The Michigan Pathway: Anukta Datta

The Michigan Pathway: Anukta Datta

N Manyata | Dec 24, 2018

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A scholar from the humble strata of her college days, Anukta Datta is a promising young-achiever of the 2017 batch of Chemical Engineering in NIT Rourkela. After a lot of hard work and meticulous planning, Anukta is currently pursuing MS in Chemical Engineering from the reputed University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (US). Team MM caught up with this motivated young researcher to give you a glimpse of her journey so far as she guides us to confront the job versus research conundrum as well as shares helpful tips for higher studies in top foreign universities.

Monday Morning: Tell us something about your days before joining NITR. How did NITR happen to you?

Anukta Datta: NIT Rourkela was probably the best thing that happened to me in terms of personal growth and experience, although Chemical Engineering was more of circumstances and less of choice. I went through the usual gruelling 2 years of high school to get admission in one of the nation's best. I cleared my JEE mains and got admitted to Electrical Engineering in NIT Durgapur after my first round which later got upgraded to NIT Rourkela Chemical Engineering. I've never looked back since that day as I knew I was entering a whole new experience away from home. NITR could be summed up in one word now: home.

 It has given me a variegated experience and helped me grow during the prime years of life. Looking back at my college days, it's  given me a bunch of endearing friends, a genuine interest in my branch and a home to come back to at any point in my life.

 

MM: You had a brief stint at IISC as a Junior research fellow. How did it help you make decisions for your future endeavours? 

AD: Having had a knack for research ever since my sophomore year, I decided to not take up my job offer from the campus placement at NITR and join Prof. Sanjeev Gupta’s group in IISc as a Research Assistant. Despite the dilemma that I faced during the time when I had to make this decision, I knew deep down that I enjoy research a lot more than the 9-5 job. In IISc, I was working on a Unilever R&D project and I thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity and decided to pursue a career in industrial research which requires me to have an MS degree in the least.

MM: How did you get clarity for pursuing MS over trying for a job?

AD: To be honest, research life isn’t as starry as a white collar job. It is most often a lot less paying (in India) than the regular jobs and without all the bells and whistles, but what really pushed me to take up the position of a Research Assitant(RA) and then eventually come to the US for my Masters, was the general lack of opportunities for a Chemical Engineering student fresh out of college in India. Most students from the Chemical Engineering dept end up in analytics or the software companies and the scenario for a core sector job was not very appealing to me and since I enjoy doing research, I figured I would be able to advance my career more if I get my Master’s degree and explore the chemical industry in the US.

MM: How do internships help in getting clarity over the decision to pursue research or job?

AD: I did an internship at the end of my sophomore year in Indian Oil Corporation Ltd which gave me some amount of industrial exposure being one of the largest oil refineries in India. I also did a research internship with Centre for Nanoscience and Engineering (CeNSE) at Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore where I worked on the fabrication of nanoparticles. If I look down the line, I would say I enjoyed my research internship a lot more and that’s primarily because it gave me something challenging to do every day which I felt lacking during my industrial experience but this is something completely subjective and depends solely on one’s interests.

MM: After pursuing Chemical Engineering, you went on to pursue your Masters at the University of Michigan. How and when did you decide to continue Higher studies and specialize further in your field?

AD: Ever since I started out in the department, I genuinely liked the subjects taught and took an active interest in learning more about them. By the end of Summer’16 after my internship at CeNSE, I had decided to pursue higher studies either immediately after college or after working a couple of years. I was not very impressed with the line up of core chemical companies for placements during my year and became completely sure to pursue Masters and explore the industry in the US.

MM: How did you shortlist the University of Michigan for the Masters’ degree and what all others programs had you applied for?

AD: I had applied to a total of 8 colleges (mostly the top 20) out of which three were for PhD and five for Masters. The shortlisting of universities was indeed a very tedious and nerve-wracking process. It involves selecting universities based on the type of research they are pursuing now (for Chemical Engineering it is mostly to check whether the research is more bio-centric or catalysis-centric), the cost for the program, the job opportunities (which again depends a lot on the geography and the reputation) and how diverse the program is.

University of Michigan-Ann Arbor was my dream school because it ranks in the top 10 for Chemical Engeering in the world and it was one of my top choices because of the kind of research that they pursue in the catalysis sector, something that I wanted to work on for the a very long time.

