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. Also tell us about a typical day in the life of a post-graduate student.

I graduated from IIT Madras in 2015 with a B.Tech in Civil Engineering. Immediately after graduation, I went on to pursue my graduate studies in the field of Transportation Engineering which is a sub-department of Civil and joined The University of Texas at Austin.

UT Austin has state of the art facilities and is a public university. It is ranked among the very best in the world for Civil Engineering. My specialisation in the field of Transportation Engineering was in Network Optimisation and Algorithms.

As a student there, I had a lot of free time given the fact that we only have to take about 3 courses a semester. I mainly focused on my research apart from coursework and project. I also made use of the other facilities offered by UT Austin, such as the world-class sports facilities, well equipped labs and computing facilities etc.

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? What are some ways in which UG students, given their limited exposure to the field, can realise whether they have a penchant for the subject/research?

I decided to apply for further studies at the end of third year, when I was really interested in Transportation networks and Optimization. I’d say there is no one ideal time for everyone to start thinking about it per se. It’s only when one really wants to study further and get in depth knowledge in a field that s/he should start thinking about Grad studies. As for preparing for it, as soon as you’ve decided that grad studies is what one wants to do, that’s the time to gear up and prepare a research mindset.

Research requires many things, but patience and perseverance are the two top things that I’d say. Research is tedious work, with no set direction or set of instructions stating what to do. In order to develop the research skillset, working on a research problem is the best way. Insti profs are ready to help you out and they have pretty good research going on. Be a part of it, work on projects, and get first-hand experience. Nothing can substitute that experience, and it’s pretty evident that it’s fairly different from coursework. As for limited exposure, there’s enough time to find out if one is research oriented given the abundance of time in winter and summer vacations, not counting semester time. With proper time management skills, fitting in this work during the semester is easily possible.

How did you make the choice between placements and applying? Did you keep the options of placement as a fall-back option? Aren’t people who are working on projects and making their resume good enough to apply to Grad school less preferred by recruiters?

I never made that choice, really. In some terms, I had my cake and ate it too. I apped, appeared for placement tests and got shortlisted by companies, even day 1.1 (Goldman Sachs, Capital One, EXL, FF, etc), and lastly, appeared for CAT and was in the ninety-ninth percentile. Although I knew that higher studies was going to be my preference anyway, I appeared for placement tests. I gave just the GS interviews for the experience and then got out of the placement process so as to not hurt anyone else’s job prospects. I gave CAT on a friend’s suggestion, and didn’t go for the interviews because I wanted to app. I’m pretty sure if I had decided to appear for placements seriously and as my first choice, I’d have managed to land a good job anyway. The key point to be noted here is that even with a research focus, you can do loads of other things in your insti life and succeed in placements if that is the focus. I’d just repeat that with proper prioritization of tasks and time management, it’s possible to do both things simultaneously. I know guys who apped who had multiple PORs, played sports, did lit/tech, had other hobbies and had amazing resumes even for jobs. It boils down to how much effort you are willing to put in towards these goals.

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?

Not really. It helps a lot to have a high CG, but it’s not an automatic disqualification. When I apped, I had somewhere around 8.3. If people with low CGs want any inspiration, I was the guy with a 7.5 CG after my first year, with Ds and Es on my grade sheet. Despite all this, I ended up at UT Austin, a great fit for my research interest and if you were to go by rankings, a top 3 university for Transportation Engineering in the US. CG is not everything.

The things that universities look for are motivated hardworking students with inclinations towards research. A high CG shows motivation and consistency, but if you can show that you can conduct successful research, it’s much more valuable to them. Work with professors. Do research interns, have substantial research to show, maybe publish a research paper if your work allows that. Have your professors describe about your motivation and hard work and other positive qualities through the recommendation letters. Leave that impression on professors so that they would be willing to talk about your research inclinations.

 How relevant are extra-curricular activities and Positions of Responsibility? If any, what position did you hold, and how did it help you?

They aren’t really relevant for your selection to a Master’s program in a technical field, but they teach you other things and connect you with people. I participated in Litsoc (Quizzing, Cluedo, WTGW, elocution, etc) because I liked it, not to gain something out of it. Same for techsoc and Shaastra. I was a coord in Shaastra for QMS, and I contested hostel GenSec elections. While none of it helped me directly in apping, it’s made me the person I am today in many small ways.

Can you tell us about the other schools you applied to? Did you have alternate options? How did you select between them?

