Returning to School After 30!

This has been a topic request by many since I published my two posts on doing physics after engineering and also my own experience obtaining a masters degree from a relatively obscure university. I joined my masters program at 32 and the experience was bittersweet to put it shortly. It’s been a while since I had been meaning to tell my readers the pros and cons of embarking into an endeavor like this.

I absolutely love quoting others from real life as well as from movies. So please do bear with my tendency to pull quotes and movie dialogs out of nowhere and place them in my written text.

I must also warn you because the picture that I am going to paint here may be grim and you probably are not going to like what I have to say. With those caveats, let’s get on with today’s topic.

Never too late? Or is it?

“It is never too late” is a maxim thrown around quite often when talking about starting off with one’s own passion. Sure, it is never too late to chase what one’s heart wants but I would like to mention an addendum to this which is, “Follow your heart but take your brain with you.”

There was a documentary I watched a few years ago in which Mr. Narayanamurthy, the founder of Infosys said, “It is very easy to lose hope in this country.” That is perhaps the best statement that encompasses every aspect of the sad situation that most people are in our beloved nation.

There are times when we do come to a realization that it is indeed too late to start and there is hardly anything we can do about it. That’s probably when people just give up and “move on” in their lives. It’s quite funny because the situation becomes tantamount to Carla Gugino’s remark in the film San Andreas, “We stopped moving!”.

You either will end up being happy with the acceptance that life isn’t fair or you might spend each moment of your waking life hating yourself. Sadly, it is mostly out of our control due to a myriad of reasons.

Risky Business!

I don’t intend to give anyone any false hope. Wanting to do a masters degree or a PhD after 30 may sound like a promising respite from the rut that you are in right now. However, this process is not without risks if you don’t plan far into the future. Trust me, because although I entered my university for an MSc at 32, I embarked on this project almost 7 years prior to that when I was around 24 – 25. That my dear friends is how much messed up the situation can get if you lack a proper plan. The delay of 7 years was not because I didn’t try but because I wasn’t allowed to focus. We will come to that later.

In the beginning, I had no idea as to how to even begin or whether it was even possible. As I had an engineering degree (perhaps the biggest mistake in my life), the options to get into a masters program in physics were limited. I was fed up working in a large corporate although the money was good and I wanted to pursue my lifelong passion of understanding the universe.  I had some information from online sources about certain institutions where this switch was possible and without thinking I set off on this journey.

I am glad that as of 2021, there are countless engineers who want to make the switch and institutions such as IIT have now started to recognize this. In the recent IIT JAM exam brochure I was delighted to find that they have clearly allowed engineers to do MSc. This is definitely progress and hats-off to the perseverance of the Physics after Engineering community in achieving this. Back in 2008 – 09 period, it was a practically unknown thing to do and anyone attempting was destroyed by pseudo-critics.  

That being said, was my decision to switch a good one? The answer could be a mixed response from me. See, if you succeed in your endeavors people around you would appreciate you or even take credit for your success. But if you fail, then you are all alone. No bloody bugger would ever come to console you and encourage you to try again! Frankly speaking, when I look back I feel that I shouldn’t have made this switch. Don’t mistake me. I am not discouraging you. Just stating a plain fact. It is true that I know far more about switching from engineering to physics today than I did all those years ago but gaining that knowledge came at a price. I lost my career, my youth and in that process any chance at making a mark in this field.

The Bill Always Comes Due! Always!

When Mordo tells this to Doctor Strange, he was more than just talking about a universal law. I would like to start with a concept so familiar that nobody pays attention. It is called Financial Independence! I can’t stress enough the importance of being financially independent if you are a passion driven person. If you are a 30+ person intending to do a masters or a PhD, this is where you should start.

Take a moment and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have the money to fund your own masters degree and a PhD thereafter?
  • Can you become a self-funded research candidate who can take care of the university fees, travel costs, living expenses and all the other allied expenses associated with your masters + PhD endeavor?
  • Will it be possible for you to do what you want with the PhD you got without having to beg in front of funding agencies?

If the answer is NO to these questions, then my dear friend you should abandon your project immediately! You are unfit to pursue your passion!

I know it was a harsh thing to say but calm your mind for a second and think about why I said it. 

