A Tete-a-Tete with Akshay Bhardwaj (Batch of 2015)
Akshay Bhardwaj’s is an exemplary story of how sheer will and passion for his studies took him on a journey from the classrooms of the MPAE Block at NSIT to the halls of the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. As he joins the Institute for an M.S. in the Mechanical Engineering Program, we discuss the past few months with him- his labour and his struggles- that have finally bore him fruit. We hope that through his experience, the readers are enlightened on the procedure for applying to foreign Universities and more.
While pursuing your B.E. in MPAE, how did you make up your mind to pursue MS in Mechanical Engineering? What role did NSIT play in this process?
A series of events motivated me to choose to pursue an MS in Mechanical Engineering, in the area of Controls, after a B.E. degree in MPAE. First one of them was my internship in ME department at IIT Delhi on system identification of a machining process. By the end of my second year at NSIT, I had developed a keen interest in the areas of machining and mathematical modeling. Consequently, in the following summer, I visited IIT to communicate my interest to several professors working in these fields and succeeded in getting a research project under Prof. S. Ghosh. My project at IIT totally transformed my understanding (which was mostly theoretical by that time) of various mechanical engineering fundamentals. Further, it helped me discover my interest in theoretical methods and simulation techniques that are used in analysis of systems like machining. Consequently, I decided to keep doing research and explore related research problems and areas in future.
After the internship, I joined Industrial Automation lab at NSIT where I worked on a research project with Dr. Agarwal of MPAE department – on developing a tele-operation system between a haptic device and virtual model of a surgical robot – through which I got my first conference publication. During this time, I also studied ‘Industrial Control’ (MA 304) which became my personal favorite of all the MPAE courses. I found Control to be a fascinating domain owing to its theoretic nature and its wide ranging impact in engineering and science fields and therefore decided work in this area. In sixth semester, I started working on robot tele-operation control under Prof. Parthasarathy of ECE department. Through this project, I got two publications as a first author in IEEE conferences. This project validated my interest of pursuing a graduate degree in engineering especially in the field of controls.
Apart from these projects, I also worked on several other team projects at NSIT which were closely related to the mechanical engineering domain. My interest got finally narrowed down to study control of mechanical engineering systems at graduate school level.
How would you compare pursuing masters in India vis-à-vis abroad, in terms of experience, exposure, expenditure and opportunities?
I will compare graduate departments in engineering of top universities abroad with top institutes in India. In terms of level of research projects, it would not be an exaggeration to assert that Indian universities are on par with any foreign university. Here, if a professor is willing to work, (s)he would never fall short on funding and so there are a number of possibilities to work on interesting projects with such a professor while pursuing a master’s degree. In terms of freedom of choosing courses and teaching, however, India slightly lags behind. The course content is less frequently updated when compared with foreign universities and is lesser attuned to real world applications and industrial scenario. Classroom lectures are comparatively bland and textbook oriented lecturing and the policy of having fixed syllabus (no electives) are still preferred. Indian universities are however slowly improving in these areas. Graduate departments in India also lack one thing that almost all top ranked international universities have which is student diversity.
In terms of expenditure, Indian universities have significantly lesser tuition and living fees when compared with foreign universities. Some foreign universities have set terribly high fees for international students. Living costs, especially in US states like California, New York, and Massachusetts can again be awfully high. If you are able to secure an assistant-ship/scholarship/fellowship for your master’s abroad, it will cost you significantly lesser and will assist you a lot. Many master degree programs in STEM at universities typically do not offer any financial support (before admission) to foreign students. But their degree is worth the amount that you are expected to spend. Besides, it is relatively easier to secure an education loan and pay it back if one succeeds in securing admission in these universities. In terms of opportunities in research after MS, top foreign universities have a significant edge over Indian universities. Their research output, industry reputation, citations, and eventually the impact of their work is wider. In terms of job opportunities post Master’s, the nature of work and salary would definitely be better in foreign companies (esp. in mechanical engineering domain). You will be able to better appreciate this difference if you have already worked in India. If you are talented enough, you may get fantastic mechanical engineering jobs in India at places like ISRO, BARC, DRDO, Mahindra Research Valley, and other recent Robotics startups. However, since the competition is fiercer and number of such jobs are lesser, it might seem relatively difficult to get such jobs in India. After pursuing Master’s from India one may also go for his PhD abroad and can work there after completing the degree.
