Moving forward with our Core vs Non-Core Series, we have with us Swarit Dwivedi and Puja Paul, both pursuing a PhD in Chemical Engineering at Monash University while having completed MTech in Chemical Engineering from IIT Kharagpur in 2017.
1. What prompted you to go to graduate school after your final year as opposed to a job? How has your experience been until now?
SD: I did undergraduate from Harcourt Butler Technological Institute, Kanpur. In the fourth year, I was placed in Mu Sigma, a data analytics company. The salary offered was decent and comparatively better than many jobs offered that year. However, I gave the GATE examination and decided to join IIT Kharagpur. My aim was precise, and I never prepared for any campus placement.
PP: I have always been fascinated by the world of research. I am intrigued to find the unknown. Corporate jobs are structured and the scope of discovery or learning is limited. Therefore, I knew what my next step will be after my bachelor’s. Rather than prepping for job interviews, I focused on pursuing higher degrees and finally apply for PhD in foreign universities.
So far, it has been a roller-coaster experience; with many humps and bumps and gradually reaching the target. In a nutshell, it is a learning curve rather than an experience.
2. What were the various options available to you while choosing a career path? How and why did you decide to pursue a career in the field of Chemical Engineering? Also, how did you choose your PhD guide?
SD: I was always inclined towards basic sciences. While choosing the engineering branch and college, I preferred college over the branch. This was an incredibly wrong decision. It takes either a learned mentor or in-depth knowledge of different disciplines to the importance of the field of study. To this date, I am fascinated by concepts of modern physics and molecular chemistry.
During my interview with Prof Akshat Tanksale, my PhD supervisor, I was told that the research project deals with molecular spectroscopy and atomistic simulations. At that time, I was also interviewing for two other Ph.D. projects. However, due to the research domain, I decided to join for PhD at Monash University.
PP: Honestly, there were very limited options available. Choosing a career path in engineering is daunting since it is dependent on various competitive entrance examination cut-off ranks. However, I knew what field of engineering I was aiming for which was/is clearly Chemical Engineering.
The motivation behind pursuing a career path in the field of Chemical Engineering is two-fold: one the design and operation of chemical plants particularly oil refineries is vast and interconnected; two it is a diverse field (not limited to pure chemical) with opportunities to biochemical, biological, polymer, process control, and/or computational simulation, etc.
Choosing a PhD guide is as important as selecting the PhD project which drives one passion. First, it is important to do thorough research on the guide who will critically supervise you and provide feedback for the entire PhD tenure. It is imperative to go through their google scholar profiles to know their h-index and/or their research contributions. Also, I went through their personal website to understand their research group activities in both academic and non-academic settings. It is crucial to have a proper understanding and quotient with your PhD guide irrespective of how attractive the project seems to be.
3. How important is a Letter of Recommendation (LoR) while applying to learn at universities abroad? What role does it play?
SD: The significance of a letter of recommendation depends on the supervisor. If you know the supervisor and the supervisor has confidence in you, the LoR may not play a pivotal role. If you do not have prior contact with the potential supervisor, a recommendation from a well-known researcher of your field of study may be a deciding factor (considering the rest of the profile is sound). However, as per my experiences, publications or matching technical skills are of most significance.
PP: Letter of Recommendation (LoR) is one of the most important documents that need to be included apart from your transcripts. It gives the universities a glimpse of your personality and the understanding of the referee of your behavior and passion towards your goal. Often, they play a very important role in acquiring the PhD scholarship. So, it is wise to highlight your achievements and the positive aspects of them. Choosing the right referee for the LoR is crucial. It is always suggested to have a better understanding and communication with your relevant academics who can provide you with a remarkable LoR.
4. When and how did you build the required skillsets for getting into Monash University? Did you do any internships? Any resources you used to prepare?
SD: I never prepared anything specifically for Monash University. One of my very good friends, Vivek Yadav (Integrated Masters – Chem. Engg., IIT KGP), strongly advised me to apply in Australia. Out of interest, I used to watch Physics lectures by Leonard Susskind (Stanford) and Solid-State Chemistry lectures by Donald Sadoway (MIT). I would highly encourage you all to check them out.
During my interview at Monash, I was briefed on two PhD projects. One was related to the catalyst and reactor design for direct conversion of CO2 into liquid fuel, and the other was related to molecular investigations of the same reaction system. My masters’ project was in the domain of computational modeling electrohydrodynamic. However, I took a chance and expressed my interest in the molecular modeling project. Watching physics lectures as a hobby was the deciding factor as I was able to back up my passion with an in-depth understanding of dynamics.
PP: Monash University is an acclaimed university with the highest priority to excellent academic records. In terms of skill set, my focus has been to maintain a high academic percentile and class rank. Additionally, it is also important to learn computational fluid dynamics and modeling and technical software such as ANSYS, Aspen-Hysys, Python, Matlab, SolidWorks, etc.
Sometimes, I participated in various workshops and seminars to learn and understand what and how researchers find a gap, design their experiments, and critically think and analyze their dataset. I would say that the bottom line is that you should have a good depth of the subject and show passion towards the research domain.
