Meet Daniel Viju, a 2017 Chemical Engineering alum who is doing PhD in Iowa State University.
He is not the typical 9 pointer who had his future plans laid out neatly. Here he talks about how he found his insti-love, followed his passion and ended up a PhD scholar. Here he takes on the common CGPA myths about Grad admissions and gives a break down analysis of the application procedure.
A Two-sided Love Story
I spent my first year roaming around, exploring new things and making friends. In IIT your discipline is not decided by your preference, but based on your rank. But when I started doing the core courses I realised that I was among the few lucky people whose passion matches with their course. Thankfully I loved Chemical Engineering. I started studying Chemical Engineering courses seriously. I realized this soon and did not end up following the crowd and learning or doing unnecessary stuff.
Probing multiple frontiers – En Route to Enlightenment
I had decided that I would end up in a Chemical Engineering profile. But I was not sure of the avenues I will pursue. During my 2nd year I was more inclined towards placements in core companies and research was not in my field of vision. Unlike people who come to insti with an ambition to pursue higher studies my decision came very late. It was not until my 4th year (when my friends started applying for colleges) when I got motivated to consider research.
PhD is a different sort of commitment. You should work hard with a limited stipend. It is only your passion and love for your subject which guides you and drives you through this. Experience helped me draw the conclusion.
During my internship at Sumitomo Chemicals, Japan, I realised that the opportunities you get after your B. Tech or Masters only lets you skim over the surface of the subject. Except a few companies like Shell, most areas involve only reviewing and documenting operations. What I had in mind was a full-fledged Chemical Engineering profile. That’s when the notion of PhD started settling in.
In my third year, I got to intern at Orchid Pharma. My work revolved around analysing and monitoring a process. I had to run calculations on spreadsheets and review the process. After a point of time, this became repetitive. I concluded that this was not what I wanted to do. I decided to orient my profile towards research.
Research Project and Publication
My stint with a research project helped me recognise my passion for research. During my 4th year I decided to do something productive to orient my career towards research. I contacted a friendly professor whom I knew through class interactions and he took me under his project. I talked to a lot of people in the field, read a lot of papers and learnt about the scope in that area. I enjoyed the project and the prospect of pursuing something which has not been done before. I had to think a lot and expand the boundaries of science.
If you want to pursue a project with a professor a good way to do so would be to go through their research pages. A shallow reading of the introductions will tell if you are interested. You can then interact with the professor and involve in the project. Your relationship with the professor is crucial. Try to commit yourself to work which you think you can do and never shy away once you have committed. Even if the project doesn’t move the way you want it to, you will gain a lot of insights into the mechanics of research.
If you can work for a period of 8 to 10 months on a project, the there is significant chance for a publication. And once you get a publication it boosts your PhD chances more than a research internship does.
During my 4th year, my experience with my project opened an internship opportunity at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. NTU internship was organised by the institute. I was interested in the profile and applied. After this internship, my resolve to pursue PhD was further strengthened. When I comprehended the learning curve and exploring opportunities research provided, I decided to end up in the R&D sector.
However, if you want an internship at top level institutes you need a good CGPA and must work hard early on. You need talent and an awareness about the field. Also, it is not mandatory to apply through programmes. Most laboratories take research interns based on personal applications. You can directly mail professors from the field.
The CGPA Barrier
There is a consensus in the insti that higher studies are for 9 pointers. This is not the case and I am a classic example of that. My CGPA was close to 8.7, not close to the conventional requirement for PhD. I was put down by the general mentality. However, I realised later that as long as you are passionate about research a decent CGPA will suffice. It is your interest and commitment to the field which colleges look for. A 9+ CGPA will surely give you an edge to get into a top institute. But a low CGPA should not prevent you from pursuing research. All you need to do is orient your profile properly and put in a lot of effort.
