Friday, December 25, 2015

Trip to Shenandoah National Park

First things first. Shenandoah is beautiful in fall! Don't ever say no to a trip to Shenandoah if you get a chance.

The colour of the dead and dying leaves ranged from yellow of the sunflower to blood red. The wind was chilly and the sun was struggling to break out of the prison of clouds. Amidst this, we reached Shenandoah around mid-day and were transported, as if by magic, to a different world. An inexplicably beautiful world. A world full of colour. A world (mostly) devoid of human influence. A world like most of us had ever seen. Near the entrance to this enchanted place was an inn, a resting place for weary travellers, before they begin their long journey through the wonders this place had to offer. Before starting our journey, we waited for our companions who were somehow left behind on the long road to this place. As soon as our band of 20 was complete, we started the first part of our journey. Blue mountains as far as the eye can see imparted a sense of wonder about the adventures the day had to offer.

The first part was a very short hike which got over in a few heartbeats. Being the adventure loving young band that we were, none of us was satisfied by the short walk. We wanted more. We drove through miles of stunning scenery, looking for the next trail to conquer. Imagine this for over 50 miles:

We finally found what we were looking for and started another hike. This hiking trail was quite a bit longer than the previous one and a lot more enjoyable. The group members got the time to talk and get to know each other. The trail ran parallel to a small stream of crystal clear water snaking through rocks, dirt and the fallen leaves.

Everyone was tired at the end of the long walk though rocks and uneven ground. Everyone needed a rest. And nothing can be more refreshing than sitting at the edge of a vast expanse of land covered with coloured grass and leaves at sunset with a cool breeze blowing through your hair.

However, after a few minutes of rest, everyone remembered how cold it was. And night had started to win the fight between light and dark. The company went to the nearest tavern and ate and drank warm things to prepare for the journey back to home. We left the place just after nightfall and drove for about three hours before reaching home. The return journey was much more enjoyable than the outward journey. The path didn't change. The companions were the same. But in the morning they were just that - companions. While on the way back they were friends.

The trip was a lot of fun. Everyone seemed to enjoy the beauty and the company. Shenandoah is definitely worth a visit in fall for anyone.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Moving to a new place

Congratulations on being accepted! Phew! Some rest finally, right?. Well, not quite. Moving to a new country or state can be an extremely daunting task. You have to start preparing well in advance (at least 3-4 months). You have to apply for a visa if you are moving to a new country. Sometimes that may take a lot of time. Many universities don't have dorms for graduate students. Or you may not want to live in a dorm. You have to find a place to live in the new place, which is a beast in itself. Then comes packing for departure which will lead to several arguments with your family. And a thousand other things. I will try to deal with some of these tasks in this post and I hope you will find something of use to you.

Visa applications: Several countries, particularly USA, have very long and complex visa application processes. You apply and pick a date for interview. For US visa, before the interview you have to go and get your photographs taken. Then you have to go there again some other day for the interview. (Yeah, twice. They love you.) But unless you are in some particular fields, you will usually get the visa. For some fields (like mechanical and chemical engineering) you might have to prove that you are not going to build bombs while in the US. That takes some time. So, apply early. Plan according to your schedule.

Flight reservations: Book early! Don't repeat the mistake I made. Don't wait till the last moment. Ticket prices rise very rapidly. Try to make the reservations as soon as you know when and where you have to go.

Accommodation: There are several websites where you can look for advertisements. Many universities have their own off-campus housing portals. They give a lot of tips about finding a good place to stay, good room-mates, and ensuring your own safety and security. Do check those out. Craigslist also has to-let advertisements. I used a website called Renthello for my search. I am sure there are several other similar websites which you can find. Talk to your potential room and house-mates before making the final decision. And of course, it should go without saying that you should read the lease agreement carefully before signing. Most probably you will have to pay a security deposit (which is usually a month's rent) while signing the lease and you will have pay the first month's rent when you arrive. Ask your seniors, if you have any at the university you are going to, about the neighbourhoods you are looking at. Most probably you will have to sign a 6 month, 9 month or 1 year lease. So be sure. This process can be very frustrating particularly if you are moving from a different country and have no way of looking at the house before making the decision except photos. Some landlords can't even show the house over skype because they live very far away from the house and can't make the trip. Make sure that you don't have any doubts about the house and your room.

