I was told that I had “zero possibility” of getting into a top 100 PhD program

Today I am working towards my Ph.D. with the #1 professor in my field. Don’t lose hope. If you really want to do something, you will find a way ….

From as far back as I can remember I have always enjoyed teaching and that was my long term goal.  After finishing my BTech from the Bengal Engineering and Science University (formerly known as Bengal Engineering College), Shibpur, I joined IIT Kanpur for MTech in 2007 with a simple plan: I wanted to do PhD from a reputed university so that I can then get to teach in some engineering college. But 6 months down the line, my plan went haywire.. my CPI at the end of semester 1  was 7.5; in MTech a CPI of 8.0 is considered average and my rank at one point was 14th or 16th out of 20. During a casual discussion with my supervisor I was told that with a CPI less than 8.0 there was “zero possibility” of getting into a top 100 PhD program.

No margin for error

Well, I think my relatively low CPI was mostly due to two things. First, I got exposed to a lot of activities all at once. At one particular time I was the student placement co-ordinator, student guide in the counselling service and was also taking French and guitar classes. I think this happens to quite a lot of students who come from colleges where there are not too many “non-academic” activities.

Secondly, the grading system at IITK is particularly unfair for post-graduate students. We were exposed to a completely new system of exams and we take only 8 courses during the entire program. With even-point grading system (A=10, B=8, C=6, D=4, F=2), a small slip-up gets your CPI down by 0.25. I remember, one of the mid-semester exams where we were allowed to carry with us one sheet of paper filled with any information we deemed fit. I had no idea about what to include on the sheet of paper; so I decided to add as many things as possible keeping font size as small as I could read. I managed to stuff the entire syllabus in the sheet! I went to the exam hall very confident but found that my sheet couldn’t help me solve even one question; and I got a zero in an exam for the first time in my life! Luckily it was just a mid-semester exam. I think it took me time to understand the nuances of open book, take home exams and the likes. By then it was too late and since we only had 2 semesters worth of course work, one couldn’t really bounce back from such setbacks.  The second semester was not too great either and by the end of it I was convinced that there was absolutely no way I could get admitted to a decent PhD program.

A point worth noting is that more than half of the time spent during the MTech program is on thesis work (about 12-14 months out of 22). Quality of the thesis is also more important to professors looking for PhD students. However there are no grades awarded for thesis; thus I think CPI is not as important in the context of MTech.

Is there really NO way I could do what I wanted to?

Maybe people around me were right. Maybe there was no way I could do what I wanted to do, i.e., have a career in academics. My supervisors and seniors managed to convince me that I would probably not get a PhD in a decent place with only masters degree from IIT and a CPI of 7.33; so I stopped preparing for the GRE and decided to enjoy my thesis as much as I could. Also 2009 was a year of recession so my duties as the placement co-ordinator kept me really busy and pre-occupied. Initially I was not too worried about landing a job, but when companies one after the other started refusing to come for placements, I started suffering from sleepless nights. This was when I started questioning my earlier decision to not accept a job offer at SAIL (Steel Authority of India Limited) after BTech and instead join IITK for MTech. Suddenly help came from an unexpected corner. During a candid discussion with my thesis supervisor I told him how much I was enjoying the thesis work, but how I was also regretting my decision to refuse a placement offer with SAIL and do MTech instead. It was then that he assured me that he would help me get a job in case on-campus placement efforts don’t work out, provided I didn’t let the intensity of my thesis work go down.

I never really felt any peer pressure. Perhaps this was due to the fact that my friends had similar grades as mine. All of us by now had decided that CPI was important only if we wanted to pursue a PhD somewhere.  We all agreed to have as much fun as possible during the thesis and forget the PhD goal. Joint GRE preparation session turned into simple adda at the canteen. My parents never put any pressure on me with regards to grades; in fact the last time they enquired about my marks and grades was way back in 2002 when I was in class 12th. I think it was mainly due to the fact that my parents had enough confidence in me. So there was no real problem there.

