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Introduction

Hi, I am Aashutosh Boob. I did my B.Tech (with Honors) in Chemical Engineering at IIT Bombay, class of 2019. Current]ly, I am pursuing a Ph.D. in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering department at UIUC. I work in Prof. Huimin Zhao’s lab and my research revolves around machine learning-guided strain development for applications in genetic and metabolic engineering.

 

What was your motivation towards opting for MS/PhD over a job?

Primarily, my motivation to opt for a PhD comes from the undergrad experience and interest in biology. We are advised to explore insti as much as possible by our ISMP mentors. We mostly apply it to extra-curricular activities but I think it applies to academia as well. I switched my minor thrice before I realized I was really captivated by genetic engineering and antimicrobial resistance [PS- I was not able to complete my minor :P]. Therefore, in order to learn more and pursue a career in my field of interest, it made sense to go for higher studies.

Also, I spent a good amount of time during my undergrad engaged in research in the ChemE department and at a univ intern in the US, in bio-related fields. Even though I never did a company intern, I realized that I enjoyed working in a lab setting where I was able to focus on the problems that intrigued me. So, it definitely helped me in deciding that I wanted to pursue an RnD job or a career in academia. Given that the biotech industry (other than pharma) is not well developed in India, the lack of good RnD job opportunities after B.Tech added to my motivation of pursuing a PhD.

 

How did you choose the area or field for pursuing higher studies?

I was a little lucky when it came to finding my field of research interest. I took ‘Optimization Models’ as a minor course and I found networks and flow optimization problems interesting. So, I approached one of the professors in the ChemE department who was looking for someone to work on deciphering the network topology of M. tuberculosis. Even though my work was computational, having a good mentor and being a part of the core biology lab helped me develop interest in both the computational and experimental work. In the summer of 2018, I interned at Washington University in St. Louis in a synthetic biology lab where I got an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with adhesive biomaterial synthesis in E. coli. The internship was a good experience, so I decided to take a lot of bio-oriented courses like genetic engineering and bioprocess principles in my final year at IITB. Since I did fairly well in ChemE, I took a research project in core chemE and the experience made me more confident about the fact that I wanted to switch to a bio-related field. Also, with all the sustainability and environmental issues, bioengineering is a really hot field. So, I was pretty sure of having better opportunities in the future.

 

Why PhD over MS?

I have always perceived Ph.D. as an amazing job where I will be getting paid while having a flexible working schedule. Plus, I will be working on important scientific problems, especially those which fascinate me. 

Somewhere during my undergrad,  I realized I needed more freedom while working on research problems and maybe a constrained and comparatively monotonous 9-5 job was not the option I wanted to seek. In academia, I realized that I would have the desired flexibility as well as the ability to always work on something I enjoy. Before graduating, I talked with a few professors regarding life in academia to clear out the notions I had related to limitations one might face while conducting research in India. So, my bias towards academia made Ph.D. a better option over Masters. 

Another reason is money. A MS in the US can be very expensive even when you have 50% off offers. A Ph.D., on the other hand, is fully funded. Currently, my program also offers a Masters degree as a milestone if you complete the course requirement for Ph.D. So, I will be getting a Masters degree as well, without any extra efforts!

 

Can you provide some tips for aspiring students?

I would suggest giving GRE/GMAT two weeks after the mid-term of the 7th semester [Mid-September to early October]. I was a little weak when it came to vocabulary and therefore, I started preparing for GRE a little early around Mid-August. I would recommend learning all the words from Magoosh FlashCards and keep revising everything even as you progress to higher levels. Apart from that, try solving a lot of sample practice papers from Princeton, Manhattan, Kaplan, etc. 320 and 3.5 in AWA is a safe score. Also, a lot of schools are not considering GRE scores now. TOEFL requires very little preparation and can be taken in the next week following GRE. Safe score > 100 (Speaking > 23, Writing > 26)

I followed Jyoti Antani’s apping guide (http://tinyurl.com/apping-guide-jyot) quite religiously during my apping process. I would recommend you to have a read and therefore, I will talk about shortlisting the Univs in short. Your CPI/CGPA will kind of decide the range of universities you should apply to. I recommend applying to around 10 univs divided into 3 categories: Dream(4/5), Medium(3), and Safe(2/3). Go through top 100/150 QS ranking schools and select the ones where you have at least 2-3 faculty working in your field of interest. Go through their research page. I would also recommend going through some publications because sometimes you might like the bigger picture but not the techniques. Talk with MS/Ph.D. seniors to ensure that your perspective of safe universities is actually safe. 