 

MM: Tell us something about the courses/projects you will be working on at the University of Michigan

AD: Graduate course load can be pretty intimidating and intensive but there's nothing to be afraid of. Michigan courses can be very flexible and there's a wide variety of courses you can choose from (especially if you're in Electrical/CS/Electronics) as long as you fulfil the department criterion. I currently got done with my first term at UoM and it feels like just yesterday that I came to the US. Being the top 10 in the Chem Engineering program, the course structure is quite research orientated. The courses I took this term were Applied Mathematics for Chemical Engineers, Fluid Dynamics, Statistical Thermodynamics and Computational Methods. There's a significant difference between the undergraduate equivalent of these courses in India in terms of the depth of teaching, problem variety and teaching. Honor code is very strict here which basically means you can collaborate with others for assignments but not copy them and this really helps you to learn a subject. 

As for research, I'm currently working with Prof Ronald Larson on a Proctor&Gamble (P&G) project which involves studying the thixotropy and rheology of industrial polymers. P&G is the largest consumer goods company in the world that has a lot of RnD work in collaboration with the University of Michigan and I was particularly interested in this project because of my past experience in the field during my stint in IISc Bangalore. Michigan has a wide variety of projects to offer from catalysis to solar cells to cancer treatment and the selection of your principal investigator is also very flexible. From the next term onwards, I would be working on another industrial project with Isuzu involving characterizing material failure as I've been selected to be a part of the school's Multidisciplinary Design Program. Industrial research projects always piqued my interest which is why I'm working on two industrial projects now.

MM: Shed some light on the application process. Did you undertake any mail correspondence with the Professors there before applying formally?  

AD: The application process is tiresome, to say the least. It starts off with the shortlisting of universities (which takes a lot of time), getting recommendation letters. You have to make sure to have referees who will talk about you as a person and give a strong recommendation instead of talking about you as “a general applicant”, getting transcripts from college and ultimately filling up the application form. Make sure to start early from the beginning of November as most of the colleges have deadlines in mid-December. Make sure your recommendation letters, transcripts (if they have to be physically sent) and your GRE+TOEFL scores reach on time before the deadline. Some grad schools have rolling admissions (ie. they start reviewing your application before the deadline), so make sure to fill them out as early as possible.

The US mostly doesn’t require you to mail professors before the application process for Masters but it might be a good effort if you’re applying for a PhD position. This helps you to know if the school you’ve shortlisted have professors working in your research area who are willing to take in graduate students for the next year.

As it so happens, that most of the times the different groups reach saturation (with respect to the number of students in the group) and the professor might not take in students for the year you’re applying to. So, if you are applying to that particular school just because of that one professor you want to work under and he is not taking any students for the coming year, then your application would go down the drains. So it’s best to apply to schools where you have a lot of professors working in your area (at least 4-5) so that your options are not limited. For Canada, the application process is slightly different. Most grad schools in Canada require you to mail professors and only apply if you get a confirmation from some professor (both for Masters Thesis and PhD applications).

MM: How did you prepare for GRE and TOEFL? How did you strike a fine balance between your preparations and regular studies/projects?

AD: I did a month-long preparation for my GRE after college got over in 2017 and took my GRE in mid-June of 2017. So as such, I didn’t have to balance my academics with my GRE preparation but I don’t think it would be difficult to balance the two. GRE is more like smart studying-get your vocabulary strong, read good articles on the internet (NY Times etc) and try to comprehend them, practice Math (for us, Indian students Math should be easy, but you need to solve them accurately in order to score high). It is important to follow the official book by ETS for the GRE Prep as it gives an idea of the type of questions generally asked and apart from this, I followed the 5lb book by Manhattan Prep.

It is also important to take timed mock tests (around 6 is safe, 2 of which should be the official ETS one and 4 from anywhere else-Magoosh/Manhattan Prep/Kaplan etc). I would suggest to take one test before starting your preparation (to see where you stand) and take the remaining 5 during or after the prep. Keep in mind that your real score would be very similar to the ETS mock test scores (for most people). Now, in order to strike a fine balance between academics and GRE prep, I’d suggest devoting 2 hours of the day for the preparation every day for around two months or so before the exam and you’ll be good to go. For my TOEFL, I hardly did any preparation apart from just going through the exam format and the type of questions that need to be asked. One important tip for TOEFL: keep your answers concise and to the point.

There is one more important thing about the GRE and TOEFL. You can send your scores of these exams to 4 universities for free and this requires you to fill in the codes of the four schools right after the exam. Make sure you use this wisely and keep the codes of the 4 schools that you’re sure to apply ready in your mind when you go to give the exam. So this requires to do some initial shortlisting of grad schools. Span out your 4 schools as-1 ambitious/dream, 2 moderate/achievable, 1 sure shot. Any school that you apply to beyond these four will require you to send the GRE and TOEFL scores separately by paying additional fees.

