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Introduction 

Devang Thakkar is 2018 Dual Degree graduate in Mechanical Engineering. Driven greatly by his penchant for biology (but mostly by his acute dislike of mechanical engineering), he is currently pursuing a PhD in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at Duke University, working specifically on cancer genomics. You can know more about him here. (https://www.devangthakkar.com)

What was your Motivation in going for PhD over job?

I spent most of my five years at IITB in a very confused state, not sure of what I wanted to do. To those who are reading this, understand that it is never too late to dip your feet into research. I spent a lot of my second year trying to work on biomechanics before I realized anything related to mechanical engineering wasn’t my cup of coffee. I gave up and ended up looking for non core internships like most of my friends. I worked as a data architect for a credit rating agency for my third year summer and I really liked it. At that point I was pretty sure I was going to end up in a job doing similar computational work.

It was only during my exchange semester in my fourth year that I got to know about bioinformatics from my machine learning professor. I worked with her on a project on gene co-expression networks and followed that with a systems biology project after returning to IITB. I decided to go for a PhD in computational biology primarily because I wanted to get more in-depth exposure to topics in the field with ample time to delve into them deeply. I was highly unsure if I’d make the cut because of my relative naiveté. I already had a backup in place – I would go off to my Placement Cell job at Yahoo Japan working on machine learning and data architecture, and apply back in a few years.

I mention this to reassure you that everyone who has been through the process has been as unsure/hesitant as you are right now. And that is perfectly okay!

Did you have any specific motivation for choosing the US over some other places like in Asia, Australia and Europe?

My first choice was to go back to France and work with my professor there. There were a few problems with that:

  • You join a specific lab with a focused topic
  • Most PhD programs in Europe are strictly 3 years long and you’re expected to leave at the end of the period
  • Most advisors expect you to have finished a Master’s program in a related field

Unfortunately for me, I barely had enough experience to join a lab with a fixed topic. I wanted to spend some time exploring the different avenues I could take my research, which is the primary reason I chose to apply to places in the US. Most computational biology programs here have rotations in the first year wherein you work with multiple advisors for a short period of time and then decide what lab fits you the best.

A question that the students should ask themselves before applying for a PhD under a specific guide and institute

Besides the matching of research interests, one of the most important things you need to look for is the lab/department environment. If your department of interest does not do rotations, talk to students already enrolled in the programs about how the general atmosphere is. This is as important, if not more, as the advisor you’re interested in, given that you’re going to spend the next 5-6 years at that place.

Any exam tips, application tips, links to any personal blogs etc

If your application requires you to take the GRE, do not delay taking it until the very end. The application fall semester flies past you extremely quickly and things only get busier towards the end. Get seniors in your area of interest to help you review your statements of purpose since they’ve been through the process and have insights from the other side.

The key point to remember here is that no one part of your application is the singular deciding factor. You can easily make up deficits in one area with a stellar performance in another.

Factors considered in choosing the university, program and advisor. 

I chose my list of places to apply to by shortlisting institutions that had great medical schools. Schools with large hospitals or medical schools usually have great applied biology departments. Next, I looked at computational biology / systems biology / bioinformatics departments at these institutions that had at least 5 faculty that I could see myself working with. This is important since not all faculty of your interest might be actively accepting students.

Experience

– Differences between IITB and the current University in terms of say, Faculty, Facilities,  Research Opportunities

One of the disappointing surprises I encountered on my return to IITB from my exchange semester was the absolute absence of any computational genomics research in the biology department, with most labs focussing entirely on experimental work. On the other hand, most institutes here have a dedicated department for research on computational genomics. Another advantages institutes here have is that, compared to IITB which is more engineering focussed, they cover a much wider range of subjects and research areas that allows you to interact with people involved in different kinds of research.

– Friends and Social Life (also if any culture shocks) 

The social life at IITB was a unique experience that is hard to recreate anywhere else once you leave. However, you get exposed to a wider variety of people from all over the world that definitely broadens your viewpoint in a way that a closed environment like IITB could not.

– What are some key takeaways you have from your experience in the USA until now?

The main thing I’ve realised over the last one year is that unlike your four/five years at IITB, no one is going to hand you stuff on a platter here. You need to make an effort to discover the things you like and make an effort to pursue them. Adulthood can be fun as long as you’re open to new experiences.

– What are your Future plans?

Given my history, I know it’s too early to predict where I’ll be five years down the line but the ideal case would see me working as a bioinformatician at a research institution or a company that works on similar stuff.

– You have been a part of the Literary Arts club of IITB, how important do you think it is for students to associate with something of their interests outside the study load during a PhD?

I think learning to have a work-life balance is an extremely important skill to have as a PhD student. I realized very early in my first semester that I wasn’t always the best at it. I’ve been making a conscious effort to have a distinct separation between my work and the rest of my time, and I do this by spending my time doing things I like. I spend most of my free time playing squash, climbing, attending book clubs, and learning how to dance.