Careers Interview: Shakambari Saxena (EEE – 2024)

Please introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your current profile.

I am Shakambari Saxena, currently in the final year of my B.Tech. I am a part of Dance Troupe, NITT. My interests align with Biomedical Engineering, and my interns and projects so far were oriented to that. In the beginning I wasn’t sure about which branch to choose, so I just went with EEE to get basic knowledge and thought I could explore other fields like robotics etc.

Did you have to put in a lot more extra effort to go for a field which wasn’t your major?

We had a few electives which covered the portions, but there weren’t many courses on Biomedical Engineering offered by our institute. Although NITT’s curriculum didn’t include it,  Bioelectronics actually has a lot of scope, and in IITs and majority of other Indian institutes, Bioelectronics is included in the curriculum. Since I had a passion for it, I took some extra courses. 

Does it matter if my B.Tech is in a different field than what I prefer to go for masters for?

As long as you have built a proper profile related to your interest, it doesn’t matter. Work experience is not necessary, just have some good projects, most engineering branches are eligible to go for other courses, as they are co-related. 

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

I always had an interest in Biomedical engineering. And at present, there aren’t many companies for that.There are drug and pharmaceutical companies, but that is more medical oriented. There are some startup companies, but there’s no good exposure in them.

There are many companies abroad for the same, like Siemens. In India, Siemens healthcare is just for drugs and stuff, they don’t explore beyond that. I wanted to learn about biomedical and the only way I could do it is by going for research as my core curriculum did not include that. In India, the scope is very limited.

Tell us about your DAAD-WISE internship experience.

I interned at FAU and I had a great experience working there.They have an amazing working environment. It’s very good for research compared to India. The professors are very approachable and helpful. They take your interests into consideration. If you are clear on what you want to work on, they will guide you accordingly. The research laboratories are also very impressive. They have all the equipment and if you are interested in doing a hardware-oriented project, it’s a great place. You are not restricted to one PhD scholar. There are 5-6 PhD scholars, and you can reach out to anyone for any guidance as they all have their own specialisations. 

Can you walk us through the procedure of the application? 

You have to approach the professor yourself in DAAD-WISE. There are many universities, you have to explore the professors and their research works and cold mail them and find a professor for yourself who is ready to work with you. Then you fill an application in DAAD-WISE, stating the project that you are going to work on, and get a few signatures from the professor confirming their approval. DAAD only sponsors your travel and stay. They don’t connect you to the professors, unlike MITACS. Then you have to write an SOP, a short letter stating your motivations about why you are interested in research and why you are choosing that particular topic as your project. You can change your project later as well, but you need to give them clarity of what you are planning to do there, thus you need to mention this.

Do you have any tips for getting selected for DAAD? 

DAAD is pretty selective, around 100 people from India get it. CGPA plays a major role.They decide if you are a good candidate based on that, so maintain your CGPA above 9, it shows that you are dedicated towards your work. If you have a good CGPA and consistency in academics then there is pretty much an assurance that you will get it. Majority of the people I met there were rank holders of their department. 

It’s better if you do an internship in your second year itself, it need not be a fancy internship. Even a 1 month thing is fine. Without having any background of that field till your 3rd year, it’s difficult to get accepted for DAAD or MITACS. If you have any relevant projects from your course itself, you can also mention that in your resume and SOP. 

While cold mailing, don’t write a general mail to everyone and don’t mail too many professors. Choose around 25 professors, and write a specific mail to each professor saying why you want to work under them. A lot of professors reject it when they see a very general email. They need to see why you are interested in working with them. 

Did you have any previous internship experience before DAAD?

I did an internship in IIT Delhi, which was also related to biomedical. In 2nd year, nobody expects you to know anything. You can just go for an internship you want, and they will most likely accept you and guide you. 

If you can get an internship abroad in the 2nd year itself, it’s a much better option. There are many internships that are open for 2nd years like Swiss internship or Japan internships. In the US, each college offers a lot of internships as well. You just have to cold mail the professors. You can also do these internships online. They will provide all the resources to you. 

Doing in India is a good option too, if you get an IISc or an IIT. Selecting the professor is the most important thing. Who you select as your supervisor determines how much you learn from the internship. As a newbie, you will have zero idea about stuff, and even if you put a lot of hard work from your side, without proper guidance, you will just be beating a dead horse. 

You got selected for both MITACS and DAAD-WISE. Why did you choose DAAD over MITACS? Can you walk us through the differences?

If you are going for higher studies in the USA, MITACS is preferred, and if you are planning to go to Europe, DAAD is preferred. DAAD and MITACS are recognised everywhere, but just gives you a slight edge if you have experience with their locality. Europe is very well known for its research. Majority of Nobel laureates did research in Europe and then went to the US. 

In MITACS, you have to fill the application form and choose your top 7 preferences from the list of professors’ profiles that they have put up. Then they connect you to the professor based on your and the professor’s preferences. You don’t mail the professors yourself. The project title for each professor will also be already given. The MITACS project I got was my third preference. 

In DAAD, you have to go through the universities, the professors, their research interests and works, and then you go cold mailing them if your research interests align with them. If they like your profile, they will have a meeting-cum-interview with you, just to get an idea of your fundamental knowledge. If they like you after this, they accept you and then you can discuss the project you want to work on. That’s what I liked about DAAD, that I got a chance to choose my own project. 

Mitacs offers a lot of money because they want you to come and settle there and you end up saving a lot. Many people choose MITACS because of that. For DAAD, you barely get the living expenses. They decide on the basis of a survey how much a masters student in Germany requires to survive for a month, and they give you that exact stipend which is around 935 euros.

Can you walk us through your grad school application process?