Also, if you like some research area different from your undergrad major, I would encourage you to not worry about it. Ph.D. is the beginning of something new and nobody expects you to know everything from the beginning. The only requirement is you should be eager to learn. Regarding switching departments, I only applied to chemical engineering departments but I have heard it is comparatively a little difficult to get an admit if you switch departments. But again if you like the research and you can see yourself happy doing the same, I would recommend applying. 

While making a Statement of Purpose, create the first draft based on the general format and ensure you don’t look at any SoP from previous years. Try to highlight why a particular field fascinates you, your background and research work/ projects, any experience in the field of interest, what you will offer, why this university, and finally, the faculty you would like to work with. Once the complete draft is ready, then go through 4-5 SoPs of seniors, but in the end, make sure that your SoP is original and it shows you are enthusiastic to pursue higher studies.

 

What should be the considerations while choosing the university, program and advisor?

Criteria to choose the university and program varies from person to person but it should primarily depend on your research interest. 

Advisor selection is a very important process that will have a huge impact on the next 5 or more years of your life. Generally, you mention the name of 3 faculty you would like to work with in your Statement of Purpose. But once you join the graduate school, you have the option to join any lab. Some universities offer lab rotation while others offer presentations and one-on-one meetings with faculty to come up with a list of your top preferences. There are multiple aspects to consider while selecting an advisor and I am highlighting some of them here:

  1. Compatibility with the advisor [Similarity in the thought process, hands-on/hands-off personality, freedom in ideation]
  2. Advisor’s expectation and your goals
  3. Nature of work [Computational/Experimental]
  4. Interaction within the lab group

 

Can you give the students some insight about your experience in the new place?

In terms of quality of teaching, I find IITB and UIUC comparable. At IITB, we focus a lot on problem solving but here it is more about the concepts. 

One can easily spot the difference in research opportunities. It is extremely rare to witness research getting hampered by technological limitations [more options/instruments]. Working with the best facilities and leading scientists itself increases the average quality of research. With a lot of amazing collaboration opportunities, the research at UIUC is much more interdisciplinary.

b.Other challenges if any like coping with cultural differences 

People here are very friendly and socialize a lot. You will get ample opportunities to interact and exchange culture. Also, at almost all the universities in the US, you will find a good number of Indian students. We have more than 5 Indian organizations here at UIUC which organizes Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali, Holi and other cultural events. So, I am quite confident that you won’t face difficulties related to culture in the US.

 

Overall, my experience until now has been really nice. I have enjoyed all the courses and I like what I am doing in research. Learning has been a little overwhelming but it is a part of the process. I am still trying to find my optimal work-life balance. Also, I have a good friend circle, something which I think is very important in grad school. 

 

What are your plans for the future?

I have just started my second year of graduate life and have a lot of things to figure out. So, I am keeping my career options open [RnD job or academia]. I still have the bias towards academia and therefore, I am somewhat confident about doing a Postdoc. 

 

Any finishing word of advice to the students? 

General advice for the students is to not follow people blindly and try exploring what makes you happy. Register for courses you think you might like, be a part of a club/fest, do a research project, interact with seniors and faculty, try to get to know your department more. Explore as much as possible so that you learn about yourself and are able to make your own decisions. Try to venture outside your comfort zone and spend time doing something you think you find intriguing or even challenging. Irrespective of the results, give your best and be happy because in the bigger picture, you will be a part of the work you admired and maybe someday, you will inspire somebody else.