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Sheel Nidhan is an IIT Bombay alumnus from the class of 2017, Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is currently pursuing Ph.D in Mechanical Engineering at the University of California (San Diego).

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)?

I vividly remember how much I liked the introductory course on Fluid Dynamics by Prof. Balasubramanian in the Mechanical Department. After taking that course in my third semester, I tried my luck with a couple of projects and got into the research. I was still a little bit apprehensive about going for a Ph.D. till my third year when I got an internship at ETH Zurich. The whole internship was a very enriching experience. I got to work on a ‘kind of’ open-ended problem and it was a delight seeing the hard work coming to fruition. During my internship period, I decided that I wanted to go to grad school. I never thought about going for Ph.D. as a huge risk. Rather, it is kind of an investment where you are being paid in return to become a researcher. Also, it comes with all the perks of being a college student again after your undergrad. Besides that, if you have decided to pursue academia as a career, getting into grad school is the inevitable next step after Bachelors.

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

For Indian students, there are generally two options: Europe and the United States. Most of the universities in Europe require a masters degree in order to apply for Ph.D. (specifically in Germany). In the States, it is generally common for the universities to accept fresh undergrads for Ph.D. programs. Besides that, most of the seniors pursuing higher education opt for the US and hence it is kind of easy to get all the ‘fundes’ during the application process. I applied to US universities only during my application process. With that being said, you must apply to universities in Europe if you think the project, work and environment will be a better fit for you.

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

I wanted to go for a Ph.D. in Fluid Dynamics, specifically Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD). During the summer of my third year, I started making a list of professors in different US universities working in the field of CFD. To start with, you can take the top 50 universities from US New/QS website and start looking out for professors whose research interests align with yours. Thereafter, I made a list of universities where there were more faculties in CFD. Once I had brought down the list to like 15-20 universities, I chose 9 to apply to based on consultation with seniors and professors.

In the US, the applications go to the department for the review rather than directly to the professors (which happen in Europe). So, it is generally beneficial if you apply to universities where more professors are in your field of interest. That way you have a better chance of being accepted. A lot of people also mail the prospective professors about open positions before applying. There are mixed opinions on this approach. If you have something concrete in your mind about your research field, then I think it is really beneficial to get in touch with prospective faculty. Spamming all of them with generic mails rarely helped anyone.

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?

If you are applying to US universities, you will have to take GRE and TOEFL inevitably. Ideally, it is better to get done with them before third-year summer, If you are sure that you want to go to grad schools. GRE scores are valid for 5 years and TOEFL scores are valid for 2 years. So, even if you are unsure about applying for grad schools just after college, you can get those done ASAP and use the scores in the future. I gave my GRE and TOEFL in August and September like most of the other people. GRE Verbal section requires a bit of preparation. I prepared for about two months. You can go through different forums and websites for details and decide how much time you want to dedicate for the preparation. TOEFL is generally easier and a week of preparation generally suffices. That being said, there are four sections in TOEFL and if you feel uncomfortable with any of those, you should dedicate more time to that.

After getting done with GRE and TOEFL, I focused on CV and Statement of Purpose (SOP). CV is generally easier than SOP. You can get it done in a week or so. Keep in mind that, CV for university application is generally different from what you submit in placement. It is more elaborative and focuses on your research projects and internships, rather than focusing on PORs. You can find different kinds of formats online or get your seniors’ CVs. Regarding the SOP, it is really an open-ended thing. Generally, you discuss your motivation for grad school and build upon how your past experiences and expertise led to your decision. You will change it several times before finally submitting it on the application portal. Hence, it is generally advisable to come up with a basic structure and content as soon as possible. The application deadline is around mid-December for most of the universities, hence it is advisable to finish up the CV and SOP by mid-October. Once you have the first version done, you can get them reviewed by professors and seniors before finalizing them.

After the SOP and CV are done, the only thing remaining is to go through application portals of the universities you are applying to, fill out the details and tailor the documents according to the needs of the universities.

