Applying Abroad for MS/PhD: FAQs

T5E interviews recent alumni across universities in the US who have spent a year or more pursuing their MS/PhD. We hope this database of FAQs about whether to apply for an MS or PhD, SoPs, resumes, letters of recommendation, ‘cross-apping’ and more will enlighten current students in India with respect to what universities look for, the processes involved in applying for further studies, and life abroad in general.

T5E would like to thank the following alumni for their responses. Special thanks to Rakesh Misra, T5E’s first ever alumnus correspondent, for driving the initiative and helping us get in touch with them.

Name

Program

Rakesh Misra (DD/EE/2011)

PhD, Stanford

Duvvuri Subrahmanyam (B.Tech/AE/2010)

PhD, Caltech

Sivaraman Ramaswamy (B.Tech/CH/2010)

PhD, MIT

Harshavardhan Ravichandran (DD/CE/2011)

MS (Transportation), MIT

N G Srinivas (B.Tech/CS/2010)

PhD, Princeton

Sivaramakrishnan Swaminathan (B.Tech/EE/2011)

PhD (Physics), UT Austin

Kishore Jaganathan (B.Tech/EE/2010)

PhD, Caltech

Sameed Hameed (B.Tech/EE/2011)

PhD, UCLA

Sridhar Sadasivam (DD/ME/2011)

PhD, Purdue

Divya Panchanathan (B.Tech/ME/2012)

MS, MIT

Vikram Vijayaraghavan (B.Tech/EP/2010)

PhD, UC Davis

Praneeth Boda (DD/EE/2011)

PhD, University of Maryland

Shaileshh BV (B.Tech/EE/2011)

PhD, UIUC

Vishal Chandrasekhar (B.Tech/EE/2010)

PhD, Cornell

Ramya Vinayak (B.Tech/EE/2011)

PhD, Caltech

Gowtham Kumar R (B.Tech/EE/2008)

PhD, Stanford


  1. I am confused between applying for a PhD/Masters. How should I decide?
    • Rakesh Misra
      There are several things to consider. I’ll list out the most important ones:
      • Is research your cup of tea? PhD research, especially in US universities, requires a lot of effort and motivation. If you are not sure whether you have the right attitude and aptitude for doing a PhD, joining Masters would be a wiser choice. Many people use their Masters program to learn in depth about their specialization and gauge their research skills, and then take a decision on whether they can go ahead and do a PhD.
      • Can you go self-funded, if required? MS admits very often come without funding. And higher studies in the US is expensive! (If it happens to be a university in California, it’s damn expensive! The typical expenditure during a 2-years MS program at Stanford would be ~40-45lakhs INR). So are you ready to join an MS program without any funding offer, if required? On the other hand, PhD admits almost always comes with funding (either a fellowship or RAship or TAship). [Of course you can apply for external scholarships even if you don’t get any funding from the university for MS, but that’s not easy either.]
      • What role do you see for yourself in the industry? If you want to rise to higher designations in any of the top companies, PhD is kind of an eligibility criterion. In fact, I have seen many research labs that encourage their employees to join for PhD after a few years with them. But if you want to start-up, or join an existing start-up and work for it for the rest of your life, then probably just Masters is fine – but even there, a PhD would make you more resourceful in several ways.
    • Sivaraman Ramaswamy
      Applying for a Masters or a PhD depends on lots of factors, starting from your department, university, funding and location. Let me give some examples.
      • For departments like Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, there are enough opportunities after Masters but typically for other branches, the job opportunities are lesser in US after Masters. Like for chemical engineering, the jobs after Masters will not be any more intellectually stimulating than after Bachelors. However, having said that, there are certain jobs which are pretty interesting too which are being offered to Masters students.
      • There are lots of restrictions on companies to offer jobs to international students. PhD students don’t face as much hindrance as a Masters student does. However, it also depends on the industry and location, like for chemical engineers, probably Masters from any university in Texas will get a well paying job in Oil industry.
      • Masters students find it difficult to get funding for their stay in the university whereas PhDs always get admission with funding. However, from some of friends’ experiences, I have seen that after a sem or two, Masters students do end up getting RA or TA, which funds the rest of their education.
      • If we keep money and job aside and look at a purely learning experience, PhD teaches you a lot of patience, experience in dealing with your advisor, the right attitude and of course a lot about your subject. The skill sets you develop after a Masters is very different and obviously lesser than PhD.

      Now the question you need to ask yourself is – Is it worth it for me to go through those extra years of slogging so that I can end up doing what I really love or am I okay with a Masters degree and a well paying job with no independence?

    • Harshavardhan Ravichandran

      The first step to resolving this dilemma is to understand what each of them entails, and what you are interested in. A Masters is a slight extension of the B.Tech. in the sense that you will be taking some classes and doing some research. While the quality of research and the level of professionalism that is expected of you is certainly greater than at the undergrad level, you do not need to delve into a problem as deeply as in a PhD. If you enjoyed your B.Tech., chances are you will enjoy your Masters as well.

      On the other, to earn a PhD, you spend typically 4-5 years becoming a world authority on a particular narrow problem. You need to have an innate enthusiasm to learn, and also be internally motivated, which is possible only if you are genuinely interested in what you are doing. A PhD is less about courses, and more about doing YOUR OWN research. Certainly, you will have an advisor, but it requires a great deal of self-initiative. Also, the nature of your advisor greatly influences the PhD experience, and it may not always be possible to choose the best advisor sitting in India.

