Please tell us about yourself, the university you are studying at, the research field you are working on, and the scope it has to offer after an MS or PhD. What work do you plan to do after you finish your post-graduation, and where do you see yourself after 5-10 years?

 

I am Neelotpal Shukla and I hold a dual degree in Civil Engineering from IIT Madras with a specialization in infrastructure. I am currently pursuing a second masters degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in SRIS (Sustainable & Resilient Infrastructure Systems) which is a super-specialisation. In layman’s language, this involves a lot of mathematical modelling, dealing with uncertainties and also lots of differential equations which are fed into computational software as data to get results. For example, if you have limited information, then you’ll have to come up with a model to identify what information would be more valuable in order to make a definite decision, and often there is an economic flavor to this. As you must have figured out by now, this isn’t really related to civil engineering. Generally if you’re a dual degree student, then applying for a second masters degree is quite difficult, and universities would want you to apply to a completely different field like industrial engineering, financial engineering, etc. The professors over here in fact encourage you to not take civil related courses but to instead take CS, industrial engineering, statistics, data science and analytics and other such courses so as to provide you with as much exposure as possible and open you up to opportunities. Also in the US, they’re very open to let you go and work in a non-core field. Also in the US, the profs don’t really care that much about knowing the student and enforcing attendance. However, they are extremely strict about plagiarism and have very serious penalties for those who copy assignments. After my masters, I want to work in the industry, no more acads. Getting a job here, however, is much more difficult if you’re not a US citizen. You also have to apply to about 200-250 universities just to land internships with them. I definitely want to stay on in the civil field, especially after having spent so many years of my life studying it. I’m not really keen on finance or analytics, but I really appreciate consultancy. I love the fact that it involves a multi-disciplinary approach to the problem, and would definitely consider that as a career option. Having said that, I definitely see myself coming back to India after gaining a lot of experience, say after working here for about 15 – 20 years.

When did you decide to apply for further studies? When is the ideal time to start thinking and preparing for it? What are the necessary skills, according to you, a person should develop in order to make himself cut-out for research and not just getting a good Grad school?

 

I graduated in 2015 and wrote my GRE in 2013 in my pre-final year itself. I’d advise aspirants to do the same, don’t wait till your final year. You can wait for TOEFL on the other hand. But write your GRE as early as possible. Also keep in mind that though the GRE scores technically last for 5 years, the universities mostly don’t really accept scores more than 3 years old. It’s worse for GMAT, the scores are again technically valid for 5 years but practically only for about two and a half years. I’d strongly recommend publications. Also approach professors and do a project from start to finish. Unfortunately my publication came out after I applied so I was rejected by quite a few universities.

How did you make the choice between placements and applying? Did you keep the options of placement as a fall-back option?

 

Yes placements were a fall-back option. But mostly I was sitting for placements to gauge myself, because placements are the one time where everyone comes out all guns blazing. My main priority, however, was always apping. I felt in India as far as recruitment for civil engineering goes, they’re looking for quantity and don’t really care that much about quality. I accept that CS and Elec are in a different league, but at least Mech, Chem and Civil should be in the same bracket. I’m not observing that in placements in India. The US, on the other hand, normalizes it. CS and Elec are again in a different league, but Mech, Chem and Civil have pretty much the same level of placements. The average salary for a masters student in civil engineering over here would be approximately $65,000 per annum.

Is a high CGPA required for applying? Is it all lost for people below the ‘astronomical’ 9 point CGPA? How can they make up for not crossing the barrier?

A nine-point CGPA is not necessarily required and yes you can make up for not having it. My CGPA while applying was 8.92. However, what really matters and what the universities would give more importance to is your branch position. Stanford, for example, has historically accepted department rank 1s, even if their CGPA weren’t very high, say around 8.3. However, if you’re applying for a masters, then CGPA matters a lot. If you’re applying for a PhD, then research projects matter a lot. However, if you’re applying for a masters and you’re CGPA is not good, then you can mention in your SOP that you had other irrelevant courses like HS, etc. but that your CGPA in only civil related courses is pretty good. In addition to this, you should also have done research projects and a publication with an ISBN number. Even research papers in a conference work but they should have an ISBN number. Either a really good paper in a journal or a mediocre paper in a conference. So, summing up, to make for a low CGPA you’ll need research projects and publications.

How relevant are extra-curriculars and Positions of Responsibility?

 

I’d say they have zero relevance. A coordship in Saarang is in no way related to what you’re going to be doing in your masters degree. So unless it’s something related to your branch, then they hold no significance. They might only serve the purpose of portraying you as a multi-dimensional and outgoing person, but they don’t have much weightage. Sports and social service on the other hand do have a certain amount of importance and are welcome in your resume. If you asked me to put an estimate then 80-85% weightage is given to academic credentials and the remaining to extra-curriculars. Competitions count more than PoRs. Be biased towards Tech-Soc, competitions organized by civil related companies, Shaastra, and other such competitions related to your field. You’ll find such competitions at studyka.com as well, go check it out. Also try randomly googling competitions as well and try to participate in international competitions. Schneider Electric holds a sustainability competition every year in insti, which is again pretty useful as a resume point if you win it or get a good place.

Can you tell us about the other schools you applied to? Did you have alternate options? How did you select between them? How do we gauge the authenticity of world rankings of a university and to which extent are they reliable?