Amidst all these, as I said earlier, many people contact professors through mail if they are strongly interested in their research. I didn’t mail any professors during my application thinking that they will not reply. If you have found someone whose research aligns with your interest, do not hesitate to read a few journal papers written by them, and contact them explaining how much you liked their worked and what interests you. This may increase your chances of acceptance. And yeah, spamming rarely works.

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

After getting admits from different universities, I reached out to seniors studying there and asked them about the research environment, location and other things in general. In most cases, the incoming Ph.D. students are on fellowships for their first year and are expected to start research with a professor from second year onwards. However, if you are interested in some faculty’s research, you should contact them beforehand discussing open positions in their lab and the tentative research plans. I contacted different professors and finally decided to work with Prof. Sutanu Sarkar at UC San Diego. It is extremely important to find an advisor who is a good fit for you. You should look at the publication records of the lab, period of stay of past Ph.D. students in the lab. If possible, get in touch with some student in the lab of professor you are interested to work with, discuss the type of work, lab environment, location and other things with them before finalizing the decision.

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?

To be honest, the transition from IIT Bombay to UCSD was not that easy. In the insti, we don’t have to worry about trivial things, such as cooking, doing your laundry and a bunch of other things. Managing all these with your research and studies is not as easy as it seems from the other side. Besides that, there is an inevitable culture shock when you shift from India to anywhere else. It takes some time to make new friends and to find people who share your interests. Another weird thing for me was the ‘quarter’ system at UCs. Instead of two semesters of around 3 months each, here they have 3 quarters of around 2 months each. Most of my first year went in juggling with my courses and research.

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

As a Ph.D. student, a huge portion of your time is spent in the lab and hence you don’t have a lot of time to socialize. That being said, you can always find other graduate students to socialize with. Besides in the US, there are a lot of Indians if at any time you feel homesick. Most of your time will be spent in lab hanging out with your lab mates.

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?

The graduate applications directly go to the admission committee in the US. As I have mentioned earlier, it is always good to mail some professors beforehand if you are ‘super’ interested in their research. That said, if your application is strong, you will be admitted to the university on fellowship for first year. After that, you can either contact professors in your area of interest before arriving. Otherwise, another strategy is to arrive there and work at different labs for short durations (called lab rotation) and then decide the lab to join to towards the end of the year.

Both of these methods have their own advantages and disadvantages. If your advisor is decided beforehand, you can get started with your research from the beginning. The downside is that it might happen that the lab you joined didn’t turn up to be the best fit for you. In the second approach, you have more time to test the waters.

In my case, I contacted my advisor just after getting admit from the university. Then we had a small skype talk and I joined the lab.

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?

Right now, I am working on the modal decomposition of stratified flows behind bluff bodies, analogous to the Fourier decomposition of waves, albeit a bit more complex. It is a relatively new field of research in the fluid dynamics community but there are a lot of resources to learn from so it has been manageable.

Most of the time you are assigned some new project to work on but there are always a lot of resources (codes, journal papers, lectures, etc.) available online as well a lot of support from your advisor and lab, so the transition is generally smooth.

How are you handling the finances? What are the average monthly expenses and inflows (if any, from stipends, TAship, etc)? Some hard numbers (if you are willing) would be helpful here.

The stipend in US for graduate students is around 2000 USD. Of that a major portion goes in rent if you are living on the West coast or in the costly cities. In my case, I have on-campus accommodation for 2 year and I pay around 600 USD per month for rent. Besides that, the groceries and all amount to 300 USD. And add another 200-300 USD for mobile payments, road trips, eating out, etc. If you get a car, which people generally get after second year, then you have to pay 200 USD roughly for the insurance.

How satisfied are you with your learning curve?

The learning curve has been a little steep but manageable. Most of the first year is went in taking courses which form the base for your research. So, by the time you arrive in your second year, you have all the fundamental tools to tackle the research project. Besides that, you can get started with research in first year by reading papers and understanding codes/experimental setup with the help of your advisor and labmates.

Unlike insti, it is imperative that you should attend all the classes and pay attention. The evaluation scheme is mostly based on assignments and quarter-long projects, unlike quizzes and exams in the insti. Hence, if you are regular and sincere, it is easy to score good grades and understand the materials.

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?

Not much idea to be honest.

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