Research / Manufacturing Core Career: A not so CDC way
Hi, my name is Kshitij Anand, and I am a third year undergraduate at the Department of Aerospace Engineering at IIT Kharagpur. Currently, I am remotely interning at the University of Calgary, Canada in the Robotarium Lab, under the MITACS program. My work has been mostly designing the internal structure of a transitional aircraft, updating some control programs installed on the flight computer, and bringing it to the point where its manufacturing can begin. On a side note, engineering work in a remote setup and not in your lab is extremely hazardous to your sanity (just kidding!). I am writing this article to address a common issue: “What should I do in the CDC season if I have to build a research career?”. A common issue, with a not so consolidated solutions. My attempt with this article will be to build an exhaustive (attempt to) list of steps one should take to build a research career and explain to them why CDC is not a great way for them to take.
Important Disclaimer: I am a dual degree student, and I am writing this article in the summers after my third year. Hence, it must be evident to the reader (if from KGP) that I have not experienced the CDC process firsthand, but have only closely observed it in the past year as some of my batchmates were going through the process. I may learn new things when I experience the CDC process in the coming months, and you may see new updates in the article.
So let us begin…
Current Scenario: Most of the profiles offered in the CDC process at IIT Kharagpur are corporate sector oriented — software development, AI Engineer (mind you an AI Researcher/Scientist and an AI Engineer are two very different things!), business, finance, banking, quant, consulting and few engineering core jobs, primarily in the sectors of electricals (power electronics or chip manufacturers) and manufacturing (assembly line supervision and automation). Research oriented companies do visit for campus placements, however the stats from the past suggest most of them limit their applicants to circuital branch (CSE/ECE/EE/IE) students. This leaves the non-circuital students working to build a research career in their department domains or interdisciplinary domains, or a career in manufacturing and engineering design, in a kind of a directionless situation. To be very honest, it is an “Arrange it yourself” or DIY situation. There is an FTP (Foreign Training Program) by the International Relations Cell on campus which is helping students to build a research career, but still a lot of students need guidance and help in this matter.
The Risk and the Truth: So, to put it more concrete words, if you are the above research student I described, you more or less should not be depending on the CDC completely. You should start your preparations from August onwards in an attempt to get a research intern offer for the next summer (the steps for which I will describe below). Now the risk lies in the fact that once the CDC process is over and if you fail to secure a research intern then you will have very sleek chances of getting to some place good in the corporate sector as in intern, but then life is a gamble everyday. It will be your choice. I am not sharing any part of my choice to avoid influencing others’ decisions. I will be just stating the facts, conventions and the how-tos.
Some formalities at the CDC: As per the conversations I have had with some of my friends last year and recently, a student must mandatorily inform the CDC that he/she/they have also filed research internship applications in some select programs such as MITACS, DAAD, S.N. Bose etc. These NOC Guidelines were circulated last year and you can contact the placement coordinators of this year to know more about the process. A key point to take in mind is that if you appear for the interviews in the CDC drive and accept an offer made by a company, then you will definitely have to refuse any research intern offer you receive in the future. Turning your back on an offer arranged by the CDC will invite unpleasant consequences for you and to be completely honest it is partly your fault as well because someone else who was more or less equally deserving lost a precious offer.
How-To get a Research Intern which can count as a CDC Compulsory Summer Training?
First of all, identify your area of expertise. I will be practical and hence I expect that you must have at least 1 to 2 relevant projects on your resume before you apply for a research intern, especially if you are applying to prestigious international institutions. Getting a research intern has gotten much much easier in the online setup because of three things: remote work, there are no travel costs involved and lastly students are ready to work for free! :)
Second, look for the right guide rather than worry about the funding first. You should have read some research papers in your previous projects and while reading the “Introduction” or “Previous Work” sections, you must have come across the several advancements done in your field of work till date and the people associated with them. Next up, prepare the list of Labs / Professors you want to work with, taking hint from the past readings. Visit their profiles on their respective institute’s website and scan through their work. I generally have a practice of reading the abstracts of the last three papers they have published to get a very rough idea of whether I should go ahead with mailing them or not. If you are a sophomore, you will have to do about 2x times mailing than a third year or above, because professors are very much accepting towards pre-final year students and equally hesitant towards juniors, and over a large sample space I feel the professors have a justifiable attitude in this regard.
Once, you have identified what you want to work with and who are your top 20–30 preferences, the next thing you need to worry about is your email (the first correspondence) and your statement of purpose.