MM: What all scholarships and other stipends and assistance you would be receiving while studying abroad?

AD: If you’re applying for a PhD program, you would generally be funded by the school which means you get a good enough stipend every month (around 2000-3000 USD, which depends on school-to-school) although there are some schools which give out unfunded PhD admits. Please make sure to not to apply to such schools. If you have confusion, mail the graduate program coordinator of that school before applying to be sure if the PhD admission would be funded or not. For MS, your program is generally unfunded unless you receive some scholarship from the dept. So keep an eye open during the application process because some schools generally ask for “whether you want to be considered for financial aid” in the application process itself. You can also apply to the various scholarship schemes in India like JN Tata Scholarship Program or the KC Mahindra Scholarship. The deadlines for most of these are generally the end of February-March, so be sure to apply early. These are basically interest free-loans but it does look good on your resume if you are a JN Tata scholar. You can also get assistance once you get the admission offer and join the school by looking out for Teaching Assistant (TA) positions or Research Assistant (RA) positions once you begin the academic year. It is generally easier to get funding from the second term. A lot of schools also have scholarships for international students, so make sure to get in touch with your graduate program coordinator to get information about these. 

MM: How can the course curriculum of a department be modified to encourage more students to pursue higher studies in abroad instead of passively giving in to jobs in the non-core sector?

AD: The status quo for higher education in India in the field of research is not very promising. Except for a few of the IITs and IISC, research is not given primary importance which is why most students end up doing jobs after their Bachelors. In general, research in India has not been able to catch up with the progress in the US, Europe, Singapore etc because of the lack of funds from the government and the industry. In order to generate interest among the undergraduates for research and higher studies in general, what needs to be done is active participation from the faculty to inspire the students.

A good way to start this is by holding department seminars on a biweekly basis where you can call professors from the different universities (IITs, IISc etc) to talk about their research. This will make the students aware of the various areas of research people are venturing into and the kind of work that is being done. This would be a good way to ignite a few of those inquisitive minds who are caught up in the dilemma between jobs and higher education.

Another way to go about this could be by following a strict honor code policy which requires all students to submit their assignments independently. Students can work in groups but ultimately what they turn in would be a product of their own. This is something which really requires the student to understand the subject matter and help them to develop interest. It would also be good to have senior year undergraduate students work as TAs with professors for 2nd and 3rd-year courses. It’s a good way to make students realise if they want to pursue a career in the academia as professors, lecturers. You could also arrange for workshops with NITR students already studying abroad for MS/PhD-possibly a Skype interactive session. This would really help the current students to help get a much clearer idea of the process and the opportunities available abroad or in India for higher education For the curriculum, I’d say we have a pretty intensive one at the moment but what can be changed is assigning more homeworks with original problems instead of problems from the textbook, using examples of research while teaching a particular topic. 

For example, suppose in a Fluid Dynamics class, if the professor is teaching about viscous flows, he can bring about analogies with the kind of research that is already done in viscous flows and the various industrial applications of it.

MM: Where do you plan to see yourself after the University of Michigan? Do you plan to return to India?

AD: Currently I'm looking for an internship for the summers and if I like the work there, I would look for full-time jobs after my graduation otherwise I plan to pursue a PhD here in Michigan or elsewhere. My ultimate goal is to work in industrial research and a doctoral degree for the same is required, so I would do my PhD here in the US either in Michigan or some other grad school. I plan on entering the consumer good sector or the semiconductor industry post my studies. 

I do plan to return to India but not immediately in the near future. I don't like staying away from the family long and I don't have any plans to settle in the US as of now.

MM: What does it take to be Anukta Datta? Please enlighten our readers with a few lines of inspiration.

AD: As a close friend puts it,

"Anukta doesn't always try doing things in the most appropriate or the most efficient way. Heck, you will often find her in the stupidest of acts, slacking off and procrastinating on her work till the very end. But you have to admit that you can't find someone who puts as much passion and life into her actions as Anukta does - be it studies, work or relationships."

So I guess that's what it is - I have always managed to put all my soul and energy into what I have cared for, even if they have been the wrong ones. That has always made up for any lacunae elsewhere and given it has worked pretty fine so far, I guess that's what I will stick to. I'd just want to say that if you're really interested in graduate studies, go for it, it is absolutely worth the experience.

Never forget to look out for yourself because you never know when opportunities come knocking at you door and also, procrastinate as much as you want to as long as you know what to prioritise.

Team MM wishes the prodigious scholar all the best in her future endeavours.

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