America, Graduate School, Higher Education

#10. Q&A: Applying to Grad School in US

tumblr_nkou58JHNk1swn6jmo1_500Applying 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! ūüôā

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‚Äôs 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! ūüôā

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!

Picture Courtesy: PhD Comics

America, Friendship, Graduate School, Higher Education, Student Life

#9. American diaries: To Carolina and beyond

The step forward
The step forward

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. ūüôā But this time it meant business!

Being Indian: Baseball is like Cricket, Cricket is like Baseball
Being Indian: Baseball is like Cricket, Cricket is like Baseball

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 ūüėÄ )!

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.

The rapidly expanding friend circle!
The rapidly expanding friend circle!

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!

Independence day Selfie!
Independence day Selfie!

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.

11866368_10207618416556999_4545808425722088924_nA 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!

Que Sera sera ūüôā

Higher Education, India

#8. Kalam | India’s search for scientific self-sufficiency

Technology, unlike science, is a group activity. It is not based on individual intelligence, but on the interacting intelligence of many….If someone asks me about my personal achievements in Indian rocketry, I would pin it down to having created an environment in which teams of young people could put their heart and soul into their missions.

APJ Abdul Kalam, Ex-president of India

The bell couldn’t have tolled for the visionary scholar in any better setting. The Ex-President of India, APJ Abdul Kalam¬†bit the dust in a ripe age of 84 while addressing a crowd¬†of students at Indian Institute of Management, Shillong. The death of glory the workaholic deserved.

Today, the youth of a nation having the highest illiterate population in the world is mourning the death of a curly-haired scientist who spent his life working with ballistic missiles and satellite launching. Puzzling, isn’t it?

The entire world observed with cynicism when India walked into the path of her 1st democratic elections in 1951 ; they smirked that democratic elections were not suited to a caste-ridden, multi-religious, illiterate and backward society and the only effective political solution is a benevolent dictatorship. We survived the test with flying colours and despite our own share of problems as a developing nation, external and internal threats, the democratic roots penetrated further and today we hold our ground strongly in a political ring of fire- a chain of chaotic, volatile nations.

When India went on to launch her ambitious moon mission ‘Chandrayan’ in 2008 and later announced the Mars Orbiter mission (MOM) in 2013 she was similarly ridiculed on spending billions of money on space voyage and not using it to alleviate poverty; these kind of statements were passed by nations who spend taxpayer money to fund search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Nonetheless, we reached Mars orbit as only the 4th in the world to do so after US, Soviet Russia and European space agency at a pittance of $73 million, a cost¬†equivalent to less than a single bus ride for each of India’s population of 1.2 billion! This was a feat of unique innovation in terms of design. It was established that as a nation we were self-sufficient to leverage our human resource and home-grown technologies to fulfil our scientific aspirations.

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These ambitious interplanetary missions stood on years of the country’s toil put to space research and development of projectile technology¬†which started with the technological vision¬†of Jawharlal Nehru, India’s 1st prime minister and physicist Vikram Sarabhai, who was entrusted with giving wings to his dreams. Kalam received the mentorship of Sarabhai for starters and later played a pivotal role along with his colleagues.

APJ Abdul Kalam was truly the ‘poster boy’ of India’s indigenous technology. He was the project director of India’s first satellite launch vehicle, served as the chief executive of Integrated Guided Missiles Development Program (IGMDP) and played a strategic role in orchestration of Pokhran-II, India’s 2nd phase of nuclear tests. However, it would be a historical blunder to remember him just as the ‘missile man’. His profound experience¬†as a rocket scientist and as a scientific co-ordinator working in close collaboration with polity¬†made him realize the importance¬†of¬†self-reliance in critical technologies which if properly leveraged can be lead to food, economic and national security. In his years as the President and in the following years, he made us¬†dream of seeing India as a ‘knowledge superpower’. He inspired us to use our creative potential to forge our own destiny. He gave courage and belief to the youth of the nation who either felt ashamed about their present or looked for glory in its past heritage. We rallied behind his vision 2020, an inspiration for the future ahead.

It’s our misfortune that among our policy makers people like him are a rare exception, not a rule.

Take me to the magic of the moment on a glory night
Where the children of tomorrow dream away in the wind of change

-The Scorpions, Wind of Change

Higher Education, Life at IIT, Student Life

#2. Ticky tacky | Doodle jump : Being a science undergrad in IITs

And the people in the houses all went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same

There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

– Pete Seeger, Little Boxes

I was sitting¬†on an evening train with¬†a friend of mine, returning from Kharagpur (KGP) to Kolkata. It was already growing dark outside and with each successive mechanical drag, the outsides were fast trailing behind us. As my friend¬†focused¬†her attention on playing an arcade game where the avatar¬†has to hop on the suspended platforms to keep¬†itself alive, I started wondering about the platform¬†I left behind myself. This particular visit to KGP was aimed at collecting the provisional degree from the institute as it wasn’t possible for me to attend the convocation. With this , all ties with the institute had been severed technically. Chances are bleak that I might revisit the place which I used to call home for the past five years.

