Univ Series: University of Chicago and University of Waterloo
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Sreesh Venturumilli (Henceforth, S) completed his B.Tech in Engineering Physics at IIT-Bombay in 2016. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo (Canada). He’s presently working on understanding an experimental group’s activities to study light-matter interactions at the atom-photon level.
Bodhi Vani (Henceforth, B) obtained a Masters of Science degree in Chemistry from IIT-Bombay in 2015 and is now pursuing a doctoral degree in Theoretical Physical Chemistry at the University of Chicago (US). She’s working on building physical models to describe the non-equilibrium statistical mechanics of rare biophysical processes.
We sit down (metaphorically) to chat with them (electronically) about their lives as graduate students.
Bodhi would like to insert an important caveat:
“I am only in my second year, and my answers come from 2 years of grad school, talking to a lot of senior grad students and professors, and seeing how some of their lives have turned out.”
We assure her that if the information she provides here does indeed lead several students to ruin and penury, we won’t ascribe too much blame to her.
What made you choose academia over taking a job? Or any other career choice?
In my undergraduate, I didn’t utilize my time to ponder over the most essential questions of being human. I realized that I was operating with very limited knowledge of the world around us. Waterloo meant I could try and learn more about experimental physics — the motivation being that I was presented with an avenue to explore these questions. But, I guess, questions are always abound, for there always is so much more to do – arts, social work, different science.
With the information I had, the usual jobs didn’t catch my eye. But one can never simulate everything beforehand.
I never chose academia over taking a job, I just chose academia. Nothing else was ever an option. I wanted to spend more time learning science, doing research, answering questions that drive and fascinate me about how physics and biology work- and that’s academia, where I get to do what I love (I hope!).
How are you handling the finances? What are the average monthly expenses and inflows (if any, from stipends, TAship, etc)? Some hard numbers (if you are willing) would be helpful here.
Well, it has just been three months since I came to Canada, but the stipend does seem to cover some daily and extra expenses with some cushion.
With a TAship stipend, one can save at least 18,000 Canadian Dollars per year after removing tuition.
I get around 3k/month, but a huge amount of that is taxes and health insurance, and random fees. After rent (640/m) and a pretty lavish lifestyle (I like eating out a lot, I like going for plays and shows and movies and galleries), I’m still pretty good at saving, but I tend to blow it on trips and holidays. I know others who save ~10k/year, I saved about 4k in my first year, but I’m a spender. It’s a good life without dependents, and also there’s a safety in a confirmed RA (Research Assistant) position for at least 5 years. In general, the finances are easy if you’re single and child-free.
(All of this is in US Dollars)
What are some key tips for apping that you learned about during the apping process that you wish someone had told you earlier?
The bigger picture will help you filter out the unnecessary hype and hyperbole — both, in your mind and outside it.
Honestly, I think we think too hard about it. Just work to build some good research experience, keep reading science, and make sure you’re applying to places and people for the right reasons, not rankings and reputations, but passion and curiosity.
Can you tell us about the job/hiring market currently (or projected for the next three-four years) in Industry or Academia where you are currently?
I don’t have much information on this. But quantum information science seems to be buzzing with a lot of activity right now.
A quantitative phD makes you very hirable in terms of industry jobs, if that’s what you’re going for, or even as a back-up. Academia is more competitive and a lot less predictable from what I can tell. There’s also a middle ground with research jobs. At the end of the day, all job prospects are heavily dependent on precisely what you’re doing in your phD research. Most generalizations fail, even basic v/s applied, or rare v/s popular, or whatever anyone else tells you, it seems to be a very arbitrary collection of variables (that includes time) that determines whether or not there’s a good, challenging, interesting, and stable job that needs your skill-set. If you’re looking for an academic position, you really need to develop the ability identify interesting ideas and questions apart from the ability to answer them.
What made you choose to go for a PhD right after IIT-B? Do you think this was a huge risk (in terms of investing a large chunk of your life)?
As of now, I’m enrolled in a Master’s program which lasts about two years.
And talking about risk, well, if one isn’t actively and consciously invested in the activity they’re in, quitting is always an option.
On moral grounds, I’d argue that one must. There might be negative stigma relating this, which might be related to how society views failure. I intrinsically value (a lot, actually) the time spent exploring in research — whatever be the result. People switch fields and jobs. At the same time, one must keep in mind that there needs to be a genuine personal rigor in every decision-making process.
See answer 1, I guess? I never see it as a risk till I get questions like this one! It’s really not that risky, it’s kind of like this amazing job where I get paid to learn how to do science from a brilliant, leading, scientist, and sit around reading books and thinking about the most current questions in science. It’s both absurd and fantastic.
How did you choose (or how are you going to go about choosing) your advisors? What are the most important things to keep in mind while doing this? Are there any quick and dirty tips you could share with us?
In IQC, during admissions, you are placed in a group after interacting with your potential advisor(s). This lets one work in the group after admission. I felt that my understanding of science, physics in this case, wasn’t comprehensive enough to grasp any reasonable detail of the nuances of most research. With whatever understanding and intrinsic motivations I had at that time, simply getting involved made sense.
There were a lot of factors- I was lucky enough to be in a position with several options. There are two sides to this, firstly, the kind of work you want to do: I wanted to work for someone who was doing basic research in biology, trying to answer fundamental questions, but using physics and mathematics to do so. Additionally, I think the personality of your adviser is extremely important- and this is a very personal choice. Do you prefer a lot of freedom or hand-holding (I picked freedom), do you prefer a boss or a teacher (teacher!), do you prefer someone who takes the bottom-up or the top-down approach- you just have to find your best fit. Most importantly, find someone you can work for for 5 years, someone you feel comfortable with, and find research work that truly drives you forward and makes you fall head over heels in love. My quick and dirty tip is- go with your gut.
What made you choose the US/Europe when it came to deciding where to pursue higher studies? What are similarities/differences and pros/cons between the two?
For me, it was US/Japan/Canada.
I’m in Canada right now. Place didn’t play any role in my decision.
But it’s always nice to see new places, cultures and ways of living.
Hard for me to say, having only ever been in a program in the US :P. I based my decision on people I was interested in working for and reputation of university.
What would you say has been the toughest lifestyle changes you have had to face? And how to overcome them?
As a grad student living independently away from home right after my care-free, lackadaisical IITB life, I’m still coming to terms with the reality of me being entirely responsible for myself, my research, the group and all the ways in which one interacts with scientific endeavor.
I think wing culture is a huge part of IIT life, and in my first year, I missed that social structure more than I expected to. IIT gets you used to living with familiar faces that love and care about you. It helps to recreate that- find friends, a support system, warm bodies to come home to, someone to call when you need an ear, someone to get away with on a road trip or a free weekend. And make sure you stay in touch with insti friends just as much, because wing (and pseudo wing) equals family.
Apart from that, life’s pretty easy to get used to. Things are convenient here, and moving to a university or campus area means you’re in a comfort zone, around people who are similar to you.
Is forming a new social circle in an alien country difficult? How lonely or not is life? A brief overview of life as a student would help.
From the different places I’ve been to, it wasn’t hard to find people to interact with and form bonds. Canada is a friendly place.
Kitchener-Waterloo has all the essentials one would need. There is a nice art community, ample space for one to try out sports or other activities. I’m sure there are student-events on campus suiting most of one’s needs.
At the same time, Waterloo provides me with a quiet space, which I prefer.
Not at all difficult- you’re around people driven by the same things as you, finding people with the same interests is easy. Student life is what you’d expect- you’re around some of the smartest people, it’s a great place to learn and grow, and you get to explore a new culture and place, if you’re lucky, a fun city or state.