Pradeep Natarajan graduated in 2018 with a dual degree (Btech+Mtech) in Chemical Engineering. He is also the recipient of the Sri. V Srinivasan Memorial Prize for the highest CGPA in the Dual Degree Program. Well, he is now where every engineer wants to be at least once in their lives – Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). With some stud projects and interns, Pradeep has invaluable advice for Insti Junta-
Q1. Hi Pradeep. Can you please tell us what program you are currently pursuing?
Hi! I am currently pursuing a PhD program in chemical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I am looking forward to work in areas that are related to energy or bioengineering with a focus on complex systems modelling.
Q2. Can you tell us when you took the decision that you wanted to pursue a career in research and how did you reach the decision?
I was quite fortunate because I realized that I wanted to do research right in my twelfth grade, or you can say my first year in college, because of which I could plan out to projects and stuff like that in my insti life. Many don’t realize this early on and it’s perfectly fine! The most important thing is to periodically ask yourself what you love doing, and the answer to this question could change as you accumulate more experience in insti life. After trying out different things, if you still feel academic research is the one that appeals to you the most, that’s when you know you should probably start thinking about apping.
Q3. So from one of the crowdsourced questions, did you ever doubt yourself after taking this decision?
I never really doubted myself because it was pretty clear to me that I wanted to do a PhD as I was pretty enthu about research. I also wouldn’t say that I had a situation where I had to doubt and convince myself that I wanted to go forward. I took up a project at the end of the first year summer and I kind of liked working in the lab, designing experiments and bouncing off ideas with my lab partners and professors. I probably was fortunate to land up in a very supportive lab environment the very first time, because of which I never felt down and was never made to rethink my decision to go into research.
I do know some friends who have had a pretty negative experience during their first project because of which they have reconsidered their decision to pursue it further. In such cases, you can always talk to seniors and friends who know you well and get their opinions before taking a decision about pursuing it further. It is totally fine if you feel research is not the career choice for you!
Q4. As you said, you never really doubted your decision. But the projects that you did in insti also reinforced your decision to do research. Can you tell us about such projects and other activities that you did in insti?
As far as research goes, trying to do as many projects within insti and internships during summer really helps. In my first year summer, I worked with a professor in the ChemE department, in my second year I interned at IISc on an IAS fellowship, and in my third-year summer, I went on an SN Bose fellowship to Northwestern University. You can try different types of projects, under different domains as undergraduate life is a good time to explore. You do not need to specialize at all! My first project was about biomass conversion to fuels which involved a lot of experimental work. My second project at IISc was about modelling some reactions in catalysis which was pure theory. My project at Northwestern University was also about modelling reactions in biomass pyrolysis which was also more of a theory-based project. Finally, my Dual Degree Project was again a modelling /computation oriented project that involved trying to understand the dynamics of gene regulatory networks in cells. So I explored both theoretical and experimental research, as well as projects related to ChemE and Bioengineering. This can help you understand what kind of research you like doing, and help you take an informed decision about the fields that you would like to work in when you app.
Q5. Can you take us through you apping process? Can you tell us about-
- When to start?
Ideally, a good time to start will be the summer at the end of your pre-final year. I would recommend that you finish your GRE and TOEFL during your summer itself. For these, if you read novels and stuff, then the English part of GRE shouldn’t be difficult. So you can crack GRE with max three weeks of prep. I found the Magoosh app and the textbook by Kaplan quite sufficient for GRE. The rest of the paper is pretty chill, it’s like tenth standard math level. I didn’t practice anything in particular for TOEFL except working out the free sample papers available online and practice a bit for the ‘speaking’ section.
Also, these exams (GRE/TOEFL) are only basic filters, so even if you score very high in these exams it doesn’t guarantee that you will get accepted. But at the same time, you shouldn’t score too low. I don’t think there is a GRE cutoff but some universities have a TOEFL cutoff (if you get below ninety, they won’t accept you). But getting such a low score is pretty rare given that you are studying in an English-medium institute. Even if you marginally mess up these exams, you can always compensate through your CV and SOP.
- How to narrow down on programs?
As soon as the semester starts after summer, start talking to your seniors, Profs and peers who are apping about your research interests and ask for (a) suggestions about cool research groups/programs, and (b) feedback about any particular research group/program that you may have in mind. Start going through university websites, start going through what are the different programs that are available, filter them using what your interests are and come up with a list of programs that you are interested to apply for.
Also if you are applying for a PhD., look out for the professors you would like to work with. And for this process, I really don’t think there is any shortcut. You need to make an exhaustive list of universities you’d like to apply to (I had about 15 universities in mind initially), go through the research profile of each and every prof in the department you’d like to apply, and make an excel sheet about whom you find interesting. I would recommend you to spend at least one or two months doing this and in parallel also talk to your seniors and Profs who will also give you some inputs.
