Brace yourselves! Not because this is going to be a fast, thrilling ride instead it is going to be a long and winding one. But I can assure you it is no less exhilarating. Of course, there is time travel involved because I’m a nerd!
Seven years ago I was faced with the almost ritualistic decision of choosing which branch of engineering to study at a local college. Full disclosure – it was my second (failed) attempt at the esteemed JEE after which I had to relent being admitted to a state engineering college. I still managed to glean hope out of the dismal choice and chose to study Aeronautical engineering something that sounded cool but my reason for choosing it was not because I knew about it and had made up my mind about considering it. No, it was because I wanted to set myself apart from the rat race that is rapidly consuming all of us. Yes, if there was something more I wanted than achieving my dreams, it was to set myself apart and not follow the herd. I studied Aeronautical engineering in the nondescript semi-urban town of Raebareli. Of course, it was a massive let down compared to what the starry-eyed, naive me had thought. I am not going to fill up this space by talking about the extremely toxic system of education in the majority of Indian engineering colleges. Let’s say that I accepted my situation and again started weaving dreams of someday studying at better institutions. At that time, I had not given any serious thought about graduate education. I was still in the middle of my second year, but the resentment and the yearning to study at one of the coveted IITs was still there. Fortunately, at the end of my third year, I came across one of my juniors who was sincerely devoted to his passion – the outer space and exoplanets. We instantly took to each other, not because I shared his interests but because I saw working with him as a chance for me to do something more. So I set out to save myself from becoming one of the crowd again. We entered two online competition problems posted by NASA. Let me make it very clear we had absolutely no facilities or faculties to support our little research venture. We did as best as we could with the limited resources that we had. No, our ideation did not win the competition, but I still gained – a lot. Something sparked in me during those sleepless three months in which we worked day and night to come up with scientific solutions. I loved the process of scientific research. It all felt to me like a big and complicated treasure hunt with clues hidden in literature and past research that would lead to discoveries in the future.
I had just finished my third year studying Aeronautical engineering, a field of study that has insufficient scope regarding jobs and like my peers I started to think about the future. I knew that I wanted to continue doing research. The only problem was I was not sure that I wanted to extend my graduate studies in Aeronautical engineering. Alas! For our failed system of education, a student is forever doomed to be confined and shackled to the branch that he or she chose at the beginning of their undergraduate courses. Another option that I had been toying with was an MS degree from the US. I soon realized that it was not a viable option because of the kind of curriculum that I underwent in my undergraduate course and with the teachers I had, those who could not even write a review of an assignment in proper English how could I expect them to write shining letters of recommendation.
Another alternative was an M.Tech degree, and it was not bad as I would get the label of a prestigious institution in India as well. So yes, I wrote the GATE examination and somehow falling and scraping by I found myself in the third list of admission by which time I had become a nervous wreck- waiting and hoping furiously to get in. I felt for the first time true despair in those two months three years ago. I had no other option. I was utterly averse to the idea of doing a “job.” I could never imagine myself being in the situation I fought so vehemently to prevent. I am NOT bad mouthing the people who do regular jobs. I am just making a point that I was not cut out for it. Waiting through May and June in 2015 I was driven to the edge. I had to make it.
15th July 2015 – Oh how delighted everyone was, the normal definitive middle-class family and relatives showering praises – “We knew you had it in you” and generic phrases of the kind. What no one could fathom was the darkness and absolute loss of bearing I felt whenever I thought about what if I could not be admitted. No one knew about the hopelessly long nights and excruciatingly drawn-out days that made me lash out at everyone at home. But I can determinedly say that at the end of each day a small part of me unrealistically held onto hope and positivity. I like to think that this is in essence what makes the human spirit able to conquer anything.
IIT Kanpur, the place that gave me two great friends and amazing memories! So I was granted my wish to pursue graduate studies and research at an eminent institution. Now what? Where was the manual? Achieving one’s dream is a difficult task, overcoming the hardships along the way and coming out on the other end successful is a great feat. The hurdles and uncertainties in the way sometimes scare us, but something which is even scarier is when you achieve that dream. Yes! It may sound counterintuitive at first but it is true. We all need a sense of purpose, a bearing or heading in life without which we are left clueless and that cluelessness brings with it fear of- the unknown that lies beyond. I experienced something similar at the beginning of my time at IITK. I was in the Aerospace engineering department and was already running around talking to professors about potentially exciting areas of research to work on for my master’s thesis. I was brimming with excitement and unbridled energy. Fast-forward to the end of the first semester. I scored 3 C’s and just a single B. I felt reality hit me like a brick wall. I knew that I did not enjoy Aerospace engineering, my heart was just not in it. I know that I am an engineer and that I would love to sit and stare at a computer screen all day but no. Fortunately, I am not that kind of an engineer.
