Karan “BJ” Syal graduated from IIT Madras in 2010 with a Dual Degree in Biotechnology. He was the Hostel Affairs Secretary in 2008-09. A very dynamic and motivated person, he is presently pursuing a PhD in Arizona State University.
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 a 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 graduated in 2010 with a Dual Degree in Biotechnology, worked for about a year at ZS associates and then decided to app in Biomedical Engineering/Chemical engineering. I am currently pursuing PhD at Biodesign Institute in Arizona State University. To broadly describe, I work in the field of Biosensors/Nanotechnology, at the interface of Electrical Engineering, optical physics and biology. Specifically, my project is using optics and electrical engineering fundaes to develop real-time quantum microscopy tools for the drug industry/clinicians/doctors to test antibiotics on microbial infected patients. My field has a decent industry scope in biomedical start-ups/companies developing sensors or even electrical companies which use a lot of microscopy/ microfabrication tools. Scope in academics is subject to high impact publications, instead of my field per se.
A typical day would involve trouble-shooting one experiment or the other! Realistically, there are a lot of experiments that don’t work, thinking/solving small everyday problems to eventually solve a big problem is all a PhD is about. In my case, I enjoy that scope of problems is varied, so I find solutions in fields like electrical/physics in which I didn’t have any initial background. This has given me a broad training to think and apply myself across disciplines.
I am still considering my next plan of action, between academics and industry. I like the cutting-edge healthcare diagnostics tools that are coming up in next 10 yrs, so I will stay closer to these newer tools in either industry or academia. Moreover, they say, a typical person in US has 7 careers in a lifetime, and I like the process of dynamically challenging oneself every few years, so I won’t be surprised if I jump across multiple fields just because it might get boring in a single endeavor over time!
PS: If I take the route of academia, I wouldn’t mind being a part of IIT Madras hopefully with the additional responsibility of Warden Saras ;).
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 applied both in my final year and post final year while doing a job. I had few admits in my final year as well but I wasn’t convinced on pursuing research right after undergraduate. I would say it’s okay to be a little flexible, apply when you feel strongly either for research or to leave your job.
Most of the research in BT these days is highly interdisciplinary. To make yourself cut-out for such research, keep the attitude to constantly challenge yourself in different fields and think applications of that field in BT. Moreover, there are so many off-shots fields that we don’t know about in undergraduate but might be well qualified to solve problems in. Good practice would be to read science blogs or even ask seniors for the fine prints of their projects to help get more accustomed.
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?
I was one of the confused kids when it came to choosing placements v/s aping, so I focused on both. I couldn’t let go placements for apping because I wanted to see how challenging/interesting work cultures are in India before sailing seven seas. Doing a job for a year, I learnt that I wanted to do something more hands-on instead of slogging 12+ hrs on excel/powerpoint tools in even good white-collar consulting/finance jobs. PhD seemed like a good way to get out albeit for a few years and spend a little more time developing something of my own which has a prospective use in near future.
I think recruiters appreciate if you have applied yourself in good academic projects. For me, consulting interviewers in BCG/Nomura/ZS were definitely interested in knowing in detail about big-picture prospects of projects I had worked on, as well minute details about how my project will eventually be helpful in a bigger scheme.
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?
High CGPA is not essential in applying. In apping an application has four important legs – 1) Projects 2) Recommendation 3) SOP 4) Grades. For me, since I focused on one specific field of theoretical biophysics, to help me get 3/4 right in above. The time I had to invest in getting high CGPA, went in exploring other non-academic activities in institute, which I thoroughly relished and which helped me in my placements.
To be honest, I had no motivation to get high grades cramming in all the subjects other than my area of interest in biophysics. I wasn’t really concerned about achieving “astronomical” 9 CGPAs, because at the end of the day it was more important to invest time in one activity or the other. I just had a goal of around 8ish CGPA.
5. How relevant are extra-curriculars and Positions of Responsibility? If any, what position did you hold, and how did it help you?