      Another dimension to this choice is the question of utility. The fact is that a PhD is not really required for most jobs, and it can even restrict your choice of jobs at times. To enter Academia, one of course needs a PhD, and there many industry jobs as well, such as R&D jobs, consulting firms like McKinsey or maybe EECS companies like Intel or IBM that may prefer PhDs. It is for you to think about what you would like to do after grad school, and to find out by talking to people if a PhD really helps career wise. This question tends to be very field-specific, and therefore I do not wish to give a general answer at this point.

      Finally, there is the fact that you can always join as a Master’s student, and then upgrade to a PhD if you like it. Some schools also let you join as a PhD student, but quit with a Masters if you don’t wish to stay. There is also the important fact that in most cases, funding for PhD students is more certain than for Masters Students. In fact, this is the main reason that many people apply for a PhD. I for one do not think it worth committing to a PhD, if you are not absolutely sure about it, just for the sake of funding. These things tend to be very school specific, and there is no alternative to talking to grad students from that school to find out.

    • Sridhar Sadasivam

      If you are a B.Tech student and if you are not sure whether you want to do a PhD, then I would recommend not applying for a PhD. Do a Master’s first and then decide. I understand that funding chances are lesser if you choose to do a Masters, but do not go for a PhD if you are not sure.

      If you are a dual degree student, then I think you should definitely have a much better idea of whether you want to do a PhD, the dual degree project is generally done much more seriously than a BTP and it gives you a fair idea of whether you want to do research for a livelihood.

    • Gowtham Kumar R

      Go for a PhD. You are more likely get funded, you can always quit with just a masters (universities don’t mind, but professors may sometimes be pissed if you do that), you get to enjoy more freedom after finishing the courses for PhD (unlike industry where you do what the boss tells you to). About pissing off professors: In my opinion, a teacher who doesn’t have the best interests of his students is trash and I have no regrets pissing him off. A great professor should inspire you and make you want to work with him, not force you, or get pissed off if you leave. If you have ethical concerns which you should, then talk to the professor before he commits to funding you and tell him you are unsure. If he is concerned his funds will get wasted, he will just tell you and not admit you.

  2. I know for a fact that I want to work in the industry. Would Masters be a wiser choice then?
    • Sivaraman Ramaswamy
      It’s a misconception that PhDs always end up as a Professors. More than 60% of PhDs end up in the industry. One has to understand that the kind of job one ends up doing is very different after Masters and after PhD. The pay may not be significantly higher after PhD (in fact salary of Masters + 3 yrs experience is approximately equal to that of a fresh PhD graduate). If you are doing a PhD for higher salary, then probably it’s not worth it as you might end up earning almost the same after MS. What one should realize is that PhDs get into the research side of the company and grow in that direction. They get to do independent research in the company. A Masters will always find it difficult to influence a company scientifically and his growth will be in the developmental/managerial aspect of the product.
    • Sameed Hameed
      A masters degree will be the ideal choice then. In that case ideally one should work in industry for 2-3 years and then do masters. This will allow you to decide on courses and research in grad school which will really help in moving your career forward.
    • Duvvuri Subrahmanyam
      My understanding is that industries working on high-end technologies look to recruit PhDs for specific R&D positions. That being said, companies also prefer to recruit bright students with Masters Degrees to train them in their own ways.
    • N G Srinivas
      Most people graduating with PhDs end up working in the industry, so it really depends on what you hope to learn in grad school and what kinds of stuff you want to work on when you eventually go to industry.
    • Gowtham Kumar R

      No masters if you know you want to work in an industry. You miss 2 years of income and job experience doing masters. A job experience will help you more than a masters. Take a job that helps you learn. Come to US through your job if you want to work in US. The visa laws are complicated, but in general there is a demand for talent that will get you here bypassing the laws one way or another.

      Masters is awesome if you want to enjoy the US college experience (a PhD is even more awesome because you get more freedom to explore). Unlike IIT US offers diversity. You do sports, social dance, gymnastics, skiiing, hiking, and a host of other fun things here. You have lesser time to do this at a job.

  3. Which universities did you apply to and when? Which program(s) did you get accepted into (with/without funding) and on what basis did you choose one over the other?
    • Shaileshh BV

      I had applied to MIT, Stanford, UC Berkerly, UC Davis, Princeton and UIUC. All of them for the Fall – 2012 term and for a PhD. I applied in the broad area of Wireless Communication.
      Specifically my interests are diverse from Signal Detection and Estimation to information theory. I am still exploring!
      I got admits in Stanford for a MS (without funding), UC Davis for a PhD (with funding), Princeton for a PhD (with a fellowship) and UIUC for a PhD (with a research assistantship).
      I have joined UIUC. Choosing my grad school is a big decision and has to be done carefully and wisely. Since I was pursuing for a PhD, the ‘brand name’ of the place was not so much of a factor as the professor and the group that I was going to be working with. Naturally I spoke to a lot of the students in those places who were working under the profs I was interested in. I wish to share here a few words that NG Srinivas (currently in Princeton, IITM alumnus) had told me to help me out with my decision:
      “To help you out, here’s a list of important factors that might be of concern. You can find out many of these things just by visiting the web pages of the groups/professors (and maybe grad students) of interest.

