Captain's Log

En route USA #01 – Choices.

             So last week my visa finally came in and in another five weeks, I am out of the country for a minimum of two years. This time last year, I was clueless. I was taking online courses on computational fluid dynamics in hopes of landing a job as an aerospace engineer. Now I’m a month away from starting my master’s degree in physics. What happened? Either the best or the stupidest decision of my life, that’s what happened.

The ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this decision is complicated. It stems from a place where my childhood dreams and adult fears meet. Perhaps you are clueless too and would like a story of how someone else came to a resolution. If that’s the case, wait another week; it’s in the works. For now, I’m assuming you’ve made up your mind that you want to pursue higher studies in whatever you want. Maybe you are in your final year of college or you’ve graduated and letting your mind rot at a boring job or you are one of those rare people we read about in fairy tales and phoney resumes who are graduated, in a dream job and are looking to add a masters degree to ‘further prospects’. Be what may, preparing for a masters degree takes time. A lot. I had the luxury of having an entire year off and focusing on just getting my ass into a university but clearly, a lot of you do not have that privilege. So maybe this would help. Even if it doesn’t help any of you, it would surely put things in perspective when I come back to this five or ten years down the line.

Before we dive into the story, in case you want to pursue higher studies in India, all you need to do is figure out what exams to write and wreck your heads trying to prepare. There’s GATE for all your centralized universities – IIT, IISc, IIAP, IISST and so on. If it starts with ‘II’, you’ll likely get in through the respective GATE exam. I don’t know a lot about the scene in India because I gave up as soon as I realized I can’t switch streams from engineering to pure science that easily in this country but yeah, GATE and IIT-JAM should cover most of the engineering and sciences admissions in all major universities in the country. If you’re from Tamil Nadu and wish to pursue masters in Tamil Nadu in one of the many ‘Anna-affiliated’ universities, TANCET is the way to go.

In my honest opinion though, unless you want to get into hardcore research all the way to a PhD or your company is willing to sponsor your higher education, a masters degree in India doesn’t amount to much. People are always going to value job experience more and maybe with the exception of few degrees in the best of the best colleges in the country, a masters degree isn’t going to give you much in terms of returns. Also, the multitudes of entrance exams that our colleges use are all practically the same number game. It will never be enough if you’re adept at and well trained in the subject. You need to be well trained in taking that particular exam as well. Sometimes even just that will do. To me, that feels like utter bullshit. So beyond the fact that an education in India will be cheaper, nothing interested me. Money still is a pretty big factor, so I looked nonetheless. But India turned out to be very rigid. There wasn’t much leeway for an aerospace engineer to pursue physics. I applied to a few internships in hopes that it would count as ‘experience’ but didn’t get approved for those as well. A few engineers did get accepted for this particular internship program in IIA – Indian Institute of Astrophysics, but they all had the IIT tag as well. Damn circlejerk.

Anyway, so abroad was the only option. To begin with, abroad has its own exams as well. They are easier compared to the Indian exams, provided year-round and vary a little based on your country of choice. Most countries require an aptitude exam – General GRE, Subject GRE and GMAT, and a language exam – TOEFL, IELTS, PTE and so on. If it’s a non-English speaking country, it will have its own language requirements whose standards will further increase if the medium of instruction is in their native language as well. The norm used to be that US and Canada require the GRE and TOEFL while the UK and Europe accepted IELTS with Australia asking for PTE Academic. But these days, with the exception of few, all universities seem to accept everything. I’ll try to point out the differences later.

Picking your country is step one. Different regions of different countries specialize in different areas and it is up to you to figure out which locale is best for your degree and financial capabilities. What I discovered when I began searching is that Germany is great for mechanical and automobile engineering, France for aerospace, UK and Australia for finance with Canada and USA being wide enough to have places that specialize in a little bit of everything. There are also very specific universities doing highly niche work like the KIST university in Korea excelling in Fluid Dynamics.

