The ‘Master’ Plan

It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

                                                                                       -Nelson Mandela

Don’t you feel proud whenever you hear that a fellow BITSian has accomplished something great?

Doesn’t it motivate you to push harder and achieve something better?

On this convocation day, when the seniors bid adieu to BITS , we, at TDB present you with an interview of few such personalities who can inspire and persuade you to work harder.

We had crowdsourced several questions from fellow BITSians and turned to our very own BPHC alumni to answer them.

1. How did you identify your interest?

Devesh: To be frank, I don’t think I have figured it out myself yet. I feel it works in different ways for different people. For a person like me who finds every next thing more fascinating than the previous one, it’s been an ongoing process. This of course comes with the disadvantage of missing out on gaining mastery in one thing over having a broad understanding of variety of subjects but that has never bothered me much. I think being curious and having an open mind is a good interest to have in general.

Karthik: This isn’t an easy question to answer because each person finds their own path in their own way. I think the only thing that helps is to use college as a platform to experiment as much as possible – I myself have dabbled in finance, worked on a startup and competed in technical competitions across the country. None of those ended up fitting with my chosen direction in the end, but each one helped me understand a little about myself.

Arkadip: In my experience, it is always better to explore multiple avenues and follow a process of elimination. This might be construed as a time-consuming process by some, but it is a process that I follow most of the time. I have always been interested in Physics but I was lucky enough to get internships at Bhabha Atomic Research Center and the Inter University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in the fields of Particle physics and astrophysics respectively by my second year. Although, I liked the work I did at BARC, the scope and diversity of Astronomy fascinated me and I decided to give it a shot.

2. How did you progress through the years here in BPHC to build a profile or                    develop the required skill-set to achieve what you have now?

Devesh:Trying out as many things as I could, talking to many people of varied interests (academic or otherwise). I always tried taking up projects from other departments as well (partly because the Phoenix department was always overcrowded when it came to project allotment). One very important thing I realized during my time at BITS is to never judge an opportunity and to discard it blindly thinking it does not match your current skill-set/branch/department/forte. I found that I learned the most, when I actually took up something I never should have in the first place!

Karthik: I don’t think BITS has any shortage of activities to get involved in, or seniors to seek guidance from. It’s not like I had a fixed plan from the start. I went with what interested me at the time, and often those things didn’t exactly make sense in hindsight, but in the process, I found what I was really interested in.

Arkadip: Once, I decided to go forward with Astronomy / Astrophysics at the end of my second year, it was always an uphill task for me considering that there was no faculty specializing in that field in our campus back then. I was in constant touch with my mentor at IUCAA during my third year and was always seeking advice from him on how to transform this new found interest into something concrete. I was always trying to find out the kind of research being done in my field of interest both in the premier institutes in India and the world. Balancing my academics in electronics/physics, my research(which was completely separate from what was being taught) and the insanely hectic extracurriculars (Photog, DoTA, CEL, etc.) was not an easy task but I guess this was one of the most important skills that I have honed in my four years at BPHC.

3. After building a near-perfect profile, what are the things you think ended up                being redundant on your profile?

Devesh: There is no near-perfect profile in my opinion (at least I didn’t have one I think, I was scattered all over the places). In hindsight, I cannot recollect any particular thing that I regret having done (although many that I couldn’t do because of lack of time) as even the ones I did not end up liking made my learn about my likes (or dislikes).

Karthik: As a 7-pointer, you can hardly call my profile ‘near-perfect’. However, I did know that I’d have to compensate for it in some way or the other and that drove me to get involved with a lot of things on and off campus.

Of course, most of the things I spent time on didn’t help, but that was because I didn’t exactly know the direction I’d wanted to take after college.

Two things stand out as redundant when I look back.

Firstly, extra-curriculars are great to demonstrate a well-rounded profile, but I was probably involved in too many things that I often didn’t follow through with. It probably helps your profile more to focus your efforts on 1 to 2 extracurricular activities and excel at that. For me, that was ELAS and being a post-holder in the club probably helped more than being a ‘member’ of x clubs.

The second thing, national-level technical competitions. Don’t get me wrong, these can be great learning experiences but admissions committees often value research over such ventures. This is partially because research projects are supposed to be guided by a doctorate who can vouch for your learning, as compared to a bunch of undergrads working on an informal project together. Unless you win something, there is no way for the admissions committees to know whether you’ve learned through the project or not. Again, 1 to 2 major competitions would probably help demonstrate your all-round interest in exploring a field, but more than that, doesn’t convey much. Of course, I never regretted spending time on any of these, even if they didn’t really add up on my resume.