      • Publications of the group and advisor(s) you’re looking to work with in top conferences/journals in the past few years. Do questions explored in these recent publications sound exciting to you?
      • Track record of people who have graduated out of the group (e.g.,are they getting jobs in the top companies/top universities? Have they spurned some awesome start-ups?)
      • Environment of collaboration within and outside the group as seen from the author lists of publications
      • How “good” other groups in the department are — important to have a nice peer group, although your interaction would most likely just be with people in your own group.

      Some intangible factors which are really important (some more important than those in the previous list). You can only gather information about these by talking to the professor(s) themselves and grad students. Feel free to shoot emails and schedule phone calls with people. If you contact 10 people, a few are bound to respond!

      • Freedom to choose an advisor and topic of interest
      • Funding situation of your potential groups/advisors
      • How your potential advisor treats his/her students (this is about aspects outside academic stuff) — does he take good care of you in terms of career aspects? Does he let you explore things of your interest? Does he keep a close watch or follow a hands-off approach? There are no “right” answers to any of these questions, it’s whatever suits you. So, feel free to talk to people and explore
      • Technical and non-technical exposure that students get in these places
      • Location: Is the university located in/close to a major city? What do grad students do over the weekends? This is more important than it looks like.

      And finally, some things which should be non-factors in your decision (in my opinion!):

      • Weather
      • Not knowing people to start off with in those universities e.g. like seniors from iitm
      • Number of Indian students in the group or already working with a potential advisor”
    • Sivaraman Ramaswamy

      I applied for PhD in the Chemical Engineering at MIT, University of Minnesota (Minneapolis), University of Wisconsin (Madison), Princeton, CMU, UT Austin and UC Santa Barbara.
      I got accepted in MIT, University of Minnesota (Minneapolis), University of Wisconsin (Madison), Princeton and CMU, all in PhD Chemical Engineering. I was rejected by UC Santa Barbara and I had withdrawn from UT Austin as I had already gotten MIT. All my admits were with funding.
      I chose MIT and I don’t think I thought about it so much since it was MIT. Even though University of Minnesota and CMU were closer to my research interests, one of the things that I thought was that being in a big, reputed university will provide me recognition and better job opportunities.
      In addition to the above reasons, something that one should keep in mind while choosing a university is also the size of the department you are planning to join, especially for PhD. The bigger the department, more diverse will be its research areas and more profs in each research area. This would mean you would have more options while choosing your prof (Also I am assuming one may choose his/her prof after going there or might change his/her prof).

    • Sameed Hameed

      I applied to Caltech, Stanford, UCLA, UCSD, UT Austin, Columbia and Univ. of Toronto, all in analog circuits except Stanford where I applied in communication systems.
      I was accepted for PhD by UCLA, UCSD and UT Austin (all with funding) and MS in Columbia (no funding) and Univ. of Toronto (with funding).
      I decided to join UCLA because I liked the research interests of my assigned advisor and their EE department has really excellent professors in analog circuits.

    • Rakesh Misra

      I applied to Stanford, UC Berkeley, MIT, UIUC, UT Austin, USC for 2011; All PhD, Wireless Communications/Networks.
      All accepted except UC Berkeley and MIT, with funding for PhD.
      Stanford was clearly the best among the admits I had, in terms of education (Stanford has some of the giants in my areas of specialization), weather (California has the best climate in the whole of the US) and location (Stanford lies at the heart of the Silicon Valley). Also, along with my admit, I had been awarded the Stanford Graduate Fellowship (SGF), which is a very prestigious award (also happens to be the highest award given by Stanford University to any incoming student), for the entire duration of my PhD – which made my decision even easier.

    • Harshavardhan Ravichandran

      I applied to MIT, Berkeley, UT Austin, Purdue and University of British Columbia (Vancouver) for Fall 2011. All of them were Master’s programs in Transportation. (At UBC, this was in the Sauder School of Business).

    • Vikram SV

      I applied to places that had people in the physics department working on complex systems with a focus on networks: UC Davis (2 people within the dept. and 1 outside), Boston University ( 2 people in the dept), Cornell (1 person within the dept and one outside) UCSB (1 person), U Michigan Ann Arbor (2 faculty members).
      I had to choose between UC Davis and Boston University. Both with funding and for a PhD.
      After speaking with my advisor on Skype, it was very clear to me that I should choose UC Davis over Boston university. Other factors in favour of UC Davis were the weather and closeness to the bay area.

    • Duvvuri Subrahmanyam

      I applied to Stanford, Princeton, Michigan, Georgia Tech, Caltech and Imperial College. I joined the MS+PhD program in Aerospace Engineering at Caltech. It was the obvious choice given that Caltech has the best rated Aerospace program in the world. Also, I was interested in the research works of a few professors in the department. I am now working with one of them for my thesis.

    • Sridhar Sadasivam

      I applied for Mech PhD in Purdue, UTA, CMU, UIUC, Cornell, UMich, Northwestern and MS CDO in MIT for admission in Fall 2011.
      Got admits with funding from Purdue, Cornell, Northwestern, UTA and CMU; bumped by UMich and MIT CDO, admit from UIUC without clear funding.
      I chose Purdue because of the professor I got to work with here. I inquired about him and heard that he is a really nice guy and very good in his research area (micro/nano heat transfer).

