1. 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 postgraduate student. 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 Akshay Subramaniam and I am in my second year of my MS+PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics at Stanford University. My research is on shock driven instabilities and turbulence in fluid flows. To give you an idea of a typical day, let me describe my day yesterday. I went to a starbucks at 9:30 to get coffee (that was paid for by my housing community!) and I got to lab at around 10 am and spent about 15 minutes checking email and stuff. Then I worked for about an hour and a half before I had to work on a class project. For that, I had to go to another lab to use some equipment. Did that for about 4 hours. Then, got a quick bite to eat and came back to my lab and worked for akshayanother hour.

After that, I went to a friend’s place to play some music with my band for a couple of hours. At 8 pm, I went to the observatory to TA for an astronomy class. Came back home at around 11 pm and went to bed.

2. 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 don’t think it is ever too early to start thinking about grad school. If you think you might be interested, you should think about looking into it further since by the time you have to apply for grad school, you shouldn’t have a doubt and more importantly, shouldn’t decide to do grad school based on a sudden whim. The main skills required for grad school are proficiency of the subject, curiosity and interest in research and a lot of hard work.

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

Yes, I got placed during the placement season and that was my backup option. I don’t know if prepping for grad school affects placements very much. I would not think so since a lot of people who are doing grad school now got placed and some even on the first day.

4. Is a high CGPA required for applying? How do you derive the motivation to study and get high grades in subjects not at all related to your research interests? Is it all lost for people below the ‘astronomical’ 9 point CGPA? How can they make up for not crossing the barrier? Does pursuing Honours add weight to his/her Grad school application?

A high CGPA is very helpful in a grad school application. Having said that, projects, publications, recommendation letters and the statement of purpose can greatly makeup for a not-so-great CGPA. Note that by a not-so-great CGPA, I still mean about 8 or higher :P. And anything academic will definitely help with the application.

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

I don’t think they are very important. You can put it in your resume, but don’t make it the star of the show.

6. 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? How do we gauge the authenticity of world rankings of a university and to which extent are they reliable? (Please explain in the form of a comparative write up on all your possible options, which ones being good at which fields of research etc.)

I applied to only 5 schools. I got into two, got rejected by two and I decided to go to Stanford before the last result was out. In my field of research, Stanford, Caltech, Cornell, Michigan, Princeton, UT Austin, Ohio State, etc are good schools. There are of course many others.

7. 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?

I got recos from my BTP advisor, my co-advisor and a prof in TIFR that I published with, so it was pretty clear for me. To decide who you want to get recos from, you should first talk to your BTP advisor and ask him/her for his/her advice in this regard. In general, any professor who knows you and knows that you do good work is a good option.

I don’t know if work experience holds any value. Depends on what kind of projects you worked on, I guess. Recos and SoPs are very important. CGPA is quite important too, but can be compensated for by projects and recos. GRE score isn’t very important. As long as you get a decent score (used to be 1300 when I applied, don’t know what that is in the new system), you should be fine.

8. 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? 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? How important is a foreign research internship, and how does it weigh as compared to an industrial internship?

For research internships, look at DAAD, MITACS, JNCASR, IISc and TIFR. DAAD and MITACS are the most appealing since they are foreign interns, but JNCASR, IISc and TIFR are also really good. A brief note about my internships: I worked at TIFR in the summer after my first year, that next winter, the summer after my second year and the winter after that. In my third year summer, I did a DAAD intern in TU Munich. Foreign internships can help depending on who you work with. But just the fact that its foreign doesn’t help that much. It all comes down to the work you do.

9. 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?

I was offered a one year fellowship at Stanford. After my first year, I have been TAing while trying to secure a source of long term funding. I didn’t spend anything from my own pocket. And the expenses vary a lot depending on which part of the US you are studying in. The best way to get this information would be to go to the website of the school in question and look for this information. You will normally find it in the “Applying for an F1 visa” section.

10. Students fear that, later, they might realise that they have no interest in the research field they have chosen, and hence hesitate to commit such a long duration of their lifetime. What do you suggest should one do/think in such a case? Also, how to choose among MS, PhD and a MS+PhD integrated program?

In that case, its best not to commit to a PhD since a PhD can be very intense and even depressing if you do not like what you are doing. Of course, it is possible to shift between advisors, but be ready to do that. An option is to apply for only an MS and then convert to a PhD if you decide that is something you want to do.

11. 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?

Yes, I was offered an admit in TU Munich, but I didn’t consider it seriously since most classes in TUM are in German. They do have an English course option, but the number of courses offered in English are much lower. There are institutions in Europe and UK that are very good and do top notch research. I don’t know much about job opportunities though.

12. 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, it is possible. I know a couple of people who transitioned from engineering to pure physics.

Questions for the Chennai36 team

1. Did you have a mentor? Would you like to be one? In what capacity? Many students have shown their desire to interact with you personally, over a period of time, so as to take guidance in your leisure time.

I did have a mentor. My uncle who did his PhD in Penn State and is now working at Boeing helped me a lot during the application process. Having a mentor is very useful, I think. I would definitely like to be a mentor.