I will simply attach the best resource out there guiding on how to write to a professor for a temporary position in their lab or working with them on a project, here. The second part — the Statement of Purpose — in honest terms is a story about why do you do what you do and what inspires you to do it day after day. I know it, because I was a junior once too, and let me tell you there is no one format of an SoP that guarantees your selection. I have seen people with the most bland to the most melodramatic (trust me some people mentioned about their personal struggles too much) SoPs getting selected. However, one thing is very common, the SoP must have a certain level of technical language which comes naturally if you have genuinely worked in the field for a required amount of time or you can get help from a senior in your department to improve over the language of your SoP. Keep one thing in mind, the SoP is about you and not about the professor. The professors are very efficient in finding out the level of technical knowledge you have from your SoP and whether you have tried to tailor the SoP to the professor’s work. I suggest you do not do that, and keep the SoP mostly general, and in the concluding remarks you can add that how the project you are applying for can help you boost your expertise and career. I will be attaching no examples for the SoP as I strictly believe there cannot be a generic example to attach, however I suggest you include the following things in your SoP in order:
- Who are you and what are you currently doing?
- Where did you start your research journey and what led you to start it in the first place?
- What aspect of the field interests you more and why? [Support it with anecdotes from your working experience]
- Why do you want to continue working in the field and what do you finally aim to achieve?
- Lastly, why choose the specific project or professor? — as a part of concluding remarks.
Now finally, after we have identified what to do, where do we want to work, preparing the cover letter and the SoP, we can worry about the funding:
(A) Apply in a Summer Internship Program financially supported by an organization
(B) Request the professor to provide a stipend i.e. the finances will be completely individual dependent
Let’s discuss them in a bit more detail:
(A) You can find a list of summer research internship programs here, with various eligibility terms and conditions involved. You will have to go through all of the options individually, and its no cake walk. After having identified the relevant programs for you, go through the mechanism of application for all those programs. Some programs match you with the professors themselves e.g. MITACS, in some you have to find a professor who is willing to accept you as an intern e.g. DAAD, Caltech SURF, and in some you have to be recommended by the Head of your Department at your institute e.g. S.N. Bose, Khorana, Viterbi scholarships. Since, I am a MITACS accepted student and here are two tips I would like to share which may increase your chances of getting accepted:
(i) In the MITACS program, you have to choose a minimum of 3 and a maximum of 7 projects out of some 2500–2700 projects the partner universities offer via MITACS. The first screening takes place here itself. Look, MITACS is meant to serve core research students (a golden advice I received from a senior at NIT Durgapur) and hence there is a high probability that you will not get selected if you are a mechanical engineering student who has done 1–2 projects in ML after following through Andrew Ng’s course on Coursera, and then is looking for an ML research intern position. Please don’t take the previous statement as a demotivating statement, all I mean to say in the most polite manner is that application skills and research skills for the same topic differ a lot. So, while choosing your projects make it sure that almost all the top priority projects in your list are aligned in one direction. It shouldn’t be the case that your first choice is something related to robotics and then the third choice is something related to ML application in finance. This is a complete no no. Hence, scan through all the projects by searching through them properly and choose 5–7 projects based on your niche.
(ii) Fill the previous work part of the form tactfully. MITACS asks you to mention your research interests using keywords and you cannot use more than a 100 words. So, here again your technical lingo comes into play. When reading reading research papers you must have noticed a few words mentioned as keywords right after the abstract. Use those words (as per your field obviously) and try avoiding generic terms like ‘Machine Learning’. And secondly, your related coursework information must also be arranged to contain the relevant topics which are required for the project.
Once you have submitted your application, you will have to wait for interviews. Getting in an interview is no guarantee that you will get selected. I was interviewed by the professor who was my third choice, but was offered my first choice. So, sometimes your CV itself does the job. To find out more about other programs, you can go here ( :D )and search more about them. Many students from India have written down their testimonials on medium and other blogging platforms.
(B) This one will be short advice. It is generally very tough to find a professor who will be ready to fund you independently, and more tougher for the juniors. It is obvious that if someone who is sitting 8000 kms away is ready to invest about Rs. 5 lacs on you, then you must have a great sales pitch (I mean a great profile in research :P ). An advice that was given to me by one of my seniors and which worked last summer (though the travel was cancelled ultimately :\ ), was that one must look for professors who are directing a lab or leading a research program. Such professors in administrative positions, have access to financial networks and can arrange for resources with the help of a third party if they feel that inviting you onboard can help them with their project. So, keep this in mind and may be you would have a successful shot as well.
Finally, to sum up, we discussed about the following steps to get a research intern:
- Identify your work field
- Identify where do you want to work
- Write your cover letters and your SoP
- Find the funding
and drumrolls!!!, the final step:
5. Get accepted and enjoy the next summer!
Thank you for reading till here. If you found this article helpful, do share it with your friends who need this and best of luck for the next summer!
- A more detailed guide on Research internships by Keshav Bagri, IIT Kharagpur: https://keshav-bagri.medium.com/a-holistic-guide-to-research-internships-domestic-and-international-5eaef7a154de
- DAAD WISE Research Intern Experience, by Tanya Ratra, IIT Roorkee: Summer Diaries: DAAD (iitr.ac.in)
- Personal favorite article of Caltech SURF: (7) What should I do to improve my chances of getting selected for SURF at Caltech? — Quora