    • Divya Panchanathan

      I applied for 2012 Fall Mechanical Engg to MIT(MS/PhD), UC Berkeley (MS/PhD), Georgia Tech (MS), Purdue (MS),U Minnesota (MS), UCLA (MS)
      Accepted into MIT (RA), Purdue (RA), UMinn (full scholarship); rejected by UCB, GaTech and UCLA

    • Kishore Jaganathan

      I applied to MIT, UC Berkeley, Caltech, Stanford, UIUC, Cornell, UT Austin in Electrical Engg (Communication) for 2010.
      Got accepted into Caltech, Cornell and UT Austin with funding and Stanford without funding. (All MS/PhD)
      I chose Caltech because of the reputation of the university and reviews about the advisor from seniors.

    • Sivaramakrishnan Swaminathan

      My area of interest is fundamental physics. And I’m a more theoretically oriented person. I applied to PhD programs in physics, going by which universities had faculty doing research in my areas of interest.
      In my area, it’s very rare for US univs to offer MS. So it’s usually PhD, and almost always with funding as a TA (for the first couple of years).
      I joined UT Austin; reasons are too specific to be generally applicable.

    • Ramya Vinayak

      I applied to Caltech, Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, Princeton, Cornell, UIUC, UCSD, UT Austin, EPFL. All for PhD in EE; All accepted except Berkeley.

    • Gowtham Kumar R

      I applied to Stanford, UIUC, Cornell, UCSD, UTA, and Rice.
      All accepted me for MS/PhD with funding except UTA that accepted me only for masters without funding.
      I chose Stanford. It offered a fellowship and more freedom compared to UIUC/other universities.

  4. Do you think it is necessary to write to profs in the universities you’re applying to before/after submitting your application? If yes, what exactly should be conveyed?
    • Harshavardhan Ravichandran

      It is useful is some cases, and absolutely necessary in many cases — it is never harmful. The primary purpose of writing to a professor would be to express an interest in his/her research, find out what work he is currently engaged in, and to ask if he/she is likely to be taking new grad students in the coming year. While this is moderately important for a MS, it is absolutely essential that you do this for a PhD. A PhD is a marriage of sorts, and it more likely to happen, and to be a happy marriage, if it is a love marriage. Take the initiative and call/Skype/email potential suitors (aka advisors) and find out more about them, as you would a potential spouse!

    • Rakesh Misra

      I don’t think it’s necessary, but it certainly helped me in my case. I wrote to at least one professor in each university I applied to, and received encouraging responses from everywhere except UC Berkeley. The reply from MIT was that individual professors do not have any hand individually in giving out admits and that decisions are made collectively by an admissions committee, and the prof just encouraged me to apply to MIT. But profs in the other univs showed personal interest in my application, called me up for a chat over phone, and eventually offered me admits with funding.
      I am not sure if it can harm in any way as long as you don’t write anything offensive or boastful in it. Just a line on who you are (insti, areas of interest), a line saying that you’re applying to his/her university and are interested in joining his/her research group, and concluding with a request to review your application, should be good enough. I had uploaded all my relevant files (SoP, resume, transcripts) on my ee.iitm webspace and had included links to all files in the mails that I wrote to profs (they don’t like attachments), so that they could review my application independent of the admissions committee if they wanted to – and that might have helped.

    • Vikram SV

      This might be a good idea if you are sure about the area you want to work on and have a good idea of the kind of research that goes on. Most faculty members will be excited to hear from you. It would be a good idea to write to them either before starting your application or once you have heard that you have been offered admission in a program. I contacted faculty members after I got my offer. It certainly helped me make my choice. It is quite important that you do not commit to work with them before meeting them. You will never have an idea about how they are in person until you meet and work with them for at least a few weeks. It is better not to get an admit than get stuck with someone you cannot work with.

    • Sridhar Sadasivam

      Writing before application (Nov, Dec) – In my opinion, this should only be to find out if the professor has any openings in his group. This can help you decide if you want to apply to that university or not. For instance, if you are sure that you are interested in only 2 professors in a particular university, then it makes sense to write to them and ask if they expect to take any students. Do not send resume etc. before the application. Nobody thinks about recruiting students so early.
      After application (Jan, Feb) – At this point it is important to write to professors saying you are interested in their research and give a short summary of your profile. Give a link to your webpage or your application number so that they can look deeper if they want. This definitely does not hurt. Do not spam, but one email will not hurt your chances.
      In my case, I would say that I got into Purdue primarily because I had written to my advisor sometime in early Feb. So it definitely helped.

    • Sivaraman Ramaswamy

      This is something I saw my seniors doing but I was too lazy to do. However, it never affected my admits. After coming to MIT, I found out that, at least in Chemical Engineering, no one ever does it. In fact the profs don’t even read those emails. I am not aware of other departments.

    • Duvvuri Subrahmanyam

      I can’t think of ways in which writing to a professor would harm your admit prospects. I wrote to some professors in the above universities expressing my interest their research even before I put in my application (I also got a chance to meet a few of them at a research conference). I think it helps to grab a professor’s attention before they sit in an admissions committee meeting, the best way to do this is to write a clear and concise email. Introduce yourself and tell them about your application to the university, give your academic and research backgrounds. Write about your research interests and how you would be a good fit in their research group or department. Professors are busy people, but most of them get back to you within a few days. If you don’t get a response and think they’ve missed your email, try resending it after a few weeks and cc the professor’s secretary on it.