So, why did I say this? Well, first of all most institutes around the world want young and energetic candidates. There is no denying this fact. They expect aged candidates to be self-funded for obvious reasons. After your PhD, because of your age, it is far more difficult for you to get a job in academia/research/industry compared to a younger candidate. Why should financial resources be spent on you if you are eventually going to be forced to quit the field due to your age? Institutions would rather give the money to a younger candidate who is far more likely to stay in the field and continue contributing.

Secondly, lack of finances will create a dependency. Either you will have to depend on your family (a very bad idea) or you may have to raise a loan of some kind (yet another bad idea).  If you are from India and above 30 and unmarried and wanting to pursue your passion with the “help” of your family, well, good luck with that!

I am not saying that my family did not help me. They in fact helped me a lot financially. Unfortunately, that help came way too late and by the time I was taken seriously, I was already 31 and totally dejected with my life. 

Indian families are always under societal pressure because of a general Indian mindset which promotes the following cycle of four components:

  • Get a degree
  • Get a job
  • Get married and have kids
  • Pass on this mindset to the next generation

I would like to call this the “Stability Argument“. Unfortunately, if you have any other idea in your head outside this paradigm and you are not financially independent, then you are doomed for a failure! Even if your family supports you initially, they will always be worried about what the society would think if word got out that you are sitting at home preparing for something for your future. It is just not acceptable in India. As simple as that. 

This whole “Sharma ji ke bete ko dekho…..”, “Kapoor sahab ki beti ko dekho……” mentality is something that I faced and suffered directly. I had been compared with all sorts of people including my successful classmates, my successful cousins, the children of my parents’ friends….. the list goes on.  Because of this reason, none of my unique talents was ever encouraged or nurtured and those talents have now become rusted and useless. 

Now, there is no issue with being stable in life and everybody must strive for that. But believing that there is only one path to stability is myopic and downright stupid. The only “achievement” the stability argument has got is creating 1.3 billion people. What else can we say proudly that we have achieved that the Western developed societies haven’t?

It is quite sad to see that doing research is not seen as a job in our country. In many developed countries in Europe and elsewhere, a PhD student is not treated as a student but as a staff member of the university and is paid salary instead of stipend.

Anyway, if you have to get back to school after 30, then you better go in with a lot of money in your bank. Otherwise my friend, you are a done deal!

Ranking Matters!

Yes! Studying in a reputed institute matters. You are anyway going to spend a long time (2 years in masters and 3 to 5 years in PhD) and you are over 30. The odds are all against you, so why not spend your time and money at a place that is worth spending? I did a masters degree from a university that most people haven’t heard of and it simply added insult to injury to an already messed up profile.  Sure, there are students from my university who did make their way to foreign countries for PhD but they all have better profiles due to the following reasons:

  • They are young (fresh graduates)
  • They don’t have gaps in their career
  • They are not switching fields like me

Why should any university select an overage candidate who has done a variety of different jobs that have nothing to with physics and then did a masters from a university that is not that great compared to a young graduate with a near perfect resume? This is a ground reality that you must understand before you challenge this unforgiving world. An unprepared challenger is surely set for a defeat!

It is therefore preferable to do your masters from abroad but if you choose to do your masters in India, try for DU, JNU, Pune University or any premier institutes such as IIT, IISc etc. Anything below this is going to be a waste of your time, effort and money.  I have seen students who did their MSc from IIT and DU taking coaching in physics to crack the NET exam. This is the scary and hopeless situation you are getting into.  So, you might as well get your masters from a good place.

People who have read my post about my experience doing MSc may say that I am contradicting myself in this article. Actually I am not. I wrote that post in 2018 with the knowledge and awareness of that time.  But as time passed, my point of view has changed. In the future if my viewpoint changes further, I might write something else. It’s part of personal evolution.

Publications

Back in 2008 – 09 when I told my old college professor that I wanted to switch from engineering to physics, he advised me to publish something in physics to boost my profile and prove that I am genuinely interested. I didn’t listen to him. My best friend told me in 2010 to publish something. I didn’t listen again. At that time though the competition in the field of astrophysics was high, it wasn’t as horrifying as it is today.

These days with the advent of online learning, every Tom, Dick and Harry is acquiring knowledge in this subject at an exponential rate and also publishing good stuff. Students these days publish papers even during their undergraduate degrees. Somebody once asked me whether doing courses on platforms such as Coursera, Udemy and the like would work in their favor. It would have if there were only few people taking those courses.  The enrollment numbers in each course of these online platforms are in the millions. The question you should ask yourself is what extra thing are you bringing to the table that all these millions of course takers haven’t already.

