Grad School Series : CMU

Keerthana Gopalakrishnan graduated from IIT Kharagpur in 2017 with a dual degree in Mechanical Engineering and a minor in Mathematics. She is currently pursuing her Masters in Robotics System Development at Carnegie Mellon University(CMU).

1. Why did you decide to pursue an MS? What motivated that decision?

Towards the end of my undergrad, I realised that gaining skills and improving my technical abilities by pursuing robotics (which was at the intersection of my major and my skills) was more likely to hold me in good stead as compared to taking up a job post graduation. An MS was the best way to do that. KGP seniors who pursued their passion in graduate school also inspired me.

2. How did you decide on colleges to apply to? What factors did you take into account?

I applied to graduate school in my ninth semester. Like most people, I shortlisted universities based on their rankings and categorized them as safe, moderate and ambitious. In my case, however, most of the robotics programs on offer had a mechanical engineering focus which was not what I was looking for.

It is important to give a lot of thought to whether you are a good fit for a program and whether it is really something that you want to do. I eventually decided on the Robotics program at CMU because CMU was the best place in the world to do robotics and reading the program description gave me the impression that they were describing me!

3. You majored in Mechanical Engineering and then went on to pursue an MS in Robotics. Did that cause difficulties during the application process? Was the transition, once in Grad School, difficult?

I faced absolutely no difficulties during the application process. This can partly be attributed to the fact that I had already worked with Prof. D.K. Pratihar, Prof. C.S. Kumar and Prof. Sudeshna Sarkar who had ongoing projects in the same field. Hence, the difference wasn’t stark. That said, I did face difficulties while doing coursework because I didn’t have the required Computer Science background. This shouldn’t deter people though as it can be managed with some extra effort.

4. ETS, the administrator of GRE, allows people to take the GRE once every 21 days. What, according to you, is a good time to take the qualifying exam?

I took the GRE in the October of my final (fifth) year. I would probably suggest the same for someone in a four year course as it gives you enough time to take the test again and improve your score should you want to. These scores are valid for five years and you don’t lose anything by taking them early.

5. Can you comment on the relative importance of CGPA, Statements of Purpose and Letters of Recommendation?

The importance given to CGPA, SoPs and LoRs vary considerably across universities and within programs in the same university. Some universities attach considerable weight to publications and GPAs while some don’t. Hence, these factors are specific to the kind of program you are applying to and are difficult to quantify.

For my program at CMU, from my experience, I think they look for someone entrepreneurial, with a diverse skill set and a good GPA. Since this is an industry oriented program, a good SoP fits in the context of all other parts of your application and allows you to explain how the program is likely to equip you with the skills required to achieve your life goals. That said, universities also understand that SoPs by foreign students may not always be entirely original and are wary of attaching too much importance to them.

CMU, like most universities, requires three letters of recommendation. I approached my BTP and MTP advisors, faculty advisor and some other professors whose courses I’d done well in for LoR’s.

6. An MS, unlike a PhD, is typically unfunded. Were there any scholarships that you applied for?

There are several scholarships like the ‘JN Tata Endowment for Higher Education’ that Indian students can apply to (in addition to college specific programs). Moreover, there are Teaching/Research Assistantship positions they can take up, once on campus, which will cover a portion of their tuition. I also think girls, specifically international students may be at a slight advantage when it comes to scholarships from outside parties because the granting organisations want to enable a diverse bunch of people to study abroad.

7. Was life as a Grad Student what you expected it to be?

Well, I don’t remember coming here with a lot of expectations! That said, I do feel that courses here (both at the undergraduate and graduate level) are way more rigorous than they were at IIT. Unlike KGP, where a lot of work involved reading off slides and taking exams, coursework here is extremely hands-on. There are also other differences à la smaller social networks and lesser free time. However, these differences are not universal and are dependent on the duration and nature of the program.