Interview: Rakesh Vaideeswaran (2016-2020)

How did you go about the application process for Mitacs? Did you have any interviews? If so, would any prior preparation of concepts be needed (for an interview)?

The application for Mitacs Globalink is pretty straightforward. It is fully online, and the call for applications usually open by August, and the deadline is around mid-September. 

a. Letters of Recommendation (LoR)

The application requires a minimum of 1 and a maximum of 2 LoRs, preferably from professors who you’ve worked with as part of previous internships or who know you well as part of courses they have taught and you know they have good things to say about you. I uploaded 2 LoRs, one from a department faculty who taught me a course and the other from the professor whom I worked with the previous summer (I would recommend uploading 2). There are a few profs who ask you to write the LoR yourselves, in which case you have complete control over the letter. Make the most of it by trying to make it more specific and unique to you. If both professors ask you to do the same, keep in mind not to upload the same letter or even the same template as it decreases the value of your application. Keep track of the number of LoRs each professor has agreed to give you. Choose wisely as LoRs are required for all internship applications and not only Mitacs. 

b. Essays

This was the most difficult part of the application for me. We were asked to write four essays on –

  1. General Description of Background Knowledge, Skills and Research Interests
  2. Notable Achievements
  3. Research Rationale
  4. Previous Research Experience

The word limit for each essay was 100 words.

Tip: Use bullet points or numbers while writing essays 1 and 2 as they use lesser words than sentences. This way, you can convey more information. 

c. Choosing projects

This again is a crucial part of the application. Applicants are required to choose 7 projects from a very big list, spanning at least 3 different provinces in Canada. 

d. Others

Other parts of the application include uploading transcripts, passport, other basic details, etc. 

Make sure to upload your CV as per the template provided by Mitacs.

e. Interviews

After the application is submitted, you may or may not be interviewed by the professors provided you’ve passed the first screening, which will be notified to you approximately 2 months before the deadline. I had a Skype interview with a professor but in the end, I was allotted a different project of higher preference, for which I didn’t have an interview. When it comes to interviews, it is important to know every little detail about everything you have worked on till date. As long as you’re technically strong on every aspect of all the projects you’ve been a part of, you’re good to go.

What were the roadblocks you faced during the application process? How did you go about writing the research statement?

Writing the research rationale was something that took up a lot of time. It is important to try to make it unique and specific to you by including a life experience or a backstory that got you interested in research. Once that’s done, you need to think about how you’re going to express it. This is not as easy as it sounds, more so because of the word limit. You need to say why you want to pursue research, and what makes you the ideal candidate for the field you’re applying to. This is not something that can be done in a day and requires multiple edits over weeks to end up with a perfect essay. I asked my seniors to proofread my essays and provide suggestions, as they have already been a part of this and hence know better. The other essays are straightforward, but the word limit makes them challenging. 

When would you recommend that interested students start applying?

I’d suggest starting the application as early as possible as choosing projects requires a lot of background research about the professor and writing the essays takes up a lot of time. Meanwhile, you also need to get other academic documents and LoRs ready. It is good to finish the application properly at least a week before the deadline so that you have enough time to make final minor changes before you submit it. 

Scholarships like DAAD require you to email professors first and then apply through the DAAD-WISE program. Is it the same in the case of Mitacs?

No, Mitacs requires you to shortlist 7 projects in your field of interest. Then, Mitacs makes the final selection based on the feedback given by the profs about you and your overall profile (home university, research background, CGPA, extra-curricular activities, etc). Even if the professor provides positive feedback to Mitacs, they have no say in the final selection. Also, Mitacs strongly discourages the practice of emailing professors and requires that you communicate with the professor only if you are selected after the final project match. 

How did you go about shortlisting projects and applying for a visa?

Applicants are required to choose 7 projects, spanning at least 3 provinces in Canada. Ensure that you have previous experience in what you’re applying for and make sure that you tick all the boxes in the “Student Requirements” section of the projects you plan to apply to. I’d suggest not restricting oneself to only the top universities. If you like a project and the professor offering the project is an active researcher in the field, I’d say go for it, irrespective of the university. If you do not find any projects in your field that you like, in top universities, I’d suggest not to apply to them just because the university is ranked, because ultimately, what you do matters more than where you do it. Also, try not to apply to multiple projects offered by the same professor. We do not know the mindset of the professor when they choose interns. If for some reason, a professor decides not to take interns from a particular university irrespective of the profile, then applying to multiple projects by that professor decreases your chances of selection.   

Once I received the acceptance mail, I started preparing my application for a Canadian visa. I applied through VFS Global and got the visa within 10 days. The visa application is long and requires a lot of documents. One of the main documents is the proof of funding, for which I submitted the Mitacs award letter that specifies all the funding details. Submission of insufficient or fake documents will result in visa rejection. 

Was the stipend provided by Mitacs sufficient to cover all your expenses? How did you manage accommodation and food?

