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Divya Choudhary graduated with B. Tech and Honors (Metallurgical Engg. and Materials Science) in 2016. She pursued Master of Engineering in Materials Science and Engineering at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY from where she graduated in May 2018 and has since joined Maxim Integrated in San Jose, CA as a full-time IC Assembly Packaging Engineer.

Table of Contents

Why did you choose to pursue a post-grad degree? Do you think this was a huge risk (in terms of investing a large chunk of your life)?

A couple of things had happened by the end of summers of junior (third) year – the core courses of the department introduced the breadth of the field that materials science is; I had thoroughly enjoyed my core internship which was a combination of research work applied to manufacturing; and I had started looking for prospective research areas to work on as my Bachelor of Technology (BTP) project. Further, the enriching experience during the course of the BTP project encouraged me to go a step further and pursue a post-grad degree.

Did you have specific countries in mind while choosing universities to apply to? If yes, what factors did you consider most important?

I concentrated only on the universities in the US. My focus was to get a job in industry post completion of my graduate studies; hence the factor that I considered most important was to see how good/slim the chances are to land a job post-graduation. Another factor that I considered really important was how strong the alumni network is in the respective country. It is crucial to have connections who can mentor and support you and having the same alma mater makes it really easy for one to network. I did not consider scholarship/funding as a deal breaker, hence my knowledge in that area is limited. As far as I know, most of the master’s programs in US are not funded, although one can be successful in bagging a TA/RA or a grader position or might even work part-time on campus. In case of extreme financial restrictions, one can always apply to universities in Europe.

What factors did you consider while choosing universities to apply to?

Choosing universities to apply to can be really daunting. Each application takes a huge investment of time, there are tons of deadlines and most importantly there is a lot of money involved. While deciding the number of universities to apply to, abiding to the motto of quality over quantity can be extremely helpful. A rule of thumb – apply to a couple of your safe universities, couple of mediocre universities and one or two really ambitious (aka your “dream” university) universities. But how does one decide which is a safe/mediocre/ambitious university? It is different for each individual. A quick tip to analyze which university is safe for you (disclaimer: it’s a crude way) – go through the departments website of the university you wish to apply and see if you at least meet the minimum requirements (mostly it’s just GRE and TOEFL scores and your GPA). If you are well above the listed numbers, it’s probably safe; if you are in the ball park, it’s a mediocre option and henceforth. Please keep in mind, this is a very crude way of deciding your safe/ambitious universities, and in no way makes or breaks your case. This is the minimum information one should know before going ahead with the decision of applying to the respective university.

Once this is settled, research the professors who are working in the field of your interest/experience. One can always go one step forward and mail the professors to inquire about their research groups and if they are actively taking students, just make sure you don’t spam them or flood them with emails. Another factor that I considered while deciding the universities to apply was to see how flexible the curriculum was, as in how easy it was to tailor the coursework according to my needs and interest.

I would advise not applying to universities that you haven’t researched well. For the six universities I applied to, I had good idea about all the factors mentioned above except for one university to which I applied just because it was comparatively cheaper for the application, it looked like a safe option on the surface and the deadline was fast approaching. Well, that was the worst way of wasting five thousand rupees.

How daunting was the application process? Please outline the process briefly and tell us what the major hurdles were. What are some key tips for apping that you learned about during the apping process that you wish someone had told you earlier?

I remember being terrified by the application process at the beginning of the senior year. There is a lot of subjectivity that is involved when it comes to admits from the universities and no one recipe/mantra can get one into his/her dream university. Although you should at least try to stop worrying about the uncertainty and concentrate on things that require action and possibly improve your odds. Talking specifically about the process, here is the list of things (to name a few) you will find yourself doing during the apping semester:

