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Supratim Das - PhD acceptance from MIT

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The brink of stepping out of IIT brings, to many of us, crucial life-shaping questions which, unfortunately, nobody can answer for us. In an attempt to assuage a few of those doubts and give a deeper insight into the process, pros and cons of pursuing a doctorate as a future career choice,we bring to you (a first of its kind here) an interaction with Supratim Das, who is a final year dual degree student in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Supratim is all set to grace the haloed precincts of MIT start the coming fall in 2016, and shares with BSP some of his fundae and experiences gained in his journey to scoring his dream Ph.D. Read on…

Swati: What made you choose the path of higher studies and the university you have received acceptance from? Was this your first preference when pitched against getting placed in a company right away? Why?

Supratim: I always think that the glamour and importance of graduate study is heavily downplayed in the current societal mind-set, where it is mostly centred on earning the most amount of money in the least amount of time after graduation. Higher degrees are important, be it in business management, commerce, finance or scientific research, for a person to rise to the highest echelon of any venture in a competitive environment. And for a person like me who loves finding out new things and aspires to make a difference to technology someday, graduate studies is a necessity. Not because I want to ruin my life studying a single thing for the years to come, but actually because I want to study multiple things from vastly different fields, and interact with people from vastly different technical backgrounds, each of them having the same passion and dream to create technology for the better. A Ph.D. isn’t just one project, a student can be involved in multiple projects in different labs and work with different professors at the same time.

I came to know about engineering and research mostly during my study in junior year and I have been through moments where I have tried to figure out what is it that I want to do. Chemical engineering as a major gives a person just the right tools to be whatever I want, from an astronaut to a process engineer to a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.

 After a Ph.D. pretty much all the jobs of the world are open for a person. If I have to cite some facts, about a quarter of all US Ph.D. graduates end up in finance/commerce and consulting. Many join or create start-ups, many go into the core industry and the remaining go into academia. All of these ventures are incredibly satisfying in terms of salary expectations after a Ph.D. There are successful people sitting in finance and consulting companies with engineering doctorate degrees in many fields. Navjot Singh, the current Director of McKinsey & Co, Northeast US is a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

I chose to continue for a Ph.D., because of what it has to offer in terms of doing what I love, and earning as a full time employee at the same time. The time of a Ph.D. degree morphs an individual from being a student to being a professional and expert in a technical field with support in a university setting, which a job may not be able to give you as the transition is quite abrupt and not as supportive. Another key factor which attracts me to a Ph.D. over a company placement is that a Ph.D. student gets paid but still owns the work he/she does and defines his/her own work hours, he/she is the master of his/her own time as opposed to a company employee in my understanding.

 Swati: What are some of the challenges that you face/have faced during your preparation to strike a PhD of your choice?

Supratim: In summer of 2012, I was faced with a very unfortunate circumstance, totally out of my control, which forced me to withdraw my entire second semester of 24 credits, which I had just completed. I had come into IIT hoping to become the best, and here I was, at a point which placed me below the lowest bar of academic fulfilment within the system, leaving me shattered.

Right into my third semester, with only 18 credits completed, I probed into spirituality, martial arts, religion and the study of ‘self’, attempting to seek solace for my setback. Not much of them helped substantially, but they did help me realize how powerful the ‘self’ could be, and how will-power could literally create the world we want, around us. I stopped thinking about a degree extension, and started back on my dream. Dream to be the best chemical engineer I can be, because study was all I had at that particular time. I never knew I wanted to do a Ph.D. then, just that I wanted to silence all non-believers, and prove to people what dreams can do. Fast forward three years, today I am the only chemical engineering student in India, to have received an admit from MIT this year, in addition to being a recipient of multiple academic excellence awards throughout the years.

It was not until my HKUST summer research stint in my sophomore summer, that I was sure that I loved research – I witnessed first-hand the impact that a piece of work I did in lithium batteries could potentially have. Just ‘studying’ could actually make a lot of difference to technology, something which was news to me at the time. A key challenge since that point was to ensure that I was getting sufficient exposure into real world problems through the coursework, as it is always difficult to read stuff outside of heavy coursework, and play games, be engaged in P.O.Rs and socialize with friends within the span of 24 hours. So I conversed with professors regularly about their research, and ended up doing small term papers as part of each course, which helped a lot. It was a considerable challenge to do this consistently throughout all the years of study.

