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Vivek Narayanan – Life at University of California, Berkeley

19 March 2014 3 Comments

Hi All,

Today is the 6th anniversary for CWS and I am restarting University Cafe. We have Vivek Narayanan talking about his life at University of California, Berkeley. Thanks you so much for your time and effort Vivek. Much appreciated.

Vivek Narayanan


Sundar Rajan G S

* Brief Intro about yourself
Did my schooling in Chennai and came to NIT Trichy to pursue my undergraduate education in Chemical Engineering (after turning a full scholarship and admission into National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University) Graduated from NIT Trichy in 2009 and been in the San Francisco Bay Area since – studying at Berkeley till 2010 and since graduation, been working at Pacific Gas & Electric Company

* Entry Criteria:
– Approx CGPA range
8.25 on 10 when I graduated from NITT. When I applied (during 7th semester of college), I had a CGPA of 8.38 and if you looked exclusively at my GPA during Chemical Engineering, it was closer to 8.8. I had a bad first year but been in the high 8s or early 9 since then.

– Gre & Toefl scores range
1410 on 1600 in GRE. 630 in verbal and 780 in quants, 5.5 in my writing section.
115 on 120 in TOEFL

– Research Experience at undergraduage level
Since I gave up on an international exposure for my undergrad, I was fairly clear from my first semester at NIT that I wanted to pursue graduate studies abroad. After my GPA tanked in my first semester, I realized that I needed to boost up other aspects of my application. Here’s an overview of the research experience I had at the time of my Masters application:

1. Published 3 papers in national and international peer-reviewed journals
Working with my closest friend since college, Mahesh, I started a research project in 3rd semester assisting a professor in understanding different ways to remove heavy metals from wastewater

2. Summer research internship at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (end of 3rd year)
At the time, doing a research project in India was the trend for all students. They would spend time at various research instittutes in India such as the IIScs, IITs, etc. Mahesh and I wanted to set ourselves apart and also in the process, better understand how research is really done in United States and how different and rigorous it was compared to our experience in India

3. Summer internship at a Chemical manufacturing firm (end of 2nd year)
I was not sure that research and pursuing a PhD was the way to go. I wanted to get a feel for what it meant to work in the industry – i loved my time at Symrise India – a fragrances and flavors manufacturing firm

– Does the graduate program favor PhD applications more ?
It is hard to say, I think it varies from one school to another. Some schools have a high rate of accepting Masters students as “cash cows” (USC, Arizona State, etc.). Some schools are more oriented towards research and take in very few people at the Masters level (MIT, Minnesota – for ChemE, Berkeley – I was the only one from India in a Masters class of 10)

– What are the general strengths of the departments ?
Again, it varies from school to school. Most prestigious schools are fairly well represented in terms of their Professors and their focus on various disciplines. Berkeley as an example has a strong industry focus through its Masters program and forcing students to go through an internship experience as a requirement for their Masters degree. However, the ChemE program is also very strong in its focus on fundamental sciences and understanding the rheology of fluids.

– Any advice for writing statement of purpose ?
At the end of the day, “fit” with a school for a PhD program matters the most. I would use the following criteria to determine fit:
1.Which Professor’s research excites me the most?
2. Do I have an understanding of what that research is and do I have some relevant experience to substantiate my candidacy
3. Does the professor have funding and is willing to take in students

I submitted 9 applications to various graduate programs and was accepted by 8 of them. In retrospect, I think that was the wrong strategy. I realize that I should’ve focused on 4 or 5 schools at the most that excited me the most, done a significant amount of due diligence on those schools and put in a strong application. I would definitely advice going for “quality” over “quantity”

People also recommend having strategies for applying to X number of ambitious schools, Y number of moderate schools and Z number of safe schools based on your likelihood of being accepted. Whatever the number of schools you apply to, my recommendation would be to narrow down your choices to only the schools that you know you will DEFINITELY attend if that was your only choice.

– Any trend in the amount of Indians in the graduate program in the department ?
The number of applications are always increasing but the number of places they have stays the same. Admissions committees have a responsibility to maintain a diverse class. In my Masters program at Berkeley, I was the only student from India in a class of 10

– Is it advisable to email professors prior/during applying ?
You’ve got to be careful about this. My short answer is, yes and I would encourage you to do so.. However, they receive 100 such emails everyday, not to mention the spam they get! All the student messages have the same generic ask for the Professor to accept them into their graduate program/lab.