It’s a very hectic process. My entire 7th semester was invested in this. You have to give GRE, TOEFL, IELTS, depending on the colleges you are applying to. In the UK, they usually prefer IELTS. Only 2-3 universities I applied to preferred GRE. 

Each university will have minimum score requirements and it varies from department to department also.

I recommend doing these things in your second or third year itself, because GRE score is valid for 5 yrs, TOEFL score is valid for 2 yrs. The pressure will be less during that time and it’s also easier to balance with your schedule. You can also rewrite if you don’t get good marks with more practice and time, rather than rushing it up in the end. 

You need to be clear about the universities you are applying to. In the beginning I had the mindset of applying to all the good universities. You need to sort out your preferences. Because you can get only limited no. of LORs. Professors usually do not give more than 10 LORs, and that too rarely.

It’s better that you apply for 2 universities which are out of your scope, that is, you know it’s difficult to get that with your current profile, just to give it a shot, 3 universities which you are 50 percent sure that you can get in, and rest which you are sure of getting with your profile. So select 10 universities according to this. After this you have to go through the minimum scores required in GRE, TOEFL or IELTS. Every course has its prerequisites about which departments can apply, your CGPA criteria, your score. Go through that thoroughly. Keep in mind the available job opportunities also in the place you are going. Cost of study in Europe is cheaper too, they promote free study, there are many top universities with 0 or very less tuition fee. Then you have to write an SOP and get LOR from professors. Try to get all LORs submitted one month prior. It’s better if you apply for scholarships during the application process itself. 

Do you have any tips one should keep in mind while writing the SOP?

SOP should be like a very basic story of yours in chronological order with a proper flow and not abruptly putting the stuff you did. You don’t have to try and use very fancy words. 

Tell it like a story like you would to a child. Mention why you went for B.Tech, why you chose your course, why you went for research in the first place when there are job options. Write about the significance of why you chose that particular department or project. You can’t just write “I am from so-and-so department and I have done so-and-so work”. Try to correlate your projects with the professors’ works. Put a maximum of 2-3 professors in your SOP and specify why you like their research work, why you are inclined to this university and how you think you can contribute to their research work. 

You need to show the growth you had from your first year to now and how your experiences helped you and had a positive impact on you. I didn’t refer to anyone else’s SOP and did not ask too many people to proofread. You can ask a few people for self-satisfaction. You need to be satisfied and convinced that you have conveyed your points well. 

What if my CGPA isn’t great?

Then your SOP and LOR both should be very impressive, your SOP should explain why you didn’t perform well in acads, it’s just about how you sell yourself to the university. Keep your SOP genuine. CGPA is just for sorting out applications in the beginning into excellent, good and average. 

Can you elaborate on the financial aspects of grad school applications?

The US is pretty expensive, scholarship is really preferred. You can go for GRA and GTA after you go there.  

If you don’t get a scholarship, you can take loans. For getting a scholarship, you have to have a really good profile. If you have done some volunteering work, that also plays a role in getting you the scholarship.

Some universities have a separate portal for scholarships while for some you can fill out in the application process itself. 

You need to see how many admits are there, ratio of students to professors, etc.

You can also try other means of scholarships. There are also some India-Srilankan scholarships which provide for a lot of European universities. There are some scholarships offered by companies like Reliance as well.

Did you face any obstacles during your internship and application?

I got a professor who confirmed to work with me, and within the last 7 days, he said he can’t accept me, saying he didn’t realise that I was not from his university. I had mentioned that I’m coming from India, but somehow the miscommunication happened. I lost hope to get DAAD, but I again sent reminders to the other professors I had mailed and luckily I got 3 replies back and got better offers than what I had!

Mention in every possible way that you are not a part of their university.

You also have to keep the timing in mind during cold mailing, because in Germany, around August-September, a lot of professors take holiday, and I didn’t know it back then, I started mailing in August end and I didn’t get many replies because they were on a holiday, which I only realised later. It’s better to start mailing by June-July, and you should be getting replies by August. 

If you are going for research, you have to make choices at every stage. What made you go for biomedical and shortlisting universities?

I come from a family of doctors, I always liked biology, I wanted to incorporate biology with maths. I was also very fascinated with the pacemaker. I got sick a lot, I wanted to cure myself. Biomedical was the one approach I could see to achieve this. You need to explore many things to realise what you really are interested in. Spend a good time doing this.

Shortlisting universities is a very important part. I initially started with 20+ universities, the application process itself costs money, you need to consider that as well, and LOR, USA requires 3, Europe requires 2. It took me a lot of time to shortlist universities because it’s very difficult to be sure if the choices I’m making are right or not. I also talked to a few seniors. But in the end, you have to set a criteria for yourself. Do you want only top notch universities or any university you get? You can take a gap year if you don’t get the universities you want. I decided to take a gap year and do research assistantship in India itself if I didn’t get the universities I wanted. Because I had 5 universities in mind, and I was sure I wanted to go for those only. You need to see their curriculum and everything, the courses and opportunities they are offering and you need to be sure that you are interested in it and will be able to manage it. 

Do you think anything besides your academics and internships helped you towards your career goal?

For SOP, there is equal importance for extra curricular activities as well. If you are part of some club or team that helps. I am part of the Dance Troupe and I have been dancing since my childhood, so it showed my determination to continue my passion without affecting my acads. Volunteering work also helps, like if you are part of NSS or something.

They see how well you can manage your acads with everything else. If you are into sports, that also helps. 

Any last pointers for readers?

Be sure that you wanna go for research if you are going for it. In initial stages, you wouldn’t be sure of what to do, it’s like hit-and-trial at that point, and you will have second thoughts at every stage. You have to contact many seniors about how they did it. 

You need to have a true passion for it. Research requires a lot of commitment, and it’s not a very easy path. You have to set your own path if you are choosing to go for it.

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