Nivedita Vij

Nivedita Vij
Nivedita Vij was an undergraduate student in the Material Science department who interned at Harvard University in the summer of 2019 in the field of Condensed Matter Physics. Here’s an account of her application process to the various programs including the DAAD, MITACS, and the SN Bose program, the article follows with a FAQ section and also a brief excerpt of her life at Boston, New York and her days at Harvard.

There are two ways to go about this, either brace yourself up and read ahead, which is what many would call a monotonous ensemble of facts as they happened (related to my third-year internship, of course) or scroll down and just read the FAQ which will answer most of the questions.

I have always been very clear to choose academia over the industry or the corporate world, so the choice to apply for academic internships was very natural. When I now think about it, it isn't that black or white. It just finally breaks down to what type of working environment you feel more drawn towards.

I am in the Material Science and Engineering Department. In the first two years, I was very inclined towards working in my own department and had spent the first two summers working on experimental projects on Flexible Electronics (SURGE in 2nd year). In the third year, I got more interested in the theory of condensed matter so I was doing the relevant courses in my 5th and 6th semester, which involved some drastic decisions being made - like putting all my department compulsories (including 3 labs) for the final semester. In any case, I filled in applications for DAAD, MITACS, and the SN Bose programmes. For DAAD, you need to look for a host professor before the application; for MITACS the professors and projects are a part of the application, and for Bose, it is all done if you are selected. Therefore, all three required very different approaches. I was trying to apply to the Physics Department to projects which I did not have any research background in, so I just had to showcase my consistency and somehow prove that I genuinely am interested

The professor I wrote to for DAAD asked for a recommendation letter to him and had a Skype interview with me. He helped me with the application requirements like a well-defined project proposal and also put me in touch with his office staff for any information I would need.

Choosing projects for MITACS was tedious because you have to optimize between your interest, the professor, the university and finally what the project requires as background and what learning it is offering. Gladly, it is all very well stated in the descriptions. For Bose, firstly, you need to be nominated by your department for holding a rank and secondly it requires a certificate from your department stating the rank which our DOAA does not provide, so the SUGC and DUGC have to be consulted and convinced for the same. The application was more focussed on skills you have acquired, past experiences in research (if any), coursework, what sort of project you are aiming for, why research, etc. (secret - here you can write whatever you feel at that point, whatever you see yourself working in. The final things, the professor and what project you work on has little to do with what is mentioned here, but, keep the general idea in mind that these people are going to help you look for a professor later so don’t write something completely off your interests). I did not write any emails to the professors outside of these programs, but it is generally a very good idea to do so, and there will be seniors who have aced that and would be happy to help.

Next, were the online interviews for MITACS, I think I had three of them for different projects. The general tone was to gauge if you are suitable for the project in terms of skills acquired so far, and you also have the opportunity to discuss the working dynamics of the group, to stay and other things, but that is quite an early stage for those technicalities.

Finally, the results started pouring in. In MITACS, I got selected at a project at the York University which was a continuation of what I had done in the past two summers, a point to be noted that I was not emailed or interviewed for this project and this was my last preference in the list. Though not very elated by this, I felt happy having one option in my hand. Next, came in the results for DAAD and I had gotten selected to go to the University of Stuttgart. I accepted the proposal and my choice was clear to choose DAAD over MITACS because the DAAD project was what I was then inclined towards.

Things changed drastically when the acceptance from SN Bose came, which now was going to drive me to a dilemma. Bose was special to me because I had also applied for Bose in my second year because of the over-enthusiastic kid I was and had gotten rejected. The Bose program, at least at my time, required us to send them the names of three professors who we wished to work with and the Bose team would contact them stating the fact that we were selected and they would be funding us. We were also simultaneously encouraged to write to the professors ourselves and start the correspondence. I asked a few people who I knew were studying Physics in the States for recommendations on which professors to choose and which coast for that matter. I wrote to quite a few people, some did not respond at all, some said they were too busy in the summer or some said that they would be busy traveling. I got one positive response, from the professor who I thought would never take me because he is the world's leading expert in the field of quantum phase transitions and, here, I was a Material Science undergraduate who had just gotten initiated to the subject.