Enrolling in IIT KGP under an Integrated Masters in Science program wasn’t a compulsion for me. I wanted to pursue an undergrad degree in basic science for a very long time. However, being a citizen of a nation obsessed with IITs and IIMs, and hitherto an¬†outsider¬†to the IIT system, I was fooled. I was tricked into believing¬†that by joining IIT, I would be able¬†to receive the best academic training and share my domain with a cluster of like-minded students which would facilitate me in realizing my aspirations. I was incorrect in my assumptions. But¬†today as I sit back and ponder on last half of my decade, I can’t say I regret¬†my decision.

In an extremely competitive job-market like that of India,  where there is a morsel of white-collar jobs across a limited platter of sectors, choice of higher education is guided primarily by opportunity than passion. Students try to select, or as in most cases compelled by societal pressure to opt for courses which have decent job prospects. Although, this statement is a tad too ambiguous because a major chunk of these jobs require skill sets irrelevant to the actual specialization of the student. People cultivate and hone these skills as they come to determine their orientation or often guided by prospective financial dividends.

As I landed in the lush green campus of KGP which¬†stood as an embodiment of independent India’s vision of self-sufficiency in training their own work force and of being a technological super power, I found myself beside a group of extremely determined students who¬†were conscious¬†of their toil¬†in cracking the draconian admission test and now were on a mission to secure their professional leverage.

IIT KGP in macro
IIT KGP in macro

The freshman and sophomore year in IIT shredded my initial motivation to take up research as a career. In general, IITs have a policy of recruiting professors primarily as research faculty, with no due emphasis on the art of teaching. Since an outstanding research career has no correlation with the craft, sensitivity and creativity that teaching involves, good teachers are an exception, not a norm in the campus. Students are not willing to learn either and are happy to leave with a decent grade after last-night-mugging, further disengaging the professors. The system winds in a vicious catch-22 cycle.

Students here are extremely dispassionate and goal-oriented. And as I say this, I’m not being judgmental but sensible. During their duration of stay, people engage in various extra-academic activities ranging from recreational ones like sports,¬†music, dancing, dramatics, quizzing to more professional activities like social entrepreneurship, business plan writing, hardware modelling etc. While the natural human tenacity¬†of finding¬†oneself in a social association remains a¬†significant interest, strengthening the profile of the corresponding individual is always the primary motivator.

As I metioned before, classes were disastrous! Not only that, research as a career orientation instantly raised eyebrows and invited curious glances, and alienated you from the herd. Albeit inadvertent, it was an ongoing practice of silent shaming and almost coerced you to toe the line. I was utterly confused and I decided to experiment with every possible option before zeroing on a career path.

In the next few years, I tried at hand at almost everything. I worked with startups, volunteered with NGOs, took up courses in finance, joined student business forums, tried my hand at coding and became part of a team involved in¬†social entrepreneurship. While the experiences were enriching, it helped me to eventually realize that these were not my cup of tea. On the other side of the spectrum, my inclination to academic research grew stronger with every scientific project I pursued. However, here too I took a significant detour as I shifted my inclination to Biomedical doodle-jump-3.8-1_506x900sciences from my actual major of Chemistry. To me, Biology was an academic epitome of ‘Despicable Me’ ¬†in high school. ūüôā ¬†But surprisingly, exposure to the interdisciplinary aspects of the subject changed the way I used to conceive it¬†and I ended up developing my profile along that line. Today, as I am sitting back in my home waiting to¬†join a doctoral program, I can’t say for sure that I am liberated of my uncertainties and concerns about my future. But I have a strong conviction about one thing. That it is an informed choice.

Our journey in IIT was not a standard assembly line where we were shoved in to churn mass-produced graduates. It deprived us of¬†a strong¬†classroom teaching. The peer pressure bogged us down, the divergent interests baffled us. But all these ‘difficulties’ had a potential to use them to our advantage. It gave us the necessary exposure and left the rest on our own.

In the end, we weren’t much different from the¬†game of doodle jump my friend was playing to kill her boredom. My entire five years was a giant platform game; hopping on the right¬†platforms and to steer clear of the obstacles was the only way to advance and stay alive!

Photo credits:

IIT KGP in macro – Ashay Gangwar