Arkadip: I wouldn’t call my profile near perfect by any stretch of the imagination but  I would never back down from trying out new things while on campus. I have tried out a lot of things while on campus and learnt a lot from all them. A few activities might sound redundant/useless while you do them but while looking back especially when you are applying for universities abroad each of them adds a tad bit of value to your profile.

4. Which is better-taking up a job and then doing an MS after a few years Or doing MS right after BE? How did you know you should go for further studiesand not a regular job? How to decide between MS and PhD?

Devesh: It depends on whether you have found your interest by the time you graduate (refer question 1). For me, as I hadn’t. So, I opted for taking up a job at a startup.

This has worked out great for me until now! Being in an early stage startup, I am able to continue the search for my ”passion” with increased momentum. Moreover, it (or taking up a job in general) teaches you other important non-academic things as well, such as- interpersonal skills, making connections, the inner workings of an industry, etc. Thus, enabling you to extract the most out of your MS/PhD.

However, taking up a job that doesn’t nearly match or let you explore your interests wouldn’t help much either. Bottom line being, a job can help you learn more about yourself before sealing your career with a specialization by doing a MS/PhD but if you end up taking up a job that’s completely unrelated to what you aspire to eventually do an MS/PhD in, it wouldn’t help much.

Karthik: In general, work experience before an MS gives you a lot of context about the kinds of requirements industry has. It also adds to your profile and would, possibly, help you land a better MS admit. The problem is, there aren’t that many core companies in India that offer you an opportunity to work on good problems as a fresher. I think Nvidia and GE offer such good opportunities, likewise there might be many more that I’m not aware of.

Arkadip: I have never taken up a job yet so I guess I am not qualified to answer this question. To answer the second part of this question, I was lucky enough to get opportunities for internships / projects from premier institutes in both India and the world and after getting offers from several prestigious universities, I guess it was not a bad decision to make.

5. What are the benefits of foreign internships as compared to doing one in India’s   premier workplaces/Institutes?

Devesh: Foreign internship is an immensely powerful medium of growing your personality as a whole. Apart from certain advantages like infrastructure, experience and funding (I am not very well aware of the infra/funding in premier Indian institutes so excuse me if I am mistaken here), there is also a lot more to learn from the multi-ethnic demography of a said international research lab than the ones in India. (This is a personal opinion after staying at CEERI for 2 months vs 6 months at MIT).

Moreover, many international research labs are much older than the Indian ones. This means they have much better legacy behind and offer lot more to learn and often attract the better professors/guides.

Karthik: First and foremost, I think the west has developed a very conducive work environment that I haven’t seen anywhere in India yet. Faculty abroad are not seen as ‘bosses’ but rather guides to aid the student to achieve his goals. This means the student too has ample opportunity to contribute to discussions on how the project can be moved forward, and there is no fear of offending your seniors in the research group.

I think the faculty there, realize that such a synergy helps the student achieve much more, and thereby benefits the entire research group.

On a side note though, India has many eminent scientists working in different fields but working with a foreign faculty offers the added advantage of the tag of the foreign establishment they are affiliated with.

Arkadip: The major difference I felt is that the internships / projects offered there are very well structured and you start working on it from Day 1 unlike my experience in premier institutes in India where I have wasted the first 2 – 3 weeks to figure out what kind of project I would like to work on.

This happened with most of the institutes in India I have worked with – BARC, IUCAA, TIFR etc. Although, the quality of research is pretty good in these institutes, it is still not at par when compared to the work I did at NASA, Harvard or I’Observatoire de Paris. Also, living in cities like Paris / Boston is an experience in its own which is very difficult to find in India.

6. If one is looking forward for an MS abroad, what is valued more work experience (in the form of PS or internship) or thesis? How much does one’s PS-1 and PS-2 /thesis matter to these universities?

Devesh:If your PS/thesis are in the relevant field that you are planning to apply. Both are more or less equally beneficial. Thesis has an added advantage of saying more about your research aptitude as compared to a PS. So, there is a slight better chance with a thesis.

Karthik: Either could be valuable, depending on the story you’re trying to tell. However, do recognize that most PS companies take interns to get work done – not to educate them. In that sense, you’re more likely to get a learning opportunity to talk about doing an off-campus thesis.

