Siddharth Rath, a graduate from Mechanical Engineering Department, is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in the field of Mechatronics. In his interview with Chennai36, he describes his work, and his passion towards it from the time he joined IIT.

1)  Please tell us about your university, the research field you are working on, and the scope it has to offer after an MS or Ph.D. 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 currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan specializing in the field of Mechatronics. I am working in the Precision System Design Laboratory where we work with the principles of mechanism design, dynamics, and control theory to design high precision mechatronic and robotic systems. Our work finds direct application in areas like semiconductor (electronic chip)  manufacturing industries where we are pushing the boundary in terms of creating precision manufacturing systems that would enhance the productivity of the manufacturing process. In today’s era where the electronic devices are going smaller and smaller, there is a need to create precision manufacturing system that is able to keep up with the miniaturization of the electronic chips. Our work also has application in the design of non-invasive surgical equipment and energy harvesting systems.

My aim during my Ph.D. will be conducting research with the final goal of a product either in the field of semiconductor manufacturing or non-minimal invasive surgery or energy harvesting devices. These areas have great potential for disruptive innovation and given that I succeed to create one, I will like to commercialize it and open a startup.

I see myself starting a firm based on the technology that I have developed during my Ph.D. after 5 years and successfully transitioning from a start-up to a full-blown company in the next 10 years.

2) When did you decide to apply for further studies? When is the ideal time to start thinking about 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 had decided to attend grad school the moment I came to IIT Madras. In fact, I always knew that just 4 years of Bachelors will not be enough to quench my thirst for learning more about the physical world around (that’s why I took mechanical engineering!).

There is no particular ideal time to think about higher studies. Always remember that deciding to go for higher studies is a very different psychological process than deciding to sit for jobs. We take jobs after our graduation because we think we have learnt enough, given enough exams, solved enough assignments! and now it is time to go and make some big money. Being from IIT makes it even true. If you get a job from campus then you are definitely going to make some good money. On the other hand if you are considering to apply for higher studies, if it is MS which is most often not funded, then you are looking at taking a loan of the order of 50-70 lakhs ( a 2 year master program will cost this much) and spending the next two years running behind companies in career fairs to get a job or an internship so that you can pay off that loan. If it is a Ph.D., then you are going to spend the next 4-5 years of your life earning a meager 1500-2500 dollars per month depending on where you studying ( In the bay area like California you get higher stipends) which is just sufficient for you but not very great. By all this what I am trying to say is that never ever consider the option of higher studies as a way to increase your earning potential. One should pursue higher studies with the sole intention to advance one’s learning, then be it an M.S or a Ph.D. This been said you should consider thinking for higher studies only when you start getting the craving to learn more and advance your understanding in your field of interest. Now that may happen anytime during the four to five years of your insti life or even 1 to 2 years in your work life if you feel that you are not ready for this job and need to study more. Basically, start thinking for higher studies only when you get the desire to learn. Nothing else should dictate your decision in this case.

The one only thing that a person requires in order to be cut for research and I don’t think this is actually a skill but more an attribute of the person – “Passion, Persistence, Patience, and Observance to learn about the existing knowledge and create new knowledge”. Research is all about creating new knowledge. We as a researcher are always trying to find gaps in the knowledge that already exists and fill those gaps with our research. Finding those gaps requires one to be very observant. Once you have found those gaps and raised questions based on them, you need to find their answers. Finding the answers requires one to be observant and persistent in keep trying. Most often we would fail to come up with something even though we are being observant and we have been trying very hard. We might feel frustrated even we are being persistent but we are not getting anywhere. This is where one needs to patient and sleep every night with the hope that he will be able to come up with something the next day. The last attribute is Passion. Passion is something that ties all the other attributes together. If you are passionate about what you are doing that you will be observant and persistent. If you are very passionate about your field than even after multiple failures you would not give up and hence you learn to become patient. No other skill is required.

We are all researchers in our own right, just find what fascinates you and you are good to go.

3) How did you make the choice between placements and applying? Did you keep the options of placement as a fall-back option?

Based on the answers to your previous question you would know that I never had a dilemma about going for higher studies. The only fear I had was what if I don’t get admitted anywhere. If I did not get selected anywhere then it was signal to me that the top universities in the world did not see me as a worthy candidate to carry out research. So my next option was to hone my skills as a researcher and try again after a few years never losing sight of where I wanted to end up doing. With this intention in mind, I applied to the one place where I knew that the most cutting-edge research was happening- ISRO. I sat just for that one interview and I got selected. Yes, you might say ISRO was my fall back plan but I consider it taking a step back giving myself more time to get prepared before I take another chance at launching myself into a research career. My advice to every junior will be to have placement as a fallback option in a way such that it bolsters your chances of getting admissions in universities after a few years. An alternative choice would be to work for a professor in the institute as a research assistant if you are not able to get a research-oriented job.

