Vegnesh completed his B.Tech in Aerospace Engineering from IIT Madras in 2014 and is currently pursuing his PhD in University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign.
1. Please tell us about yourself.
I am J Vegnesh. I passed out from IIT-M with a B.Tech in Aerospace Engineering in 2014. I have currently joined University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for a PhD. in Aerospace Engineering. I am working on simulation of plasma flows. My broad areas of interest include high speed flows and propulsion. I am interested in becoming a faculty but I am not 100% sure if that’s the way to go forward.
2. When did you decide to apply for further studies? 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 considering graduate studies as an option at the end of my second year internship. It became my primary option at the end of my sixth semester. The ideal time to decide to apply for graduate studies would be somewhere in the third year. This gives you enough time to prepare and plan your GRE and applications as well as give you the opportunity to do something helpful towards your applications in the summer after the sixth semester. This would be the case if you want to get into the best school possible for your profile. You can start of late (1st or 2nd month of 7th semester) and still land a good admit. However it would be very difficult to manage multiple things that occur during this time. (Placements, BTP etc.)
I am just starting off with my research so I am not the right person to suggest traits of a researcher.
3. How did you make the choice between placements and applying? Aren’t people who are working on projects and making their resume good enough to apply to Grad schools less preferred by recruiters?
Graduate studies was my foremost option. However I did sit for a couple of companies during placements and I got placed in one (DRDO). In my field, graduate degrees are preferred for a job.
If you are looking for a core job, I think the projects you do for application purposes will help you during placements. For non-core, from my batch-mates experiences, if you are the kind of talent they are looking for the companies(The good companies that most students aspire to get into) will definitely take you irrespective of where you invested your time.
4. 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? Does pursuing Honours add weight to his/her Grad school application?
A high CGPA is not required for applying. But, if you have a high CGPA the chances of getting a good university of your choice increases a lot.
I think the application committee does consider your CGPA in your major or CGPA in the area you are applying. It is a definite plus if you have overall high GPA but if you have a high CGPA in your subject area you should still stand a good chance of getting a good university. (I suggest highlight it in your application especially if your subject GPA is considerably high compared to your total GPA)
I was an 8 pointer and I managed to get into a university. Publications and patents help always (I did not have any). Otherwise, doing some projects or one big project of good value will add some weight to your application. Personally, Honours was a good option for me, as I got the opportunity to do a lot more courses and explore more areas during my undergraduate degree. But I do not think it adds considerable value to your application.
5. How relevant are extra-curriculars and Positions of Responsibility? If any, what position did you hold, and how did it help you?
According to me, they don’t matter a lot in the application process. However, doing these will help you partially figure out what you want to do after your undergraduate degree. If you are interested in applying from early, it is good to do projects under professors in the institute. This will help you get an idea of which area you want to work on.
6. 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 Georgia Tech, Purdue, UIUC, UT Austin, Texas A&M and Penn State. I got Penn State and UIUC. I chose UIUC because of my Advisor, facilities and reputation of the department. If you are sure and specific about the area you want to work on, and you find a professor/professors who is brilliant according to you and works in that area in some university then choose that university without giving preference to rankings. If you are not so specific or sure about your area , my personal opinion is choose universities which have good rankings and facilities in your broad area. This is because in good universities generally there are a lot more facilities and faculty working in your broad area and you have a better chance of getting a good project of your interest.
7. How did you identify your recos? 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?
I got recos from my BTech Project professor and a couple of other professors who had taught me at least 2 courses (and I had done decently in these courses).
SOP is pretty important. I don’t think I wrote a perfect SOP. The advise I would like to give is, the person in the admissions committee will have 3-4 mins of time to go through your SOP. Write it in such a way that it will give evidence as to how good you are and catch his attention. Typically, students write multiple drafts to perfect their SOP. So start ahead (Sept) with your SOP. Work experience will help if you have worked in an area similar to the field you are applying in and have done some good (published) work during your time there. I am not sure if exchange programs help your applications, but exchange programs give you an idea of the academic culture in a foreign university which will help you decide your future plans.
8. How important are recos, SOPs, CGPA, GRE score, projects/internships, publications etc. in relative percentage of weightage?