    • Praneeth Boda

      I would definitely suggest writing to profs in advance once. One thing you find out is if the have openings. If you realize there are no openings then you are basically wasting an application. It would be good for the professors to know that you are proactive, if they remember! Just send a short mail saying you are interested in their area of work and ask if they are looking to take in someone this year. As far as I know it cannot hurt you much.

    • Gowtham Kumar R

      It helps. If you are spending 5 years with a professor, you should know him before you start working with him. Otherwise you will regret it later in life. Don’t think that your goal is to just app to the university; your goal is to do research. Write to profs with that fundamental goal in mind (not with the goal of impressing the prof to just app there). Remember that research problems take months/years to solve and may end up being worse than an exam problem. You must be willing to work under repeated failures. That’s where it differs from your coursework. Demonstrate that skill to put you ahead of other candidates.

  5. Any tips for drafting the Statement of Purpose (SoP)?
    • Duvvuri Subrahmanyam

      SoP is a very important part of any university application. You should write it in a crisp manner using polished language and proper sentence constructs. A good SoP typically requires many iterations; it took me about three weeks to get my SoP into a satisfactory from. The final document should show continuity and present your academic and research backgrounds, skills, research interests, interests in a particular research group or university, and your career ambitions (not necessarily in that order). Be honest with your content. Run it by a few of your close friends or others who are willing to help and ask them for suggestions. Get hold of a few SoPs from your seniors and read them before you start writing, you can even bug them to comment on your SoP once it’s done! Make sure you strictly adhere to any guidelines specified in the university application. Don’t submit it until you are firmly convinced that you’ve done the best you can.

    • Harshavardhan Ravichandran

      A statement of purpose is just that — a statement of purpose. Do write it well, one needs to be clear in one’s thinking, and by that I don’t just mean being sober. You need to know exactly why you want to apply abroad, and where it fits in the larger context of what you want to do in life. These are not easy questions to answer, so get thinking about them. Why apply abroad? Why this program? Why this university? Why now? What do you hope to get out of it? What do you want to do in life? How will it help you? And what have you done in preparation for it? We tend to focus on the last question to the exclusion of everything else — not a good idea.
      A more practical suggestion — profs read these looking for potential students. It might help to show that you have done some research on what they do. For instance “… I worked on Aggregate travel demand forecasting using activity based models, and this ties in very well with Dr. Ben-Akiva’s work on Needs-based models for the Singapore Future Urban Mobility project”. Tie in things that you have done/skills that you have acquired, with the work that they do — intelligently.

    • Rakesh Misra

      Always keep in mind that SoP is (1) a “personal” statement, and (2) a statement of “purpose”. Most of what you write in your SoP should be personal/unique to you, and everything you write in your SoP should be related to your purpose of applying for grad studies. So don’t write about how awesome Machine Learning or Mechanical Engineering is and how much promise it holds for the future – because that’s very general and something that your readers would already know of. Also don’t write about that Equipment coordship or NSS volship if you can’t tie it up with your purpose for applying to grad school.
      Keep the language simple. Don’t use any GRE-level vocabulary or flowery sentences. Try to make it sound as natural as possible. Avoid mentioning about anything prior to undergraduate, unless it’s an exceptional achievement (like an International Olympiad medal).
      Avoid cliches. I mean, just AVOID them, esp. those “Ever since I was a kid…” ones. The readers of your SoP would have read hundreds of SoPs in their lifetime and would have come across every possible cliche in this world!

    • Vishal Chandrasekhar

      Keep it short and straightforward. Talk about what you want to achieve with your Masters/PhD (what you specifically want to research / learn about)
      Keep your biography to the absolute minimum (nil is not a crime), no one cares about how/what you did in high school, and no one reads that. If talking about extra curriculars tie that in to your studies / research. Keep non-relevant accomplishments for the resume. Reviewers are probably going to spend about 20 seconds on your SOP, so make sure important points stand out. In summary what you want to do in the given program, and why you want to do it. Try to tailor it to the respective universities & profs. Mention by name which profs you want to work with and why (deeply research profs’ websites). If you can mention some recent (< 1 yr) published work from the university / prof with whom you were impressed with and why (without sounding cheesy), it will show that you have put in effort. The trickiest part – the more specific you can get about what you want to do the better, but make sure it is generic enough to fit with at least a couple of profs in the university.

    • Divya Panchanathan

      It is not necessary to write to profs before submitting application but you may choose to write after that because the prof can view your file if he wants to. It can help but mostly it shouldn’t harm.
      If you are mailing, write about your interests, very brief overview about your most significant previous research, anything you found interesting in his/her lab, and thank him/her finally. You can attach your resume as well.
      I didn’t write to any professor until I got admitted after which I had to find an advisor to get my funding.

    • Ramya Vinayak

      Write your OWN SoP. Do not read any other SoP till you write your first draft. Though the main ideas of SoP are the same, you should write different SoPs for each university, tailoring them to the specific requirements.
      Do not rave about your achievements, but don’t shy away from modestly mentioning them. It’s okay to say you are good at something. There is fine line between being confident and being boastful. Ask your seniors and peers to read your SoP and comment. Professors have read thousands of resumes before, so don’t use cliched statements. There’s no need to use all the GRE vocabulary you’ve built. Keep it simple, short and to the point.
      Most of us do not know what exactly we want to work on. Majority of us will end up working on things very different from what we mention in the SoP. Demonstrate that you have ability to do research and you are enthusiastic to learn new things, by your past work, current experiences and future ideas.

