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Coffee With Vikhram on University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

6 July 2008 45 Comments

Hi All,

Todays guest is a very good friend of mine.. Vikhram Vilasur Swaminathan a.k.a Vikram studied with me in NIT Trichy in Mech department.. Vicky is the “Vikipedia” of the batch.. 🙂 All rounder of all rounders.. and ofcourse, was rightly deserved the “Best out going student of NIT Trichy, 2006”.. Needless to say, Vikhram was the department topper.. He rejected the dream job of ITC, NITTians very special dream college IIM Bangalore (People say, the next step out of NIT Trichy is IIM Bangalore).. And eventually went on to pursue a phd at UIUC.. Lets hear from Vicky.. about life @ UIUC

Coffee With Vikhram

* Brief Introduction

I did in my bachelors in Mechanical Engg from NITT and passed out in the batch of 2002-06, with Sundar among the Kandus. I placed my research aspirations over job/IIMB admit and I am presently doing my graduate studies at UIUC. I am looking at continuing on for my PhD too. My interests and experience include Microsystems, Microfabrication and Fuel Cells, with some experience in these areas since undergrad. Off academics, I have been passionate about Lits (ex presi of Balls By Picasso :-)) and Basketball and pursued them actively in college. Nowadays, I also enjoy cooking, some reading and blogging. Along with a classmate of ours (Shriram a.k.a GREram), I have authored a concise guide for apping, titled ROTGAD (Realization Of Great American Dream) and I’ve recently started off a ROTGAD google groups forum with my cousin Srinivas Sridharan (ICE 2003 @ NITT, MS in EE @ UMich, Mathworks and now Quantum Controls PhD in Aus), in our efforts to reach out to junior batches, share fundae about gradschool, ROTGAD and also all that we are continuously learning through the gradschool and technical career experiences.

* Entry Criteria:
Approx CGPA range

Depends on the program. Engineering, Math and Science programs here are very highly rated, and there’s a lot of competition among applicants. Typically a 9-point CGPA or a top 3-5 ranking in your department, plus some research experience. Within the Engineering schools, ECE for Controls, Material Science and Civil are the toughest to get into as the research in these groups are arguably #1 in the country. MechSE, CS and Chemical are tough but an overall good profile would greatly improve your chances. As far as GPA is concerned, I’ve known some people who have apped for General Engineering on account of easier criteria and later on switched to ECE/Mech during the course of their PhD. This of course applies to those whose interests are in Robotics, Control & Decision making, Optimization, Operations Research and the like. MBA and MS-Finanace/Business programs are lesser known and may be easier to crack into.

Research Experience at undergraduate level.

Very very important. UIUC is a thoroughly research oriented school and most faculty work aggressively in their areas of speciality. Moreover, most of their work is either focused on fundamental understanding of phenomena from the very abstract levels, or in the other extreme, pushing the frontiers of cutting edge technology. So it definitely helps to have good research experience under your belt at the undergrad level itself. One thing is that your apps have a better chance (in any school) if you can demonstrate research experience; secondly, it prepares you for your program here and makes the transition smooth and easy. The stuff people do in grad schools is definitely more intense than what we would have tasted before, so research experience helps.

Gre & Toefl scores range..

Typicall 1350+ (Q770+) and 4.5+ in AWA (I managed only 1380 with V580. Q800 and 5.5 AWA). As in the case of any school, GRE is not the be all and end all of an admit. A good score keeps your chances alive, a bad one may hurt. TOEFL requirements are generally visa specific and are common for all schools. The TOEFL iBT or TSE score can come in handy in fetching you chances of TA and visa through that form of aid if offered.

Does the university require subject GRE?

None of the Engg programs here require subject GRE as far as I know. However, people also submit these scores and I believe this improves chances with the app.

Aid scenario – #number of ppl who come in with aid, chances of aid after coming in, more details on RA/TA/small work around campus.