Once on-campus placements started, in my first interview, the interviewer asked me something about Finite Element accuracy, I had no clue as to what he was asking. I just mumbled “physical intuition”, to which one of the interviewer remarked “That is a top answer” and my interview was over; just one question, no discussion about having the lowest grades among those selected for the interview. Later I was told that I had topped the written test for the job. I was offered the job but as the luck would have it, the company suffered several reverses and the project I was selected for got postponed by a few months. I thought a 4-6 month holiday at home was not really an option and so I started teaching in a private engineering college close to my home. It was a wonderful experience for me, I really enjoyed giving the lectures. I loved the fact that I managed to get a lot of attention from my students, I liked talking about engineering and liked being surrounded by people interested in hearing me talk. This experience also further confirmed that without any research experience, I could never be a good teacher. All I felt I was doing was translating stuff from the text book and narrating it to the class. To put it simply, I was just indulging in “high school teaching.” I realized that I didn’t really have enough knowledge to be a good teacher in a college/university. PhD was an absolute must. 

Why are you so ambitious? Do you want to be Kalpana Chawla?

I finished my three months’ contract with the college, accepted the earlier job offer and started working in Bangalore. Things in my company were depressing to say the least. The project I was hired to work on got further delayed and I was benched indefinitely. I just had to login to work. I had access to the internet and lots of free coffee to drink. This continued for about 6 months.  This was when the memories of my experiences of teaching started hitting me. There was not a single day when I didn’t think about how good it felt to have people listen to my lectures. I knew I had to somehow look at a career in full time teaching long-term and for that I needed to somehow get a PhD. I turned once again to my supervisors who told me that with my CPI they couldn’t take me even in IITK without an interview. I applied for the PhD program at IITK and got an interview call. I was fairly confident that the interview in itself was just a formality, since my M.Tech supervisors wanted to keep me. I didn’t apply to any other institute.

What happened in the interview room was pure horror for me. The first sentence that I heard was from one of the professors in the panel who actually told me that it was evident from my grades that I was not really interested in studying and the only reason I want to do PhD is due to the fact that I got fired from my job.

The panel just refused to look at my MTech thesis and also disregarded the fact that my supervisor wanted to recruit me, he obviously had confidence in my abilities.

I came back to Bangalore feeling a mixture of emotions; I was embarrassed, angry and also wanted to prove a point to the panel that what they were thinking was wrong; I had to find a way. My friends and colleagues thought it was very stupid of me not to apply to other IITs, to this day I am called “Ek goli-ka shikari”- a hunter who goes hunting with only one bullet in his arsenal.

So I started randomly applying to all PhD programs that were even remotely linked to my thesis and experience. The free internet and coffee of my company helped me a lot during this search. It was also during this time that the project I was hired for finally got approved and now my company wanted me to work. It was fair from their point of view, but I now wanted to prepare a bit for the impending interviews.  With no PhD offers in hand I decided to quit my job. I had saved enough money to sustain myself for a few months.

However, I experienced a lot of pressure from relatives, neighbours and the society in general. One of my uncles told me “tum ko kaunsa Kalpana Chawla banna hai- pata nahin kyon itna ambtion hai? XYZ ko dekho tumhare saath engineering kiya, ab 50k earn kar raha aur tum ghar main baithe ho” (Do you want to be Kalpana Chawla, what is the reason for so much ambition, look at your friend who was your classmate in engineering, he now earns 50K a month and you are jobless).

Those were really tough days, but my parents never doubted my abilities and that helped a lot.

A Rank of 257 in GATE was more diagnostic of my worth than an M.Tech. CPI of 7.33

Finally, after waiting for a couple of months, I got a few interview calls (a couple from top 100 universities list of Times Higher Education). I was very apprehensive about interviews; my previous interview for a PhD opening was horrible to say the least. Even though my CPI was low, I believed that IITK had prepared me well for PhD in two ways. First, it instilled a certain level of confidence and faith in my ability. Second, thesis work is taken seriously by professors at IITK. It is great preparation for PhD, no amount of course work can ever replicate that in my opinion.