I wouldn’t recommend an on-campus thesis because I think you can achieve the same results by putting in extra effort in an ordinary project on campus. Either a PS or TS should help you secure a solid recommendation and the educational qualifications of your mentor hold weight too.

Arkadip: If you are pursuing MS in a field which would involve significant amount of research and you are bent on pursuing a PhD / research after your MS, your thesis project is given a certain amount of weightage. However, if you want to do a non R & D job after your MS and your field doesn’t involve significant amounts of research a PS 2 in a renowned company can boost your profile.

7. It is believed that decent publications are a must to apply to the best universities. Is this true? If so, to what extent?  

Devesh: Publications provide a proof for your research aptitude and your brilliance to come up with innovative solutions to research problems. A good publication in a reputed journal serves as a good benchmark for the quality of your research which will have a huge impact on your selection. If the publication pertains to the department you are applying for, there is nothing better than it!

Karthik: A decent journal publication (with a good Impact Factor) or international conference publication acts as a validation for the quality of your work. It would definitely add a lot of weight to your profile, but I don’t think it would be compulsory.

If you don’t have any publications, try to ask your LoR authors to mention if the work would be submitted to a later time or the reason why the work couldn’t be published despite commendable work on your side. If the faculty is reputable enough, their recommendation could validate your work as well as any paper. This is probably truer for foreign recommendation letters as Indian professors are known to give out recommendations lightly.

Arkadip: Publications from internships are a proof that you can do quality research in a limited period of time. Hence, they are always helpful while applying to universities abroad.

8. What are the options if one wants to pursue research in engineering and not in basic sciences?  

Devesh: Engineering is nothing more than practical science. I would say the opportunities are equivalent in both.

Karthik: Every major university funds research in both engineering and the basic sciences. The avenues are much the same. I’ll give you a hint though, there is much scope for doing engineering research in basic science departments. These areas are often less applied to, so you have less competition in securing an internship.

Biology, Physics and Medical departments are a great place to try. My work at UW-Madison was on dynamic mechanical analysis and material characterisation of hydrogels – in the department of Medical Physics. Very little biology was involved, with it being almost completely a mechanical project.  

Arkadip: Interdisciplinary research is on the rise and it is sometimes very hard to distinguish between engineering and basic sciences while doing research. For example, the project that I am working on currently involves Physics / Astronomy as well as several concepts of Electronics engineering, computer science and mechanical engineering. So, there are multiple avenues to pursue research in engineering and basic sciences simultaneously depending upon your interests.

9. What are the funding opportunities for Indians? Does it cover all your expenses?

Karthik: Funding is difficult to get, but if you are funded, expect it to be generous. It should cover all (reasonable) living expenses and, in fact, help you save some as well. This includes both official programs like DAAD or MITACS (which have fixed stipends) as well as independently funded internships (which often follow university guidelines on stipends).

Arkadip: Funding is entirely dependent on the discretion of the professors. or universities you are applying to. Profs usually tend to fund you if you are able to convince them that your interests match theirs and you fit optimally in their research group. From the offers that I have received, I got funded completely (including a stipend which covers living expenses comfortably) only from Harvard. Others (Caltech, Cornell and UW – Madison etc.) were all unfunded.

10. How do you actually search and mail professors in a more structured way for applying for research internships/MS. How do you decide which country to apply for? What is the right time for mailing professors for securing a foreign internship?

Karthik: There is no ‘correct’ way to go about it, but I thought the easiest way was to first decide on a very specific subfield you want to work in and email any faculty you find in the area.

This way, you don’t need as much customization for each email because all the professors you email work in a similar field. Towards the end, I had a template which would only need a single line to be modified as per that particular faculty’s work.

Most of the time, you can’t be choosy about the country – you take what you get, and give preference to options with funding. That being said, it’s usually considered to be more difficult to get an internship in the US (the visa and 212(E) waivers do pose a problem) but it could be very beneficial if you want to do an MS in the US itself.

Europe and Singapore are easier, just about equal in terms of quality of work, but they just wouldn’t have the recognition of US universities (especially because most of us intend to do our MS in the US).

In general, it helps to apply early. Around November for a summer internship from May to July. Don’t expect an immediate response, any interested faculty will tell you to reach out to them later (January – February) but knowing that you have an approachable faculty would help you prepare accordingly. These things are often conducted on a need-basis so reaching out to them early ensures that they won’t make a decision before considering your profile at least.