I have always aimed at overall personality development, after having witnessed the awesome growth opportunities that the IITD community provides, after my admission. It has been a significant challenge to manage different facets of this growth, outside of study, within a given span of time. I learnt a lot in the eDC as its executive and subsequently as a director of the cell where I mainly handled creatives and editorials, then I wanted to champion the key issues faced by my fellow hostel residents and be a fitting advocate for improvement of hostel life, which I managed to do through my role as a House Secretary in my fourth year. My final-year placement season interaction, post shortlist, with a few of the best consulting companies also brought in significant problem de-construction learnings and exposure to real world problems.

Swati: A lot of your juniors would be aiming for internships and possibly at higher studies in the future. After having gone through the process, what are some of the tips that you would like to give to them?

Supratim: I want to start by dispelling some of the prevalent myths students have about internships and Ph.D. applications.

  • First and foremost, you don’t need to do ground breaking research or publish journal papers as an UG student to get into the top schools in the world, it is the primary job description of an admitted Ph.D. student. They look at sound knowledge of core, along with the breadth of different research topics you have probed into. You need not do in-depth research into each of them, except the thesis work, which they expect you to do good work in.

  • Secondly, PORs are not as useless as people think for this kind of a career, and a lot of these universities have a well-developed student entrepreneurship culture where professors encourage PhD students to commercialize their work if it is worth it. For such kind of ventures, leadership and teamwork skills are of paramount importance, in addition to the ability to deconstruct real world problems at a fundamental level. Top universities hire students who are capable of being potential leaders in their field, after all, it is the alumni that define the reputation of a university.

  • Third, you don’t need to be a 9.5+ CGPA guy/girl to stand a chance for admission to the best universities in the world, something close to a 9 or even slightly lesser is equally good, as long as you have a respectable academic standing in your department.

With regard to summer internships, here are a few game-changers:

  • It is recommendable to apply to professors who are relatively well known in their field, instead of blindly selecting universities based on some rank. I would usually tell my department professors that I want to work in a specific field for the summer and ask them about some of the famous professors with broad networks in the area. This helps when you seek for recommendations from them in future, if they are well known. Sure, a high ranked university name looks good on your CV, but the university doesn’t recommend you, the professor/advisor does.

  • Secondly, if you have more than one summer at your disposal, aim for internships in very different areas, than extending some previously worked in field. The university likes a student who is not afraid to venture into new areas, than someone who likes working in a comfort zone. A core industrial internship experience also helps to mix things up in your experience profile, and can be an added boost to your overall CV, even for a Ph.D.

  • Also keep in mind that although publishing during an university internship is good, it is not of paramount importance, US universities think you got lucky if you published in a 10-week research period, and got your name into some work being done in that directed area at that time. Just make sure you broaden your own skill set during the stint, and impress your advisor with your ingenuity and sincerity.

A few curated pointers and myth busters regarding PhD applications:

  • Leading up to the all-important Ph.D. application, I would advise students to do their homework on university selection for a good two/three weeks before application. There are many universities which are renowned in specific fields, and would prefer applications from students with prior experience in those fields. It can be a vital part in determination of acceptance or rejection from a university. Going solely by an aggregate ‘ranking’ is not always a good idea.

  • Further, I think most juniors downplay the importance of coursework when they think about building profiles for graduate studies. Coursework/grades are the single biggest metric in a Ph.D. application.

  • A Ph.D. in the UK, and in most European universities require a prior approval from a professor from the department and a clear research statement, during application time. It mostly has a fixed duration of three years, and you would be a salaried employee in all regards during your Ph.D. In these cases, having working with a professor with strong networks in any European university helps, as you can secure that approval faster. In the UK, universities do not offer financial aid at all, they are usually affiliated to scholarship trusts who take in applications as a part of the Ph.D. application that you submit to the university. The trust interviews you separately to determine whether you would qualify for a scholarship.