I still do not know whether it happened as they say – “one fine day” or gradually but I found myself one day in the library obsessing over this new word that had popped before me- microfluidics. Before I knew it, I was transfixed. It was one of those spur of the moment, instinctual things that happened to me. I knew that very moment that no matter what happens I want to do experimental research in microfluidics, BioMEMS. It was something that did not merely excite me; it awakened something – it felt like a ringing, my calling, my direction. So for the next two months, I set about on a crazy hunt to make it a possibility because my advisor in the Aerospace department did not work in this area. I started sending email to professors at other institutions, asking for which subject I should take, how I should shape my trajectory so that I can have a research career in this field. My aerospace engineering advisor was very supportive and even offered to send me to another IIT if I found a suitable and willing co-advisor. Luckily I found a professor in my campus but in another department – Mechanical engineering.
That second semester was the best. I was liberated. I took classes in chemical, material science, and mechanical engineering departments except in my department. People used to mock and make fun of my research idea. They used to tease me, all because they could not understand why, why would I go to all the trouble of changing my field of research and taking courses in other departments! “Hooo, that is unheard of!” I know it is cliché,’ but one truly does excel at something which he/she enjoys. I completed those courses with the grade B, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself taking those classes. I made great bonds with the professors of those courses, relationships that helped me greatly later on.
And so in the cold December of 2016, I started working on my thesis. I was late by six months at starting my thesis work. It troubled me, but I felt I would be able to complete on time. Six months later and after a lot of pitfalls, failures, and setbacks I knew my thesis work would be extended and I would not graduate alongside my close friend. But I consoled myself because I felt that it was a small price to pay for restructuring my research career. During this time, I also gave various standardized tests for university admissions abroad and so my thesis work had to be stalled. I doubled down on work and finally after meeting my co-advisors standards of work I was permitted to defend my thesis in October 2017.
Oh, the relief I felt! Finally, I defended my thesis and left the campus. A month later I rejoined my co-advisors lab as a Project Engineer. It was a research assistant position. I thought that I’d be paid and will also be able to publish while applying to universities. Smooth ride. Or so I thought. The six months that followed were the toughest yet.
So we finally come to the darkest, most painful part of this account. University admissions. Exasperating, torturous, and soul-draining. These words may seem to be in a lighter vein but believe me, they are not. Any “normal” applicant might tell you that I am overreacting and that usually, university admissions are complicated. Ah, but then that person did not have to live my story. Although my research work in my master’s program at IITK was in the field of BioMEMS, my degree would forever read “Aerospace engineering.” This disparity caused a world of trouble for me. I applied to 12 US universities and 1 Canadian University for a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering. I applied to 4 other universities for a research internship. Rejected by all. These rejections happened over the course of 6 miserable months during my time as a research assistant at IITK. “Thank you for applying….”, “This year the competition was very tough….”, “We sincerely wish you the best for your future endeavors…”. 12 university and three internship rejections later, after blowing a little more than $1024 on application forms and GRE and TOEFL score reports I was left with nothing. Zilch. There was a time during those six months of interminable wait and anxiety where I had gone completely off the grid. I think it was a continuous stretch of almost 20 days since I had not spoken to my close friends through any medium of communication. It had been close to a month actually since I had a proper conversation with another human being. Now before you do the math let me tell you that not everyone from IITK is suicidal, including me.
I will spare you the dramatics by not saying that I felt devastated. But I will delve into something else. Something that no one talks about upfront. Dealing with it. I knew I was rejected; I wanted to know why. The universities would not give any particular reason. Let me reiterate; to your annoyance that I am an engineer, a man of science as I like to call myself and unlike the laymen (no offense to anyone) I refuse to sit, lament and cry over my situation. Instead, I would rather see the outcome as if a result of an experiment and would set after knowing why the result was the way it was. I sat down and analyzed my situation and came up with ten major points that played a critical role in my admissions outcomes. I wrote them down, documented them – writing is sometimes therapeutic to me. And I sent an in-depth self-analysis to professors I knew, peers, even complete strangers for feedback. I put myself out there ready for unadulterated criticism. And it was a revelation. Through this process, I found out what actually should have been done, how it should have been done. And so it struck me like lighting – maybe I needed to do a second master’s because no one would seriously consider me for a Ph.D. position unless I have a master’s degree in the relevant field and aerospace engineering is not relevant at all to biomedical engineering. I worked at every aspect of my application that I could improve and with a renewed lease of life, I applied to 5 top Asian schools, this time for a master’s degree. Oh no, this is not a happy ending, not yet. Judging by the sudden change of tone I assume most of you may have guessed the new outcome. Rejects, again.