Arkadip: The most important thing that I felt while mailing Profs. is having a very specific interest. The tricky part is to convince a professor that you would be a good fit in their research group in a single email (about 3 paragraphs). This is something that took me a lot of time to master.

For me the deciding factor has always been the research interests of the Professor or the labs that I would like to work in rather than a country.

For a summer Internship – August to December of the previous year. For 1st sem / fall semester thesis – November to January. For 2nd sem / spring semester thesis – January to April.

11. Did you take any help from BITSAA and BITS2MSPHD group? If yes, then how as it useful?

Karthik:The BITS2MSPhD database was very useful in seeing what kind of universities people of my CGPA and profile ended up. It was also interesting to see what universities people preferred over others, and the range of the universities they applied to. BITSAA also offered nominal funding for off-campus thesis students, hopefully they continue to expand on such programs!

12. How important are the following to do an MS/internship in an Ivy League college? GRE score, TOEFL, CGPA, Internships, Social Work, Projects, Extracurriculars\(Departments, Clubs, Sports, Debating etc)?

Karthik:

Important: CGPA, Internships, Projects.

A good CGPA is not compulsory, but it does open so many doors and make things so much easier for you. With a poor CGPA, you have to work to compensate for it in almost every other way.

Yet, I hope I’m living proof of the fact that colleges do consider your overall profile if you are deserving but have a poor CGPA (for whatever reason).

Minimum Requirement: GRE, TOEFL.

I honestly don’t think either of these scores add much weight to your profile, but a poor score in either can be a red flag on your profile. However, after admissions, a higher GRE/TOEFL score can help you get an RA or TA-ship.
Additional: Social Work, Extracurriculars.

Do not weigh heavily on your application, but it’s nice to have one major accomplishment to speak of to demonstrate your all-rounded profile or leadership skills.

Arkadip: 

In my experience: Internships, Projects and publications >> Courses in that relevant field > CGPA and more importantly grades in that particular course > GRE scores > Extracurriculars > Social work.

13. What do foreign universities look for in a student’s progress report overall CGPA or course specific grade points? If both, which of the above is given more weightage?

Karthik: You need to make complete use of your SoP to highlight your strengths and convey the story that you want to convey. If you’re overall CGPA is high, you can highlight your consistency and interest in the field. If you’ve scored well in only a few courses, you can highlight how you aced the courses you really felt passionate about.

The more screwed up your CGPA, the more elaborate a story you’d need to weave. In my own SoP, I talked about my fascination with applying mechanical engineering principles to solve biological problems – and somehow highlighted my grades in the application-oriented biology courses as an indicator of my passion.

Arkadip: Overall GPA can sometimes be used for cutoff / screening. However, in general course specific grades carry more weightage.

14. What sort of profile do you need, to intern at MIT media labs or CEERI? Does CGPA play a major role for selection of interns or can one have an average CGPA and have some good projects or knowledge in a particular field to be selected as an intern?

Devesh:CEERI Pilani was allocated by the PS1 system in our college. So apart from CGPA, I don’t think there were any other factors that came into play. For the Media Lab, it was primarily experience and knowledge in the particular field which lead to the internship. They did not check  my CGPA until the final formalities, after I was selected.

15. What does it feel like to be a part of start-up(Tesseract Imaging) at MIT? What is it like to work in a start-up? Do you recommend it?

Devesh: MIT – It was an amazing experience, not just academic wise but to live in a foreign country at the heart of the east coast, with Harvard and MIT and all its brilliance around. It was also overwhelming to be around such amazing brilliant minds and to be able to hold a conversation with the world’s best without sounding stupid! Working in an early stage startup is immensely rewarding. I would second this only to my time at MIT. I would highly recommend it.

You are constantly learning multiple things – tech, business, sales, marketing, dealing with people, dealing with compilation errors, dealing with burned ICs and the thrill of survival. On a philosophical note, working in a startup is the closest to being alive as you are always working to keep yourself (the company) alive through thick and thin while being a significant part of something that hopes to put a dent in this world! That’s the aim at least!

16. How should a person, interested in Electronics, go about finding his/her specific interests in the field?

Devesh: Doing as many projects (majorly informal as you would not be able to do many in 4 years). There are lots of amazing resources online to learn almost anything and everything. Maximize your time spent doing research about new upcoming technologies around the globe and see if you can create a somewhat miniature model (even on paper) about its workings. Apart from that, identify seniors (or juniors) in your college who are doing some cool things and seek mentorship.