Then there is affordability. Germany has almost completely free tuition even for international students but most of the courses are taught in German and you need to qualify certain levels. Last I checked, most universities needed at least B1 or B2 certification. That means you need to complete A1 and A2 here. One level would take about 3 months of classes, even more, if you’re studying/working and can only go for weekend classes and such. Also, one level costs about 25,000 including classes and exam at the Goethe Institute. Might vary depending on different centres. So yeah, while the education is free, DAAD scholarships are great and living expenses are very nominal, language prep alone would take you a year and cost you about a lakh. If you look at the EU, each country has its own scholarship schemes, the tuition and living costs are super chill and the courses are taught in English. You will still need to learn their local language to take up part-time jobs and internships and most of your documents will need to be government attested and then translated to their language for visa purposes which is a bit of a hassle. Getting a job after college is also a bit of an issue since the visa expires about 3 months after graduation. Finally, the US, Canada and Australia are about the most expensive countries. But their degrees hold this certain ‘brand value’ that employers love and their visa lasts a good year or so after graduation allowing us to take up internships leisurely. Essentially, sit with your parents who’ll ultimately end up footing the bill and discuss how much they are willing to spend. Then with this amount in mind, look for which country fits the bracket. Talk to professors, seniors, relatives and just make an effort. Pull up an excel sheet and make 2 lists side by side labelled “good for my degree” and “good for not going broke” and see if there is a middle ground. This shit takes time. Spend it.

Excel sheets are your best friends when it comes to comparing data these days. In the last year, I would’ve made at least 30 excel sheets solely for this purpose. You have a lot of variables on hand – specialization, job prospects, affordability etc… and a lot of data to pit them against – the sheer abundance of countries and universities. So make lists, colour code them and stare at them till it makes sense.

I’ll be honest with you, hindsight is always 20/20, I didn’t exactly go about doing things this way. I straight up registered for exams and decided I will pick out universities based on my scores and QS rankings which turned out to be a huge mistake because –

1) Rankings suck. There are so many ranking systems and they are all over the place. A single university holds different rankings based on whether you’re looking at QS Index, USnews, national index, graduate index and so on. Rankings at best can give you a vague idea of where the school stands but don’t fret over it. There are other things to consider when choosing a college. We’ll get to that in a minute.

2) Score reporting is a thing. I was under the impression that I can just upload PDFs of my GRE and TOEFL scores for universities as I get them but apparently that only qualifies as “unofficial reporting”. You have to request ETS, the company that conducts GRE and TOEFL, to send the scores to the universities and only then is it considered official. And doing this costs money. $27 for the GRE and $19 for the TOEFL per college. May not seem like much, but trust me it adds up in the end. But both GRE and TOEFL let you send the scores to four universities for free before you view the scores and in order to do that, you need to have an idea of where you want to apply before you ever appear for these tests. It could save you a shit ton of money. Money I let go for waste. Be better than me! (This only applies to US and Canada by the way. UK is super cool accepting PDFs.)

3) Cut-off is India’s bane only. The whole notion of finding out your score and picking out universities based on previous year cut-offs only applies within India. Universities abroad don’t seem to bother too much about a single number. Many are even starting to entirely give up on standardized tests these days. Your entire profile matters and your GRE score is only a part of that profile. If you score low here but can highlight other aspects in the profile which are much more meritorious, this low score wouldn’t matter. Foreign unis are wholesome like that. Learn India.

So step one is choosing a country. Once you’ve got that figured, look at the typical deadlines of your country to work out a timeline. Most countries have 2 intakes – Fall and Spring/ Summer and Winter – the names differ. In most cases, the likelihood of getting an admit, getting an on-campus job, getting decent projects is higher if you pick the traditional fall/winter admit which typically starts in August – September. The Spring/Summer intake starts around January – March and is not always available for all the courses. While deciding on which intake you want to opt for, also check if that intake is available for your course at the universities you pick out.