Packing: Ah packing. Some love it, other abhor it. I fall in the former category. But, it could a nightmare. You have be within the limits of the airline. Basically you will have to solve the knapsack problem before leaving home. But before anything, do yourself a favour and put all your documents i.e. passport, i20, some other proofs of identity if you have them, lease agreement, acceptance letter, transcripts, and degree certificates. And some photographs in case you need them for some forms after you arrive. Also, keep several photo copies of all the documents, especially your passport, visa and i20. Apart from that clothes, some food items that you can't live without, toothbrush and a comb are the most important. The rest you can buy after arriving. Also, consider the weather of the place you are going to and pack accordingly.

Just before leaving: Make sure to have your phone properly charged. Invest in an international roaming plan if you are moving to a new country. Put a copy of all the documents in your carry-on luggage. Put an ATM card/debit card in your wallet. Make arrangements for transportation from airport to the place where you you will stay. If you want, you can book a taxi beforehand. Or if you are feeling adventurous, you can use public transport too. Or you can explore shuttle services too. I personally prefer public transport but that can be a hassle for some, particularly if you have too much luggage.

After arriving: Attend the orientation and report to the international student organisation in your campus. You will be required to fill several forms and complete some procedures like submitting the i94 form etc. Don't worry about these things before you leave. Just make sure you pack all the documents that you have, both the originals and some copies. After, or maybe even during, the week of orientation, you will have to open a bank account which is a very simple process in the USA. You will just have to bring you passport (with the visa stamp), the lease agreement as proof of residence, acceptance letter from the university tot eh bank and you will leave with a bank account.

Social security number is needed only if you are a salaried i.e. receive a stipend from the university in some form. SSN is not at all essential for life in the US. You will need to fill out some forms and make an appointment at the SSN office to apply for a new SSN. You will have to bring all your documents to the SSN office on the appointed day. (Piece of advice: Reach the office very early, may be about 1.5-2 hours before the office opens. There is always a long queue at the office.)

This is all I can think of at this time. Though some of the details in this post relate to only US, but I think the majority of the content should be useful for anyone moving to a new country for education. I hope I have been of some help to you. Comment if you think I missed some things.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Selecting the best option

Congratulations! The moment you have been waiting for is finally here. You got accepted!
It's time for parties and some very hard decisions. Don't you sometimes feel that someone would just tell you what to do, which school to select and what program to study? I know you do. Almost everyone does. It is a completely natural reaction of coping with what could be the most important decision of your life. Through this post I hope to shed some light on some of the factors that need to be considered while making this decision. I hope this will be helpful to at least some of you.

An important thing that many people don't consider is the fit of the university to their research, academic and personal interests. Though the reputation of the university is important, it is not as important as the fit of the university to your interests. Going to a university that doesn't have a good group working in your area of interest can make your next 4-5 years frustrating. Ultimately, at the end your PhD, your university doesn't matter nearly as much as your work; and good research is best done with a good research group.

Another choice that you may have to make is choosing between a star professor and a new, relatively unknown professor as your advisor. That is a decision that completely depends on you. The senior professor will be extremely well connected among the community and could lead to new associations for you. He/She will have a well established research group and you will be able to jump start your research. However, the senior professor will have several students and several commitments apart from his/her research and will not be able to give you as much time as you may need. On the other hand, a new professor will have more time to guide you and will devote more energy towards your success. He/She may not have an established research group but you can see this as an opportunity to lead the establishment of his/her research group. You will have to be more proactive if you want to work for a new professor. He/she will not be able to introduce you to too many people but this will give you the opportunity to go out and meet people.

Some offers that you get may promise funding and some offers may not offer any funding during the first year. Deciding between these offers could be tough, especially when the unfunded offer is from a place you really want to go to. I believe that in this case you should consider how these universities fit with your research goals and select based on the fit. I think, unless you are not able to support yourself for even for a semester, you should not take funding into consideration while making your decision. Go to the place which you feel is the best fit. You will be able to arrange for funding within a semester or an year under some professor or the other.

You should always talk to current graduate students in all the universities you are considering. They are the best source of information about the university in general and a potential advisor in particular. You will be able to decide whether you can work with a professor, do your personalities complement each other, how are the other students, how are the facilities at the university, what are the career prospects after graduation, where are the recent graduates placed, etc. They will also be able to inform you whether the university has adequate facilities and resources for your particular needs.

