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Introduction

I am a first year PhD student in Physics at the University of Chicago, presently working in experimental quantum physics. I joined the BTech Engineering Physics program at IIT Bombay but changed my degree program and graduated with a 5 year Integrated MSc Physics in 2017.

Why did you join the program?

It wasn’t until the end of my second year at IIT Bombay that I started taking interest in research in Physics. I liked fundamental physics and hands-on work, therefore, I worked in experimental high energy physics (HEP). I applied for the PhD program in the US during my 5th year. You need a Physics GRE, General GRE, TOEFL score along with a decent CPI, research and letters of recommendation for application. I preferred US over other places for various reasons such as flexibility, lifestyle choice and decided to join the University of Chicago.

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

I had a personal preference for US although there are plenty other good places in Europe, Japan with obvious differences. Generally, one is directly assigned to an advisor while applying for a PhD program in Europe/Japan, on the other hand in the US you are admitted to a department and choose your advisor later.

I weighed in the two factors, firstly, the places which had people I was interested to work with and secondly, where I was likely to get selected, to prepare a list of Universities. You have a higher places of selection at the places where your letter writers have colleagues/collaborators given that you satisfy the minimum CPI, test score requirement of the university.

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 haven’t found anyone who has enjoyed the process (:P). You are expected to appear in General GRE, Subject GRE (for PCMB majors) and TOEFL latest by October of the year. Generally, late October – 15th December is the time for filling application forms, Statement of Purpose (SOP) and Personal Statement (for some universities). The process of filling the same information in different form for different universities and keeping a track of logistics is tedious.

In my experience, it might certainly help contacting prospective advisors in advance, but a positive response does not necessarily improve your chances of selection. Ironically, I wasn’t selected at the places where I had Skype conversation with professors. While GRE, TOEFL, CGPA serve as an initial filter for applications, as long as these are “good enough”, the rest depends on your research experience and most importantly strong letters of recommendation. The Statement of purpose also falls in the former category, i.e. an outstanding SOP cannot compensate for poor grades/scores unless you have a sound and credible explanation.

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?

I had joined early in the summers as a RA so it was easier to adjust to the place before the beginning of the program. The toughest lifestyle change is trying to be more productive given the workload is higher than that of an undergrad degree. While grad level classes require more effort, you might also have to TA and research at the same time. Therefore, It becomes necessary to prioritize your time between the things which are mere degree requirements vs the ones which matter in the long run. Generally, the first year tends to challenging but you learn the “tricks of the trade” along the way.

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

Forming a social circle might be a little difficult with some people due to obvious cultural differences but ultimately you will get along with people of your kind. I won’t call life here lonely, since there are always things to do if you are living in a city and have flatmates. It might get lonelier if you are living in a place in the middle of nowhere.

As a typical first year grad student you juggle your time at university between classes, research, department seminars, TAing, hunting for free food and much needed coffee breaks. There can be a lot variance to a grad student’s life, for instance some people are workaholics who toil in the lab 7 days a week, while others treat it as a job and tend to maintain strict work-life balance.

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?

I have recently switched to experimental quantum information at UChicago while during my undergrad I worked in experimental particle physics (HEP-ex). In short, my present work is about controlling atoms to store and distribute quantum information. I found that I quantum physics would be a better match for me than particle physics since I have a preference for table-top experiments which are rare in latter. Moreover, it seems to be an exciting time for quantum information since it is getting closer to be a technologically realized.

Challenges

There can be many, starting with finding the research group which matches you well, pacing yourself to avoid burnout etc.

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?

I think the most important part is looking for professors working on problems which you find interesting. You also need to be comfortable with the level of engagement with your advisor. Some advisers prefer working closely their students (debugging code etc) while for the other type, you work with the post docs for the most part and the adviser does more administrative decision-taking. Other factors are, how well you get along with the rest of the research group and work hours.

As a quick tip, it helps to ask around with other graduate students who are working with the person of interest and have a look at their publication record as well as the position of their previous students.

Good bad and ugly of grad school?

Good:
I think the best part about grad schools is the freedom to choose a work schedule which works best for you, as long as you stay productive. Also, especially in the US you have a lot of flexibility to to explore different interests, even if they are different from the ones you initially intended to work on.

Bad:
I feel as an undergrad/masters student, one has just ventured into a field, everything is new and exciting but once you spend some time into it, you will face periods when work is tedious and there is no motivation to push forward. Also, the wage is decent enough to have a good lifestyle, but compared to the hours invested, it is less than what your peers working in the job market generally earn.

Ugly:
Since, there are a lot of constraints involved, and sometimes your work will be affected by factors which are not in your control like funding etc. There might be more, but I haven’t heard of them in this early stage of PhD.

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 general advice on why one should join grad school would be, if you like the process doing research and not just the big results. A lot of research process is about being in a state where things don’t make sense and one must be really interested in the problem to bear it. You are not paid lavishly, so better be working on something you find exciting.

As a graduate student can manage enough time/resources to pursue other interests and hobbies which was also a (minor) factor for me in deciding to join a grad school. About job prospects, while working on a STEM PhD, you gain problem solving skills which are useful in industry. In fact majority of PhD graduates do not pursue a career in academia but, there are many factors involved here. Overall, it is worth the “risk” if you like the process.

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.

I have a fellowship with partial TA requirements which pays a stipend of $36 k yearly. It depends on the place, here at UChicago you get a stipend of around $ 32-38 k yearly, subject to taxes, from which you can maintain a yearly saving of $ 4-10 K. The above number may vary depending on the university, city, personal liabilities and spending habits.

Disclaimer: Author has only 1 year of grad school experience, take everything with a pinch of salt.

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