Q. A few lines about yourself- department you graduated from, where all have you worked/interned before, what else do you like?
I am Kalki, an undergraduate in the Department of Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology at IIT Delhi. I will be graduating in July 2016 and joining Harvard for my PhD this fall. I have interned in Dept. of Genetics at University of Leicester (2013), Biocon Research Ltd. (2014) and Dept. of Biology, MIT (2015). Music Club and BSP have been a major part of my college life other than academics. I love science, music, travelling and exploring new things.
Q. What made you choose the path of higher studies and the university you are currently going to? Was this your first preference?
I am fascinated by how intricately biological system works at molecular level, how micron sized cellular compartments function to actualize significant life processes; how small molecules that DNA is made up of collectively store zettabytes of information in human body! Hence I decided to pursue higher studies to get a deeper understanding of my field of interest.
I was undecided between Stanford’s and Harvard’s PhD program, both of which were my top choices. After weeks of research and contemplation, I picked up Harvard. I always wanted to be at a place where I have plethora of opportunities to grow, I feel always intellectually turned on and people around me love their work. I am fortunate to be admitted to a place where I believe I will feel close to perfection.
Q. What was your first reaction when you heard you’d gotten this opportunity? Were you satisfied with it and how do you feel about it now?
I was super excited and super relieved. With all my friends getting placed by December, I was the only one unaware of my fate. After I received the email from Harvard titled - “Please Join us for Fall 2016”, I finally knew (almost, ~95% sure) where I will end up after graduating from IIT. I am looking forward to the steep learning curve that I will experience as I start a new life at a new university and a new country. I am also excited about living in Boston area near the Charles River with opportunities of learning sailing and attending all sorts of music concerts. But a fear of unknown, of how I will adjust to the new surroundings and cope up with the pace of their research bothers me sometimes. Let’s see what awaits across the borders!
Q. What are some of the challenges that you face/have faced during your preparation to strike a PhD of your choice?
The biggest challenge that I faced was keeping myself constantly motivated in a place where everybody was applying for jobs. I decided not to sit for placements to cut that option of getting distracted from what I really wanted to do. I am lucky to have friends and seniors who helped me throughout the process of preparing my profile and applying for higher studies. Also, since I was exploring the fields that attracted me and tried different things, many of them didn’t work out as I had imagined. I had to change projects, face administrative hurdles for getting things done and encounter deadlocks in my work but everything gets sorted out with some optimism.
Q. 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?
Tips for internships:-
Apply Apply Apply! : Don’t be lazy, it is a very frustrating task. But believe me, the result is truly rewarding. Summer internships have given me some of my best memories and learning experiences of college. It is the time where you can explore your interests, try new things, make new friends and get a break from IIT life. Give your best effort to get your dream intern.
Try new stuff: It is easier to get an intern in your area of expertise or in something you have a prior experience but that defeats the very purpose of it. Internship is an opportunity to explore new things, to find out what you like and what you don’t like, to learn an entirely new set of skills while knowing that you will be working there for a short while only so there are no stakes. That should be the attitude while finding internships.
Bug your seniors: These are the people who will tell you what’s out there in the world, how to go for it and what to do with it. Take advice, get your CVs/essays reviewed, share your interests with them and use their contacts.
Don’t ignore IITD Notices: Sometimes opportunities knock at your door and you are busy Facebooking. We are fortunate that companies and programs advertise themselves to us to hire interns. IITD notices is a medium of communication of many of them, don’t miss any opportunity by ignoring them.
Research well: Which Universities have internship programs, what kind of people are companies looking for, how to prepare CVs for specific internships and so on. If you have not learned how to Google, you can’t achieve your dream.
Try at least one foreign intern: If you couldn’t go on a foreign exchange, internship can help you get an international exposure. Working in different country is an experience everybody should try to get. Living in a new country, understanding their culture and networking globally is a great learning experience and opens up many doors.
Work hard, enjoy your intern: Make the best out of your internship. Working hard and efficiently will not only help you win a PPO/good recommendation letter but also enhance your problem solving abilities and help build new skill sets. Having said that, it is also valuable to explore the city/nearby places where you intern in. Travel around, interact with different people, enjoy.
Tips for PhD:
The most important part of a PhD application is recommendation letters. Most PhD programs require 3 letters preferably written by your project supervisors. These letters are testament of your research experience and aptitude. One letter is required to be written by a supervisor at your home institution. If you work well, you will get a good letter. Hence, research experience is most important, focus on that more than anything. Also, it is helpful if your supervisor knows what you are doing and how you think about research problems to be able to write a personalized letter. Try to meet your supervisors frequently, but of course don’t bug them.
Publications help, but are not necessary. Getting your work published is a matter of luck. Don’t get disappointed if you couldn’t author a research paper before applying for graduate school. It won’t be a deterrence to get a good PhD.
Maintain a decent CGPA. Though there are ways to get a good PhD without a good CGPA but the path will be slightly longer. If you have the option, try pushing your CGPA above 8.5, preferable close to or over 9.
MOST IMPORTANT: Don’t apply for a PhD for the sake of a degree. 4 - 7 years of life can’t be spent for the one last piece of paper that says you are a post graduate. There could be different reasons to join a graduate school, degree shouldn’t be one of them. It is going to be a big commitment.
Q. Any other advice that you want to give to your juniors?
Three things popping out of my mind at the moment -
First, there are multiple ways to reach a point. You do not need to follow a set path. Things work out differently for different people. But there is always a way to achieve what one wants. Irrespective of your background, past achievements or misfortunes, if you want something and you set your eye on it, you will always find a way to achieve it.
Second, make an active choice. It is easy to just go with the flow and follow the tide but an important part of maturing in college is to think actively what you really want to do. If you don’t get an answer, explore! But at least start putting a reason to your actions. You will learn more about yourself and about things around you.
Third, give up things that you don’t enjoy doing. 20s is the best time of our life. There is so much energy and enthusiasm, physical fitness and mental agility. It is okay not to like your field or a particular activity that everybody around might be enjoying. If something keeps you unhappy for more than 72 hours a week, just give it up, don’t waste your 20s!