Grad School Preparation Panel Transcript
Neerja Thakkar graduated from Dartmouth in 2019 with a BA in Computer Science and Mathematics. For the past year, she was doing computational photography research in Spain on a Fulbright research scholarship, and in Fall 2020 she will be starting her PhD in EECS at UC Berkeley.
I’ve spoken in a few panels in the past year for Women in Computer Science and Dartmouth Pan Asian alumni association centered around graduate school/different career paths. Here are some questions I was asked at the most recent panel I spoke at, and my answers to them.
What has been helpful for you in figuring out your career goals and how grad school factors into those?
I thought through a couple of career paths - software engineering and a research career, and then pursued experiences that would let me try out both of those. On the SWE side, I did 2 SWE internships, one at 3M and one at Facebook. On the academia side, I took hard classes, added a math major since math is so important for CS research, did research, worked on a textbook, and TAed classes. I realized that while the perks and salary of SWE was nice, the more academia oriented experiences were so much more fulfilling to me. Getting to actually experience a taste of different paths, and then reflecting on them, really showed me which one was right for me.
I had already gotten into grad school and knew I wanted to go by the time I did my Fulbright, but that experience made me feel 200% confident that getting a PhD was right for me, since I got more perspectives on grad school and got to do research full time.
Do you recommend that students take time off before starting grad school? What have you learned in your experience?
If you’re considering a Master’s program, it’s important to know that you really need the degree before doing it. If you’re not sure, it’s better to hold off on jumping into a program. Some tech companies will pay for a Master’s for you, and many see years of work experience as equivalent to time spent doing a Master’s degree, but the difference is that with a Master’s degree you’re paying for it instead of getting a salary.
If you’re considering a PhD, it’s important to know that you absolutely want to do a PhD and that you love research before you commit 4-6+ years to it. If you’re not sure, you should take some time to do whatever you need to do to be sure of your decision.
I deferred for a year to do fulbright and this was one of the best decisions of my life for so many reasons. Spain is amazing, and it was great to get to travel and explore. I made friends with Spanish people and non-Dartmouth American students and people from other countries - getting out of the Dartmouth bubble gives you more perspective when considering your future. It was really nice to get a break from school, since I was burnt out after undergrad. Finally, it was also super helpful career wise - I made connections with a lab in Spain, did research full time emulating parts of the PhD experience, learned so many things and learned what I don’t know, and really thought about and shaped my research interests.
Overall, I would recommend a year off, but I would also think through what you want to do in that year off carefully - what are your goals for your year off? Why are you taking a year off? What do you hope to achieve or clarify?
What advice would you give to students who are starting to think about applying to grad school?
My advice depends on if you’re early in undergrad or approaching the end of college/graduated.
If you’re in college and have time, think through your academic plan and if that’s aligned with grad school, since grad schools want you to take hard courses. If you’re considering a PhD, start doing research ASAP if you haven’t already - it’s okay if it’s not exactly in the area you want, but getting research experience is super important. You should also seek out relevant internships and research and TA positions and other opportunities.
If you have graduated or are close to graduation, know that one advantage about grad school is that there’s no rush to apply as soon as you decide you want to go. You could apply to programs this fall as a dry run but then also apply for a Fulbright grant or other research opportunities so that if you don’t get into a program you want you have something to do over the next year to strengthen your application.
How did you narrow down a list of potential programs to apply to? What were important considerations for you?
For a PhD, your advisor is the single most important factor. You can research reserach papers and ask your current research advisors if they can recommend programs and people to work with. Academis is really small, even internationally - everyone I talked to personally knew or knew of the professor I was working with in Spain, for example. I would recommend just finding people you think would be interesting to work with when you’re applying, and then trying to figure out the actual fit once you’re admitted, since many professors will be more willing to talk to you then.
Personally, I just applied to my top 4 dream programs, with an intent to reapply next fall if I didn’t get in anywhere. These were programs that had advisors I would be thrilled to work with and were also all around excellent for all kinds of CS and other programs, because my ideal situation involved being surrounded by amazing people in all disciplines. Location was also a small factor, but all of these programs had locations I would be very happy in.
Do you have any tips for the grad school application process?
- Start early, and have friends look at your essays
- Use Dartmouth resources as available - for example, the Fellowship office for Fulbright
Advice on different application components:
- SOP: tell a story about how you were shaped intellectually, show your research potential - most undergrads haven’t done a ton of research, so explain why you will be able to succeed at research
- GRE - don’t worry about it too much! For many programs it’s not actually that important and your time and energy would be much better spent focusing on research or taking hard classes
- Letters of recommendation - extremely important. Form strong relationships with professors, ask them a couple of months in advance at least, give them a list of things you want to include in letter because often they will have forgotten details. More information can be found in this post
Do you have any tips for the Fulbright application process?
My answer to this question is summarized my Fulbright application posts.