Until here, I was looking at multiple countries and was reading up on everything. My decision to pursue higher studies came entirely from the fact that I wanted to switch to science. Both Europe and Germany seemed to be strict on their policy that if I need to switch majors, then I must hold some form of experience in the new major. So I had to choose USA which was moderately flexible with this sort of thing. So here on, most of the write-up will be USA specific with a short cameo by UK. This part came easy ’cause essentially the choice was made for me. The headache started after this. Probably owing to all the google searches, I started getting a lot of adverts on Instagram for different agencies and consultancies for sending students abroad. Naively enough, I enrolled for one of these paying around 16,000. Big time waste of money. Any work that these consultancies do, you can do on your own. At least until you get responses from universities. Beyond that, the process of getting your visa might need assistance. Even then, if at all you have absolutely no one to guide you, go for places like IDP Education who offer in-person assistance without asking for too much money. They did it even completely free for me. Don’t go for any online consultants. Worthless.

I also was very determined on going for the fall semester. Getting a physics admit for me was hard enough, so I wasn’t further diminishing my chances going for the spring semester. Plus, I was super keen on having a full break year because I honestly don’t believe I’m ever going to get to do that again until retirement. But your story might be different. So choose accordingly but if you do have that flexibility, stick to the fall semester.

So I picked my country, USA and the fall semester. This was in late July 2018. Most universities tend to have 2 deadlines for their applications – the ‘priority’ or ‘scholarship’ deadline and a regular deadline. The general idea is that you have higher chances of scoring scholarships if you apply in the priority deadline. The more sought-after a school is, the earlier its priority deadline will be. In the case of USA, some colleges have their priority deadlines as early as December 1st, most have it within the December 15-25 bracket. Some have it extending up to January 15th. The regular deadlines usually close around February as well, with some colleges having a rolling deadline that just stays open as long as seats are empty. Just to be safe, regardless of the universities, if you’re applying for US, plan to be done with your applications by the first week of December.

What it means to be ‘done with an application’ is to have the necessary exams finished well in advance, to have the Statement of Purpose completed, your letters of recommendations sent and the online application filled out. These form the bare minimum. Certain universities may require more essays, writing samples, Skype interviews and so on. In order to nail down all of these, you have to plan on a list of universities to apply.

Again, I messed this up big time by going to a consultancy. They did this thing where they ask me my intended major and the score I’m most likely to get in GRE. I was very conservative and told them I would probably get close to 315-320. They gave me a list of 9 universities titled “Pre GRE list” neatly categorized into “Ambitious”, “Moderate” and “Safe” which are sort of known for their physics programs and are known to admit students with this GRE score. I ended up not applying to any of the 9 in the end and wasted my 4 free score reports on them as well. Don’t do that.

The key to selecting universities is research. Colleges tell you everything you need to know on their websites and the stuff they sugarcoat too much, you can always get the truth from Quora and Reddit. Professors are a valubale asset here. They’ll not only suggest you great universities fully knowing your capabilities, they are also likely to suggest universities they have contacts in. That is worth so much. I missed out on all this because I didn’t even tell my professors I was applying abroad until after I had decided all my universities, completed the applications and wanted recommendation letters from them. By then it was too late.

Anyway, talk to people and pull up a rough list. My initial list had 36 universities. I had to narrow it down to 8 in like a month. Again, 8 is a bit extreme. I had to go for 8 because of my case of switching streams. It turned out to be a great idea towards the end though. But if you have no such weirdness going on with your profile, if your bachelor’s degree is in the same stream or you have work experience in the same area, 4 or 5 applications should do. But how do you bring down 36 to 4 or 5, you ask? Excel sheets. 

Here’s a sample excel sheet of mine around the fifth or so round of eliminations –


So I have a variety of universities in no particular order whatsoever. There are 2 columns for my “notes” on the university after I spend a good amount of time on its website. Then there is the national university ranking and the ranking for their physics program in specific. (These columns would disappear in the subsequent rounds) In the end, I have a column for the application fee, which trust me, becomes a huge deal. The columns weren’t really fixed since I was just making this shit up as I went. Initially I did have the QS rankings as well, tuition fees and so on but later chose to simplify. I removed rankings entirely after this and added little tidbits about the location of the college. In the 2 “notes” columns, initially the idea was to have one column each for positives and negatives about each college but it sort of evolved into just general notes on the college. My concerns were mostly on whether their admissions page explicitly stated that they will allow engineers to pursue physics or not, if yes, do they have any mandatory prerequisite courses or not, if no, do they allow me to take on any ‘bridge’ courses to make up for it etc… I also gave precedence to schools which had MS Astronomy/Astrophysics over just MS Physics because thats where I intended to specialise on. Finally, I looked at the research conducted at the university to see if they have a good observational and computational cosmology research teams because I felt like it would be a good fit. Doing all this searching not only helped me narrow down on my college list, but also came super handy while writing my statement of purpose for each college.