I would suggest doing two things:
1. Stand out and get creative in how you communicate and grab the attention of the reader
2. Make sure you do your research on the Professor, what they’re working on, why you’re a suitable candidate that they should consider and what you can offer them

I would also suggest that you don’t put them in a difficult spot by immediately asking for funding, admission, recommendation, etc..

* After you get in:
– 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
Varies from school to school. Typically, the schools with a larger pool of Masters students have fewer aid opportunities and greater competition for a limited pool of aid/TA/RA, etc.

At Berkeley, since the number of Masters students coming in were fairly few, there were tons of TA opportunities for me to choose from. I got a scholarship from India to cover my cost of education in my first semester and I took a TA to cover my second semester costs and even got a stipend to cover my living expenses.

– how much money should one shell out for the entire course if it completely unfunded.
At Berkeley, a year’s tuition is roughly $30k (may have gone up now!). The good thing is that you can take unlimited courses and there is no cap on the number of classes you can be enrolled in at any particular time

– What are the living expenses?
Living in Berkeley is expensive! Rent + food + basic expenses came to ~$1100 a month. Comparing this to a summer I spent in Ann Arbor was roughly $450 a month!

– How easy it is to switch departments?
It is not common but it is possible. In my case, I was able to take courses in any department and didn’t need to be officially enrolled in that department. I took classes in ChemE, MechE, Business, Law school, public policy and could’ve graduated with a second Masters degree from any of these schools if I wanted to do so..

– switch from Phd to MS or vice versa?
There could be several reasons why you may need to drop out of a PhD and graduate with just a Masters. However, you should never come in with the intention of dropping out after a Masters as it reflects poorly on you and all other applicants from your university and country

Switching from a Masters to a PhD is relatively more straightforward. You find a professor who’s willing to take you in his/her lab, get them to sponsor you and you are done.

– Availability of public transport ?
I never owned a car or a bike. Public transport in the Bay area is generally good. You can get in/around Berkeley using the buses for free (after paying a $50 per semester fee).
PLus if you plan to go grocery shopping, zipcars are available all over where you can rent a car by the hour

– Any big concerns for weather ?
California is as good as it gets, no reason to complain!

– Any Indian activities or Indian associations?
Berkeley has a semi-active Indian students association which is primarily undergrads. The number of grad students are few and far between. However, the SF Bay Area is overflowing with Indians and there’s tons of opportunities to socialize with your fellow country mates. THere’s also a whole bunch of people from NIT Trichy over here..

* After the course:
– Career opportunities after the course?
My course that I pursued during my time at Berkeley was the Product Development program which is particularly focused on helping students with a ChemE background pursue a career in the industry. Geography is my biggest factor when I was choosing to go to Berkeley and being in the SF Bay Area and the heart of innovation and action was most important to me.

However, the school doesn’t spoon feed you in finding job opportunities, you get to make the most of what you want to do..

– Typical earnings during internships?
In my case, I did not get paid during my internship as it was a requirement for me to graduate from my program and I had to earn credits for the project I did.

* Personal:
– What is your area of specialization?
During my time at Berkeley, I was fascinated by the Energy industry and the various challenges of delivering electricity in different parts of the world. That was why I took courses in the law school, public policy, business, etc. because I wanted to get a flavor for the entire energy landscape and understand all the levers that play a role

– why did you choose to pursue the course abroad?
My desire to pursue a Masters degree was driven by several factors:
1. Desire to learn something new..
2. Develop a specialization in cleantech/energy and something that can produce a tangible impact
3. Learn about how things are done in advanced industrialized societies so that those best practices can be replicated in India

– What is your driving force to earn a MS ? Is it joy of learning or monetary options or both?
I think it is definitely the joy of learning, the desire to see your efforts being rewarded and being compensated appropriately for the effort and value that you bring to a particular group/organization

– Can students contact you direct, if so, can you provide your email id for public?
Sure, I am open for anyone who wants to contact me for general career advice, application strategies, life strategies, etc. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to review applications and provide feedback nor do I have the clout/ability to recommend anyone to Berkeley/a job at PG&E. If you still feel like you want to speak with me and bounce some ideas off, I am more than happy to do so!

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