To make sure I was at least driven to work in the field, he asked for recommendations, specifically from the Physics department, in relation to the coursework and projects undergoing then. After receiving two recommendations, we scheduled a Skype interview where he asked about the projects I was working on and coursework and some textbook knowledge. He was at Harvard University, Department of Physics. It was almost like a dream come true to be talking to him (the S in SYK, for those who know). He put me in touch with the officials to initiate the visa application process, this was about the first week of February and ideally I should have informed DAAD right then that I wish to withdraw. Still, I really wanted to wait for the visa to be done, because of the high uncertainty of the process. The visa process, the not-to-say-at-any-cost keywords list are all details I shall refrain from mentioning here right now, but the interview was mostly centered around what you are doing currently, what will you be working on, how you came to know about the program and a few more formalities. You get a stamp on your form, and they take your passport (details new for me because this was my first trip abroad).

All I remember about reaching Boston in May is literally how freezing it was. Settling in, figuring out the transportation (given accommodation is sorted beforehand), getting added to group emails, figuring out food, encashing the stipend cheque (yes, that was insanely tedious) were how the first few days went by.

Work-wise, it was not hectic at all, I worked at my pace, had graduate students to discuss with, and also attended talks happening in the group. One of the best parts was joining a summer course from the Mathematics department on Categorification and Knots. That was the only place I came in contact with the undergraduate students at Harvard. When my mentor was invited to collaborate from Boston to New York at Simons Centre, I moved to New York too, which was convenient because I had a family to stay with and finding accommodation was not a hassle. So, I sort of got an internship within an internship. The work that I did there was not anywhere near the conclusion in three months and only got to a publishable form near next January.

So, the key points which I feel should be the take away are:

  1. How many places you apply to isn’t as crucial as how convincing your application is and how well you are backed up by good recommendations, coursework, some projects and, how much passion and sincerity you have and how adequately you showcase it.
  2. This internship, in many ways, was a dream come true and should have been the stepping stone for my graduate process. Still, life is not always that straightforward, and to drive home the message honestly, I wish to say that I am still discovering my interests and things I am passionate about and how I can best contribute to them. So, do not make the internship a matter of life and death just because it is the set trend, there are always opportunities at every corner waiting to be explored. The experience, the contentment of doing something you are driven for, lasts way longer than the temporary achievement of bagging a good intern, so try to follow that drive in whatever you wish to do.
  3. Contact your professors, alumni, seniors, friends of seniors, friends of friends, and talk things out if you have any dilemmas because there are people out there who know better or at least can offer a perspective.

Life at Harvard

The beauty that Cambridge city is, the colours and structures and architecture, both old and new, are very classic in every definition of classic, the lawns so fresh and the libraries so magnificent, the only thing that was slightly off was that you’ll ‘always’ see groups of tourists being given a tour of the yard.

One question a lot of people asked me even while I was at Harvard was what difference do you feel here and in India and honestly, what I absolutely admired was how there is no backdrop of hierarchy, everyone from a junior undergraduate intern, to senior grad students, professors, very senior professors, everyone is given equal voice at any table or in any room. Your ideas, thoughts are acknowledged very gracefully and with the same regard as everyone else's and you are encouraged to express your opinion. The working environment is great, there are huge chalkboards and cubicles round every corner of the department to work. The fellow graduate students are always eager to discuss anything you are working on or if you have any doubts. I cycled from campus in Cambridge to Arlington (where I lived) everyday and it was amazing, I was surprised how instantly my brain adapted to the reversed traffic rules. Being an introvert, I did not find myself hanging out with a big group of fellow Indian interns but I explored bits and parts on my own, visiting all the great museums within the campus to cycling to MIT. This was Boston, laid back, things at your pace, and then I switched to New York, I found myself just walking amidst a giant rush of people every morning to reach the workplace. That city is truly something ineffable. Most weekends were spent reading, some going to the beach when it started getting warmer in July and a couple walking around where I lived, exploring the neighbourhood and 11 weeks passed. Oh! Almost forgot, had a Bose sponsored weekend to Chicago with all the Bose and Khorana fellows.