This elaborate method of picking out colleges is very important because in the end, you need to be fully satisfied with whichever college from your final list admits you. The problem with “Ambitious, Moderate, Safe” method is that it makes you feel inadequate should you end up going to one of your “safe” colleges or in turn, feel like an imposter should you end up getting an “ambitious” college. Both are dangerous. Self awareness is key here. You need to know which university will be a good fit for your ability to learn, willingness to work, intended area of work and financial capability. What’s the point on wasting $150 dollars on an application to a college you perceive to be “ambitious”, which means its beyond your reach and you’re less likely to get in or on a “safe” college which you’ll most certainly get in but will never feel fulfilled in or a “moderate” college that’ll always leave you wondering what could’ve been had you tried just a little harder. Trust me, nothing. In the end, when you apply to your 4 or 5 or 8 colleges, you should feel equally good about all of those and every single college should feel just within and just out of your reach at the same time.

I had only a month to do all this because I had already given my GRE and TOEFL by then and it was close to mid-October when I started doing this. But it doesn’t have to be the case. You can start just around July and keep doing this on the side as you take exam after exam. Speaking of which, you have one last choice to make.

GRE is pretty much a given. If you’re going to the US or Canada, GRE is mandatory. A few universities elsewhere also state that a GRE score is recommended to have in your resume. It’s just one way to normalize the thousands of international applicants hailing from different grading systems in different countries. If you’re like me and applying to science or mathematics, you’ll also need to give the “subject GRE”. Subject GREs are conducted only once a year in India, usually in October and in very few specific cities. However, many universities do not mandate this.

The choice you can make here is TOEFL or IELTS. Here are the facts, TOEFL is conducted by ETS, the same company that conducts GRE and is an american company. IELTS is conducted by the British Council. Due to this many US universities used to accept only TOEFL and UK and Australia, only IELTS. But now this trend is no more. Except one or two universities, almost everyone else accepted both.

Both exams have four sections – Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. Both exams cost close to 12,000 at current conversion rates varying only by a few hundreds. Both are valid for two years after taking the test. TOEFL allows you to send the score to four universities for free which you have to choose before you take the test. IELTS allows five. Sending additional scores will cost you money in both cases. TOEFL needs $19 per college, ordering a new score report is just like ordering something off of Amazon and it has no max limits. IELTS is cheaper but they have a lot of procedure to send scores to more than five universities and also have a five university max limit. TOEFL scores you out of 120 with each section holding 30 marks each. IELTS follows the band system where each section is scored on a band of 0 to 9 on half point increments and the total is again given on a nine band scale. In case of TOEFL, you need to take all four sections at a stretch but with IELTS, you can schedule the speaking and listening sections on a separate day as well. The one key difference that made me choose TOEFL over IELTS is that in the speaking section, you will be speaking into a headphone in the case of TOEFL while you need to have a conversation with an actual human being in front of you in the case of IELTS. I picked TOEFL simply to avoid talking face-to-face to a stranger. But hey I scored 115/120, so it worked out. #Humblebrag.

I took the General GRE on August 30th, TOEFL on September 15th and Physics GRE on October 27th. That’s one exam per month from July when I decied on the country. The idea was that this would give me the whole of November to prepare my SoPs and LoRs and finish my applications. However, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time preparing for any of the exams other than the Physics GRE, ironically the only one I scored abysmally. So I had plenty of time between exams to finish my essays as well. I’ll elaborate on what happened with the exams and how to go about with rest of the application requirements, the expenses involved, the timeline of application decisions and what to do after getting an admit in the following series of write ups over this week.

Click here for Part 2 - Exams.

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