country and spent my last five years in a university where people don’t really go specific about money around their close peers. Getting frequent treats from seniors was an accepted norm, going for eat-outs didn’t need splitting money. The bill was paid by any of the friends in the group, another taking the turn next time and so on. Nobody really cared about each buck. I even remember when a college senior offered to pay a part of my airfare when I was waiting for sponsorship to come for the conference. So, I really didn’t know how to respond to the polite remark of my cab driver when he said “You have an awesome sibling. You better keep her!” when my sister paid for both of our cab fare in a short ride. I couldn’t tell him that day it is a normal practice for an elder sibling to take care of the younger when he/she has the capacity to do so and vice versa.
I am not trying to criticise. I am just trying to show the different cultural perspectives with which we look at life and the way in which we do share a love/hate relationship with many aspects of it. However I found in it an excellent opportunity to collaborate the best of both worlds!
Another great thing which happened to me in the past couple of weeks is one particular friendship I managed to develop. As many people know, India shares an acrid relationship with its neighbour Pakistan, which was carved out of the former about 70 years back, due to the rising demand of an Islamic homeland by a section of politicians dreading suppression of interests of Muslims in a Hindu majority India. The bilateral relationship has stayed bitter due to differences over control of Kashmir, terrorism and frequent gunfire along the borders. There are infrequent visits of people between the two countries so it wasn’t really possible for me to interact with someone from other side of the border while in India. And here after coming, I met Sehrish.
When I first met her, I couldn’t even tell that she’s from Pakistan unless she introduced herself because we share same ethnicities and look quite similar. I interacted with her, enjoyed meals together, hung out along the streets and had fun. In an unaccustomed earth, she brought with her the aroma of home! I couldn’t view her with the mistrust with which the two governments look at each other.
A lot of things to talk about but so much for now. Probably I will come back with grad school experience soon enough. I would just like to end with this sticky note which I found in my work desk. It was left by the lady who previously occupied my place. I guess it gives me a slight warning what to expect in the coming five years. But at this moment, I really don’t care! I would try to take things one at a time. Like munching blueberries and dark chocholates on a lazy Saturday night!