Wednesday, 17 August 2016

My Journey and Thoughts on 'Apping'

As I'm about to embark on this journey, and especially just after the convocation, there's a feeling of wanting to share my experience with those who might similarly be interested pursuing a Ph.D. I start with this reference - DAGAP since I can't do a better job at comprehensively covering the application process. I strongly urge those interested in applying for an M.S./Ph.D. to read this - it's well worth the time spent.

A topic such as this just can't be very poetic. If instead, it's something poetic that you're looking for, let me point you here. In the remainder of this post, I'll talk a little about my journey, some common mistakes I think an aspiring undergraduate makes and some advice based on what helped my own application.

My journey largely began with this decision, of choosing to major in EE at IIT Bombay. The motivation for EE stemmed for an intense liking for physics, and with the impression that EE has more to provide in this respect than CSE (I wasn't considering majoring outside these two departments). However, I was in for a disappointment. I realized that the subjects that I thought to involve a lot of physics, such as solid state devices, were taught without enough rigor. To add to the disappointment was that I, in fact, liked many of the CSE courses more.

However, I finally found the first course that I liked at the end of my 2nd year. It was the course - "Signals and Systems" and I decided that areas surrounding the subject are worth serious exploration. This leads to the first mistake that I'd like to talk about - Not speaking to professors! Professors are actually fun people to talk to! Many of us, partly because of our upbringing in school imagine Prof. Snape to be the archetype of every professor. This hesitation on my part to speak to a certain professor until it was too late cost me a great internship opportunity that summer. It's essential to grow out of this cocoon, which many students have, of shying away from speaking to professors.

As a result, the summer was largely unproductive and in the beginning of the 3rd year, like many other students, I had aspirations to secure an internship in a top university. One major mistake that might be made here is sending emails in bulk to professors. Now that I've interacted with many professors, I can say that most detest such insincere emails. I stuck to sending only a few but well-composed emails, i.e. after actually going through the professors' work and following a well-made email template. I had a very good rate of reply and I encourage everyone to do the same.

However, what finally clinched the internship for me was a recommendation from one of the professors at IITB. As I'd said, networking pays! An internship at EPFL, one of the top schools in information theory was on the cards! This set the stage for most of what was to follow in the future. At the end of the internship application season, looking at the replies my friends received to their email I realized this - without a local professor to back one, it's very difficult to secure internships even on sending sincere emails.

Don't panic! Failing to secure the internship at one's favorite university can easily be mitigated by working with the 'right' professors. Picking the 'right' professor to work with should be given about one-fourths as much importance as picking a Ph.D. advisor. Broadly speaking, a 'right' professor should be someone who's active in research, is well-known, who's friendly and who has a track record of 'sending' students to top universities (more on why later). The former two can be figured out by looking at the recent publications and the latter two by speaking with seniors.

Coming back to my own story, as many others who've been on a foreign internship might remark, it was a learning experience in many dimensions. My work was on a multi-user variant of a setup that was previously studied in the lab. Nothing ground-breaking occurred since the bulk of the time was spent on studying the problem. And so the summer, which has been my most memorable yet, rolled by, and I was back to living in the small IITB hostel room.

In my final year, there was a desire to continue working on problems that followed the summers' work. This might arguably be the best decision that I took through my undergraduate days. Having already studied related literature and acquired sufficient depth, I was able to obtain some concrete results and managed to work towards a publication by the application deadline. I strongly recommend that one works on problems that have a natural continuum and obtain publishable results. Perhaps no other attribute speaks of one's potential as a Ph.D. candidate to the admissions committee than this.

As the application deadlines started appearing on the horizon, a more technical version of this blog post went into my Statement of Purpose, references were obtained from my EPFL, final year project advisors and the applications were sent out.

Now in the context of whom to take references from, I'd like to add that it's useful to obtain a reference from someone with a track record of 'sending' their students to the top universities. This is for the following reason: In general, there's a lot of variance in the references which are received by the university that one applies to. Some professors might talk about all of his/her students as being the absolute best! One effective way that the admissions committee removes this variance is by comparing one's reference to the reference that was written by the same professor for a student who's already studying in the university. And then by comparing the relative level of one's reference with how that student is currently performing in the university. Yes, they do go to such lengths!

The next semester, which was the last semester of my undergraduate journey was filled with many emotions. The application results were due in the first couple of months and every morning began with checking the phone for emails of acceptance/rejection.

The first acceptance came in from EPFL and then began my own decision process, of going through the research of the various groups in detail, speaking to professors, post-docs and Ph.D. students, as I have outlined in some of my earlier posts. My 'apping' effort was largely a success. I managed to secure admission for a Ph.D. to 8 of the 11 universities that I applied to. I end with this reference. It's a compilation of what current Ph.D. students at various universities (alumni of IITM) have to say about their own application experience and some advice from their end. All the best!

*I've skipped one major part of the story - about how of all courses that I explored, I found information theory to be the most interesting. This, I plan to make a post in itself, due on an unkown date.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

On Idling Around

Why, oh why is it that I'm wasting the present moment? From where has this nature to idle around come from?

Although to be really fair, I've been idling along a lot since childhood. And I know I'm being really fair since I'm writing this from a geographic coordinate and altitude that's exactly where I idled around a lot in my early childhood (subtracting any tectonic plate shifts of course). I'm talking about my native home in Kerala, in my bedroom, from where the sights of coconut, banana and papaya trees full of papayas hasn't changed one bit. What has however changed is the fact that I now have access to a fast internet connection.

What's also changed is that I'm now educated enough to use this internet to gather data, research papers and potentially* do world-changing work. Except that my mind has not warped itself to this new reality and instead prefers to take comfort in the soft warm bed and blankets, watch the monsoon drops hit the mud-tiled roof as the monsoon clouds make it dark, turning the green surroundings into a shade of dark green.

The heavy rains also flood into me countless childhood memories – that of cricket with cousins, collecting mangoes from the nearby tree, make a hole in them as we'd squeeze the pulpy and sweet juice into our mouths, as our cuffs become stained in yellow. So intoxicating it is that even this article, which was to originally serve as a dreary-dry reminder that I have to work, is taking a more poetic tone.

But then if I'm to be really fair again, there's also beauty in exploring new problems and cracking them. Albeit a beauty that's more subtle and harder to obtain. She expects you to pursue her relentlessly while herself showing not the slightest interest. She's hard to flatter and turns down all attempts at gaining her hand. Although internally, she enjoys these nerdy (unlike most other girls) suitors spending hours to please her and can't help herself from giving a faint smile, a slight blush now and then. This sometimes catches the eye of the suitor who's overjoyed, starts pursuing with the fullest might and not before long, inexplicable beauty is within reach!

What's absolutely essential to appreciate this subtle beauty is to turn one's head away from the mundane to the magical. To turn away from the various BuzzFeeds of the internet and instead surround oneself with activities involving mental effort, so that some learning happens in the perceptrons within! In essence, it's time I realize that unlike in my childhood, I stand to lose something if I idle around – the more long-lasting joy of cracking problems! This childhood artefact will have to be cleared out to have any hope of gaining her hand!

*the word potentially is among the most abused words in English