I think extra-curriculars and PoRs in general are very critical. My primary motivation for IIT was also extra-curricular and non-CGPA opportunities like foreign interns that were available only in IITs over other engineering colleges. I held a few coordinator positions in Shaastra, EMLs, hostel council and HAS. Each of those was a new experience which helped me get out of my comfort zones and challenge myself. My two cents, don’t hold yourself back from extra-curriculars especially if you enjoy them, at no other place other than IITs and at no other time other than undergrad, will you get to organize events on such a scale like Shaastra/ Saarang, participate in brilliant inter-hostel Schroeter/inter-IIT sports, have a dynamic lit-soc culture and have a say in running everyday affairs of 5000 students as you do while being an institute secretary. Try doing a few extra-curriculars, you wont regret but rather miss those, 5-10 years after graduating from institute!
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 8-9 schools, and I applied only to schools where I had IIT batchmates or family in the vicinity. I didn’t bother with rankings, specifically because I knew in grad-school more than the brand name of an MIT/Harvard, I personally wanted the overall research experience involving mentorship, good city, weather (no snow!) and quality time with
friends/family. In my opinion, good productive research will follow on its own, if I had the above basics right. All above made me choose Biomedical engineering in ASU (ranked 30-40?!) over Chemical Engineering departments at Penn State/RPI (within top 10-15!).
Moreover, even in small unnamed universities in US, you will find labs which work on interesting stuff and consistently publish in high impact factor journals and even at highly ranked places like Cornell/Harvard you will find labs that do not publish impactful work. So, don’t bother with rankings, instead focus on finding a problem which you will enjoy solving along with the best environment that you think you will be the most productive in.
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 had interned in NTU singapore and Max Planck,Germany, so I had my primary recommendations from there. I had also identified two professors in institute, my DDP prof (Dr. Senapati) and another senior professor in BT (Dr. Chaddha), who not only academically but personally knew me as well, which helped them write recos for me. I shuffled between these four professors for academic recommendations. I had also kept in loop a two more seniors professors with whom I worked in my extra-curricular capacity etc., in case I needed a recommendation from outside my field.
SOP is extremely important to convey your story on research that is unique only to you. To write a good SOP, spend a lot of time with yourself till that one perfect page comes up that speaks exactly your mind, iterate the thoughts with the help of seniors to fine-tune and sell it better.
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?
BT students can look at foreign interns across globe in a very wide range of fields. Other than basic biosciences, there are ample research avenues in other engineering fields. Consider any other department in the institute and prefix the word “Bio” to it, there definitely will be interesting research going on in that field which BT students are apt at solving. Research Interns are a perfect way to explore few of those distinct fields and get the best out of them in terms of big-picture, skills and judging your own preferences for a field.
I did my interns as I mentioned in NTU, Singapore and MPI, Germany. The interns gave me a good opportunity to understand the subtleties of fields along with the opportunity to travel. They laid the pillars for me to develop an interest towards problem solving in technical fields.
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?
Most of the funding in grad school comes by means of a research assistant or a teaching assistant position. It’s a good idea to check with your program/professor about his funding sources and decide accordingly about how much time your professor expects you to spend in TA/RA. TA takes a lot of time and pushes back research; it’s good to have an RA position where you can focus only on your research without distractions.
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?
It’s never too late to do something new and start afresh if you absolutely hate the field and have no interest. Worst, one ends up only getting out with an MS instead of a PhD. Keep a back-up in job if you are really non-committal about spending 4-5 yrs in grad school. Other option, come for a partially paid MS, figure out in two years if you want to stay on or otherwise, then decide if you want to do a PhD later on. The few years you invest exploring what you like is understandable, you won’t regret after you have found your interests!
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?
I came to US, because it had more opportunities by terms of job prospects but is also more competitive compared to European nations. If you like a laid back life style with a convenient life, Europe will be better in general compared to US. Quality of research is same in good labs both in US or Europe; it’s just that the lifestyle is a little varied. Europe enjoys its research more, US makes more money out of it I guess!
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, just take electives in pure sciences and find what you might like. Your engineering training especially for BT will be very helpful later on, when you solve cross-disciplinary problems (which most research problems are these days).