- Nirali M
NASA Intern, Scholarship Holder and a Ph.D. Fellow from UIUC shares her Study Abroad journey
Updated: Sep 17, 2020
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MS. & Ph.D.
UIUC - USA
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Ex: NASA, Bajaj Auto
"Keep in mind that grad school applications depend on a ton of things beyond your control, so do your best and be prepared to take it as it comes."
1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Your Educational and Professional Background? Which college, company, and role did you work in to get you where you are today?
I completed B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute (VJTI) Mumbai in 2013, after which I worked in the CAE Engines group of the R&D division of Bajaj Auto Limited, Pune for a period of two years. I subsequently joined the graduate program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and received my MS in 2019, and Ph.D. in 2020 both in Mechanical Engineering. I will soon be starting off at Intel Corporation as a Resolution Enhancement Technology (RET) Design Engineer.
2. What was your undergraduate Major? What prompted you towards it?
Mechanical Engineering. My interest in the aerospace domain led me to choose this.
3. When and why did you decide to study abroad?
I knew I wanted to do a Ph.D. while I was working after my undergrad. I enjoyed my work at Bajaj, but I realized I wanted to dig deeper and better understand the underlying physics. A Ph.D. program offers exactly this, and doing one was the next logical step.
4. Did you receive a scholarship? Do you recommend any good organizations/institutions that provide for scholarships or financial aid?
Yes, I received two interest-free loan-scholarships from India- one was from the Narotam Sekhsaria Foundation, and the second was the KC Mahindra Scholarship for postgraduate studies abroad. I'll highly recommend applying for both of these. Additionally, TATA trust also offers a number of scholarships/interest-free loans for graduate studies.
5. Is it worth taking a loan to study abroad? How does one measure one’s ROI?
I don't have first-hand experience in this, since my program at UIUC was fully funded through TAs and RAs. That being said, my advice would be to NEVER accept a Ph.D. admit that doesn't provide funding of some kind.
6. Why did you choose that particular course in this particular university/college for your studies abroad? What was the process you went through while choosing the university/college?
The graduate Mechanical Engineering program at UIUC is among the Top 5-10 in the US (US News Rankings). There were/are a number of professors who were/are doing research in the areas of my interest. Additionally, UIUC's Mechanical Engineering website claims that 'most' graduate students in the department were funded at least after semester 1 (which is mostly true!). So UIUC seemed like an obvious choice.
7. Any particular advice you would like to give for the application process from SOP Writing to Academic GPA to other things which you thought were important that helped you get into that course at that university?
This response is engineering specific- Choose your schools realistically. You need to have a relatively high undergraduate GPA (> 8.5 on a 10 pointer scale) to get a thesis-based MS, or a Ph.D. admit at a top 10 school in the US. A high GRE/TOEFL score or good SOPs can't quite make up for a poor undergraduate GPA.
With regards to thesis-based MS / Ph.D. SOPs - you need to have a fairly clear idea of what your research interests are. Give details on which Profs you'd like to work with and WHY. Read some of their recent research papers, get a good idea about the work they do and see how it ties to your past experience/projects and what you can bring to the table by joining their group.
Reach out to the Profs via email, and ask them more about their work (Do not ask stuff that's already on their/university website), and find out if they are likely to have openings for the semester you are going to begin grad school. And finally, keep in mind that grad school applications depend on a ton of things beyond your control, so do your best and be prepared to take it as it comes.
8. Were you satisfied with your choice of university? What is your most and least favorite thing about the university experience?
YES, extremely satisfied! UIUC's MechSE department is extremely supportive. Weather and location can be a challenge, but you learn to cope with it as well.
9. How was the Indian fraternity over there? How was the overall campus diversity?
Very good. There is a very active Indian Graduate Students Association. Campus diversity is also good, with a good chunk of international graduate students.
10. Tell us something about the faculty and resources which were there on campus
Faculty and facilities are among the best in the US, being a top engineering school. There is really no dearth of computational resources as well as experimental facilities on campus.
11. Tell us about your journey from the first semester to the last both academically and non-academically? What was campus life like? What were the extracurricular activities on campus?
It has been an exciting, stressful, and a fun-filled journey.
I've learnt a lot, got to do some cool research, work with some really smart and motivated grad students and faculty, and made amazing friends!
Campus life - It is a very lively campus, with a ton of students. Lots of extracurricular activities are available, ranging from dancing lessons, rock climbing, ice skating, and so on.
12. What did you learn and what were your most dear experiences? Any suggestions or recommendations for freshers starting out?
Be open! Keep meeting and talking to new people. Speak to a lot of graduate students before deciding on your advisor, and don't be afraid to make changes if things aren't going as planned.
13. How is the quality of education compared to Indian institutes? What were the gaps in both systems? How did you manage to cope?
Graduate engineering education is definitely better in the US than in average Indian institutes. You get to do cutting-edge research and therefore work on very cool problems. Coping - this took close to a semester for me since I got back to school after 2 years of working in the industry. But most people I know haven't had any issues.
14. What were the career opportunities available? How does one manage to grab them?
Career fairs, networking events happened regularly. There are career workshops for interview prep, resume writing, and so on. Getting jobs honestly is on the student.
15. Tell us a little bit about your current job profile and work.
I'm starting off as an RET Design engineer at Intel Corp. Mostly a data-driven modeling and optimization role dealing with the photolithography process.
16. Any other suggestions or pieces of advice you would like to give students who are starting out the study abroad process?
Plenty of information available online to research universities, labs, programs, etc. Spend time tailoring SOP's, do not worry unduly about test scores (GRE, TOEFL, etc.) and finish applications well on time. Finally, choose your recommenders carefully.
17. How did a study abroad help you?
Made me a more independent and confident person, professionally as well as personally. Gave me the tools to become a mature researcher and an effective technical communicator.
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