    • Gowtham Kumar R
      I have worked with professors to help classify applicants. Here is the algorithm used by universities:
      1. Filter top 20% applicants by using CGPA and GRE scores. Initialize their ranks mainly by CGPA on a 4.0 scale.
      2. Among those top candidates, look for research potential (if applying to PhD). Refer to G4 for what research potential means. It is measured by reading SOP, letters of recommendation, etc. A lot of admits dont demonstrate research potential (published papers, good letters of recommendation, SOP, etc.) EE at stanford takes the best 2 of 3 recos (unless the other recos say something really bad, and your competitor is better). This can significantly change the ranks, because the CGPA difference in a 4.0 scale is not very high.
      3. They then do a diversity filter, making sure there aren’t too many students from 1 university. That’s where IIT Madras app cooperation comes in, restricting people to app to only 6 universities and encouraging people to reject unwanted offers early, so that lower rankers’ chance is not taken away.

      For masters, they don’t care so much about research potential, but will look at SOP and other extra-curricular activities that can change the ranks obtained from just GPA. GRE is just plain cut-off, but the math score is important if you are applying to Engineering or Math.

  6. Any tips for drafting a resume for universities abroad?
    • Duvvuri Subrahmanyam

      Have a neat CV template to begin with, I recommend the moderncv package in LaTeX (you need to tweak it a bit to make it look more ‘academic’). Include all the relevant information in a clear manner. Remember that app CVs are different from job/placement CVs. Highlight your research and academic achievements. Give at least three references at the end, typically professors or industry professionals if you’ve interned. Get app CVs from seniors to guide you.

    • Ramya Vinayak

      You should by now have some resume you wrote for interns. Important thing to remember is that your resume for app should be research oriented. Nobody cares if you volunteered for GA or was a co-ord for sponsorship. Write relevant things. If you did some technical thing, like robotics, Astro workshop, math modeling etc, then do mention them.
      Organise your resume by priority. Extra-curriculars would be last (but if its a placement resume, may be some of your extra-curricular activities shine out.), academic achievements would be come before etc
      Better to use a neat latex format. Clear and simple fonts, size no less than 10pt. Enough line spaces and try to fit in two sides of a sheet.

    • Gowtham Kumar R
      Look at G4 and draw your own conclusions. Helps if you discuss your conclusions/compare it with other app files/people later.
  7. Any pointers on letters of recommendation? (How many to get/who to get them from/how early to get them?)
    • Vikram SV

      Most universities would require 3 letters. Try to ask three people who can focus on different aspects of your work. For example, if one of the professors is your research mentor, another one should be able to talk about your personal traits or academic courses. Different professors need different time frames. In general, if your Professor is writing a letter specifically for you, they need at least a month. This would mean you should ask at least 2-3 months before you need them submitted, i.e., if you are applying for Fall 2013 you must have already asked at least three Professors. Some universities let you submit an extra letter — it is usually a good idea put in the extra reference letter.

    • Duvvuri Subrahmanyam

      Reference letters can make or break your application. Ask someone for a reference only if you’ve made a good impression on them and feel that they’ll write something positive about you. Be cautious if you plan on getting a reference from professors who don’t have a good reputation — a bad reference can potentially ruin your entire application. You’ll typically ask institute professors for a reference based on your research or coursework performance. If you have done summer research or interned outside the institute, get a letter from there. Try to diversify the pool of people giving you letters of support if you have such options. In my case, I had letters from a professor at IISc (summer research and BTP co-advisor), professors in the department including the HoD, and the then Dean of students! Let them know early that you are expecting a letter from them and give them enough time to submit it. It’s a big bonus if the person writing a letter for you is an alumnus of the university you are applying to, or has research connections with professors there. If you’ve worked with ‘big’ professors in India, they might even write a personal email and seal the deal for you!

    • Sivaraman Ramaswamy

      In my case, it was my BTP guide, my guide for one of my projects (I worked with a prof in my second year summer) and a prof who taught me 2 courses and I had gotten S in both of them. This kind of arrangement is totally acceptable. If you have done research internships somewhere, you can ask your guide there for recommendation. One would typically need 3 recommendations for all universities.
      It is advisable that you let them know early in 7th (or 9th) semester that you would be needing their recommendation, so that if they refuse, you can ask some other prof. Also the profs are usually quite busy in December and they might go on vacation towards the end of the month. So make sure you entered their name in the university application form and they have received the email asking for recommendation by November end. Give your profs at least a month’s time to give the recommendation and remind them from time to time.

    • Vishal Chandrasekhar

      Get 4-5 letters of recommendation and mix and match and send to various universities. Let the prof know you are going to come to them as early as possible – some profs will say they will only give recommendations to small number of students on first come first serve basis. Most profs don’t start drafting recos till after they get emails from universities asking for them (i.e. after you finish all your submissions). They will get a couple of weeks after the deadline usually, but then will be pressed for time. Try to finish your submission to universities at least 2 weeks before the deadline. Let the profs know where you are applying, what field and other details. Diplomatically ask them to stress in the recommendation that you would be good specifically in that field.