Brand Value – Choosing the Right College
As IITians we are stuck with the notion of ‘brands’ and ‘tags.’ People mostly apply for colleges like MIT and Stanford. But if you do not have a good CGPA and if you are very passionate about research, you should also be open to other opportunities. There are a lot of good colleges in US which offer quality education to meritorious Indian students, not necessarily with high a CGPA. What matters most are your advisor and your research area.
I too applied to the top colleges. My professor advised me to apply to other colleges where my interests matched with the advisor’s. He made me realize the practicality of applying to colleges where I have a good chance of being selected and the importance of working for people who recognise your skills and talents. This was something Iowa offered me. My advisor contacted me personally and convinced me. I realised that even if I get selected in top schools I may not have the advantage of being recognised and had to work much harder to get there. You need to apply where you can connect with your advisor and have a realistic chance of achieving.
POR – to be or not to be
PORs are useful to show an all-round profile. But research internships and projects play the significant role. If you can manage these with your grades and projects then you can have a POR, but they do not add any significant value. You can try them out to find your interests and passion.
That’s my spot! – Application Procedure
It follows the standard application procedure as that of all US Universities. You need to submit your resume, SOP and letters of recommendation. You need to put forth why you want to work in the college, under the professor and in that area.
The application procedure contains two exams GRE and TOFEL. These are very elementary shortlisting exams which test your English skills, aptitude and basic knowledge in the subject. I took my GRE and TOFEL in the month of October. I wasted 2 months of my time for these simple examinations, which could have rather been spent on writing my SOP or finishing my project. You should be careful about these and must finish them as soon as possible.
Statement of Purpose
I do not like writing stuff and so I started my SOP quite late. The deadline was December and I started writing only during the end of October. Thankfully, I had good friends who read my drafts and gave me constructive feedback quickly. Typically, this not how you do it. You might feel your SOP is good, but when you give it to a 3rd person they may not understand what you are trying to pitch. Also, when you send your SOP to a professor, for review, it takes them around 10 days to get back to you. So, it is better to allot at least two months for this process. You need to get sufficient time to draft an initial sop, send it out to professors and seniors, get reviews, refine it and iterate over till it’s perfect. When you need sample SOPs you might feel it’s not a difficult process. When I first sent my SOP for review most people felt it was boring. The challenge is to put forth your points without boring the reader. The more time you spend on your SOP, the better is its ability to convey your ideas.
Letter of recommendation
You need recommendations from 3 professors you have worked under and who know you personally. This is the most important component in the application process. Since, the Institute fully funds PhD, they need to be convinced of your capabilities. There might be a trade-off between an accredited professor who you are not closely associated with and a professor whom you closely worked with. A professor who has taken your class can only comment on your attention span and understanding capabilities but only a person whom you have worked under can vouch for your work and skills in that field. Choosing professors from the field can give you an edge in both the fronts.
In the USA
Since classes have not started I can’t say much about the institute and studies apart from the fact that the research facilities and labs are amazing and there is no compromising when it comes to resources.
I have also noticed that life in insti and after insti are different. Life becomes much more difficult. You need to become independent. You need to follow a strict schedule, cook for yourself and take care of all your needs.
Apart from that there are lot of Indians here, so there is no feeling of being left out. Most places in US have Indian associations. Probably for an initial period you might feel different but once your academic life kicks in, you don’t feel much difference.
What Future Holds
I hope to complete my PhD successfully and work in the renewable energy sector. I feel that my work should have an impact on the society and renewable energy is one way to do that. So, I will probably involve myself in the R&D sector of some reputed energy company like Shell.
Try to maintain a good CGPA. Explore several things and find your interest. Maintain a good relationship with professors and have good friends around you. When it comes to grad application, SOP is one of the deciding factors, so devote proper time and energy on that.
Authors: Renganathan Subrmanian (BT-CH ’20) & Vineet Gopakumar (BT-CH ’19)
This article is part of the series – The Grad Guru. To get regular updates on all our articles, follow us on Facebook at /chennai36.