  • GRE: The best advice one could have given me, or I can give you is that do NOT fret about GRE. Preparing and practice is important but fretting about it isn’t. Your GRE score is one part of the whole profile and it certainly isn’t the most important. Anything above a 320 is a good score, above 330 is great and above 335 is stellar. A good GRE score will definitely be a cherry on the cake for your overall profile and might open the gates for few scholarships. For tips and suggestions on how to prepare for GRE, I find this answer on Quora written by another IIT Bombay alum (Gururaj Saileshwar) extremely helpful. Here is the link for it –
  • TOEFL: It is a much easier test compared to GRE, a little preparation and you are good to go. I would suggest practicing speaking section more, as during the test you will find yourself surrounded by a lot of other students who will be speaking at the same time as you and you might tend to get distracted and lose your train of thought.
  • Drafting SOP and CV: I personally feel that SOP can make the major difference in your application (apart from LORs). It conveys your intent and motivation for pursuing higher studies. Hence, apart from knowing what you did, be prepared to talk about the WHY. You can also use your SOP to highlight your achievements that you are proud of, that encouraged you to pursue post grad or the struggles you faced and what you learnt from them. Showing results of improvement after a particular failure will be admired. Use this opportunity to the best of your potential. The CV is mainly concerned about your experiences, you might call it a detailed resume. Students mostly don’t struggle while drafting a CV.
  • Letters of Recommendation aka LORs: You need at least three good LORs to make a strong application. Having a good repo with the professor is not the key to a good LOR. At the end of the day, the professor will need to write about your work in the LOR, so concentrate more on what you work on and the results you get. Your attitude towards learning and your approach will also be highlighted. Two of my three LORs came from BTP project and junior year internship. The third LOR also came from a project I did in the department. Students can take LOR from the professors of the courses in which they excel, but I did not prefer that as I felt that courses do not necessarily highlight one’s strengths as a researcher.

The rest of the application is pretty straightforward, and everything is done online. Starting 2015 you don’t even need to mail your transcripts, they can be uploaded online. Feel free to shoot emails to the university admission staff if you have doubts, people are there to help you.

If more than one university accepted your application, how did you decide which one to attend?

Out of the six universities that I applied to, I got admits from three. All three admits were for different programs (MS/PhD/accelerated MS) of different lengths. When it came to decide which university and degree to pursue, I defined my short – term goals and chose the option that resonated the most with my goals. I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to go for a PhD right after undergrad, thus MS was the way to go. Since, I knew I wanted to do a job at the end of my graduate degree, I chose the university that fostered overall professional development through various technical and management courses, internship opportunities and career-centric information and networking events.

How smooth was the transition from IIT Bombay to your new university? What, in your opinion, were the most challenging, and the most enjoyable parts? What would you say has been the toughest lifestyle changes you have had to face? And how to overcome them?

Before coming to the States for your post-grad, make sure you are mentally prepared for the academic rigor. My master’s program was accelerated which meant I had to do courses, master’s project and secure a job all at the same time (although I went away for a year-long co-op internship and got some extra time to find a job during that period). The way courses were taught at Cornell was different than how I was used to in my department at IIT Bombay. The professors have a knack of pushing you hard in terms of work load. There is weekly assignment for every course, mandatory discussion sessions every week (apart from the lectures) where practical applications of the course and out-of-the box ideas are discussed, there are weekly labs for the courses and a term paper might be due at the end of the course.

Other than that, there are two prelims during the semester and a final exam. You will also have research work on the side and probably job/internship applications. Thus, I would suggest not taking more than three courses in a semester. This might look intimidating amount of work, but honestly if you manage your time well and do not lag behind in your work, you will do great. I am glad that my semesters were stressful and pushed me hard, because it taught me to work under pressure.

Is forming a new social circle in an alien country difficult? How lonely or not is life? A brief overview of life as a student would help.

Life as a graduate student can become lonely as unlike undergrad studies, students do not have common classes or schedules. Everyone has different research and take courses accordingly. In such a case, it is essential to have a social life and a support system of your own. Apart from your fellow peers in the research lab, you will spend the major chunk of your time with your flat mates. Thus, choose flat mates that share similar interest as you or have the same way of working/studying. I would also suggest participating proactively in the various events and mixers for graduate students in and outside of your department. It’s a great way to not only to relax and blow off some serious steam but meet a lot of other graduate students who are working in different areas. You will be amazed by the extent of creative and novel work happening around you and might end up motivating you too. Other than the graduate mixers, have a bucket list of the things to do in your first semester in the university. Most of the times, the university itself releases that list. It is these events that give you the real flavor of the culture and acquaints you with few real old traditions of university. For Cornell, it’s the ice hockey game against Harvard that brings everyone to the rink with a bucket full of smelling dead fish to throw at the competitors (the rivalry dates back to 1910).