  • A strong statement of purpose with an inclination to do research for the betterment of society, for procurement of the scholarship with a background in research and social work is the key here. Then you would be invited to an interview with the trust. Getting admission isn’t so hard, it’s the scholarship that is the really tricky part here.

  • A Ph.D. position in the UK does not require a student to have a very broad area of research (as opposed to the States), it actually works in your favour to have a field in which you are really specialized in, and you can choose to do your Ph.D. in that area as well. The drawback to this process, as would be apparent to many, however, is that you don’t get to explore new fields, as should be the goal during any Ph.D. application, which is where the US system really comes in. But in the case that a person is extremely keen on dedicating his/her life to the research in a particular field, the UK system would play in favour.

  • In the US, you don’t need to select a research specialization during application time. They actually give you the entire first semester there to do coursework, talk to professors, attend lab group meetings and talk to existing graduate students to decide your specialization. And the area need not be one you have previous exposure in as well, for example, a chemical engineer could do a Ph.D. in cancer research or neurobiology without any problem whatsoever. The area of specialization should not be vastly different from one’s UG branch though, for obvious reasons, a chemical engineer can’t do a PhD in Machine Learning. But there is adequate flexibility in the US to do what excites you as your Ph.D. There are also instances where a student can be involved in multiple projects in different areas as well throughout the course of the doctoral study tenure.

The checklist! Regarding a Ph.D. application, US universities look at (roughly in order of importance):

  • The grades, in mostly core courses

  • Academic standing within the department

  • The profiles/professional credibility of the people who are recommending you

  • The breadth of research areas you’ve ventured into – a metric of your comfort in tackling new problems

  • Your statement of purpose - The statement of purpose is not evaluative, and lends a degree of subjectivity to your application. One’s application can never be rejected based on a statement, though a statement may act as a reinforcing agent if a committee is vacillating on acceptance of a particular application

  • GRE score - The GRE score mainly serves as an initial screening cut-off criterion, as well as a final step tie-breaking parameter

Swati: On a lighter note, a few lines about yourself- department you graduated from, where all have you worked/interned before, what else do you like?

I am a self-motivated and always-happy person, hailing from the city of joy, Kolkata. I joined IITD in 2011, after a couple of years of preparation in Kota, the well-known hub for IIT-JEE aspirants. Ever since I came into IIT, I have tried to be the best in whatever I have ventured into, this competitive spirit being a result of my upbringing in Don Bosco School, Park Circus, Kolkata and then subsequently my stay in Kota, Rajasthan.

I chose Chemical Engineering during admission, a choice then made on a superficial idea of what the branch would be like which I didn’t know would be such a great one in the long run. I had three summers at my disposal for internships during the dual degree programme, and I have interned in The Hong Kong University of Science & Technology during the sophomore summer in 2013, Hindustan Unilever Ltd. R&D in Mumbai GDC (Laundry) the following summer, and then Université Laval (Quebec, Canada) in the final summer in 2015, which was more of an extension to my Masters’ Thesis work in addition to executing a novel experimental project in a separate field altogether. All of my internships have been as part of scholarship programmes floated by the inviting institution, except my Canada work, which was funded by a grant from the Govt. of Canada.

I currently have Ph.D. admits from MIT, Stanford University, University of California Berkeley, Cambridge University, Carnegie Mellon amongst others, all with full financial aid and additional graduate fellowship awards as stipend. I have recently accepted the Ph.D. offer from MIT and shall be commencing my doctoral study this fall, around the first week of September.

I love to play Table Tennis though I have never been very good at it, and I used to practise Karate during my initial three years in college. I am also a huge fan of PC gaming, mainly FPS and arcade racing genres, and quite good at it too, in addition to being an ardent follower of MMA and WWE. My dream is to one day get to meet the now 15-time world heavyweight champion, John Cena in person, his ‘Hustle, Loyalty and Respect’ on-screen character, has shaped my life and ideals in a big way.

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