An overage idiot like you is surely going to be left behind in this race unless you fight with the same ferocity as your younger more accomplished competitors. For a young candidate, even if he/she doesn’t have a publication, a good SOP and Research Proposal would work. But for reasons I mentioned before, if you are aged, you probably won’t be considered even if your SOP and RP are great unless you have publications.

Forgetting Physics

Many hopeful engineering students have messaged me to ask what I have been doing since I finished my MSc. Well, I have a very sad story to tell them. Since my MSc, For about 18 months I tried very hard to go abroad for my PhD.  Since there was a delay in obtaining my marksheets from the university and the convocation, I decided to stay in Delhi instead of returning to Kerala. I thought that since I had to go to the university frequently to get things like character certificate, transcripts and so on, it was better to stay in close proximity.  It was advantageous but also incurred a lot of cost.  After I obtained my certificates, transcripts and marksheets, it proved to be too expensive staying in Delhi and after 1 year of stay, I had to come back to Kerala. I spent 6 more months preparing further PhD applications. 

In September 2019, I launched a YouTube channel hoping that I could create good quality videos in the subject of astrophysics and also science in general. I even created three videos but the excitement was short lived.  It would take a long time before a YouTube channel generates any sort of revenue. Further considering the sheer number of channels with good standing that talk about the exact same topic, it would take ages before someone notices my channel and the pressure was mounting to get back to work.

It was impossible to get a JRF as the age limit for JRF is 28. It was also not possible to work as a Project Assistant under any professor because the age limit for that is 35. It became imperative to find work elsewhere.  

So I did. I have been working in a private company doing a job that has nothing to do with physics for the past 1 year or so. The initial plan was to continue my channel alongside my work but within one month I realized that it wasn’t possible. People have advised me to keep the channel in abeyance and start it again later. I don’t know whether I will be able to do that. Most likely I would terminate it.

I often wonder how people claim to run a YouTube channel while working a full-time job. Either they have a good team working for them in the pre-production, production and post-production stages. Or they might be lying!

Anyway, I have started losing touch with physics. To counter that I sometimes read physics textbooks but due to my busy schedule, nothing ever works out.  In another few years I might forget physics completely. I am already at the verge of it.

Moving Forward

Over a decade ago when I embarked on this mission, my long term goal was to start my own research institute either in India or abroad. I planned to do a master + PhD or integrated PhD course and raise funds during my post-doc stages. 

When I received my last rejection letter in November 2019, I understood that none of this will ever work out. 

10 or 20 years down the line, if I do have the money then probably I will try that. But by then I will be 56 years old and it wouldn’t matter anyway.

Conclusion

So, should you pursue a masters degree + PhD after 30? My short answer would be – DON’T!

Despite my warning, if you still want to go ahead with your plan, then I am nobody to stop you.  But if you fuck your life up due to improper planning, then it is your problem. Not mine!

Those of you who haven’t read my previous posts about switching to physics after engineering, you may find them here and here

 

MS in US – A Crude and Interesting Process!

Image of US Education

This is a very interesting topic of which the information is often garbled by misinformed people. Doing an MS in US is not child’s play. The effort involved is huge and if you do not follow the procedures well, you might end up messing the whole thing. My personal advice to anyone aspiring to do an MS or Ph.D in US would be to create a backup plan. Please understand that US is not the end of the world. There are other countries that give you the same type of education and standards. For instance you can opt for Great Britain, Europe, Canada and Australia in addition to applying  to US. I am telling you this because getting a visa to go to US for your education is a horrendous procedure and there is absolutely no guarantee that you would be successful.

I also suggest that you approach a proper overseas consultancy that offers training and guidance in all the procedures involved. A word of caution that I would like to give at this moment is that the overseas consultancy that you choose would help you with all the processes up until your admission in the university. They are totally useless in your visa interview at the American Consulate. Hence, make sure that you do you homework and make your own informed choices based on the information available online and from your friends.

