Hey! I am Rajat Daga, a graduate of the Chemical Engineering Department, IITB, and a would-be Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota Chemical and Material Science Department. I was a part of the DAMP mentor team during my 3rd and 4th year.
LIFE @ IITB
Like almost every other freshie, I enjoyed my 1st year thoroughly by involving myself in various activities like sports and participating in a few cultural events. It was after my 1st year that I was a bit more serious about post-graduation plans. As a result, I started thinking of the possible options before me. I was clear in not joining any non-core sector after graduation. Even though I had decided that I wanted to stay in core Chemical after the 1st year, I did not know where to begin. To get over this confusion, I consulted various seniors and some senior professors, seeking their advice on what to do next. One common piece of advice which I received was to try my hand at research or industrial projects in any specialization either through courses or projects and see whether that interested me or not.
With this, I started my journey with a simulation project involving basic coding knowledge during the 2nd-year winter break. I continued this project for quite a long time. I followed it up with a project in Electrohydrodynamics in the 2nd year summer just to explore this field. Even though I did not feel less motivated throughout the project, I also realized that this is not something I would like to work on in the future. I employed this trial and error policy to further narrow down my interests in my subsequent years rather than sticking with a particular project for a long time. Parallelly, I was also trying to figure out the industry v/s higher studies option. A basic analysis made me realize that most of the good companies in chemical core come with the vision of offering managerial roles after 1-2 years of field experience through their leadership programs. This is not something that I would like to direct my career towards. My interest in research started developing sometime around the 4th semester, thanks to my research project experiences. So, the clear choice before me was to opt for higher studies!
MS OR PH.D.?
MS or Ph.D.? This was a question that haunted me like any other student thinking of pursuing higher education. Therefore, it becomes important to introspect and ask oneself a few questions. According to me, the most important question to be answered would be whether I would be able to sustain for 5 years working on a project or not? After doing multiple projects and coursework, I felt that I was in a good position to answer this question. As per my discussion with various professors, I realized that the main ingredients of successful research lie in qualities like hard work, commitment, and focus apart from technical knowledge. I believed that I possess these qualities through the different projects I tried during my UG, and therefore went ahead with the decision of pursuing a Ph.D. over MS. Also, I enjoyed various challenges that I encountered during my research projects, which increased my inclination towards a Ph.D.
Another important factor was the rise in opportunities after a Ph.D. as against doing MS. More RnD options would be available in some of the top companies. Also, I would be able to apply as an assistant professor in some of the top universities only after my Ph.D., in case I wished to remain in academia. Therefore, I saw Ph.D. as a more viable option than MS since I am hoping for a research-oriented career.
Another advantage of Ph.D. over MS was the financial advantage in Ph.D. In most top universities, tuition fee for Ph.D. students is waived and a generous stipend to cover basic needs is provided. Therefore, one need not worry about finances in Ph.D. if one maintains a good academic standing. Though it should not be a very big factor since most MS students at good universities manage to secure TA positions during their 2nd year and can meet a significant portion of their expenses.
After taking this decision, I started looking for the universities to which I should apply. I tried to segregate and order universities based on some factors, which I felt are appropriate.
The primary and most basic factor in selecting universities was that there should be a strong department in terms of reputation and number of faculty in my field of interest, i.e. Catalysis and Reaction Engineering. Apart from this, the presence of the traditional control theory field would be a bonus since it is another possible field that I feel am interested to work in.
Secondary factors involved their rankings, whether they coincided with my batchmates, in-campus diversity, campus safety, where are most of the alumni placed, etc. These helped me distinguish between universities rich in my field of interest. I further arranged them in the order of Dream, Moderate and Safe schools based on the possibility of me getting in.
I applied to the following 10 universities:
Dream: MIT, UMinnesota, Georgia Tech, Northwestern University
Moderate: CMU, Purdue University, Wisconsin Madison, University of Michigan
Safe: Rice University, Penn State University
After deciding on pursuing a Ph.D. and selecting universities to apply to, an arduous task of completing the application awaited me. It is recommended that one starts the procedure after the mid-semester exam of the spring semester to dedicate sufficient time for CV, SOP preparation, and keep some buffer time in case of any unfortunate circumstance. Therefore, one must prepare a timeline to keep track of all the important phases.