I applied to MIT, UT Austin, UIUC, Georgia Tech, Purdue, Texas A&M, UC Davis. I was admitted to all but MIT. There are many universities with good Transportation programs, it’s more about finding what professor does the kind of work you want to do. As for choosing between my options, I talked to people at the universities and got feedback from students already there. That feedback about the research culture and general environment at the universities and financial help were the factors I looked at. UT offered me full funding as a Research assistant, so did a couple others.

How did you identify your recos? How important are recos, SOPs, GRE score, projects/internships, publications etc. in relative percentage of weightage?

I identified my recommenders as professors with whom I had worked extensively, regardless of whether they were from Transportation or not. They had seen me work and knew my work ethics and my research skills well enough to write a strong recommendation for me. One of them was my thesis advisor and the others I had taken up courses under or worked for extra-curricular academic projects. What I would suggest to someone who is looking for a recommendation is that you should see how positively the professor thinks of you and how well s/he knows your research ethics.

The entire application process is not objective, there is no set weightage given to recos. Most universities screen the applications based on the GRE, TOEFL, undergrad grades and check whether you fulfil the other criteria set by the university. After this your application goes on to a committee which then scrutinizes your application and resume. Your SOP is looked at in the end. So it acts as a tie-breaker. So while your SOP may not be as important, but if it’s a bad one then it could get you out.

What are the research internship avenues a student can look at? When is an ideal time to apply, and how does one go about it? Are students expected to do projects in the same field of research as they are applying, as they might not have decided on their topic of interest before actually working on it?

Regarding projects, I took up a few in my 3rd year under my department professors(not transportation). I also picked up an extension of one of them in my 6th semester and continued working on it throughout the semester. All this partially helped me understand what sort of research fundamental I was interested in, to go for higher studies. It also helped me get to know my professors and get comfortable enough with them to get their insight on what graduate studies would be like. On another scale, these projects helped me gain knowledge in relevant softwares and coding skills which carried forward and increased my skillset. It isn’t really necessary to have projects in the same department as you wish to pursue further studies in. In fact, my projects were in the department of Structural Engineering.
Speaking of internships, I interned at ITS planners in Hyderabad, which is a transportation firm. I got a first-hand experience to see what sort of transportation work goes on in India. However I can say that while I may not have learnt a lot while at my internship, it did help me in realising how different work in industries is as compared to research and why I would rather pursue it.

Due to a change in the curriculum, the students are given the choice of choosing internships or not doing one at all. What would you suggest to someone in this position? Also what would be the ideal time to apply for an internship if one is willing to do so?

Depending on what a person wants to do later in life, it would be better to choose an internship from their respective field of choice. Personally I would have done an internship in any case as I wanted to gain experience and to know what a job would be like, to see if I wanted one. But if given the choice then I would say go for it and try out a research intern. What I would say is set a goal, in whatever area you are interested in, whether it be an internship or work at CFI, but not in a “Why am I doing this?” kind of way but to get yourself a taste of what you can have in your future.
To apply for these internships, the ideal time would be at the beginning of the third year because that is when the applications for a lot of research internships come out and all those have a deadline during the 5th semester itself. It would be great if you have research background while applying for these but even if you don’t, no issues as not a lot of people know if they want to apply for a research internship or not.

Is having experience in non-core fields (such as a consultancy intern, or a startup) a positive or a negative?

I myself didn’t have any experience in a non-core field and I don’t think it was necessary, at least in the application process. What the professors look for is your research skills and your past research track like if you have published any papers or presented at a conference. So I don’t think experience in a consultancy or anything would be much help while applying for a core engineering or pure sciences programme. Maybe for an MBA.

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?

UT Austin, like most other universities has four major sources for funding:-

  • Research Assistantship- where you work as an employee at the university with a professor for research.
  • Teaching Assistantship-involves making courses easier for students by making assignments, grading them, clarifying doubts, holding office hours etc.
  • Scholarships and Fellowships-only if your particular programme has available scholarships.
  • Self Payment

It is also possible to have a part time job on campus, as your Student Visa allows for a 20 hour per week job.  Given a schedule of 3 courses a semester with research to do as well, a part time job would be manageable.

Is it possible to have 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. In fact I have even seen a person with a background in Philosophy enrolled in Transportation Engineering. It may be a little tougher to switch from engineering to pure sciences, but if you have a strong background in that subject or a fair understanding of it, then it is possible.