You might have to decide between a direct PhD program and a program that offers the option of a terminal masters. If you are not completely sure whether PhD is for you, then terminal masters will be the best option for you. You get to experience the actual work environment and research and if you don't like what you are doing, you can quit with a masters in two years. On the other hand, if you are completely sure that you want to complete a PhD, then opting for the direct PhD option might be the best.

Sometimes personal preferences and boundaries can affect your decision. For example, you might want to live with your partner and they can't move to a very far away place, then you will have to choose a university that is nearer. Or, you may not like cold at all so you would want to avoid the universities located in regions which experience extreme cold in winters. Or you may want to live in a big city instead of living in a small university town or vice versa. These factors may not seem very important at this stage, but 3-4 years down the line, you may regret your decision of joining a university without considering your personal preferences and comforts. These factors might be the difference between a good PhD and a great one.

This is almost everything I wanted to say about the decision process. If you ave any comments or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I will do my best to answer those.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Dealing with rejections

Failures and rejections are as much a part of life as success an acceptance. Nowhere is this more true than during graduate school applications. Failing is inevitable. Only a handful of people get accepted at every place they apply to. Rejections can be very tough. Most of the universities send the rejection before the acceptances. Be prepared in the first two months after the application to receive rejections from some universities. Unless you are among the above mentioned handful of people, universities mostly send acceptances in February for the fall semester. Be ready to wait. Be ready to see your friends and classmates being accepted at several universities. Celebrate their success with them. Never ever be jealous. This is too small a matter to ruin your friendships. Remember that your acceptance is on its way too, if not this time then definitely the next.

An important thing I learned during my application period was that you don't need 10 acceptances. You just need 1. And probably you will get just 1 or 2. So, it is not a good idea to apply to places where you are sure you will not go even if they are your only acceptance. Every application you send should be to a place where you are willing to do your graduate studies if accepted.

Rejections are not the end of the world. Every one has to go through rejections. You might feel that you are the only one who is rejected every time, but nothing can be further from the truth than that. You have to be resilient and instead of being dismayed rejections, you should start analysing what went wrong and aim to improve your application next year.

The time when universities send out the results could be the darkest time for many people. It was for me. It was for my friends. Probably it will be for you. But there is always light at the end of the tunnel. If you want it enough, you will get accepted. Resilience and perseverance are extremely important. Give your best for the next round of applications.

Good luck.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The application

There are tens of universities and hundreds of professors working in your area of interest. How do you decide which universities do you want to apply to? You also need to prepare for the standardised tests that are required by almost all the universities. Writing SOPs, making resumes, and arranging recommendation letters, every part of the application requires you to put in your best effort.

Pre-app preparation takes time and hard work. It should start at least 6-8 months before the application deadlines. This means you should start preparing latest by summer for the fall of the term. Summer should be spent shortlisting the universities where you could apply. This means considering all your options  carefully and exhaustively. If you have absolutely no idea which universities would be best suited for you, start by searching the graduate school rankings in your research area. This will probably give you a list of 50-100 universities which you can consider. This should be as good a starting point as any. Visit the department webpages of all these universities and see what kind of work is being done in your area of interest. If you find the work interesting try to find out which professors are involved in that work. Such universities and professors should be added to you preliminary lists of universities and professors. 

Doing the above for all the 100 universities will take about 50-60 hours. You now have a starting point. Next comes the elimination phase. You want to eliminate all the places which you think are not suitable for you from this list. This elimination depends on several factors including but not limited to your previous research experience and GPA, your expected GRE scores, the quality of recommendations you expect to get from your professors, whether factor such as name recognition are important to you, would you be able to live in the said place's climate etc. Repeating the elimination process several times should leave you with your final list of universities to apply to.

Now you should register for GRE and TOEFL and start preparing. Also, start writing your SOPs an making your resume. Writing the SOP is very often overlooked by many applicants (including the writer of this blog) and they do not spend enough time in writing SOPs tailored for each individual university. The basic structure of the SOP is almost the same for every university you are applying to. A lot of effort needs to be put in to write this well. It takes several revisions to make a good SOP. Showing what you write to some people who are already in graduate school is a good idea. Their feedback could be extremely helpful in improving your essay. I would suggest that you do not read anyone else's essay before writing a first draft yourself. You can read others' SOPs while reviewing yours. This will give you the opportunity to present a good representation of yourself without being influenced by someone else.

