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

Student Life, Volunteerism

#6. CRY | And the smiles

“Their zest for life, their capacity for hope, their will to survive enables them to triumph over all the maledictions of their karma.”

Dominique Lapierre, The City of Joy

Mirpur Anganwadi, Kharagpur, India
                                                                   Mirpur Anganwadi, Kharagpur, India

Kolkata, Feb, 2015: I was being a part of a college team participating in a social entrepreneurship challenge. The problem statement required us to¬†develop a sustainable business model for early childhood education and we were visiting a slum in Kolkata to interact with the parents for a preliminary market survey. A few of our associates from CRY- Child Rights and You¬†were accompanying us as they had first-hand experience with that particular community. Co-incidentally, I was wearing a CRY tee on that day. I didn’t really expect that it would catch attention but to my surprise, a little girl with gleaming eyes came up to me & tugged at my sleeve sporting the CRY logo:

“Aap log yahanpe drawing competition karaye the na? Maine 1st aya tha, fashion designer banaya maine!”

You guys organized a drawing competition here, right? I came 1st, I painted fashion designer!

The little woman-wannabe-fashion designer was referring to a drawing event organized by the volunteers for the kids in the adjoining areas where they were asked to sketch their dreams. Perhaps her wish would never come true. But there she was soaring high above the murky reality!


Kolkata, May, 2011: ¬†We were three, including me, sitting in a small meeting room of an equally cozy office in the fringe of Kolkata. That was my first summer after joining university. Normally people do look out for internships in the long summer break. Since the first year doesn’t offer many specialized courses, I decided to try something off my core discipline. I started¬†working in parallel for a start-up and CRY, an NGO working with child rights. As I said before, two other interns joined with me. In the next couple of days, our genial volunteer manager (later I forged a close personal association with her)¬†introduced us to the modus operandi of the organization, various aspects of child rights, condition of children in India and a lot of relevant case studies in order to make us appreciate the nuances of child rights advocacy. Later, she stuffed us with enough workload to keep us busy for the duration of the internship. ūüôā

That summer was an enriching one. Not only did I learn working in an environment where people from diverse background bring their skills on the table but also to question any solution to a practical problem with the rationale of sustenance. However, a doubt still bothered me; that which haunts every volunteer worker. Am I truly making a difference? With that confusion, I returned to my campus.


Kharagpur, (2011-2015): Once I started my sophomore year, I realized that what began with the idea of a casual exploration has roused a genuine interest in me. And to address my earlier confusion, what I really needed was actual field work instead of doing academic social research. Fortunately, we had a college chapter of CRY at IIT Kharagpur (KGP) and I decided to be a part of it.

The CRY KGP chapter mainly used to work in the rural areas of Kharagpur. It dealt primarily with the school going children and amelioration¬†of the condition of the public schools by mediating with the administration. As we visited the homes of the community people periodically, I was stunned to note the stark difference between the living condition of us and these people who used to live at a close vicinity of the campus. I started to appreciate what I had, and made fewer complaints about the ‘lousy’ facilities back in our university.

Faith and compassion, that helped us to carry on
Faith and compassion, that helped us to carry on

The journey of past four years with CRY wasn’t a smooth ride at all. It was a gruelling test of patience, perseverance and optimism. We quickly realized change doesn’t come so easily. We had to meddle with the juggernaut of bureaucracy constantly. We observed the limitations of funds which didn’t trickle down to the level of the schools we catered to. We had to win the trust of the people who had grown cynic of the ‘elites’ who visited them often and made hollow promises. And once we earned their faith, we had to stand up to their colossal expectations, while in reality we were student volunteers with limited ability.

Things were quite frustrating at times. We were putting efforts but couldn’t really see it taking us anywhere. Drop-outs were being sent back to school only to see them drop out again due to lack of funds and to serve as a financial help to their parents. We really didn’t have a back up solution. We were scratching our heads over displacement and rehabilitation of child workers from the eateries of the campus while running the risk of pushing them to more hazardous lines of work. It was a thankless job and we didn’t have anything to stimulate us but our sense of personal gratification. However persistence bore us fruit and with constant intervention, we started getting results gradually. Unfortunately however, my stint at KGP came to an end and I couldn’t see through the rest of it.


Wings of desire
Wings of desire

You might wonder what made me write about my experiences of working with CRY! An easy choice? Probably yes! But more so, because this experience helped me to see the world around me more empathetically and rationally. I made associations, forged uneven friendships, came to have a much better understanding of the world around me. As I sit quietly in my home nowadays in the junction of the impending future and the haunting past, the sparkling eyes and the vigorous enthusiasm of the kids I came across at different times helps me to forge the bridge over my troubled waters. I draw my spirit and vitality from the brightest of the smiles those faces cast, the determination they reflected, nonchalant of the troubles in their life.

In the previous days, when I used to see a child begging in the streets, I used to feel sorry but then shrugged off thinking I wasn’t really able to change anything. But today I have a better realization of where I stand. I appreciate my role as an individual. While an overnight utopia is unrealistic, we can each do our part. We all are¬†individual entities in the theory of everything. And in the end, everything does add up! ūüôā

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