I had a telephone interview with a professor at Katholieke University of Leuven, Belgium – one of the top universities in the world in the field of composites [www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/world-university-rankings/2011-2012/europe.html]  I was pleasantly surprised when there were no questions at all about grades, my to-be supervisor asked me about how I got into IITK? When I told him that there were about 25,000 students appeared in GATE and I was ranked 257, he found the numbers absolutely stunning. In fact he reconfirmed whether I meant 25,000 or 2500. The project I was hired for was a good match with my thesis work and I duly got the offer. I am now doing PhD work at Katholieke University of Leuven, Belgium. My research group is well known in the field of composites. In fact, according to Microsoft Academic Search database, both my supervisor (Stepan Lomov #12) and co-supervisor (Ignace Verpoest #1) make it to the top 12 of the most prolific researchers in the field of composite materials. [http://academic.research.microsoft.com/RankList?entitytype=2&topDomainID=12&subDomainID=3&last=0&start=1&end=100]

One day I asked my supervisor why he was not bothered about my MTech grades before giving me admission to PhD program. He said that if I was good enough to execute my master thesis so well, I was also good enough for the PhD. He said he looked at my grades keeping in mind how tough it is to get into IIT and that competition must be really hard within the class as well.

I recently finished my first year of PhD with the world’s best professors in my field. On the yearly review my professor remarked that in terms of where a PhD student should be at the end of year one, I was way above average. I felt really happy with his remark. I have finally proven that I am indeed capable of doing PhD quality work irrespective of my grades or what my professors at IITK told me. I am finally doing what I am genuinely interested in.

Ignore the people who tell you can’t do something, because you absolutely can if you put your mind to it

The best advice I ever got and would like to share with others is that our admission in IIT is not a matter of chance; there is a reason – we are intelligent, focused, and hardworking and that needs to be kept in mind even when things don’t go as planned initially. I don’t want to sound elitist but even the student who is at the bottom of his class in IIT was at one time in the top 1% of the country. So don’t listen to people who tell you can’t do something because you can and you are good enough.

During my MTech program, I had 4 interviews: one job interview through the placement office just before finishing the MTech and 3 interviews for admission to PhD program after leaving IITK. There were absolutely no questions asked regarding my CPI and grades. It was enough for the interviewer that I had been accepted into the IIT and that my thesis was relevant to their work. Keep in mind that it is generally believed that grades are sacrosanct for admission in the PhD program.

On a somewhat unrelated note, another piece of advice I would like to give is to be responsible in dealing with people. For a lot of people low CPI is a cause of worry because it doesn’t help you get a good job. This can be avoided if you behave responsibly and have good relationships with professors. During my stint as a placement co-ordinator, I met different professors from my department to request them for help with placement. My plea to all of them was quite simple, there are about 30 BTech students, 5 dual degree students and 15 MTech students adding to a total of 50 students looking for jobs. If all the 25 odd faculty members help two students each then there would be a 100% rate of placement. Almost all the professors remarked that this could indeed be done but in the past all of them at some time or the other had bad experiences with students “who would join a rival company even if the salary offered was one Rupee higher” which had resulted in a loss of face for the faculty who had helped the student get the job in the first place. I understand that everybody wants more money but maintaining transparency and responsibly dealing with people would definitely lead to more participation from the faculty. Responsible behaviour from students would therefore be part of the solution towards ensuring that even students with low CPI get jobs.

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Atul Jain, featured in this story, completed his MTech from IITK in 2009 and is currently a PhD student at Katholieke University of Leuven, Belgium  — among the top 100 universities in the world. We encourage you to communicate with him. Please post your comments or write to him at [email protected]

This article was originally published at http://alumniconnect.wordpress.com/2012/09/29/atuljain/