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Batch – 2013; Graduated – 2017

Ashwin Kanhere is 2017 batch B. Tech. graduate in Aerospace Engineering. He completed his MS in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in 2019 and he is currently a first year Phd student at Stanford University. He shares his experience of MS and Phd through this article. The answers might be helpful for prospective students, not just academically but also as a general advice, so do give it a read.

What was your motivation to go for MS/PhD over job? 

I toyed around with the idea of working in Consulting or Finance, but those ideas fell through pretty quickly as I wasn’t committed or deeply interested in doing that kind of work. The kind of job that I wanted, was something that dealt with Autonomous Ground or Air Vehicles (or even robotics in general) from an algorithmic perspective.

Core engineering jobs through placements right after an Aerospace B.Tech are extremely sparse to begin with. Additionally, I didn’t anticipate any postings for what I was interested in.

Another major factor that contributed to my decision to pursue graduate studies was my lack of exposure in Autonomy. I spent my time at IITB actively exploring the large variety of options that were available to me. As a result, I didn’t have satisfactory exposure in Autonomy, or even Robotics to begin with.

Both these factors, coupled together, led me to go for an MS to begin with. The idea was that through a thesis driven MS, I would discover my affinity (or lack of it) for research. If I liked it, I was going to get a PhD. If not, I would use the additional experience and exposure from the MS to get a job.

I ended up liking doing research and realizing that the gap in my knowledge was significantly larger than I had previously suspected. As a result, I’m in the years long pursuit that is called doing a PhD.

What was the motivation to pursue future studies, were there some other options that you had thought of?

The biggest motivation was to better understand the field of Robotics and Autonomy. Once I had a better understanding of the field and the corresponding state-of-the-art, I would be better prepared to make contributions that actually mattered. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that I could essentially extend college life through the MS-PhD.

To begin with, I was considering non-core jobs through IITB placements. That option fell through very quickly since I wasn’t really committed to it.

I also flirted with the idea of a Dual Degree in my third year but didn’t follow through with that either.

My main back-up plan for if I was unable to get into a funded MS program was to become an RA in an IITB professors lab (I would have about a semester and summer combined to find a position) or get a long technical internship somewhere. The idea being that such a position would boost my academic credentials and probably land me an MS in the next application cycle.

If you had inclination towards research, then why didn’t you take jobs in RnD?

Building a background essentially. Having a deeper background would allow me to choose a position and area of research much better than being handed a job straight out of the gate.

What drove you to universities in the US over some other places like in Asia, Australia or Europe?

I am quite fluent in English (hence this document) but never really had the time to learn another European language. Comfort with the area that I was going to be living for a significant portion of my life was quite important. I have family spread throughout the US and my parents spent some time there. Combined with a good number of high ranked schools in the area, the US was a logical choice.

A question that the students should ask themselves before applying for a Ph.D.under a specific guide and institute.

I have just now started my PhD, so I can provide some advice about applying to a PhD advisor.

It’s cliched for a reason, your personality should be compatible with your advisors. Going in, you should have a fairly good idea of what to expect from them and what they expect from you.

Initially, I was under the impression that it was crucial to find an advisor who was doing exactly the kind of work that I wanted to. With a couple of years of experience under my belt, I think slightly differently now. According to me, it is important to find a professor who works in the same general area that you are interested in, not someone who matches everything down to the finest details. Obviously, this may differ if you have had extensive research experience and know exactly what you want to work on. Most of this assumes that you are like me, interested in research but haven’t done much yet.

For an institute, one should also consider the living conditions. Do you like living in a small town? Do you like living in a large city? To others, these might seem like inconsequential. If they matter to you, they should be considered while selecting any particular institute over the other. Remember, you’re going to live there on your own for several years.

Any exam tips, application tips, links to any personal blogs etc

I don’t have a lot to help with here. However, the process of building an application is a long one. If nothing else, ideally some steps should have been taken around your third year. You should have some research or technical experience and a rough idea of what you want to work in.

GRE prep is important. The GRE is a minimum requirement to admission and it’s one of the few things that you have total control over and can influence with effort over a short amount of time. Invest in a book that gives access to mock GRE tests. Being familiar with the testing conditions is important.

Finally, letters of recommendation and statement of purpose are what form the bulk of your application. Don’t get me wrong, good grades and GRE scores are important, but not as much as the letters and statements.

Which factors did you consider in choosing the university, program and advisor 

This is usually the most arbitrary part of the application process. The most that I can say here is that you should talk to your professors (who will know the movers and shakers in the field) and compile a list based on places you want to live at, or study.

It’s okay to have a massive list in the beginning (10-15 or even more) and then winnow it down based on factors that are particularly important to you personally.

Experience

 What do you think are the differences between IITB and the current University in terms of say:

 Faculty:

Teaching quality has been similar. What I’ve seen is that professors in the US are better funded. There is also quite a high chance of working with someone who is very influential in their field (as compared to IIT where I didn’t see quite a lot of this).

Facilities:

Facilities in UIUC were better than those in IITB. However, I think that those in IIT are sufficient for what research I could have done as an undergrad.

Research Opportunities

Equivalent that I know of.

Friends and Social Life (also if any culture shocks):

There is a significant culture shock of going from the IITB life to living as an approximation of a grown up. However, it’s not that hard to get used to.

What are some key takeaways you have from your experience in the USA?

A PhD is a marathon, not a sprint. It is important to have a regular schedule, healthy social life (something that I sorely lack), physical exercise and just take care of yourself in general. Work always finds a way to take priority and time. It’s the other things that are important and need to be taken care of actively

What are your Future plans?

I’m going to work on my PhD for the significant part of the next 5 years. After that, I plan to find a job that deals with the topics that I’ve been working on.