FAQ Section

  1. How to decide Academic Internship vs Others ?
    Ans: I am not the right person to answer this because I always thought I wanted to be in academia. It was ill-informed then, because I completely neglected the industrial research options. We have companies with brilliant research options even for condensed matter theory. So, I would say be clear about what sort of work you want, talk to seniors about the work culture to expect and if possible apply to both places because this is an opportunity to explore.
  2. What to write in an SOP? (from that to requests of sending my SOP)
    Ans: The thought of writing an SOP is strenuous in itself, forget sitting down and starting, but what I have seen is once you are in the flow, you get going.
    With the standard opening of ‘I am a third year undergraduate from the department xyz’ to ‘this internship is a really important milestone in the future research endeavours I wish to embark upon’, sandwiching all the courses and projects you have done, summarising things you have learnt and skills you have acquired, SOP also contains what you wish to do in this internship, and how your background, skills and interests make you suitable for the project or work you are claiming to be suitable for.
    The backdrop can be ‘why you’ so tell about things that you feel set you apart. Luckily most of these program applications break down the questions they want you to answer and you can just use them as cues to frame something coherent.
  3. What are the Skype interviews like, what do they ask, how much do they expect you to know?
    Ans: In general, the interviews are very comfortable, no tricky questions, no solve this/ derive that, at least in all the interviews I gave.
    Independent of what stage the interview is taking place some points are certainly brought up. This includes what you are doing currently, what courses, what projects and sometimes even specific details like what textbook did you follow if the course is directly relevant to the project or his/her field of interest.

    Other than that, they would have your CV, transcript and SOP/ cover-letter (e-mail) to discuss points from. Specific questions related to projects can be expected like what did you learn/compute/ conclude, if it something you have finished in the past. Since I am from Material Science and was applying to Condensed Matter Physics, they specifically asked me about my Electronic and Magnetic properties of Matter course which overlaps with the field slightly apart from the physics coursework. Some skills they expect you to know irrespective of whether they are covered in the courses, for experimentalists, these could be the hands on experience you have on something commonly used in that lab, a general question also is ‘can you code’, because some aspect or the other might require you to code some basic stuff, mathematica, python skills are gauged.
    Also, most importantly, what do you expect from this internship/ project. So here you need to answer on the lines of why this particular project or working under this particular professor interests you, a multitude of reasons are possible here, like it's an extension to the work you have been doing, it is something you wish to explore, but be concrete about how you will be able to contribute and what you seek to learn in the process.
  4. What is the research work really like?
    Ans: If you are thinking about a research intern, I shall assume you have done some project somewhere in the past as coursework or summer or with clubs so you sort of know how work is done vaguely, even if you are absolutely clueless, I can tell what I was required to do under my professor. I was given about two weeks to read about the background and general idea of the field and terminology used in literature, next was arriving rigorously to the results already published, doing some numerical calculations on the side, to finally doing ‘the new thing’, verifying it, trying to do the next new thing, all this in collaboration with the grad student who was also working on the same problem as me and we met everyday discussing what ideas we had and what to check/ calculate next. The professor used to meet once in two weeks or would arrange a special meeting if you wanted to discuss something. Then, I came back, work went on and we finally got something discreetly independent and publishable by January next year. That was sort of my experience. I greatly value the exposure and perspective I got there.
  5. What role does doing a research internship play in the future prospects?
    Ans: Again, I am not in a position to say how this experience stands with regards to future because I am still trying to ascertain my prospects, but the least it did was give me a mentor who I can ask for advice or recommendation letter if required and also something concrete to show on my CV for May ‘19 to July ‘19. Higher studies or a job or RA is the next BIG question, answer to which comes naturally to some and takes time for others. The bottom line is trust your intuition, be well-informed about the available choices and put in your effort intelligently and whole-heartedly.

Feel free to contact me about anything, anytime.