How did you choose (or how are you going to go about choosing) your advisors? What are the most important things to keep in mind while doing this? Are there any quick and dirty tips you could share with us?

For my master’s thesis project, I worked with a corporate industry as a full time co-operative intern. Thus, I didn’t have to choose an academic advisor at my university as such (although I had a program advisor for the whole duration of my masters). The few factors that I considered when deciding which industry to intern in was to see what were the kind of projects offered by the company, how relevant was the experience in terms of finding a job later and how the job market was for that industry. Irrespective of the fact that you do your research with industry or in university, here are few quick tips: always have a good repo with your advisor (or manager), make sure you understand expectations and have similar working style (don’t be stuck with an advisor who micromanages you if you have a habit of working autonomously and vice-versa); I would strongly advise you to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, what’s your motivation and always see the bigger picture. When it’s comes to research, nobody is looking for opinions, so make sure you always support your statements with data.

What are you currently working on? Did you expect to work on this when you were applying? Or is this something entirely new that you stumbled upon on the way?

My internship was in a microelectronics industry and I specifically worked on the thermal management and reliability testing for electronic assemblies (such as computer processors). When I was applying for post-grad, I had a brief idea about the area I would want to work (my list included electronics and photonics or energy storage) but I was flexible. Most of the times, things become clearer when you join as a grad student and talk with faculties and other students. You are given enough time to make a decision, so knowing everything while applying isn’t necessary.

How are you handling the finances? What are the average monthly expenses and inflows (if any, from stipends, TAship, etc)?

Like most of the students, I had the education loan paying for my tuition at Cornell. The monthly expenses depend on multiple things – which state and city your university is, how is the neighborhood in terms of industries around, and the university itself (if it’s a state university or ivy league). Rents in university towns can be inflated depending on the type of university. All in all, you are looking at $1000 per month on average for all your living expenses including rents and other bills. As I mentioned earlier, most of the students who are able to get TA/RA/grader positions easily take care of the monthly expenses. Some people also resort to on-campus jobs. After the first semester, all of my finances came from my internship with savings on the side.

How satisfied are you with your learning curve?

Coming from a Materials Science background, my knowledge about the microelectronics industry was little to none. That can be the case of many students when they pick a sub area for their research/work. What I realized is that professors/recruiters care more about the attitude of students towards learning more than their existing knowledge of the subject. Be open to new things, teach yourself and never shy away from asking questions. Show initiative and know why and what you do. Attention to detail is essential. I still am learning about microelectronics and packaging, and there is still a long way to go. One can never know too much.

Give us a brief idea of what your future projects look like. Can you tell us about the job/hiring market currently (or projected for the next three-four years) in Industry or Academia where you are currently?

I secured a job as an IC Assembly Packaging Engineer at Maxim Integrated, San Jose. The work that I did during my internship laid the preliminary foundation required to be eligible for this job. My projects as full-time employee would include working with various business units to find packaging solutions for their end product.

The process of securing a job through university in US is much different than the placement process at IIT. The universities organize career fairs (one or two in a year) where different companies participate and look for candidates with different profiles. Getting a job through these fairs can be tricky as only a couple of companies that participate are open to hiring international students. A large number of companies are also infamous for participating passively in the sense that they participate in the career fair only to advertise their company and ask students to apply online. Personally, I didn’t find career fair helpful although people of different majors may differ with me.

What I feel is really helpful in getting a job is networking. I have stated earlier how important it is to make connections. Go to networking events or find people on LinkedIn with the same alma mater as you. Try to find a connection in the company you are applying to and ask for referral. The chances of you hearing back from the company are much higher if a present employee of the company refers you. Keep in mind though, the employee referral will only get you an interview, what will get you the job is how well you know what you have done and how willing you are to learn.

Lastly, is life currently anything like you imagined it to be when you were applying?

Currently, the life is much better than I imagined it to be, but I guess everyone feels that way once they are at the other end of the spectrum. Also, I am on vacation right now, so can’t really complain, haha.

I would end just by saying that do what you like and enjoy what you do. Things always work out in the end.

DIVYA’S NOTE: The views mentioned in the article represent my personal experience and a few tips and tricks that worked for me. Consult other students pursuing post-grad to get a holistic view of things.

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