17. How much is an online certification (from a MOOC) valued, pertaining to your resume? Does it have value in the industry when one has gained some of his skills through such courses and not formal courses taught in college?

Karthik: While any learning is valuable, I wouldn’t count on MOOCs too much as they are comparatively easy to get, and, thus, do not help your profile stand out much. For example, a paper publication would make you stand out from your peers while also demonstrating an in-depth knowledge of that particular field. That being said, I’ve never taken any certification-based MOOCs so I may be wrong.

18. What is the scope for a research career in an interdisciplinary course of  computational biology? How should one approach this, right from the second year of their college?  

Karthik: Many subsets of biology and engineering are coming to the fore at the moment, and computational biology is well established. It’s an area in which I haven’t worked on personally so I can’t comment but Dr. Vadrevu and Dr. Debashree are great guides in the Biological Sciences Department.

19.What are the opportunities for doing a Ph.D. in biology related fields? How can I pursue research opportunities based on my interests, abroad?

Karthik: Many MSc Bio students from my batch are going on to do direct Ph.D.’s at some of the best universities in the world, so there is definitely much scope in it. Biology is one of the best-funded research fields abroad.

20. Is there any way I can use my knowledge in biological sciences that would complement mechanical engineering?

Karthik: This is a great question, one that I think more BITSians need to ask themselves. The dual degree system we have at BITS gives us a very unique profile that not many universities in the world can match, and definitely none in India. If taken advantage of, your dual degree itself can make your profile stand out. Most of us took duals because we got nothing else, but admissions committees don’t need to know that: make it sound like you always planned to work in the interdisciplinary area between your two degrees. Specifically talking about biology and mechanical engineering, my own combination, biofuels, and biomaterials are two major areas to look into. Biofuels are losing interest abroad, but biomaterial is an emerging area with much scope. I’ve worked on the mechanical properties of tissues and other organic soft materials, and their application in medical diagnosis.

21. According to you, what qualities does the admission council of Stanford look for in an aspirant? What roles did your internships and recommendations play to get you into Stanford?

Karthik: I like how you recognize that different admissions committees may have different ideals that you should try to cater to. This is not something I could give much time to, because I ended up applying quite late to most programs. However, after getting my admit, I started to realize how the ideals Stanford espouses matched quite well with what I had written about. If you watch the promotional videos Stanford releases, you can recognize many common themes – a commitment to making a difference, changing the world, and giving back to the community. It’s a very aspirational school, and it would do well if the tone of your SoP matched that! Likewise, try to understand how other colleges think too!

22. What is the correct time to apply for Stanford?

Karthik: Stanford does not have rolling admissions, and, thus, considers all applicants before the deadline date equally. That being said, I’d advise you to start early – the more time you spend personally customizing your SoP for Stanford, the better. Often, new ideas will crop up last minute, and you should give yourself time to integrate all of them into your SoP. Also, since Stanford encourages applicants to mail faculty before applying, it helps to reach out to them well in advance as they will often take the time to write back to you. Early to mid-November would be a good time.

23. Does doing a minor in physics enable oneself to take up a career in physics?

Arkadip: It is entirely dependent on the courses (CDCs + electives) that you take in your minors. If the courses taken in your minors are something that you would like to pursue in your MS / Ph.D. minors are a great place to start.

24. How good is a minor+MS+Ph.D. compared to Msc+Ph.D. in physics in comparison to pursuing research in a particular field?

Arkadip: A minor + MS + Ph.D. is a really good place to start if you do not have an undergraduate major in Astronomy / Physics. However, an alternative to this is doing a few courses, attending seminars while you are in a university abroad. Since  my major was in Physics and not in Astronomy, I used this strategy while at Harvard in the last two semesters (Fall and spring) to gain exposure to different avenues in astronomy. If you are enrolled in a university abroad it is pretty easy to do courses, attend seminars etc. which really helps in deciding a very specific research area for your Ph.D. especially when you have a different major in your undergraduate.

25. Is it possible to do a B.S (or) M.S in physics while simultaneously pursuing an M.S in an engineering field? If yes, then how long does it take to complete such a degree?

Arkadip: Education system in the US is pretty flexible and it is possible to do any combination of degrees. The duration of such a degree is solely dependent on the no. of credits that you are allowed to take in a semester which varies from university to university. But on an average, an M.S. degree with two specializations takes about 6 – 7 semesters to complete.


Cover Designed By Vishnu Teja

 

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