Aid scenario (Engineering) at UIUC is generally very good. The school is very well supported by State funding, alumni endowments, reputed faculty (many who are distinguished chairs and/or supported by massive NSF/DARPA/NAVY/DOE grants). Since the ratio of PhD to MS admits is greater than 50%, most people admitted are almost assured of funding. PhDs normally enter with full RA support (rarely TA) and MS applicants compete for the limited TA positions. The top 2-3 distinguished apps in each department get fellowships. UIUC generally does not admit excessively without offering aid. On an avge, 80% of all engg grads have RA/TA/fellowships. I am neutral about chances of getting aid after joining since very few people need to search for funds after landing here. But even those generally get their RA/TA within a semester or two of joining. I’ve not known any Engg grad going dry through the entire program.

MBA and finance programs are not supported, for obvious reasons. It doesn’t hurt much here because these are only 1-1.5 yrs long.

There are other sources of funding like Fullbright, DOE, Motorola, IBM fellowships which are open to international students and these are awarded based on initial performance/merit here and past excellence. Caterpillar’s research center here offers RA positions for Mech/Civil/Aero students. Some computer/tech support centres offer RA or hourly employment. Even if you don’t get the tuition waiver, grading positions fetch decent hourly wages. Other small work such as library jobs etc are also readily available.

How much money (in Rupees) should one shell out for the entire course if it completely unfunded..

Though it is a state Univ and well supported, UIUC is a fairly expensive school. The tuition and fees for a full year are typically around USD 24000 for Engg grads. Add to it living expenses in a Midwest county that is probably 3 fold cheaper than NY or Bay area, and most of it can be managed with a part-time job itself. I would estimate something in the whereabouts of Rs 10-12 lakh per annum as expenses here assuming that you’d be employed even with just a part-time job. Ofcourse people don’t generally have to spend that much.

What are the living expenses?

A comfy life (one room to yourself in a 2/3 BR house), occassional cooking and fairly frequent eating outside can be managed for within USD 800-900 per month. People with funding can afford their indulgences, ipods, roadtrips etc as Champaign-Urbana is not too expensive. 🙂

Career opportunities after the course?

Generally very good. The univ’s brand name helps everywhere, even when you write to companies outside. The career fair here is popular and lots of reputed companies come down for the briefing and shortlisting, following which all depends on your talents and experience. Many people from outside schools visit our career fair, which explains.

As far as PhD scholars are concerned, all depends on their research (industry/academically oriented), the quality of their work, their advisors’ outreach in the field and openings. Most people get good offers from industry and those who do theoretical/computational work also join national labs. The very best compete for the few and far between academic positions.

In general, opportunities for a UIUC grad are generally very good compared to other schools, thanks to the brand name and distinguished alumni record. Beyond that talent counts and people end up with good offers.

Typical Money made during internships?

Very hard to say. Few go on internships and even among those who do, the deviation about the mean in terms of pay is very high (almost 100%). I think the money aspect is not very important so long as you are not looking at saving for going dry with semester funding, which is anyway not possible. Of course those who end up interning early and with big monies get nice cars 🙂 My advisor as a matter of policy prefers that we do our research here in summer..

How easy it is to switch departments?

Very easy indeed, on paper. All depends on what our research interests are and whether you satisfy the criteria of the dept you look to transfer into. In my opinion, the competition is very high during aping. Once here, everyone is on par at a level playing field and there’s a lot of flexibility. Normally, MS students don’t transfer but some of the depts. Have a MS-MBA or MS Engg-MS finance like option which people exploit. Ofcourse the catch is that your home department won’t support you with funds during the MBA/ MS-finance leg of your dual degree.

As for PhDs, everything again boils down to research. Most profs here hold multiple appointments across disciplines and have students from different branches working of different aspects of multidisciplinary projects. Naturally in the process, students are likely to change their branch depending on the direction in which their research proceeds. Any department welcomes you so long as you clear their PhD qualifying examination and satisfy the program requirements in terms of courses and research on the way to your PhD.

switch from Phd to MS?