5. What changes did you observe between IIT Kharagpur and Monash University with respect to the education system, campus environment, research facilities, students’ lifestyle, etc?
SD: Both IIT Kharagpur and Monash University have their uniqueness. At Monash, the lifestyle is more like a corporate. You are expected to work 9 AM – 4 PM, Monday to Friday, lots of holidays and the work-life balance are extremely important. After 5 PM, not much happen within the campus and unfortunately, you may miss the Tikkas, Eggies, JCBs, and Chhedies of KGP. However, Australia has lots to offer in tourism, so it should keep you busy. The education system is much more practical and industry-oriented aided by world-class labs and teaching infrastructure, industrial projects, international collaborations, and research funding. For example, two successful companies have come out of the Chemical Engineering department of Monash, one works in the domain of sustainable recycling, and the other makes beer.
PP: There is a wide difference between IIT Kharagpur and Monash University. The education system here at Monash is more practical/application-driven rather than only theoretical. Research facilities are top-notch with opportunities to get trained in handling equipment independently and greater prospects for research collaboration among different faculties. Student lifestyle overall in both the universities is quite similar.
6. How are the growth opportunities in your field? Could you tell us about your day-to-day job?
SD: Broadly, Computational Chemistry and Molecular Spectroscopy is my field of study. Atomistic simulations are arguably the best-known method to understand the behavior of complex physical and chemical systems at a molecular length scale. These simulations range from Ab Initio calculations to forcefield-based molecular simulations. With the discovery of advanced nanomaterials, understanding their molecular properties is explored using these methods. I believe these methods to be the future of theoretical chemistry and chemical reaction engineering.
A normal day involves coding, running simulations, visualizing data, thinking, meeting, and some more thinking. Presently, I am working on five different projects. More project means more meetings, which I like, as it is good to work with different teams from diverse backgrounds. My project is in collaboration with researchers from the U.S. (Pennsylvania State University and Lawrence Berkeley National Physical Laboratory), U.K. (Imperial College, London), Canada (University of Alberta), and India (IIT Madras). Although time differences may become challenging, it is all worth it if your colleagues are fun to work with.
PP: The growth opportunities in Chemical Engineering are never-ending. With the ongoing pandemic, the importance of integration of chemical and biochemical is becoming more evident. My day-to-day job is quite repetitive which includes home to lab back home. I start my day early so that I can work peacefully at the lab when almost no one is there. This is followed by my supervision meetings with my guide and industrial partner whose critical feedback helps to design my experiments and analyse. Sometimes, I take part in technical workshops and seminars. Usually, I prefer to go out for lunch with my colleagues where we discuss about various academic and non-academic stuffs. Then back to labwork and finally I finish my day usually with my cappuccino before heading home.
7. Do you plan to pursue academic research or are there research opportunities in corporate as well related to your field?
SD: At this time, academic research, considering that academic research has possibilities of working with industry. I would like to work with the industry but not for the industry at this moment. Two of my five projects are directly funded by industry, so you may find the direct application of your academic research as well.
PP: At present, I aspire to expand my research through industrial collaborations rather than going into academics directly.
8. What do you think are the major differences between academic research and corporate research jobs? How did you decide which one is best for you?
SD: In general, academic research has more freedom to choose the research domain, whereas corporate research is generally well funded. In case you find a corporate research job that matches your research interest, I would strongly advise you to explore it. For me, freedom of research topic is fundamental, and I enjoy teaching, which is the cherry on the top.
PP: There is a fine difference between academic and corporate research. Academic is more focused on building one’s research expertise in a specific area which sometimes may not have direct industrial application. However, corporate research is more target-oriented with set objectives and timelines. Direct applicability is one of the key focuses of corporate research which caters to the needs of the world with the promise to bring significant change.
9. 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?
SD: Be clear on why you would like to pursue research. Even after PhD, you can join the industry or continue in academics, and there are lots of jobs for PhD graduates. However, the PhD journey demands lots of patience. You won’t be bored if you get pleasure out of learning new methods, techniques, and concepts.
Looking back, I would not hold myself from applying for opportunities. Sometimes, we try to create a perfect profile and end up not applying. I would advise you all to neither limit yourselves to conventional career paths nor say yes to anything that is just available. Participate in academic or research competitions, scholarship opportunities, and conferences.
In addition, if there are chances for writing and publishing your work, please do so. It will have a great impact on your academic career. I published two first-author research articles and one book chapter from my master’s project under the supervision of Assoc. Prof. Arnab Atta and Prof. Rabibrata Mukherjee. My supervisors motivated me to publish the work, and I wish you all to follow the same as your unpublished hard work just would eventually be lost.
PP: One message I would like to convey to everyone is that it is good to take inspiration from others but it is imperious to understand where your passion lies. It is always best to find your own goal rather than following others’ footsteps. The world of research is very fascinating and mysterious however it requires lots of patience and resilience.
Honestly, looking back I don’t think I would like to change anything or do anything differently. Everything worked as I planned it to be and I am still working towards it.