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My Experience at Stanford University

During my final few years at IIT Bombay I had toyed with the idea of going to grad school. However, the real push to applying for a master’s abroad was, oddly enough, because of my experience in placements in my final year. I had managed to land interviews with 10 companies on the first day. But at the end of the day, I didn’t get a job at any one of those companies. I was shattered, in spite of knowing and being repeatedly told that placements don’t matter. Eventually, I did end up finding a job. However, because of this experience, I spent the next couple of months introspecting about my career more broadly. Until that point in time I was still pretty clueless (FYI. I don’t think I have figured it out even now) and living with a sense of entitlement about my career ( Here is how it goes – I’m an IIT Bombay student, I’ll definitely be able to find a job…).

After speaking to numerous folks in India and elsewhere (i.e. doing my groundwork), I decided to apply for a master’s, preferably in the US. I started my preparation for grad school in earnest only when I began working in Mumbai as a Management Consultant. I chose to go abroad for a master’s instead of a PhD because I couldn’t imagine spending 4-5 years of my life dedicated to one research area, trapped inside a lab (Maybe I had read too much of PhD comics). My initial area of interest was in Energy Management or Industrial Engineering (with a focus on Energy).

Applying for master’s to the US is more straightforward than you may think. For me, it consisted of a couple of things – a statement of purpose, 3 references, GRE and TOEFL score and my past track record (academic as well as research related). There are tons of resources available on the application process, so I won’t go into the details. However what’s more important than knowing the application process details is to know exactly why you’re going to grad school and tailoring your application accordingly. I’ve spoken to numerous juniors (from IIT Bombay and elsewhere) to give them my advice and whenever I asked them about their reason to apply, I have felt that most of them haven’t thought through their decision. As far as applying for a master’s program is concerned, the first thing you should be sure of is what you want to get out of the program and how is it connected to your career goals. Also, applying for a master’s abroad is a life decision. It might be useful to keep that perspective.

This process turned out to be especially difficult for me because I was spending long hours on a client project while simultaneously preparing my application. In the end, after months of waiting, I received a mail from Stanford University saying that I had been accepted into their Master’s program in Management Science and Engineering, specializing in energy and environment. It was one of those moments when I knew my life was going to change forever.

I decided to leave my consulting job almost immediately after I received my admit letter. The reason for that wasn’t because I didn’t like working there but because I wanted to try out something different before I headed to the US. I decided to spend some time at an early stage VC (venture capital) firm in Mumbai on a friend’s suggestion. In this process of exploring different careers, I stumbled upon the world of entrepreneurship and product management. It was love at first sight, if I could say so. But I had already been admitted into a master’s program which was quite different from this. I had to find a way out of this situation.

I’m glad that Stanford, as an institute, has the foresight to accommodate such changes in interest. I wish IIT Bombay gave students such flexibility to change what they are learning with the ease at which it happens at Stanford. So, I decided to change my specialization from energy and environment to technology and engineering management within the same program. Now, I was all set to head to the heart of the Silicon Valley.

My experience in the US and specifically at Stanford has been amazing as well as eye-opening. I had anticipated the struggles of grad school life in the US so that didn’t take me by surprise. But the level of rigor in the courses and the quantum of effort which people put into their work was almost inspiring. Unlike IIT Bombay, it will be difficult to find even one person at Stanford who is slacking off.

In terms of the academics, I’m glad that I got a chance to learn from the crème de la crème of professors in the world. At times, I actually felt that I was interacting with people at the frontier of human progress here. However, Stanford also has its fair share of issues which may not be immediately obvious to an outsider. Quite popular among those issues is the Stanford duck syndrome. The Stanford duck syndrome is where, on the surface, someone seems normal and are floating along peacefully. However, the truth is that underneath the water the person is paddling feverishly to keep going, just like a duck.