A friend of mine spoke to a Prof from a university regarding the admission process and this is the approximate order of preference (High to Low) based on what he said.
Publication and Patents, CGPAs, Recos, SOP, Projects, Reputation of your undergrad institute (to gauge your CG) and GRE score.
From an undergrad, they do not expect tremendous research experience but if the student proves that he has done some research work, they are generally admitted as graduate students.
9. What are the Research Internship avenues a student can look at? How did your research internship help you? 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 does a research intern weigh as compared to an industrial internship?
Apart from the various foreign internships that are there (MITACS, DAAD, SURF, SN Bose etc) there are a couple of Indian Research programs. One is SRFP (Summer Research Fellowship Program) by Indian Academy of Sciences(IAS) (For all engineering branches). The applications are in November time. There is another SRFP by JNCASR(for Mech, Aero based topics). There is an Summer fellow program in IIT-K also.
In addition to the above programs, the students can directly send sensible mails to professors they wish to work under. If the professor, is interested, he will reply back if he has any positions. I would like to stress on sensible as there have been instances where students type a generic mail and send it off to multiple professors. This practice should be avoided. Read through the professors research page and a couple of his publications if possible and write a mail specifically catered towards the professor. This will increase your chances of getting to work under the professor. There are typically no stipends for these positions.
I was an SRF under the IAS program in my third year summer. The overall experience there helped me make my decision to apply for graduate studies. Regards to topic, I applied in an area which is different from the area I worked on during summer. With respect to any internships, they don’t add much weight unless you publish some paper out of that work or get a good recommendation from that internship professor/guide(if you are doing the internship in a company). Only these can be shown as a good measure of the work that you have done during the internship.
9. Please tell us about the funding options for a Grad school? Is working part time over there a way to meet tuition fees/etc?
Grad school has 3 funding options. Fellowships, Research Assistantships and Teaching Assistantships. Fellowships are typically awarded to a few brilliant students who enroll in the program. RA’s are awarded to a professor and you will be working under the profs project. TAs are awarded by the department. Generally, a student admitted for PhD will be given funding through one of the above means. MS students are generally not funded unless they get a fellowship. They can try and get an RA/TA after they come here or via mailing professors and department. RA and TA give some percentage (full sometimes) fee waiver and a stipend (sufficient for comfortable living). The campuses here have lots of on campus part time jobs which the students are allowed to work on during their first year. The pay from these jobs are generally sufficient for the living expenses. Scholarships are generally open for US citizens. If you don’t get funding from university, with a part time job you may have to spend a between 15-30 lakhs (depending on the university) a year for fees. PhD students are generally funded.
10. How to choose among MS, PhD and a MS+PhD integrated program?
I have mentioned the funding scenario above. If you are not sure of a PhD and are willing to pay for the MS (there are a few options to get funding for MS as well and part time jobs are also there), then one should apply for an MS. Another way would be to join a good core company which gives opportunities to work on some basic research problems and then decide about a PhD.
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 did consider Australia, Germany and UK as options.
The research in many of these universities is brilliant. At times, renowned professors in certain sub areas may be working in one of the above countries instead of the United States. The problem with Germany is that as an Undergrad, one cannot apply for a PhD directly. In Germany, many masters are not taught in English and hence it is not the best option for BTech students. But for Dual Degree, MTech and MS students, Germany is a very good place and at times has excellent facilities at par or better than the best universities in US.
In Australia and England, the programs are heavily biased towards research and no coursework will be there for PhD. In England, Masters are not funded and its is difficult to get an advisor who will fund a non EU student for a PhD. Moreover, the job market (I heard) is restrictive in UK for non EU students. Moreover, the PhD programs are of a specific 3-3.5 year duration.
I wanted to do some coursework as well during the course of my PhD as I wanted to explore some areas at least in the beginning. This option was not available in Australia or UK. Hence, I went ahead with US application. If a student is interested in doing research, Australia, UK and Germany are at times better options that the best universities in US.
Please note that this is the case for Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. For branches like computer science, according to me its better to come to US.
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?
It is possible. Taking relevant courses and doing some projects in that area should help. However, pure sciences admissions are highly competitive here. You can get an admit in a university, but getting an admit in a very good university is difficult.