- Letter of Recommendations (LOR)?
Get LOR’s early, decide from whom you are going to get these and contact them. Out of the three LOR’s that most colleges demand, try to get at least one from profs or people under whom you have worked with on research projects. Getting one-two LORs from profs under whom you have just taken courses is fine. Also, make sure that people from whom you get the letters know you well and have interacted quite a bit with you. There is no point in getting a LOR from a big-shot prof who is well-known to everyone in the field, but who doesn’t know you well enough to write a good LOR. Also, inform your professors well in advance (say a month before the apping deadlines) that you would be asking them for a LOR. They have tons of other stuff to do including courses, research etc. and giving you a LOR will be of lowest priority to them. They will usually take their own time.
- Statement of Purpose(SOP)?
For SOP, you will have to introspect. Sit down and think about why you wanted to do research and why you convinced yourself to do a Masters/PhD. Write about what got you interested in the field you are interested in. Try to weave a story around these points and write down something like a first draft. I called mine ‘My shitty first draft’ – which was about 4 pages long where I word-vomited everything that came to my mind. It was not great or very well written, but it had all the points that I wanted to convey. Once you have this, send it to different seniors and professors, who can tell you which points in your first draft are more important and which are not. After getting feedback from them, you can probably edit for language, presentation and style and send it again to people you know to get it reviewed. Once you get all that feedback, you can edit it once more before submitting it. It is an iterative process and your SoP should look pretty good after a couple of iterations. Most importantly, don’t make any basic spelling or grammar mistakes while submitting, as it reflects very poorly. You can use software like Grammarly to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Q6. Apart from research, what other activities did you do in insti?
It’s probably a sidetrack to research but I attended conferences and helped organize some of them. If you are a dual degree, then TA’ing a course is a lot of fun! I also volunteered briefly for an NGO and worked with an insti startup in the Ed-tech sector. Positions of Responsibility (POR’s) don’t hurt as far as your CV for research goes, and it’s good to have one or two of them. But they don’t carry as much weightage as your research projects.
Q7. What about the CG requirements? What part do they play if you want to get into a prestigious university like MIT or Stanford?
MIT and Stanford have pretty stringent expectations. Anything above let’s say 9.2 should be good to go. But MIT has a soft corner for Branch Position (BP) one. At least in the past few years from Chem-E, BP1’s who have applied to MIT have been accepted. That being said, CGPA is not the only criterion. Even if you have a not-so-good CG, you can very well balance it out with good projects. So as far as aping process goes, it is like a weighted average of your CGPA, your projects, your LOR’s, SOP’s, GRE, and TOEFL etc. Even if you go down in one you can balance it out with something else provided you are really good at that.
Q8. Do they consider the grades of individual courses as such?
One thing that comes to my mind is that if you want to apply in some field that is different from what you have studied, let’s say you are pursuing Mech-E but want to app in operations research. Then they might look at courses like optimization or operations courses. If you are cross-apping, then you might need to show specific courses to say why you are crossing and you need to have decent grades in those courses. Apart from that, I don’t think they really look at grades in individual courses.
Q7. Now that you have mentioned, how difficult is cross apping and how prevalent is it?
It is fairly prevalent. If you are going to make a radical shift, then crossing apping is hard as you will already be competing with people from the core department. In such cases, you might need to trade off branch against top colleges. There is also a distinction between masters and PhD here. Masters is usually paid by you, there is no guaranteed funding upfront, so it is easier to cross-app into masters rather than PhD programs.
Q8. What about finances, how do you manage them? Does the institute fund you completely?
As far as a Masters is concerned, you are not guaranteed an up-front funding. However, many students reach out to Profs for TAship and RAship and a fair amount of them end up getting it. Even if you don’t get funding in your first semester, you can come here and look for them. So you need not drain your pocket for masters.
As far as PhD goes, you are being funded by your prof and your department. So you need not pay anything. It is like you are working for them and doing research.
Q9. And finally, what advice you would give to your juniors and research enthu junta?
I would say it is important to ask yourself whether you are really interested in apping and whether you are ready to spend two or five years pursuing the course. If you ever have doubts regarding this, then you need to talk to people and get their help. There is no real deadline by which you need to decide if you want to app. Different people get this realization at different times. I had it early and one of my seniors realized it only when he was doing his DDP, but he got into a decent college. Ideally, if you realize it before your final year, it will be good. My most important advice would be to maintain contact with Profs outside your coursework and talk to them about their research.
The one ‘most’ important thing to do irrespective of what you want to do in life is to try out different things. keep questioning yourself, and introspect about what you learnt from it.
Pradeep welcomed all people who needed help to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Sriram(BT-CH ’21)