The process of going to US for MS can be divided in the following steps:

  1. Program of study
  2. Institute and department
  3. GRE and TOEFL
  4. The Paperwork
  5. Visa

Let me explain each one in detail:

Image of Phd Doctorate

1. Choosing the program of study – This is very tricky for most students. They do not know as to what they really need as a branch of study. In America, it is possible to become an engineer even if your undergraduate is in medical science. I personally know someone who did his undergraduate in Agricultural Engineering and is currently doing his Ph.D in Neurobiology. So, it is definitely possible. There are many reasons why you chose a particular branch of study in your undergraduate. You might have chosen to become an engineer just because your parents wanted you to do it. Or you might have done the same because your friends chose it and you were under peer pressure. Let it be any reason, American education will fix all that and you have opportunities to change the silly mistakes that you did as an undergraduate student. Mind you, your life is not to be wasted doing things that you do not like. It is for you to realize your own goals and aspirations.

Image of Online Masters Program

2. Choosing the right institute and department – I have heard students ask, “I have 55% in my B.Tech, can I apply in MIT?” This is ridiculous. MIT, Caltech, Princeton, UCLA, Purdue, UTexas etc are beyond the reach of average students. Most people who study in these institutions have been in prestigious institutions in their undergraduate such as IIT’, NIT, BITS etc. Or they might be exceptionally good in their academics. So, do not waste your time in applying to these institutes. Grad Schools and Happy Schools Blog and sites similar to these will give you sufficient information regarding how to choose an institute that matches your taste. Something I know from personal experience is to choose the universities that have a good distance/online learning option. I am telling you this because if you do not get through the US visa process, you still have an option to study from here and then apply for visa at a later time.

Image of GRE and TOEFL

3. GRE and TOEFL – These are two essential components of your graduate admission. You ought to take this no matter what. There might be institutions that do not require GRE or TOEFL scores but you might have a tough time getting through the visa interview since they ask all sorts of questions if you have not taken your GRE or TOEFL score. The GRE Subject Test is not required in 90% of the institutes but if you are wise enough, you can take that also to be on the safer side. But my advice is not to waste your time on that since there are plenty of universities in US that do not require the subject test.

Image of Paperwork

4. The paperwork involved – This part is interesting since no one realizes the amount of paperwork involved in the process. You should put in paper each and every aspect of your application process. Just as you do your online work, so should you do the paperwork. It is very important to have both online and hard copies of all your documents. Let me give a brief account of all the paperwork that you have to go through:

  • GRE and TOEFL scores –  They send you the paper format of your scores. Keep them ready. In addition, they send the paper format of the scores to the universities that you have chosen. Make sure that you send them.
  • Your SOP (Statement of Purpose) –  This is also known as Statement of Objectives. Either way, this is an important aspect of getting your admission in any institute. You should write down in paper as to why exactly you want to choose a particular college and course. You should write down your interests, what you have done so far to that field and what you will be doing after you have finished the program. This needs to be more objective than passionate. However, you can add your emotions here than there to show certain level of passion.
  • Your SOR (Statement of Research Interests) – This is for students applying for Ph.D. You should let them know why exactly are you doing a Ph.D and what exactly is your area of research interest. You don’t want to go to America or any other country without an idea in mind as to which part of which subject you want to research. The professors also look for this because they might have some project in hand an will be looking out for people who can work for them. If you can find a research problem, then even better since you can put that in your research proposal.
  • Academic resume  – This is another tricky part. You might have seen job resumes several times. This is slightly different. You can convert your job resume into an academic resume if you know where to change. Your objective should be to get admission and not to get a job. Further, you have to put your academic profile before your job profile so that the professors and the department heads can see them first.
  • Official Transcripts – I am sure almost all of you have your degree certificate, your provisional certificate and your mark sheets of your  undergraduate performance ready.  But that is not enough. You need to get something called the “official transcript”. It is created by the university you studied and can be either given in your hand or sent to your chosen American university depending on where you studied. Either way, make sure that you keep a photostat copy of your mark sheets since you have to submit them at the time of application of transcripts. If you can get it in your hand, you can send it to the US university through courier. Or you can arrange for the university to sent it. This is important because they need to understand your strong and weak points. This will particularly help you at the time of funding since the professors need to know in which area you can work and which one you cannot. It doesn’t matter if you had backlogs. No one really cares about it if your overall undergraduate score is above First Class.
  • Affidavit of Support – This is a letter from a notary or any other gazetted officer. This will show on a stamp paper that your parents or whoever is sponsoring you for the education is capable enough to support you. It is basically a legal document that can convince the university that you are not going to seek unauthorized employment in USA during or after your studies and that you intend to return to your home country after you are done with your MS program.
  • Bank statement – The universities are not actually looking for a step by step bank statement of your past 6 months’ transactions. If you can get a letter from the chief manager of your bank that you and your parents have sufficient savings in your accounts to support your studies, it is more than enough. But, you are always welcome to take your 6 months’ statement with you for your visa interview.
  • Application Receipt – This is the receipt of the application that you made to the university. I know that you get an online copy of the application receipt in your email and also that the university is well aware of your application. Nevertheless, it is important as a standard office practice. If you don’t understand what I mean, please check with your parents who have been in office and paperwork for decades. We have been brought up in computers and hence we don’t understand the value of paperwork. So, make sure that you print out your application receipt as well as application fee receipt.
  • Recommendation Letters – This is yet another important aspect of your application. Though most universities require only 2 recommendation letters, my advice is to produce 3. You can get one from your principal, one from your HOD and one from your lecturer. That will create a 3-tier effect to your application. While preparing your recommendation letter, try to limit it to just two paragraphs. Also do not use superlatives like, “he has been the best”, “she was one of the most brilliant” etc in the letter. Keep the language moderate and professional. Your faculty will anyway tell you the corrections that you need to make.
  • Photostat copy of your mark sheets, certificates, GRE and TOEFL scores  –  Despite sending your official transcript, you should also send the photostat copy of your mark sheets and your undergraduate certificates. This is for quick reference since the GRE score, TOEFL score and official transcripts reach the university at different times. They need to match them with your application ID. So having a photostat copy of these documents is worthwhile.
  • Covering letter – This is included in the package that you send to your  university. This letter will summarize all the documents that I have described above. You should mention that though you are sending the photostat copies of your mark sheets, certificates, GRE and TOEFL scores, you have sent the originals of the same separately. You should also give the list of documents included in the package that you are sending so that they can look for it if something is missing in the package or inform you about the same.
  • The package

