Univ Series: University of Washington

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Antariksh Bothale graduated with a Dual Degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Bombay. After working as a consultant with A.T. Kearney at Mumbai, he joined the University of Washington at Seattle for an MS in Computational Linguistics. He was a Research Scientist Intern at Amazon in the summer of 2014, and is now working at BloomReach in California.

What made you choose academia after your job at AT Kearney? Had you considered it after your Dual Degree too? If not, what made you change your opinion?

Yes, I had considered graduate studies as an option after my Dual Degree too. In my last year, I had applied for higher studies in Mechanical Engg as well as Linguistics and sat for placements too. I did get accepted for some; one on the Linguistics side as well. But I decided to defer it since after getting a job at AT Kearney, I chose to give that a shot. So, graduate studies were always an option and not something I thought of after working for a year. I ended up going to a different university and not the offer I had deferred but the idea of an MS had always been there in my mind.

Why an MS and not a PhD?

I wanted to pursue Linguistics but after giving it some thought, a PhD was not strongly on my mind. That would have felt like too much of a lock-in especially given the potential prospects in Linguistics. So I decided to go for something like Computational Linguistics which is a blend of Linguistics and Computer Science, which is also something I enjoy. Because of the Dual Degree, it is easier to get into a PhD program and I did get accepted for some Mech Engg PhD programs. But I didn’t want to go for a PhD, so passed on them.

What are some key tips for apping that you would like to share? How is it different after having the job experience?

I say this to all juniors who talk to me about the apping process: The first question you should be asking yourself is: Why do I want to do an MS/PhD? What do I intend to get out of it?

It is very important to have this clear in your mind. The reason can be anything, but you should know what it is for you. Sometimes people think they would be able to do such and such thing after their MS. If you have something like that in mind, talk to your seniors and clarify how exactly the MS would help towards that cause.

For instance, you might want to go for an MS because you want to move to the US. Another option might be that you are bored of your job and think an MS could give you more channels to pursue after a specialisation.

Or maybe you just like studying and want to study further in a university setting again.

Thinking of this would help you figure out whether the MS best serves your needs.

For example, I once had a junior who was from CS and was working in a top CS company as a developer. He said he was bored of being, in his words, a code monkey, and wanted to do an MS to get better jobs. I explained to him that he was likely to get the same kind of job even after his MS. So if changing jobs was the top reason for doing an MS, he would mostly discover it was a waste of time and money. But if he just wanted to study further and was fine with ending up in a similar job later, that’s okay. That’s why having a clear idea about your objectives is helpful.

I don’t think the apping process changes much for those with jobs. You can mention your job profile if it’s relevant but nothing else changes much. CPI does matter quite a bit. Unless it says something quite distinctive, the SoP won’t matter too much after a point since it just becomes like your resume in a longer form. So, practically speaking, your CPI or test scores or recommendation letters will probably matter more as decisive factors. The SoP becomes more important for people with a stronger research background who know what they want to do specifically and can write about exactly how they want to contribute, but for others, it is good to put in efforts into it but beyond a point, it probably won’t make that much of a difference.

I should point out here that most of what I am saying applies to the average case. It is possible that if you are an exceptional candidate with some big names of the industry vouching for you, you’d be able to get where you want by just dropping an email. In that case, this interview probably isn’t for you.

How did you choose the program that you went for? If an advisor was involved, how did you choose the advisor?

It differs across programs but many MS programs don’t need you to have an advisor when you join. Even for a PhD, if you have a professor in mind you can write to them but most departments have the admission process centralised across programs. This makes sense since most good universities have a lot of candidates and this ends up becoming a relative process where you might be good, but there could be 50 better applicants. So for a PhD you would typically decide your school based on the prestige of the program or the lab under the professor. For an MS, you could slightly weigh the university a bit more.

My case was a little serendipitous. I used to follow a popular Linguistics blog managed by some Linguistics professors. After my DD, before joining the job, I was on a family trip to UK and one of the professors lived there. I ended up meeting him and he told me about this program since someone he knew was running it. So I read more about it after going back and contacted the professor.

Deciding the program is pretty standard once you know what you want to do.

What made you choose the US when it came to deciding where to pursue higher studies? What are similarities/differences and pros/cons between US and Europe?

In general, going to US ends up being a no-brainer for most people because of the sheer number of opportunities and programs, the job opportunities after that and the pay, everything is generally better. Other factors like language are also relevant. I personally hadn’t considered Europe much.

What would you say were the toughest lifestyle changes you had to face? And how to overcome them?

I don’t think there was anything drastic, to be honest. People don’t realise it enough but most of us are quite well exposed to American culture. We watch American TV shows and movies, listen to American music, and frequent websites like reddit which are primarily American. I had also been to Canada for my third year internship so if there were any changes, I had adjusted to them then itself.

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. How is it different from the work culture scenario?

This is very person-specific. If someone is comfortable only with Indians and is not able to find many around, they will find it hard to adjust. For someone else who mixes well easily, it might not be hard at all.

If anything, it might be easier for people in universities. Hanging out happens more naturally for them through common classes and projects but it is tough to generalise otherwise.

Life as a masters student is in general harder than an undergrad which is probably evidently visible in insti too. It is definitely very hectic. In some senses it is more hectic than a job too. A job is typically more orderly with a set pattern and better demarcation of your personal and professional life. In grad school you’re almost entirely responsible for yourself, which is harder.

How are you handling the finances? What are the average monthly expenses and inflows (if any, from stipends, TAship, etc)? Is the financial situation as bad as portrayed in the general consciousness?

I personally had a partial fee waiver, about 30%, from the department itself. I had also gotten a few scholarships from India which were interest-free loans. A rough amount people calculate is about 40 to 50 thousand dollars in a year including tuition. The average monthly expenses completely depend on the city that you’re in. It can be as less as 800 dollars a month to as high as 1500-2000 dollars a month where above 1500 is exceptional. In a smaller city, housing can be as cheap as 300 dollars a month and if you cook at home, the rest of the expenses could be comfortably covered in about 300-400 dollars a month. As with everything else, it depends on what lifestyle you choose.

I was in Seattle which is a little expensive. So the rent was 600 dollars. Talking about inflows, if you get a TA or an RA-ship, they sometimes involve a tuition fee waiver and on top of that you get a salary. That would be a very comfortable case then. In the quarter / semester you get the TA/RA-ship, you can manage to save some of it too. There is also the option of some jobs on campus. You can decide on those based on whether they seem worth your time. For me the idea was to finish the MS asap with good grades and then get a job rather than slow it down or compromise grades by doing on-campus jobs for a low pay.