I applied to UIUC, Stanford, Berkeley, University of Texas, University of Southern California and Imperial College of London out of which I was selected by UIUC, Texas, Southern California and Imperial College. I also applied to Cambridge for an MPhil in management and was selected, but didn’t choose it as I would have had to pay for it fully, as opposed to the other colleges. The selecting part was tough but I made a proper Excel sheet with columns for min GRE score, requirements, deadlines and ranking as per QS, Times, US news, etc. and then took the aggregate of those rankings. It really helped me out, and all those who are apping should definitely make a similar sort of spreadsheet.

How did you identify your recos? What matters in LORs, the proximity with the referee or his stature in the research field? What is the relevance of SOPs, and how does one write ‘the perfect SOP? Does an exchange program help? Does work experience hold any importance, if yes, is it not advisable to work for a couple of years and then apply to Grad schools? How important are recos, SOPs, CGPA, GRE score, projects/internships, publications etc. in relative percentage of weightage? Could you discuss the selection procedure for your school in detail?

Your BTP/DDP guide has to write your reco after having interacted with you for at least over a year. Also get recos from really well known senior profs. If you’re applying to a university where a particular prof had done his PhD then approach that particular prof. Also, profs will love you if you’re planning on applying abroad. The relevance of SOPs is huge. Your GRE score makes up only about 5-10% of your application and is only a rejection criteria. If you get less than a certain specified level then you will be rejected, however if you get a full 340, then it just means that they’ll consider looking at your app. So the GRE score isn’t really that important. A valid app should have an SOP plus 3 LoRs. For my SOP, my guide, Prof Radhakrishnan Pillai sat down with me for three and a half an hours and wrote it for me line to line. The professors’ perspective is very important so always share the SOP with them. Consultation places for apping abroad also help, but make sure to write the first draft of your SOP on your own, however bad it may turn out to be. Later make edits after sending it to people. Work experience holds a lot of importance and could make up for a low CGPA. However the norm among insti junta is if you’re apping for MS then you do it immediately but if you’re apping for MBA then you do it after work experience. I’m not so sure about exchange programs, but it should help if you’re applying to the same country that you went to. During my third year summer, as a part of the REU programme (Research Experience for Undergrads), I went to UIUC for a research internship. If you do a research internship then you can be pretty much sure of getting accepted for a masters programme, which is why I was pretty confident of being selected for UIUC. They are however, slightly biased towards environmental engineering.

What are the research internship avenues a student can look at? Could you please share with us your list of internships/projects and also the ones you are aware about? How did it help you? When is an ideal time to apply, and how does one go about it? How important is a foreign research internship, and how does it weigh as compared to an industrial internship?

REU is actually quite easy to get into. As long as the prof here knows the prof here then it’s fine. Indumathi Nambi is currently heading this programme. Look up the profile of the prof you’ll be applying to and also be sure to include the research proposal as a part of your app. REU generally prefers dual degree students over BTechs.

Please tell us about the funding options for a Grad school? Did you apply for scholarships? Who is eligible for them? Is working part time over there a way to meet tuition fees/etc? How much does one generally have to spend from his own pocket(savings/loans) ? What is the cost of living for married research scholars, approximately?

If you have a really amazing app then you are more likely to get a fellowship, which includes a stipend plus a waiver of fees. Next come assistantships, where you get paid but you will also have to pay tuition. The third option is getting a part-time job. It’s not easy but if you apply early then you’ll definitely get one. For married research scholars, renting an apartment costs $400 per person. You can easily count $350 per person for food and $250-300 for other expenses per person.

Did you consider the options offered in other countries, say Germany/ Australia/ Singapore/ France/ Canada? If yes, can you please discuss the pros and cons of choosing them over graduation in the ‘famous’ school in States, in terms of fees and cost of living, quality of research and education, scope of jobs after graduating from those schools and the quality of life in those countries, as you see it?

The only other options I considered were Japan and South Korea, and they have few universities which are really good. If you consider everything, then the US works out the best. The problem with Japan/SK and Europe is that English isn’t their primary language. Also, the job scenario in Europe is isn’t very good for people without experience so I’d advise insti junta to stay away from there as well.

Is it possible to shift from an Undergrad degree in an engineering branch and then shift to Masters in pure sciences, say Mathematics/Physics/Biology etc.? What can one do to make himself/herself eligible for it?

Yes of course! If you’re in dual degree then that’s exactly what they’re looking for. If you’re in BTech then it’s probably a better option to continue with your current branch.

Do you have any advice for the current students of IITM?

 

Related to apping abroad, get publications. As far as advice for life in general goes, be multi-dimensional and be inter-disciplinary. These two things are really important and will help you a lot in life. An IITM prof once told me that we don’t really teach you any engineering in undergrad, we only give you a taste of what engineering is. After just one month of grad school, I’m beginning to understand what he meant. There is a plethora of exciting opportunities awaiting anyone willing to delve deeper into academics and the education at IIT Madras provides an excellent foundation to take full advantage of these. Also, in addition to the prospect of truly interdisciplinary education, apping also provides unique cultural exchange and travel opportunities. I would recommend that a majority of students pursue higher education since there is so much to learn. Most importantly, the education need not be in core engineering, universities offer excellent programs on operations, systems, finance and management which are the most sought after fields by students in insti. Some food for thought is that IITs have established their reputations primarily based on the successes of their alumni, and till about 1999, almost 90% of IIT students used to app. So, I’m guessing there must be a relationship, albeit weak, between the two.