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Sabareesh Nikhil graduated with B.Tech (Electrical Engineering) in 2014 from IIT Bombay. He holds Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). In this article, he shares his experiences at UCLA.

As a very enthu undergrad, I would likely have been ‘passionate’ about anything I set out to do then (and I believe this is true for most of us). I was exposed to research at IITB and abroad during my sophie year, and I loved it. My initial exposure to academia translated to a passion for the field, and after working in several labs in insti and elsewhere, I decided I was cut out for a life in academia. In retrospect, plunging headlong into a PhD might have been imprudent (for me – not necessarily for everyone), but my one-dimensional experiences convinced me otherwise.

I applied to PhD programs at most of my dream schools, and MS programs to safer schools as backup options. At this point, I was a little unsure about the exact research area I wanted to specialize in (after having found several of them fun to work in), and I tried to apply to schools that –

  1. Have labs/faculty that work in research areas similar to my own
  2. Are large and diverse enough to allow me some flexibility, in case I decide to change areas in the initial stages of my program

I ended up being rejected from all my dream schools, and opted to go for an MS at UCLA, primarily because they have a strong Physical and Wave Electronics program that I was hoping to leverage, and re-apply to PhD programs in a year or two.

GRE and TOEFL/IELTS scores are a key component of the apping process, and should be dealt with as early as possible, but the more important factors are the statement of purpose and the letters of recommendation. GPA is very important too, as are other extracurricular activities, and if you are a freshie or sophie reading this, consider this a good time to close this tab, and work on your assignments instead.

Ideally, the standardized tests should be out of the way by the beginning of the third year (or fourth, if you are a dual degree student). Give yourself at least 3-4 months to work on the SoP and LoRs, and make it a collaborative process. Yes, you will be competing with some of your best friends for that coveted position in your dream lab, but that does not mean you should fight this battle alone. Share notes with your peers, get your application reviewed by seniors, alumni and faculty members, and make sure you are there for each other.

Work on building a strong profile early on. Focus on acads. People may attempt to convince you that acads are secondary, but do not fall for it, please. IIT has a plethora of opportunities to expose oneself to, but acads should be foremost. A good GPA invariably translates to better apping results.

Also, try to broadly identify your research interests, and start working with faculty members with similar interests. Do not spend too long trying to secure that coveted ‘foreign intern’. Instead, invest your time and energy into generating some good-quality research output. A research paper or two will definitely help your applications.

The one thing about the apping process that struck me right out of the blue was coping with rejection. You hope, you dream, and suddenly it is all shattered, and you do not know who to turn to, because your best friend just got admitted to your dream univ and cannot help but celebrate their success. Be prepared, but also deal with rejection in a mature manner. This is only a passing phase, and will not mean much in the long run. Whether you have a good ‘apping season’ or a bad one, this is your last semester at insti. Chill out, and just enjoy!

When I went to UCLA, it took no efforts to become a part of the ‘Indian group’, but I had to proactively reach out to my classmates from other countries to expand my network. I had an amazing time interacting with all of them, learning about new cultures, and experiencing global diversity first-hand. It is very easy to feel lonely, especially because this is the first time staying so far away from home for many of us, and the taste of complete independence can be bittersweet. The first two months at UCLA were particularly hard, as courses were demanding and finances were tight until I managed to land an RA position. When I was down, it always helped to reconnect with old friends, or hang out with the new ones. Culture shock is inevitable, and should not negatively affect your grad school experience. Often, international students tend to gravitate towards cliques of people from their own country. This is good because it establishes a comfort zone for you, but it can severely limit the diversity in your network, and deny you the best of what studying abroad has to offer.

Picking the right advisor is extremely crucial! I have heard several anecdotes of students (sometimes, IIT alumni), who had a falling out with their advisors, and this ended up derailing their career trajectory. Think of choosing an advisor as getting into a marriage – one that can potentially be very fulfilling if it is a good match. Chat with your prospective advisor about what they do, what their expectations of you are, and what your projects will be, before you commit to working with them for five years, or possibly longer. Talk to other students in the research group, and get a thorough understanding of the culture in the research group, so you can make sure you will be a good fit.

I ended up picking the first research group I came across, whose work looked interesting, and who were willing to offer me an RAship that will waive my tuition. Eventually, as my research interests changed, I found that my advisor was not very accommodating of my evolving interests, and it wasn’t easy for me to switch groups. Some prior groundwork could have served me well!

As a grad student, it is very easy to let finances dictate our every decision and action. Finances are not all-important. Period. Unless you are subject to severe, and immediate, financial constraints (possibly imposed by family needs, or otherwise), do not let them drive your decision-making. I took up a combination of RAships, TAships, internships and grader positions to break even by the end of my course. In retrospect, I am unhappy about not having exploited all the facilities I had access to as a student in a rush to mint some money. In the long run, the $10-20k you save by eating $2 hamburgers for dinner and purchasing used clothes will mean very little, and should not tarnish your learning experience.

When I joined UCLA, I had no idea what physical design meant. I was working in a completely different area of Electrical Engineering, and when I was invited to interview for a Physical Design internship at Apple, I had to google the term. Somehow, I scraped through the interview rounds, and was very pleasantly surprised by this new area that completely eluded me during my undergrad days. After graduating from UCLA, I took up a full-time position with the same team, and have been working here for the last two years.

Part of the allure of grad studies should be the exposure to different research areas and corporate experiences we can get access to. It is often easy to end up specializing in an area, simply because we have over-engineered our profile for admission to grad school, and we convince ourselves that we are passionate about this research area, and about nothing else. However, keeping an open mind, building a diverse network, and actively scouting for exciting opportunities to learn about hitherto unexplored verticals can enrich the grad school experience.

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