Yes, the stipend is more than enough to cover all expenses. If spent wisely, you will also end up saving a lot. How much you save also partially depends on the place you are in as some places are more expensive than others. Mitacs does not provide accommodation but provides sufficient money for the same. Generally, off-campus accommodation is cheaper than on-campus. I, however, lived on-campus as it was very convenient and not so expensive. 

As far as food is concerned, some universities do provide a meal plan but those are expensive too. It is also quite difficult to get vegetarian food in most places. So, knowing how to cook really helps and you also end up saving a lot of money because of that, as food outside is pretty expensive. 

Did Mitacs provide any assistance after reaching the host university/country?

Once you are selected for an internship, Mitacs assigns a mentor to every intern. The mentor is usually a current or former masters student in the host university and is the first point of contact for your doubts or concerns. The mentor is responsible for picking you up from the airport. They also fix an appointment with the bank and help you with opening a Canadian bank account, which is mandatory.

Which university did you work at? Could you briefly describe your project? Did you learn any new skills (research-wise) upon completing your internship?

I interned at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton for 12 weeks. My project was based on Deep Learning for AirWriting Recognition of sentences using accelerometer and electromyography (EMG) signals from a wrist-worn device. I analysed the signals from the device for a fixed vocabulary of 50 words using sequential deep learning algorithms. I developed a segmentation algorithm based on filters and also a sentence recognition model using Long Short Term Memory (LSTM) network with Connectionist Temporal Classification (CTC) cost function.

In the course of these 12 weeks, I learnt a systematic way of approaching a research problem statement. I realised the importance of the literature review in research as my professor suggested I read at least one article a day and update him about it. I came across a software called Mendeley, which is used for reference management. It allows you to keep track of all the research articles you’ve read and prepare notes for the same. 

How diverse was the student community at the internship and what were the takeaways from interactions with them?

Mitacs provides research opportunities for students from 11 countries and I got to meet people from Mexico, Ukraine, China, Germany, Tunisia, etc. and of course Canada. As a result of interacting with them, you get to know more about their cultures and also get to be a part of it during ethnic events. 

Describe your typical work week and off-campus life.

Mitacs requires you to work for at least 40 hours a week (8 hours a day) from Monday to Friday. I usually start my day at 9 AM and I didn’t have a fixed work time every day. There were days when I worked till 7 PM but there were also days when I worked only till 2 PM. My professor did not ask me to follow any strict work schedule as long as the work for that week was completed as discussed. In my case, the timings were flexible and hence convenient. 

Their work culture is such that they work really hard during weekdays and party hard on the weekends. Most professors don’t even check their mail in the weekend, another reason why you shouldn’t mail them then. I spent my weekends going on trips with my friends. I went to 3 long trips and multiple short trips during my stay. Certain weekends when I did not go on trips, I spent my time cooking for the next week. In most places, there will be a lot of cultural events happening in the weekend, thus making off-campus life interesting and lively even if you do not have company.

Did you face any obstacles during your internship?   

Weather and food were two things that gave me a tough time in the first couple of weeks. I found it difficult to find vegetarian food and managed the initial weeks with whatever I had brought from home. The weather was very cold, something that I was not used to before (but improved over time). 

As far as work was concerned, I would meet my professor and discuss with him whenever I was stuck with something and didn’t have a clear idea of how to proceed. My professor was very approachable and polite, and I was very comfortable communicating with him.

After joining the internship, what kind of resources did you use to learn in your project?

In my case, the postdoc I worked with sent me a few materials to read through in the first week, most of them being journal and conference papers related to the project. Most of what I worked on was new to me, and I studied the concepts from papers, documents and online video lectures as and when I reached that stage of the project. In my opinion, research is not something you can pursue by studying things altogether beforehand. Rather, it happens with time, each phase having some takeaway or the other, eventually increasing your expertise in the field.

How frequently did you interact with your professor? What was the workflow?

I had a meeting every week with my professor to discuss the progress in the project and the agenda for the following week. In addition to this, I would meet him whenever I had any doubts or was stuck with something.

For any research problem statement, you start with the literature review and I did that exclusively for about a month. Reading many articles in the field tells you what others have done, giving you new ideas on the way to finally find your gap statement. I kept track of all the papers I read through Mendeley. After identifying the gap statement, I started working on the code for the various modules of my project in Matlab and Python. Meanwhile, I also started collecting data from differently able-bodied subjects who agreed to volunteer for my experiment. The base project has been completed and there are a few more experiments which we had discussed are worth trying. We hope to complete them and also start working on a manuscript for the same.

Would you consider studying in Canada in the future? If so, does being a scholar help you get admission over there easily?

Yes, I do plan to apply to Canadian universities for my masters. 

As a Mitacs Globalink Intern, you are eligible to apply for Mitacs Graduate Fellowship, which is another program that funds research-based masters in a Canadian university. Being a Mitacs intern does give you an upper hand in your admissions. Also, if you work well in your internship, there is a very good chance that the professor might agree to fund your masters (in addition to Mitacs funding), as the professor is already familiar with your work and hence will prefer you over someone they don’t know about.

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