Sagar Joshi, a graduate from the Engineering Design Department, talks to Chennai36 about his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech University and elaborates on the apping procedure.

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 Ph.D. What is your plan after you finish your post-graduation, and where do you see yourself after 5-10 years?

My name is Sagar Suhas Joshi. I’m currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Robotics at Georgia Tech University, USA. My current area of research is motion planning. The scope for robotics here is ever increasing, especially in a country like the USA, with thriving startups and old industries focusing on automation.

Plans after graduation? Not clear, right now I just feel I want a good work experience and then decide on coming back to academia.

When did you decide to apply for further studies? When is the ideal time to start thinking about 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 guess Insti life provides good opportunities to aid you in the decision ‘whether to the app or not?’ If you are thinking about applying, it’s clear that you are interested (surely?) in core/ tech area. The right time to start thinking is after you finish your intern in 3rd or 4th year. Intern gives you an idea about the tech scene/jobs in India. If you believe you won’t get a good opportunity or the chance to work in the area you want, then Apping is the only way out!

Apping is a long and multifaceted process. Start preparing by giving GRE/TOEFL before your final year in insti starts, the summer. Search programs/ profs/ universities in the area of interest.

Necessary Skills for research :

So I believe research is slightly different than the cycle for ‘assignments-exams-grades’ we are used to. The first thing that hits you when you start research is that there are no online Udacity and Coursera tutorials that can help you now. In that spirit, here are a few things that are necessary:

  • Not hating your work: Not every day is going to be exciting, but then you are here because you like what you are doing. Most importantly, you need to have the right attitude towards it. Any subject can be interesting, it’s just the question of what area you want to spend your time on.
  • Independent style of working:  Research is about you, no tutorials or profs can help you. You need to plan the milestones, set the path to achieving it. Guide, peers can only help you, offer their perspective on that journey.
  • Being thorough:  In research, you cannot pass anything under the carpet. You need to know your subject. Period.
  • Patience and Perseverance: It’s a commitment. Enjoy the journey!
  • Socializing, mental and physical health: This is a very crucial factor people tend to ignore. You are in it for a long run, a marathon. Hence, you need a good social life and a healthy lifestyle.  This compliments your research and keeps you sane!

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

So Apping is a long time-consuming process. I did an internship (6 month ED intern) at a reputed MNC. It kind of cemented my belief that I needed to app. I also wanted to gain more knowledge in my field.

I also had a decent profile, so I decided to bet it all on Apping. I did my placements very casually, with minimal preparation.  

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

Apping results is not a function of one factor like CGPA. As I shall elaborate on my answer in the succeeding question, acceptance depends on lots of factors. All in all, having a non-stellar CGPA does not mean everything is lost. You can make up for it other areas. Having a 9+ CGPA does not guarantee anything.

What you need to do is ask seniors, have a look at their profile and see where they got accepted. This will shed light on a general trend and help you make wise decisions.

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

I was the basketball captain in my last year. But according to me, it shouldn’t be something to stress on. The above-listed factors are more relevant.

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?

In the field of robotics for instance given universities have a good reputation:

  • CMU (probably the best)
  • Georgia Tech
  • Stanford
  • MIT
  • Michigan Ann Arbor

In my case, I really did not have a real choice. But generally, if going for Ph.D., select based on the Prof and his/your research interest.  For MS, consider university repute (relative) and the program. And of course, fundaes from seniors studying there.

How did you identify your records? 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 record, SOPs, CGPA, GRE score, projects/internships, publications etc. in the relative percentage of weight? Could you discuss the selection procedure for your school in detail?

Different Factors:

I shall start by enlisting and briefing on the different factors involving in apping.

  • GRE/TOEFL: They are rejection criteria. As in, a high score in these exams won’t guarantee you Stanford, but a low score will ensure rejection. Generally, 325+ score is good with 4 or 3.5 + in Analytical writing for GRE. 100 + score is safe for TOEFL.
  • CGPA: Very important, as its a direct reflection of your academic performance.
  • LoRs (Letter of recommendation): Again important, a ‘tailored to you’ LoR will do much help
  • SoPs (Statement of Purpose): Make or break, your chance to describe your passion, explain subtly reason for your Non-Stellar CGPA (you concentrated on some project)
  • Research Papers: Again crucial, more if you are applying for a PhD
  • Internships: Shows real work experience. Important for Ms and PhD

To Summarize, Apping is not a function of one parameter, each plays a crucial role (with a healthy dollop of luck in the end !!)

SoPs:

Statement of Purpose is perhaps the most crucial part of your App. You will spend the majority of your time on that, doing multiple iterations. After you enter your final year in the institute and give GRE/TOEFL, everything in your profile is frozen (CGPA, Interns). SoP remains the only thing you have control on. SoPs can make or break your application. And make no mistake, the admission committee does read your SoP.

So what is a SoP? It is a two pager describing you, your engineering journey, your passion, projects, and goals in life. It should have the following points

  • Your past: Academic background, projects, conferences, internships, courses that you liked and how they shaped your interests, prepares a solid groundwork for grad life
  • Your present: Now that you acquired these skills, why did you choose this particular university, program? How are you a good fit for it? Are you interested in a profs research area?
  • Your future:  After you graduate what do you intend to do? How will this program prepare you for it?

You should write a unique SoP for every university you are applying, mention specialty of the profs and program, research opportunity and how can contribute to it.

Write the first draft of your SoP without taking a look at the senior’s SoP. Do at least 3 iterations by sending them out to seniors and asking for suggestions.

Selection procedure:

After you submit an App, the admission committee sits down and goes through your application thoroughly. They read your SoPs and look at your area of experience. After you clear a certain level I think they send out applications to the professors in your area which in turn take a look at your profile. If they are interested (matching profile plus the availability of funding in their lab at that time) then a skype call is arranged with your potential advisor. This is a casual call, where the prof might explain his work, ask you about your area of interest.  And then you might receive a formal email after the interview with your offer.

Interviews happen only for Ph.D., MS applicants receive a direct acceptance/rejection email.

Identifying LoRs:

Find the profs that know you, or have worked with. If you have taken a course and performed well (‘S’) then it might be a worth a try. Point is, it needs to be a non-generic SoP telling something special about you/your project other than the standard ‘he’s a good student’. Choose profs wisely.

Profs are preferred over Company managers for LoRs.

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

If you are Apping, it’s going to be a tedious and long (maybe stressful) journey. Be optimally ambitious and practical. Have safe universities. Talk to a lot of seniors in your area and have a look at their profiles, universities.

You are going to take so many important decisions that are going to have a high impact on your lives in the coming few months. You need to be sane. Take some time off to relax and enjoy, this is crucial for succeeding in this Apping journey. Help each other, there is no room for RG!

It’s too early for me to comment on the PhD, grad program here at Georgia Tech (or the USA in general), but what I can assure the applicants is that you will be surrounded by the best profs (My A.I prof is the inventor of Google Glass !!) and motivated set of peers. Everyone here is passionate about engineering and their area of research. There is an abundance of funding and state of the art infrastructure. Also, all universities are liberal, warm and welcoming.

Lastly, it’s not the end of the world if none of your apps goes through. You can also work, do an RA in Insti for a year and apply again.

 

Author: Sanjeev Parameswaran (BT-ME ’20)

This article is part of the series – The Grad Guru. To get regular updates on all our articles, follow us on Facebook at /chennai36 and Instagram at chennai36_iitm