Once you made up your mind about further studies, how did you build your profile for getting admission into a distinguished institution like the University of Michigan Ann Arbor?
My decision essentially gave my research projects a direction. I started working harder on the problems with the motive of eventually publishing my research. I knew that publications matter significantly when applying for admission in a research based master’s program in a university like University of Michigan. So, through my last three semesters I worked really hard to get some publishable results out of my projects. I fortunately succeeded in presenting three papers in IEEE conferences which were also published on IEEE Xplore. I had a good academic standing at NSIT and had also received merit scholarship during previous years, and so to end up having good academics, I just tried to maintain that performance. To gain some work experience, I worked on several industrial projects for one year under Foundation of Innovation and Technology Transfer at IIT Delhi. My seniors assisted me in university shortlisting, GRE TOEFL preparation, in filling applications, and in giving me valuable information about the programs they were pursuing. I prepared for GRE and TOEFL all by myself and scored sufficiently enough to allow me to apply to any university of my choice. Later, I prepared my Statement of Purpose and Personal Statement well in time and managed to convince my references to write strong LORs which they did. In retrospect, I realize that though getting through University of Michigan was a lengthy and exhausting process, it was certainly worth all the efforts.
It is said that MS application is an extremely arduous process. So, what challenges did you face in your application process and how did you overcome them?
As Indians, most of us have a general mindset that our marks will eventually decide our result. We have a tendency to think the same when it comes to assess the connection of our GPA, GRE and TOEFL scores with the outcome of our MS application. It took me some time to realize that test scores and GPA are just some parameters that are mainly used to filter out the initial pool of applicants. Once your application gets through the initial screening, your Essays, CV, LORs, etc. become equally significant parts of your application. The whole process of MS application seems vague and daunting to the applicants only because along with requiring a change of this mindset, it demands an intuitive foresight and an ability to make sound decisions from them. You won’t really be able to quantify whether your statement of purpose or your research experience is good enough to get you admitted in a university of your choice or not. Even if every part of your application is top notch, you would not be able to really ensure whether you would get through the universities and programs of your choice or not. To make the optimum out of the application season, therefore, you would have to eventually rely on your judgement and intuition.
MS application is all about four things (in no specific order): Academics and test scores; Research and work experience; Essays and LORs; and Honors and extracurricular activities. Initially, undergraduate academic performance, especially marks in courses which are related to the specialization you intend to pursue and your GRE, TOEFL scores, matter. One should know that poor academics and test scores can significantly hurt one’s chances of getting an admission (however great scores might not necessarily help).
Second part is the research and project experience which also include work experience, technical skills, research papers and patents. This part, in my view, was the biggest strength of my application and also the one which got me through most of the universities in which I applied.
The third part which includes your statement of purpose, personal statement (not required in all universities), resume, and letters of recommendations demands considerable efforts on your part. The only daunting part of my application was Statement of Purpose. For this, I had requested some NSIT alumni to review them. They were extremely helpful. It took me around three months’ time to come up with a convincing and well written two-page statement.
The fourth part is related to scholarships, awards or any other scholastic achievement, extra-curricular activities and volunteering experience. In my view, these may increase the weight of your application and may make your application stand out. They, however, won’t serve any primary purpose like the first three parts of your application.
What are the options available to a student who wishes to pursue graduate studies in the fields of Mechanical, Robotics and Control Engineering abroad?
You can take the conventional route of pursuing a research based Master of Science (M.S. or M.Sc.) degree which would land you a job much better than the one you would get after you do your bachelor’s in India. You can also pursue a PhD (or even an MBA) after your MS. There are internationally renowned M.S. programs in the area of Mechanical Engineering with specializations in robotics, mechatronics, and control (I applied only to these programs). Likewise, there are M.S. programs in EECS and Aerospace Engineering with focus in controls and robotics. You can also directly go for an M.S. in Robotics in universities like CMU, Northwestern, and U of Michigan. Apart from M.S. programs, graduates of Indian institutes are also heading for relatively new coursework based graduate degrees like Master of Engineering (M.Eng. or M.E.). A good thing about such programs is that you can get admission in these courses even if you don’t have research experience or publications as they are more concerned with your industrial experience and internships. To name a few areas related to and apart from Mechanical Engineering, M.S. and M.Eng. degrees are offered in Robotics, Industrial Engineering, Automotive, Operations, Design, and Manufacturing Engineering. Coursework based M.S. programs are similar to M.Eng. programs. Competition for admission is higher in conventional courses and core branches.
