Careers Interview: Vakula Venkatesh (Mech – 2024)

Please Introduce Yourself and tell us a little bit about your current profile.

I am a mechanical engineering student at NIT-T. I am also a MITACs Global Research Intern at the University of Victoria in Canada for the summer of ’23. Before that, I interned at IIT Delhi for the summer of ’22. I have been in several content teams across my four years at college, such as TCF and TEDX; I have been at RMI since my second year and am now the Head of Alumni Relations.

Can you give us insight into what drove you to research and pursue grad school? 

Pursuing higher education was something I had in my mind well before starting undergrad. The question was whether to pursue grad school directly after college or work in the industry first and then go to grad school. My family was pushing me towards the former because of the whole “if-you-starting-earning-you-stop-learning”, which, to be frank, is a valid point. Besides, the ability to do what I want in research was pretty cool, and I just felt like I wanted to study more before actually taking up a job. Coming back to the whole grad school now or then, I realized that there weren’t many robotics companies, and it would be pretty weird applying for robotics grad school with two years of work ex in fluid/heat/design engineering. So, it made more sense to pursue grad school immediately.

What are some of your research interests that you picked up along the way? 

I didn’t have any particular interest when I joined college. I was into aerospace, but it was more like me putting my foot everywhere and trying out stuff. I got into robotics via exposure from RMI and pursued a robotics project at IIT Delhi during my 2nd-year summer break, which set forth my research interest in robotics. A part of me is also interested in fluid dynamics as well, but with my exposure to robotics, I decided to stick to this.

Tell us about your Mitacs Internship experience. Do you have any tips to increase your chances of being selected?

The experience was amazing! I interned at the University of Victoria at the Autonomous Control and Intelligence Systems Lab. I worked on a project alone rather than as part of a team, but I got a lot of support. The environment is also very chill, and we were allowed to take holidays. The quality of the work is more important than the hours you put in, and there’s a good work-life balance. The lab was massive, and there were nearly 30 people inside. They were all very interested and would come around and ask me what I was working on.

Mitacs is an excellent option for anyone who doesn’t have a 9.5 CGPA because many other scholarship programs have that requirement. However, the selection was quite random. So, with regards to the process, you submit seven professors as your choices for the internship and in your application, you answer four questions, each with a hundred-word limit. Also, make sure that the projects you discuss in your SOP are coherent and relate to each other or are in the same domain. After your application has passed the basic checks, you become a candidate under consideration, and this is when your profile is sent to professors. You apply to seven professors and order them according to your preference. Each professor also orders seven students; if the preferences match, you are selected.

Why did you choose to pursue grad school outside of India?

I didn’t choose to pursue grad school here because of the whole rat race situation , and, more importantly, the domain in which I wished to pursue grad school is weak in India. Robotics in India is still in its infancy. Most of my seniors who went to grad school outside India told me about the labs and stuff there, and it seemed pretty cool, so I decided to give it a shot. Plus, my time in Canada gave me a small peek into the life and research of grad students there. So a combination of people’s opinions, own experiences and internet research generally helps.

Please walk us through your grad school application.

To sum it up, it’s a lot and hectic. There are so many different aspects to it.Kicking it off with standardized tests like the GRE and English proficiency exams like the IELTS and TOEFL. Once you get past this, you have your Statement of Purpose (SOP), Letter of Recommendation from your professors, and your resume. 

I recommend you guys start making your resume as soon as possible because once you get it over with, it’s a matter of making small changes rather than writing one from scratch. Reach out to your seniors and make sure you get your resume reviewed by them.

I took my GRE around midway through my 7th sem, and I advise you guys to take the exam earlier if possible as things get really hectic this semester. You would also have to manage your SOPs and other parts of the application, making studying for this exam difficult, and the exam is not cheap, so pressure builds more.

One piece of advice I received from my seniors is to write your own SOP before you accept theirs. Else, it creates a mental image of what an SOP should be like.  

Also, a thing to note is that some universities are very clear in the fact that they do not consider GRE scores in their evaluation.As a result, I highly recommend that you maintain a high CGPA if you are planning to go abroad, as it is a better indicator of academic performance than the GRE.

Apart from the GRE, you have TOEFL/IELTS, which are standard English-speaking examinations. If you weren’t aware, you can waive your requirements for these examinations for certain universities via a language certificate from our college.

You receive your LoRs from your professors, which you might have to draft. Do not make it very generic; it should not be more than a few paragraphs long. Your universities will ask your professors to upload the LoR directly, so you have to keep in touch with your professors down the line as well.

I mentioned this earlier, but I’ll say this again: finish your deadlines ahead of time because things start to get super hectic near the finish line. I remember once I had to call up a professor a day before the deadline for an application to upload the LoR while I was on the train from Chennai to Bombay. So, plan things and get them sorted.

Could you elaborate on the financial aspects of graduate school?

Finances play a huge role in graduate school applications, both in terms of the tuition fee and the cost of each application. Some people choose to do their Master’s in Europe because the government primarily funds it. However, they demand a very high CGPA and strong academic background. If you are applying for a Master’s in the US, the best way to finance your graduate studies is through scholarships, although they are limited. Sometimes, the university will have scholarship options. I would say sit down and talk with your parents or anyone who is funding you, look for educational loans, and apply for as many scholarships as possible. In India, big companies offer scholarships. For example, Tata, Mahindra, Birla, and Ambani all offer scholarships. However, most of these scholarships are loan-scholarships, and don’t fund your entire requirement, so most people opt for a combination of savings, loans and the amount they get through scholarships.

Did you use any graduate school consultancy services, and if so, how helpful were they?

Consultancy firms have tie-ups with many universities. However, these universities often have high acceptance rates (around 30%-50%). So, if your goal is to just pursue a Master’s degree abroad, these firms can be a good option. I primarily sought their assistance with finding scholarships and visa applications and connecting me with loan officers, as they excel in these areas. However, it was a constant uphill battle as they insisted on me applying to their predetermined list of universities, which I wasn’t keen on. They also tend to take control of the entire application process, from creating accounts in your name to writing your Statement of purpose (SOP). This made me uncomfortable as I felt I wasn’t in charge of my application. However, using these firms might be a viable option if you’re pressed for time. I know people who have used these consultancy services, and I don’t doubt their credibility, as they know how to get an admittance.

Any last pointers for the readers?

Never say no to an opportunity. If you like something, go for it. There are a gazillion different things that keep popping up, and do give it a shot. Webmail has something in store weekly, and things pop in and out of your technical circles. You only know whether something is cool if you try it out. The WINNITT community is fantastic, and I learned a lot from the people there.

And finally, do not be shy about asking for help. It’s not gonna cost you anything to reach out to people via LinkedIn, contacts, etc. The worst they can do is say I’m busy and trust me; people are always ready to help you out, just be sure to ask kindly respecting the other person’s time too. 

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