Moving forward with our Core vs Non-Core Series, we have with us Kunal Pattanayak, a final year PhD student at Cornell University. Kunal completed his MTech under the Dual Degree programme in Electronics and Electrical Communication Engineering from IIT Kharagpur in 2018.
1. What prompted you to go to a graduate school after your final year opposed to a job? How has your experience been until now?
Firstly, I wanted to go into Research and Development. If you want to go up the ladder in the RnD field, you need to have a PhD. The best problems are handed to the PhDs. Secondly, I converted my BTech to Dual Degree. I ended up taking advanced courses in 5th year, but they were not advanced enough to upturn things. So, I thought in PhD I would be able to complete them. Thirdly, Masters are usually costly, however, in PhD, you are paid a stipend and there is no loan on your head.
2. How important is a Letter of Recommendation(LoR) while applying to learn at universities abroad? What role does it play?
I would say it is the second most important after SOP. Many people have this misconception that an LoR from a very reputed person is better, however an LoR from an Assistant or any Junior Professor but personalised is better than a generic LoR from another random reputed person.
3. What were the various options available to you while choosing a career path? How and why did you decide to pursue a career in Statistical Signal Processing? Also, how did you choose your PhD guide?
I relied on my KGP professor whom I was working under. Different areas I had in my mind were MIMO, wireless communications, cyber-physical systems. My hunt was on the areas which were attractive enough but not saturated enough. And Statistical Signal Processing has been a very traditional area since the 1950s but my professor wanted me to work on the interaction of finance, economics and ECE and that drove me. I was looking for a different area which prompted me to choose it. I chose my guide because it was a reputed one and I could graduate within 4.5 years.
4. When did you decide to go for research and not for placements? Did you sit for CDC internships?
No, neither did I sit for internships nor for placements. I did two internships. One FT through KGP professor, and one off-campus Qualcomm. I got PPO from Qualcomm . However, I rejected that offer to go for my PhD.
5. What changes did you observe between IIT Kharagpur and Cornell University with respect to the education system, campus environment, research facilities, students’ lifestyle, etc?
At Cornell, UG researchers are considered equally impactful to Masters or PhD Researchers. Most course projects/reports get converted to papers, thus Professors make sure they are of good quality. Unlike KGP, the majority of the weight is given to homework than end-sems or mid-sems. However, there is no comparison of KGP Hall culture. At Cornell, we are on our own, no mess or hostel like KGP. We stay outside and do all household chores by our own.
6. Do you plan to pursue academic research or are there research opportunities in corporate as well related to your field?
I want to go into corporate now. Most companies have an opening for mirror research. This is not exactly data science or data analysis, it is more fundamental than that. There is no lack of jobs in this field. Statistical Signal Processing pays well and when you apply, you apply as a Machine Learning scientist or ML engineer. Google, Microsoft, Netflix etc and Hedge funds would hire you. You have both tech and finance options.
7. What do you think are the major differences between academic research and corporate research jobs? How, did you decide which one is better for you?
One is money. Second is the pace at which research happens. In industry, the pace is slower than in academia. In academic research, you have to keep writing for grants, do the administrative stuff and manage students but with slightly less money compared to the industry. But being a professor brings a reputation. Once the probation period gets over, there is job security unlike in corporate.
8. What advice/message would you like to give to a student interested to pursue a course similar to yours? Looking back, what would you have done differently?
First and foremost, do not take projects in the early years. Take time and get exposed. Talk to seniors in the field. I just talked to seniors who were pursuing PhD but not to my immediate seniors, which made it difficult to find internships. Prepare your CV well and be thorough with whatever is written in it. You will be grilled on it. And do put efforts to get good personalised LoRs, instead of the generic ones. Instead of cold mailing write personalised mails. Finally, make sure you score at least 320 in GRE and 105 in TOFEL to clear the cutoff, and no need to score more than that, it’s the cutoff that matters not the score above it.