    • Kishore Jaganathan

      You could get as many as you want as long as the recommendations are good enough. Keep in mind that sometimes 3 excellent recommendations might take precedence over 3 excellent + 1 average recommendation.
      I believe that it helps if there is a personal touch in the recommendation letters. So consider taking recommendations from people who have worked with you closely and seen you as a researcher. Keep in mind that the job title of the person giving the recommendation may matter to some extent. People do take recommendations from teachers whose courses you have done well in. In this case, it helps if the teacher knows about your talent well enough so that he/she has enough things to say in the recommendation letter.
      Get the recommendations as early as possible, recommenders are usually busy people and missing the deadline is not a good thing.

    • Gowtham Kumar R
      Look at G4: “ Research problems take months/years to solve and may end up being worse than an exam problem”. So a good reco is a letter from a person of high standing that testifies you will work amidst failures and make things happen. Everyone at IIT can score in exams; that’s well known and that’s not the risk factor for profs hiring research students. They KNOW you are good at math. Look at G5 to know the algorithm as well.
  8. Could you please provide insights on academics, social life, weather and other aspects of ‘grad life’ at your university? Please feel free to highlight any pros/cons that might help aspiring students make a more informed decision.
    • Vikram SV

      You would be surprised by how big a difference the local aspects of the school, i.e., weather, social life, etc. make. Once you have all the offers it is extremely important to find out about the place. You would spend a significant fraction of your life in this place — make sure you have made the best choice. The city in which you live might also have a huge impact on what kind of jobs/ industry collaborations that might be possible. Make a very informed choice about the place you are heading to. In general it would be better to choose a place that is well connected and is either part of a city or a close enough to a city.

    • Sivaraman Ramaswamy

      Academic life in grad school is definitely more hectic than undergrad but the learning opportunity is also equally high. The diversity in the kind of people you meet, cultures you will know about and the work ethic you will adopt will take you a long way. The Indian association will make sure you always have some Indian friends with you. Weather in certain places of US can be harsh in winter but that should not a factor while applying to the universities. Winters in these places are definitely bearable and since most of the time you will indoors, the effect will not be felt as much.
      Overall I would say that grad school makes you independent and prepares you to face any challenges in life.

    • Rakesh Misra

      I needn’t go into details of how awesome a place Stanford is.
      Academics: Stanford has always been ranked among the top 3 engineering schools – its legacy speaks for it. And it is situated at the center of the Silicon Valley, which makes it a very attractive place especially for CS and EE students. Weather: You can’t find more awesome weather anywhere else in the US during any time of the year – Californian climate simply rocks!
      Social life: Among the best you’ll find in any grad school – there are people from so many different countries, there are state-of-the-art infrastructural facilities (auditorium, sports arenas, dance halls, gym etc) where you get together with people, and there are parties almost every day.
      The only con that I can think of is the cost. Tuition and living expenses here are too high, as is the case with most universities in California. But this is an issue only if you are coming without funding – if you have funding from the university, then all your expenses will be taken care of.

    • Duvvuri Subrahmanyam

      Academics are rigorous in most graduate schools, they give you a good footing in the areas of your study, particularly so at Caltech. The campus is located in Pasadena, an uppish neighborhood 20 minutes to north-east of downtown LA and 25 minutes to west of Hollywood. Weather in southern California is the best you can ask for in this part of the world. Caltech was ranked as the world’s best university in 2012 by Times Higher Education, London! It takes very good care of it graduate students.

    • Sameed Hameed

      I’m in LA, so the weather is great. UCLA follows the quarter system, so things are pretty hectic while doing courses. We have a small group of Indians here. So social life is as good as it can be.

    • Shaileshh BV

      Academically, UIUC is very strong, at least in engineering. The campus is huge with a lot of facilites, infrastructure and many notable people. There are quite a few Indians here (and Indian restaurants too). It has one of the best bus-networks in the US, and getting around is not at all a problem. The campus is pretty safe too.
      However, this place is infamous for its weather and location. Winters get pretty cold (as is the case with many places in the east), and the nearest major city (Chicago) is about 2.5 hrs away. So it’s probably not the sort of place for people who like to roam around in big cities, but nevertheless the campus itself is more than ‘self-sufficient’ in my opinion.

    • Ramya Vinayak

      I am in Southern California. Need I say anything more about weather ? It is the best possible place you could be!
      Social life – depends very much on you. A larger university will definitely have more people. But I have found a good group of people I love to hang out with in Caltech. So, its totally up to you.
      I think the most important thing to keep in mind while applying is the area of your interest and the profs you might want to work with. Once you get accepted, then you can think of weather since it is definitely going to affect your life.
      In big schools you will have more professors working on each area. But in a small school, you will find it very easy to interact with more professors, peers and you won’t feel lost. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages. I would say it is more important to find out about the group you want to join than the university.
      If you are not very sure of your interests, then its better to join a bigger university. Do write to your seniors in those universities, find out more about the professor you might want to work with and his/her group. Its better to write to someone in the group you are joining or want to join. Nobody knows the prof as an adviser except his/her own students! Do not make a final decision of joining a group just by looking at the research work. You will be interacting with the prof closely for 4-5 years. So, you better know what you are signing up for!