As for the resume, most of the advice I have seen seems to suggest that the best length is 2-3 pages. You want to list all your achievements and accomplishments precisely and concisely. Make it easy to read. Do not use cluttered formats. I believe keeping the format simple and readable could work wonders.

Asking for recommendations could be intimidating. How do you know whether a professor you have worked with will be willing to write you a recommendation? What if he/she says no? Well, think of it this way; what's the worst that could happen? The professor may say no. But, I think being rejected is a good thing at this stage. This will prepare you for the rejections you will receive from some of the universities. Also, having a professor/supervisor not write a letter is better than them writing a bad letter. So, I would recommend you ask your professors for the letter well in advance so that even if someone says no, you can go to someone else. This is very important. Do not hang around till the last moment for the recommendations. Murphy's law will be in effect at the last moments. Be prepared for that.

This, I hope, would have given you an idea of what should be done to prepare for the application. In the end, you have to remember that you have to be proactive for a major part of the year to prepare for the application. You have to take the application seriously. Please let me know if I have missed anything through the comments. Good luck.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Deciding to go for a PhD shortly after graduation

Deciding between PhD and other options feels like the most important decision of your life. And it is. This period could be very stressful and unproductive and making this decision may take very long. In this post I have discussed some factors that I, as a recent college graduate, considered while making this decision.

There are several factors you need to consider before making this decision. Financial stability is the most important of these. You have to consider that you will be earning very little for a very long time. You will not have enough money to buy or do things that your classmates from college who have taken high paying jobs buy or do. This problem is compounded if you want to support your family. However, there is a difference between 'needs' and 'wants'. You may want several luxuries but you don't need them to live a comfortable life. You have to decide whether just satisfying your needs is enough for you. If it is, then do not worry. The pay in a PhD is sufficient for almost everyone's needs. Supporting a family could be difficult. Everyone wants to see their family being provided the best of everything. But you have to consider that getting older will increase your responsibilities and you may never have time and opportunity to start a PhD again.

Another factor is the time commitment. In EE-CS (and other engineering fields) a PhD takes an average of 6 years to complete. You have to consider whether you can live on a small pay for a very long time. However, while considering this, you also have to realise that you will be doing the thing you love in a university environment all this while. Sure, there are things that you will have to do in a PhD that many people hate (taking classes, teaching assistantships, writing papers etc.) but which job doesn't have such things?

Thoughts about whether you have the aptitude for a PhD may also cause stress. My display name, Imposter Syndrome, is a term which may describe your feelings. I am starting my PhD in Fall 2015 and feel that I may not be qualified enough to make this journey. But this is a very common phenomenon. I believe that if you think you will be happier doing research as a PhD student, then nothing else should stop you. Life is long and should be full of adventures. And what is PhD if not just another adventure.

An important thing you have to keep in mind is that you are not alone in this. Many of your classmates are in the same dilemma. Some of them may seem very decisive and may appear to have no problem in deciding where they want to go next. But this confidence is generally just superficial. Most of the others are also as indecisive as you are. There may be some who are so sure about going for a PhD that they never even considered other options. However, the number of such people is very small. So, talk to your friends. Talk about your apprehensions and fears. Hear out theirs. You may find some factors to consider that you have never thought about. Talk to your seniors and try to find out what were their reasons for joining a PhD programme.

I hope that through this blog I have been able to assuage some of your doubts. Good luck and cheers.

New blog

Hello reader!

I am starting a PhD! Through this blog I plan to share my experiences and thoughts about the journey towards a doctorate. I recently completed my masters in electrical engineering and have joined a PhD programme in electrical and computer engineering. Hopefully this blog will not devolve into yet another advice column. May be it will. Who knows? I just hope that you find the posts informative and useful. 

About my user name:

Wikipedia says
"Imposter Syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which people are unable to internalize their accomplishments. Despite external evidence of their competence, those with the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved."

I have this doubt that I may not be good enough for a PhD. But, having talked to a lot of people about this, I have now come to realise that almost everyone suffers from this. So, if you think the same, try not to. :)