Hanut V, a graduate of the Department of Aerospace Engineering shares with us his journey at getting a research admit at EPFL Switzerland. Read on to know his tips, tricks and advice for applicants.

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. 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 currently pursuing my master’s in Mechanical Engineering with aero / hydrodynamics bias at EPFL. It is a coursework program somewhat similar to the M.Tech program at IITM and I won’t be involved in research work until my second year. I plan to work in industry post graduation.

Regarding the scope of fluid mechanics, it is a niche field to be sure. If you want to work in aerodynamics the job opportunities are not as numerous as other fields and these get cut down drastically due to various restrictions such as citizenship, etc. In that respect being a researcher in academia is much easier. However, if your focus is on fluid dynamics/CFD in general then you have a much broader range of companies to choose from. Food processing, hydro pump design, oil/gas, renewable energy are all fields you can find jobs in.

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 started preparing for my applications in the middle of 6th semester. The ideal time to start thinking about apping would be 5th semester (B.Techs) or sooner. Doing a summer research intern is a plus and quite a few applications come out in this period. This also gives you the flexibility to work with a professor during the winter and score that all important reco as well as enough time to improve your CGPA if you need to. The ending of your 3rd year summer should be dedicated to researching about universities, GRE/TOEFL preparation and start thinking about your SOP. The most important skills for research would be

  • The ability to work independently. Your guide won’t always be there to guide you or keep pushing you. 😛
  • Being open to failure and multiple restarts. The results you get won’t always be the ones you want.
  • Math, the more you know, the better.
  • Being able to critically analyze another researcher’s work, no matter how big a name he/she is.
  • Objectivity. The only thing that matters is can you conclude A logically from B.
  • Motivation and excitement about the problems you are tackling. In the words of one professor at IITM, choose your field with your heart, it should be an emotional choice not something you do a SWOT analysis and decide about.

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

I found that I was more interested in the project based courses as I liked the freedom they provided to choose the problem I wanted to tackle. Combined with my previous inclination for pursuing higher education and the fact that most companies in this field prefer to hire only masters students and above, it wasn’t a difficult choice. I did considered placements as a fall back option, I had a few specific companies I wanted to try and get into. I think it is necessary to have a Plan B, university applications are always unpredictable and it’s better to have an alternate plan, be it placements or other options such as working in a lab at IITM.

Being an aerospace engineer, how did you link Mechanical engineering to it and are you working in an area common to both?

Although my masters is “officially” in Mechanical Engineering, what I will be studying here is mostly fluid dynamics. So it is not very different from what I did in my undergrad.

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?

My CGPA was below the ‘astronomical’ 9. CGPA is not the only criterion required for applying to grad school. What matters the most is how you have utilized your time, and the opportunities you had, as an undergrad. Okay, you don’t have a good CGPA, so what did you do instead?

This of course is not to say that CGPA doesn’t matter at all. Think of it like this, a good CGPA means you can sleep better at night. Try to improve it as much as you can, but giving up just because it’s low would be foolish.

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

I do not think they are directly relevant at all for an MS application. The most relevant PoR that I held was being a coordinator for AeroClub, which I pitched as me teaching basic fluid/aerodynamic concepts. Having said that, my experiences working in Shaastra, CFI, Placement team and participating in LitSoc greatly helped me hone my critical analysis and writing skills which came in handy while writing my SOP, etc.

Can you tell us about the other schools you applied to (Please list all the colleges having a strong research culture in your field of interest)? Did you have alternate options? How did you select between them?

I applied to MIT, Caltech, Cornell, UIUC, Purdue and EPFL of which I was selected by UIUC, Purdue and EPFL. I selected EPFL mainly because of the kind of research work being done in the labs here and possibly better chances of getting funded.

How did you identify your recos? 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? What is the relevance of SOPs, and how does one write ‘the perfect SOP’? How important are recos, SOPs, CGPA, GRE score, projects/internships, publications etc. in relative percentage of weightage?

I approached professors based on my estimate of what they would probably write about me in a recommendation letter. I wanted each letter to talk about a different aspect, research experience, academic performance and work ethic/motivation. The general thumb rule for getting a recommendation letter would be to get it from a professor whom you have worked with (Senior/Junior) AND THEN professors you know through coursework. The seniority of the professor matters as most university applications will ask the professor to rate you compared to the students they have taught over the last 5 or so years. You can even create a separate account and send a recommendation request to yourself to get a better idea about this.

Unless the program you are considering is oriented towards working professionals, work experience does not matter as far as core science and engineering programs are concerned. And in general an academic reco is better than a reco from your manager at work. Unless you were doing R&D at work and your boss was also a known researcher.

SOP, Recommendations and Research Experience/CGPA are the most important criteria. Scoring 340/340 in GRE isn’t getting you an admit if the above three aspects are subpar.

There is no percentage weightage as such, even if one aspect of your application is weak you can make up for it with the others. TOEFL is slightly more relevant as it can affect whether you receive funding or not. When it comes to projects and publications, in my opinion any research experience is good, whether it is related to the field you are applying to or not.

Industry internships are slightly tricky. It really depends on how relevant they are to the field you are applying to.

The way to write a good SOP is to a) Be clear about why your own life goals and how a particular school fits into you achieving those goals. b) Revision, revision and more revision! Get your SOP reviewed by as many sources as possible. A good guideline document can be found here:

http://web.mit.edu/msrp/myMSRP/docs/Statement%20of%20purpose%20guidelines.pdf

Could you discuss the selection procedure for your school in detail?

The application procedure is similar to the US universities. With one exception being that GRE and TOEFL scores are not mandatory. Required documents:

  • SOP
  • CV
  • 3 Recommendation letters.
  • Transcripts

Another difference is that EPFL has two admission rounds. One in the January time frame and other in the June-July period.  CGPA also carries more weight when deciding scholarship recipients.

Any final words of advice for anyone considering going down the same path you have?

Be open to applying to departments other than the Aerospace. Especially if monetary considerations are important, look at the Mechanical Engineering departments. Usually they will have some professors working in a similar field and it is easier to get funded as the department is usually bigger and cash rich. If fluid mechanics is your field of interest, do look at applied math/physics departments as well.

Don’t stress too much about admits once you have submitted your application. The Feb-March period can be especially taxing. Just relax and enjoy your last semester in insti, you’ve already done what you can.

Authors: Tanvi Shrivastav (BT-CE ’20) & Vineet Gopakumar (BT-CH ’19)

This article is part of our series – The Grad Guru. To get regular updates about our articles follow us on facebook at /chennai36.