4) Is a high CGPA required for applying? Is it all lost for people below the ‘astronomical’ 9 points CGPA? How can they make up for not crossing the barrier?

The whole insti life is a big trade-off according to me. You cannot have it all. The usual trade-offs are CGPA, POR, extracurriculars, girlfriend and a social life ! to name a few. Everyone at IIT is good no doubt. Where they excel depends on where they decide to put their energy. That being said, for higher studies, a lot of parameters are seen but they are also seen as trade-offs. Based on where you are applying the professors judge you appropriately. Some of the parameters are CGPA, a number of conference papers or journal papers, your current research interest, your technical activities outside of the classes. If you have taken a hit in your CGPA, then you better have some conference paper or journal papers or some really awesome technical work going on in CFI to explain your trade-offs to the professors you are applying to. If your CGPA has dropped as a result of other trade-offs like POR or a girlfriend then you might have a hard time explaining these trade-offs in your resume!

5) How relevant are extracurriculars and Positions of Responsibility? If any, what position did you hold, and how did it help you?

Extra-curricular and POR by themselves are not that important. They are like the side dishes in your application. The center of attraction still remains your CGPA, your technical activities outside classes, your conference and journal papers. If on top of all these you have some impressive POR and extracurriculars then it just goes on to tell the admission committee how multitasking and eclectic you are. They are plus points but as I have explained before there are trade-offs everywhere and you do not want to trade off POR or extracurriculars with your CGPA or papers.

I did not hold any POR. I selected my trade-offs in a way that I sacrificed on POR and extracurriculars to focus on my CGPA, the research with my professors and having an enjoyable social life! Well that is not very great I agree but neither am I at MIT for precisely the same reason! People who could work super hard and get past all the trade-offs, the truly exceptional ones go to amazing places. So choose your trade-offs wisely and act accordingly.

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?

  1. MIT
  2. UC Berkeley
  3. Purdue
  4. ETH Zurich
  5. Georgia Tech

I had a choice between the University of Michigan and ETH Zurich. I chose the University of Michigan because I was getting M.S/ Ph.D. there compared to just M.S in ETH Zurich. Other than the that the University of Michigan was fully funded and I really liked the professor and his research area. No doubt ETH Zurich ranks ahead as a better university than UMich but I chose to go by the professor and the area of research rather than absolute ranking.

My field of interest is Mechatronics. Very few universities have a strong research culture in this area. It also tends to overlap with the field of robotics but mechatronics is the amalgamation of the mechanical and electrical system. It does not deal with AI or machine learning aspects of robotics. All the universities have strong research culture in Mechatronics are listed above with the addition of the University of Michigan and Caltech.

7) How did you identify your records? 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? What is the relevance of SOPs, and how does one write ‘the perfect SOP’? Could you discuss the selection procedure for your school in detail?

Take records from people you have worked with and who know you on a professional level be it your professor or your boss at work. Taking recommendations from course instructor should be your last option. As I have told earlier your application is evaluated as a trade-off between several factors. If you have low CGPA and no papers but have worked in a relevant area for a few areas then you have a good chance of getting selected because work experience in field sure does count but it has to be research oriented and you should have done some really awesome work there.

All the factors are important. What matters is how much you have aced them. If you have aced even one of them completely like let’s say you do not have 9+ CGPA but you have like 2-3 journal papers then it covers for your slightly low CGPA. It is all about trade-offs. You won’t be able to do everything but what really matters is if you are able to explain your trade-offs clearly to the admission committee. 2-3 Journal papers in high impact journals would explain why you ran short on CGPA because you were focusing more on your research and lesser on your coursework. Make sure you get these points. This is where SOPs come into the picture. A perfect SOP is a mix of you trying to explain your trade-offs ( what you did and why you did) to the committee and making a statement about your passion, persistence, patience, and observance are all the attributes that an ideal researcher should have. Do this and you will have a decent SOP.

8) Any final words of advice for anyone considering going down the same path you have?

Coming for higher studies and being admitted to a Ph.D. program gives one the intellectual freedom that is most satisfying to people who have the inclination to learn and discover new things. You do not get this kind of freedom in any other kind of job in the world. But there are trade-offs to this too in terms of meager earnings for Ph.D. students and hefty loans for M.S students. So choose your trade-offs wisely.


Author: Sanjeev Parameswaran (BT-ME ’20)

This article is part of the series – The Grad Guru. To get regular updates on all our articles, follow us on Facebook at /chennai36 and Instagram at chennai36_iitm