Finally, there is the option of applying directly to PhD programs after Bachelor degree given that you have sufficiently good research experience and decent publications. To get admission in a PhD program in a top university, you would also benefit by being in contact with a professor who you would like to have as your advisor (this also helps in M.S. admissions by the way) and having good knowledge of the research area you are interested in. It might be difficult to get a PhD admission without a master’s degree but you will never be solely rejected on the basis of that. Many PhD programs such as those offered in Michigan, Cornell, and Stanford etc. encourage the applicants to apply directly after B.S./B.E./B.Tech. as they allow you to earn a master’s degree along way. One fantastic benefit of getting a direct PhD admission is that you would get paid to do the research you like as PhDs are fully funded in almost all the top ranked universities. However, you will have to get committed for around 4-6 years with full research dedication and rigorous academic work. In top universities, PhD degrees are offered in almost all the areas in which Master’s degrees are offered.
What advice would you like to give to students at NSIT who are interested in pursuing their graduate studies abroad?
You need to have a strong purpose and a future plan to leave your country and pursue a graduate degree abroad. And not having other attractive options is not a practical reason to do that. You must be pulled to pursue higher education and later do a job abroad because of a number of logical reasons rather than being pushed to do it. The last thing you would want is to get stuck in a job in an alien country that doesn’t even excite you.
Deciding an area that you would choose to specialize in is a complex and recursive (not necessarily long) process and is probably the most important thing to do as, in all likelihood, it would govern your carrier trajectory for at least next few years of your life. Do not force yourself to adopt an area just because you are expected to. Explore courses and projects in various fields in your area and find out what aspects of them interests you the most. If you enjoy any course considerably, try to do a project related to it. If any project interests you significantly, try to put that extra inch of effort to find or innovate something novel in it and try your level best to publish or patent the results. These will be concrete evidences that will show your potential and passion as an engineer and researcher and will not only help in your applications, but will help you a long way through your careers. While publishing papers, target quality over quantity and only publish in decent journals and conferences.
Finalize your program and university wisely. Please do not apply and accept an admission offer from relatively unknown programs from underdeveloped departments at foreign universities. If you have made up your mind about working in a particular area and are not able to get an admission from a reputed department, only then dare to attend lower ranked departments. Most of the rankings are biased and incorrect and result in vague interpretations (except NRC rankings in US). So do not blindly follow them. If you want to compare one university with other (which you will have to), compare their research output and type of projects their faculty does and whether they coincide with your interests or not (having a decent research experience in your area again proves useful here). Then compare their reputation, placements, location, acceptance rate, total cost and other factors relevant to you (like, weather) which would help you to build your own order of preference. Be confident and don’t hesitate to apply to the topmost departments.
Needless to say, try to maintain good academics and test scores. Unless and until you have sufficiently good research experience and papers to show that you really enjoy doing research in a particular area, it would be pointless to apply if you have also not performed up to the mark in your course (and in GRE and TOEFL). At least try to score decent marks in the subjects related to the field of your choice. However, since you may not know the area of your interest in initial semesters, you would be better off doing well in all the core and applied courses from the beginning. There is no nobility in scoring average.
Contact your seniors without any hesitation. They will help you a lot to gain some useful perspective about various things that you might fail to imagine yourself. Be brief and polite while contacting them but don’t seem obsequious (same is applicable to contacting professors at foreign universities).
Finally, if you know (even slightly) what you really want to do, try to avoid targeting other seemingly attractive options as that will only confuse you more. Focus all your attention on one objective and keep working on it. It will definitely not lead you astray. If you must, ensure that you judiciously manage your investments on other options. Crazy ambitions do not need crazy actions; they demand radical practicality. By trying to manage multiple priorities, most likely, you will be only causing harm to your chances of giving your best to the goal that you are passionate about.