As far as finances were concerned, I was primarily self-financed but also did a couple of RAships to fund me partly. Without getting into the quantitative details of the financial matters, I felt that my time would be better spent in maximising learning rather than hunting for on-campus job opportunities (RA or TAships). Also, I took a calculated risk at this point because I knew I’ll be able to repay the money spent on my education in 1-2 years if I found a job here in the Bay Area in my area of interest (Feel free to do the math here).

And if you’re thinking whether the risk paid off, all I would say is that I recently started working as a Product Manager, a couple of months back. Finding a job can be very tricky here in the US. Apart from finding a place which fits well with your profile and interests, you would also need to check whether your prospective employer will support you in terms of the visa process. The best practice here would be to ask any prospective employer about this (typically at a career fair) right at the start of the interview process so that no one’s time is wasted. Now let me tell you the good parts about working in the US. From my personal experience working both in India and the US, I believe that the work culture here is better (conditions applied) and more suited to people who value innovation, especially here in Silicon Valley.

As someone who has been in and out of multiple roles across careers and countries, I am a proponent of the belief that one should try out different careers before zooming in on one, as early in their career as possible. For anyone reading this who wants to do a Master’s in the US or simply make a career move, I would recommend reading the book -“The Startup of You” by Reid Hoffman. That book changed my perspective towards building a career and set me off in the right direction. As a final parting advice, I’ll simply urge you to keep exploring without being afraid to try new things (You’ve heard this before – Stay hungry, stay foolish..).

FAQs


1. Why did you choose to go to the US for your Masters?

Ans: I wanted to be at the centre of innovation and new technology in the world. In spite of globalisation and other tech hubs emerging, the best talent still heads to the US from across the world. Hence, it was a no-brainer to make that decision. US has most of the best universities in the world with really smart people working on really tough problems.

2. Which places did you apply to for your Masters?

Ans: I applied to universities on the west coast (Stanford, Berkeley) and the east coast (Cornell, Columbia etc.) and a 1 or 2 of them, elsewhere (Georgia Tech). My priority was to be on the west coast. Deciding a university is not just about the ranking of a university but also about the kind of opportunities which exist in the area where it belongs to.

3. What is your Master’s program all about?

Ans: MS&E (Management Science and Engineering) at Stanford is an interdisciplinary program which focus on applying analytical techniques to problems in technology and management. Think of it as a fusion of Industrial Engineering, Operations Research, Management and Data Science. The program consists of 7 specialisations – Technology and Engineering Management, Operations and Analytics, Computational Social Sciences, Energy and Environment, Financial Analytics, Decision and Risk Analysis, Healthy Systems Modelling. Read more about it on msande.stanford.edu.

4. How has your social life changed at Stanford as compared to IIT Bombay?

Ans: Stanford has probably the most diverse student populations among all the universities in the US. I have made friends from all across the world and there are numerous events held on campus which facilitated that. However, there is a stark distinction between social life at grad school vs. undergrad. The bonds I built at IIT Bombay with my classmates were more profound than those in grad school and there are very practical reasons for this (1.5 years vs. 4 years). Having said that, there wasn’t much of a culture shock for me because I was mentally prepared for it, quite unintentionally. Somewhere my exposure to life in the US through friends and family as well as my internship in Canada prepared me for this.

5. Can you talk more about the pros and cons about work life in the US?

Ans: Take my opinions on this with a pinch of salt as this opinion is based on my own short work experience in the US as well as those that I lived through vicariously after talking to people here.

OVERALL RESPONSE: If I were to summarize work life in the US I would say that overall it is better than that in India but it depends. It depends on your role, the location you are based out of in the US, the culture of the company and ultimately (maybe most importantly) your team (your boss). For example, the kind of work you do if you have a job at Apple might be amazing but the hours might be long or the people might be unsupportive because of some deep-rooted culture issue (remember the Uber story?). My recommendation would be to read through reviews of the company and specifically for the role you’re applying for on a website like Glassdoor. Also, speak to people who have worked at the company before or college alumni in that area to get a better idea of the job. This has immensely helped me in choosing my job.

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