For a successful application, one has to keep these major processes in mind:
- GRE and TOEFL/IELTS preparation: It is recommended to start the preparation around February-march and be in a position to give the examination around July so that one can take additional attempts if required. I believe GRE is a minor part of the application. 325+ out of 340 (which is not very difficult) in GRE iBT is usually considered to be a good enough score! For GRE-specific vocabulary, I used the Magoosh GRE flashcards app available on the play store. To work on the paragraph questions, I referred to the official guide and Manhattan GRE Test prep. I believe, TOEFL/IELTS score is more important than the GRE. Most universities have set a cut-off, below which they might not consider the application. Therefore, it becomes more important to score well in this exam. The usual cut-off hovers around 100 out of 120 for TOEFL iBT. Some universities also specify individual section cut-off marks. Generally, it is advisable to prepare for GRE before TOEFL/IELTS since GRE prep sets a good base for the English proficiency test. Though some universities waive the TOEFL/IELTS requirement since IITB offers courses in English. Usually, universities mention this on their webpage.
- Making a Statement of Purpose (SOP): According to me, SOP is the most important document since it highlighted my undergraduate journey and connected it with my research ambitions. Therefore, it is very important to nail the SOP. The structure of SOP is not fixed and is left to one’s creativity. Apart from this, one should make sure that the SOP is comprehensible even during a quick read (the initial filtering process would be simply based on a 2-3 min read). This can be taken care of by including elements like sticking with common words (do not use any difficult words) and short sentences. Another important suggestion is that one should neither look at any other SOP nor worry about word limit while preparing the 1st draft.
- Making a 3-page CV: A CV is somewhat similar to an internship resume but differs in structure and content depth. CV would be judged by professors, which is why one should not shy away from adding any technical details that would boost your chances of acceptance. One should take a look at various CV formats present on the internet.
- Requesting Profs for Letters of Recommendation (LOR): Make sure to make your intention of Ph.D. known to the professors whom you would be asking for LOR as early as possible (at least around June/July). Remind them to submit the LOR a month before the deadline to avoid any delays in the application. Also, make sure that you waive your right to view the LOR. It is treated as a confidential document between the professor and the university. You won’t be able to view what the professor writes about you. Usually, professors deny giving a LOR instead of giving a sub-par one. For the application process, 3 LORs are required, though some universities give the option of adding more than 3 (up to 4) as well. It is recommended that one takes a minimum of 3 LOR from professors under which he/she has completed a project over a reasonable period of time (~ 4 months) and acquired some research experience. Such LORs are considered to be strong ones. Additional LORs can be asked from a professor with which your interaction was high and you obtained a good grade (AP/AA would be best). Even though such LORs are not considered as strong, they can complement the other 3 LORs by suggesting qualities like inquisitiveness or the ability to grasp quickly based on your interaction with professors.
- Answering any other additional questions in application: Some university demands some additional questions like, “What are your plans after Ph.D.?”. If answers very similar to these questions are present in your SOP, edit your SOP to avoid any overlap of information. Instead one can mention another relevant piece of information in the SOP.
When looking for a project, one should prioritize choosing good advisors over good projects before committing to any project. Also, one should talk with the professor on aspects like what a good research project looks like, and what are their expectations. Also, make the point known to the professor that you would be accepting a LOR from them (definitely if satisfactory work is done) to aid in the Ph.D. application process.
It is also extremely important to maintain a warm and cordial relationship with the professor not just inside the academic area, but also outside. These behavioral attributes might get reflected in your LOR and suggest that you are someone easy to work with. This is a major point as universities tend to prefer friendly and easy to get along type of people over applicants with better grades.
It is very important to have a good network, especially with your peers and seniors. It helps you keep updated in various aspects that you might have missed. Also, you would need someone to proofread your SOP and CV and provide their perspective on it. For this, you might want to have people who understand research.
I would conclude by saying that treat this process more as an inner reflection rather than just an application. This would not only help you make a very effective SOP but also work to provide some missing feedback on your 3-4-year long journey. Apart from this, maintain a good network. Your connections would help you more than you think in this journey.