    • Gowtham Kumar R
      Academics: Quarter system. <=3 courses per quarter, 3 quarters per year, total of 22 courses for MS/PhD and 15 for MS only. All courses have weekly assignments. Courses have exams and or projects. Coding assignments are super long. Average time per hw per course per week is 6 hours.
      Social life: Social dance classes, parties/bars, Halloween parties, Diwali by Indian association, fountain hopping in your underwear, fullmoon on quad in which fresher girls kiss seniors, etc.
      Weather: Perfect in California.
      Other: Aerial fabrics (http://www.stanford.edu/~gowthamr/IMAG0091.jpg), Classes in gymnastics, tennis, volleyball, martial arts, yoga, swimming and anything under the sun (https://www.stanford.edu/dept/pe/cgi-bin/services/physical-education-classes/, https://www.stanford.edu/dept/pe/cgi-bin/services/recreation-classes/ ).


  9. Do you want to elaborate on any other aspect of applying abroad that we might have missed out?
    • Duvvuri Subrahmanyam

      It helps if you start thinking about applying early. That way, you can plan on how best to use your summers and spend time exploring different areas of research. Building a good resume takes time. Get done with your GREs and TOEFLs early, they are a nuisance (those scores are valid for a few years). Stay in touch with your seniors who’ve graduated and are pursuing further studies, they often give good advice and can help with your SoP. And finally, maintain a good CGPA — it is an important number that might decide where you end up after your time on campus.

    • Harshavardhan Ravichandran

      One of the things I have liked best about graduate study in the US is the kind of lifestyle I lead. I cook about 4-5 times a week (never cooked before coming here), buy my on groceries, clean my house myself, pay my own taxes, go to the hospital myself, and in general lead a MUCH more independent life than I would if I were in India. Secondly, I interact with students from all over the world. Thirdly, I love outdoor recreation (hiking, kayaking, etc etc etc) and the US (and many other first world countries) have so much to offer in this regard. For all of these reasons and more, I am happy that I chose to app rather than to settle down in a job in India, or go to IIM.

    • Ramya Vinayak

      The most important thing is to find out if you want to do a PhD. It’s a 5-6 year commitment and is no joke. Do not apply just because you have a good CGPA and all your peers with similar academic achievements as you are applying. If you are unclear, its better to apply for Masters or work for a year or two and apply later. Yes, it’s not necessary that you go abroad immediately after your B.Tech. We hardly know what we want and more importantly, have been not exposed to so much of research (3 months of an internship and a semester of BTP work are not real research experience). So, it’s okay to take time to decide. Don’t be a sheep in the herd. Decide for yourself.
      It is not necessary that you apply in the same department as yours in the institute. In fact, there are many more interesting departments in most of the universities. I guess it was one of the mistakes I made, not looking at other programs. There are programs with different names that might suit your interest more. In US its very common for people to change their areas. So, don’t be limited by what you see in the institute.

    • Praneeth Boda

      Realize that grad student life is not going to be similar to your undergrad. But you will have more freedom in the way you want to work. It is going to be mentally stressful at times, because you might be lonely and you are responsible for yourself. Life outside the institute (grad school and job) involves fewer close friends than in India.
      Be aware of the fact that the area and the kind of work you might end up doing in grad school could be vastly different from you’ve done in undergrad and what you expect. This could be because you see a lot of more new areas or because of funding issues or both.

    • Gowtham Kumar R
      The most important aspect is to know yourself and know what you want as a person. Otherwise, you may get into a university/job, but will be stuck later. All the best in your journey of self-discovery.
  10. From your personal experiences, how difficult do you think it is to 'cross app'? What are the specific things to keep in mind while applying to a department different from one’s undergrad department?
    • Sivaramakrishnan Swaminathan

      “Cross app” is quite common/acceptable in the US. In India, we’re used to thinking of rigid branches. It’s much more free in the US (many people get multiple majors in undergrad). I switched from EE to Physics. Doing a minor in Physics helped big-time. And with some effort, I think I have a background comparable to Physics majors and don’t feel any pain of crossing over. Based on what I heard from many profs, departments tend to prefer students with a research background (even if it’s in a different field) rather than people who’ve done tons of courses in their area of interest. So go ahead and get a semester/summer of research experience (in any lab/area that you’re interested in) without worrying too much about its direct relevance to the area you’re applying to.

  11. 'I am not one of those elite 9 pointers. Do I have any chance of getting into any of the top US univs?'How should non-9-pointers go about the process of apping?
    • Praneeth Boda

      A lot depends on your branch. If you are not in CS/EE, you have a pretty good chance – looking at where your seniors went in the previous years would be a good indicator. Letters of recommendations and internships help, but only to an extent. Despite being in EE without a 9-point CGPA, people have landed good universities over the previous years, so don’t be disheartened – but apply wisely. A lot also depends on the funding situation in general; try mailing people at the university you plan to apply at, so that you are aware of the openings. Try to be meticulous while going about the whole process.
      Try to avoid a place where many guys with better grades are applying. Even if all of them have it as a backup and abandon it, it is highly unlikely that it will roll down many places among people from the same place.


If you have specific questions for any of the respondents above, leave a comment or drop us a mail at t5e.iitm [at] gmail [dot] com and we’ll try our best to get it answered.

Disclaimer: The views are not to be construed in any manner as the official views of IIT Madras.
Content copyright: The Fifth Estate, IIT-M's Student Media Body. For permissions to reuse part or whole of the content, email us at t5e.iitm@gmail.com