I think this is a very potent and dangerous option which should be at best avoided, unless under dire circumstances. In a school like UIUC, few would enter into the school with such a plan. Of course, there are many who are forced to take this decision due to excessive research pressure or them realizing that the PhD doesn’t meet their expectations, aspirations and interests. Some also unfortunately convert to MS on funding issues. In UIUC, most departments admit students (without MS) on a grad program status, which could be both MS/PhD. If you clear the qualifying exam then you are automatically a PhD candidate and the MS is purely optional. On the other hand if you are unable across multiple attempts, then you can graduate with just the MS. That you come for a PhD and you get full RA support from your advisor is a tacit understanding between the two of you that you are seriously focused towards the PhD. It is hard to imagine leaving a prof high and dry and is not a nice thing to do. Of course people end up quitting after masters and some also do that very easily provided there is a valid reason.

So my point here is that, PhD to MS conversion is very much possible but it is not very easy. I would strongly discourage and advise against people apping for PhDs for merely the funding chances or with ideas of getting in and at the very beginning itself formulating plans to quit early or defect to non-engg streams. The engineering school in UIUC is anyway way better than the B-school!

Any other issues/ inputs which will be helpful.

Since this interview is based entirely on apping fundae and stuff I’ve mentioned here is relevant to most other schools with similarly ranked and research oriented programs (eg: Stanford, Berkeley, MIT, CMU, UMich, GaTech, Cornell, UCSB, UCSD etc), I would encourage junta to consider more things than just the bare essentials (GRE/TOEFL, SOPs, CV, References) that we generally concentrate on with our apps. Research experience counts in a big way, and since you are in all likelihood looking at pledging 5 years of hardwork, it is also good to find out about who you’d like to work with (or who you’d rather not) and what really interests you. Compatibility b/w your working style and your advisor’s could make a lot of difference in determining whether your PhD is a breeze or a whirlwind of turbulence. The best thing to do is to contact students in these schools (even if they may not be from NITT), read through profs and research groups’ websites, their papers and get a feel for stuff. Write to profs; they like to communicate with people who are interested and this also improves chances besides you getting a lot of useful info.

For the benefit of those who are still in NITT or have passed out: we are running this online ROTGAD forum to ensure that people can get help in addressing their subject/interest specific queries during apping. We’ve learnt a lot about the whole system and how it works only after coming here and are glad to share all of this for your benefit. Please look at sources like Rotaract grad apps talk and the ROTGAD document for the basics and try to get in touch with seniors in your areas for specifics. Also, please DO NOT be shy of apping to the bigger and higher ranked univs. It is only good to be ambitious 🙂

A very special thanks to Vikhram, for giving such detailed and elaborate answers.. You can also contact Vikhram @ VIKHRAM DOT VS AT GMAIL COM regarding apping, rotgad etc..

Readers, hope you enjoyed this edition of Coffee With Experts.. For previous episodes, check out here.




  • Sandeep said:

    Thanks Vikram! It was indeed very informative.

  • shriram said:

    Special mention must be made of 2 things-
    “who not to work with”-very very important indeed!:)
    “whirwind of turbulence”-ill chosen words and hardly encouraging eh?:D

  • Vikhram said:

    As shriram points out- “WHO NOT TO WORK WITH” — V V IMPORTANT!

    whirlwind, turbulence… some other time da GREram.. this ain’t a fluid mech techy discussion.. pls don’t shift off the topic with your chaat. 🙂

  • Sriram said:

    was expecting a more spicy interview with Vikhy… ;P

  • me said:


  • My foghorn blows on “Coffee With Sundar” » NITTians.com said:

    […] may visit the archives of Coffee With Sundar, for my […]

  • RH said:

    I’m keeping a blog on Champaign-Urbana and UIUC, so if you guys need more info, please check it.


    Generally, UIUC is a very International student friendly place. So, any desi person will feel quite at home here.

  • kangs said:

    ur the same old vikram at US tooo………..(as we were very close in nit trichy)

  • Vikhram said:

    kangs- couldn’t quite place you, sorry.