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. :)