    Image of Brown Envelope

    This is a brown paper envelope of sufficient size that can hold all your documents without bending. Instead of writing the address of your department, I suggest that you print out the recipient’s address on a paper and paste it on the envelope. This is much better than letting people decipher your handwriting. Your package must also include the photostat copy of your passport and your recent passport size photographs (3 of them). Now, try to courier it rather than using registered or speed post. Courier will help you track the shipment all the way to the university online.

    Getting your visa

    I am not going to talk much about this part. All I can say is that it is a horrendous nightmare. As mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, you should apply in multiple countries other than USA. I am not very positive about you or anyone else getting through the US visa interview process. If you do, you might be one of the lucky people who made through. Make use of information available online regarding the visa interview processes and try to get through. Create a backup plan just in case things don’t come out the way you wished them to be. Be confident and answer questions promptly. Give them a feeling that you are a genuine candidate but do not let them feel that you are desperate in going to US.

    Scholarship

    Image of Scholarship

    Please do not think that scholarship is for the most brilliant students. Even if you are an average student, you have chances of getting funded. It all depends on the availability of projects with the professor and your good luck. Every professor seeks funding from various agencies for projects related to his/her areas of expertise. He/she would certainly need people to work to get the project running. So in most cases, you can get a GRA (Graduate Research Assistantship) or a GTA (Graduate Teaching Assistantship). Again, I would like to repeat what I told in the beginning. Do not choose big shot universities. Try smaller ones since you have better chances of getting scholarships there. Also, once you have made your application, fix an appointment and try calling the professors. Talk to them and let them know your interests. Do not be surprised if you hear 99 nos and 1 yes because that 1 yes is what will get you what you want. Further, do not be picky in your research areas in the beginning. Have a general idea about things. You always can choose  your favorite subjects at later points of time.

    Miscellaneous

    The miscellaneous items that you need to learn are software skills. You ought to know programming in Matlab, Autocad, Astrogator etc in order to survive MS in any country. Especially if you are funded, you will be expected to write programs that simulate various scenarios. Also you should be good in math and data analysis. No matter how dry these subjects sound, you ought to get them in your head. Join social networking pages of the universities and connect to students who are studying or have studied in your chosen university and get to know more.

    I think I have pretty much covered everything that is required. I will devote separate, elaborate posts on each of the aspects I have mentioned in here in due time. If you have any questions or suggestions, do let me know. All the best!