All was not lost though. During my spate of rejects in March I had also applied to the University of Tokyo’s Ph.D. program in Bioengineering without giving it much thought. I knew it was a top university and that again I’ll be rejected. I applied anyway because there was no application fee. A month later miraculously the professor whom I listed as a potential advisor on my application gave me the formal letter of admission. I was ecstatic! But there was a catch. He mentioned in his letter that he was ready to supervise my Ph.D. study if I could afford to stay in Japan for long meaning that there was no option to fund my stay in Japan. And there it went away as soon as it came- the elusive happiness. I had to eventually let go of the only unbelievably good offer I had gotten so far.
By this time, I had finished my six months of research assistantship and came back home. I felt nothing. I became afraid of my attitude, or lack of towards my current position. Of course, I had my family, resolute by my side but it should have been me who knew what to do next. And I didn’t. I talked to another professor and told him everything, everything that I tried. He told me to plan for a second masters in US from a moderate university and try to build an excellent profile. Then I would have significantly higher chances of being admitted to a top Ph.D. program in the US, that is if I still wanted to do a Ph.D. after my second masters. I cannot describe how I do this, but I think it is something that comes naturally to me-the ability to shake it off. Rise again. This ability was not acquired at birth instead it was cultivated and nurtured by my parents. We are a typical middle-class Indian family with not a lot to spare. My parents never questioned my decisions, they have always taken an active interest in my academics and professional choices, and have stood by me. That is how I have this ability. I researched moderately good schools in the US where the chances of my admission were more than 90%. I made up a list of 6 such schools and thought to myself that if I could drop off two years after school only to get into a crap undergraduate college, then I can surely wait for six months more to get into significantly better colleges in the States.
My close friend from IITK was in a similar situation. Although he applied to a lesser number of schools still his predicament was not good. On the brighter side, he had qualified for the Japanese government scholarship for a Ph.D. and was waiting for decisions from the US to make a final call. I thought about it. I too had an offer of admission from the university in Japan; maybe I too could try for this scholarship?
Encouraged by my friend who by this time had already commenced his research study in Japan I applied to the embassy. To my pleasant surprise, I was shortlisted for a written test and an interview at the embassy. You may persecute me for this, but I had started to believe that it was a sign. So many applications and not a single offer of acceptance except from UTokyo. My gut told me something that it told me three years ago when after the GATE examination I stood inside the IITK campus for the departmental written test – “This is the place where I want to study!”
30th June 2018. 48 candidates were called that day from various fields of study. 19 belonged to mechanical engineering, including me. After the written test only 22 candidates remained overall, and only eight remained in the mechanical engineering category, including me. I was nervous now. I knew that would qualify the written test, that was not an issue. The issue was that this was the very first interview of my life. I had never been interviewed before not even for a visa. Never. My friend was happy that I qualified the written test and gave me only one advice- to give my best. I thought about it; I had nothing to lose. It was the best (and the only) interview of my life! Now I am not going to brag, but during the interview one of the embassy officials stopped me to say “I have never seen a candidate as cultured, mannered and kind as you. I wonder what kind of upbringing you got.”
I was NOT expecting this. Ah, damn those ninjas who always cut onions at the wrong times. My eyes welled up, but I controlled myself and attributed it all to my parents. He just stared at me and then asked me to convey my regards to them. After the interview as I was just about to leave through the door, he stopped me again and reminded me to send his regards to my parents. I walked out that door bursting with exhilaration. I did not care about the results; I felt so peaceful and calm after a long period of internal turmoil. I felt superb at my performance. I felt great about myself. When I narrated the entire episode to my friend, he almost told me that I got the scholarship but also asked me to wait for the results as it was very competitive. Each year only 1 or at the most two candidates are selected from each field of study to receive this all expenses paid scholarship. So now came the toughest part. The wait. I know I said that just as I walked out of the embassy gates, all I cared about was that I did my best. But the truth was after a performance like that who would not want actually to win. I fervently prayed and hoped that I would clear the first screening of this scholarship. At the last stage, just before we realize our dreams we must start living it no matter what the outcome. That is the leap of faith.
11th July 2018. Those words “I have the pleasure to inform you…” I did not read any further than that, I ran out of my room and declared that I got it and hugged my father. My parents were more relieved that my agony was over than at the news about me successfully clearing the first screening process. The second screening tests whether the successful candidates from the first screening were able to secure admission to a university in Japan or not. The ones who can get admission are finally selected for a scholarship. I contacted the same professor who had offered me admission earlier this year. He was happy at my success and expressed his wish to again supervise my Ph.D. study at the University of Tokyo! At the moment I have formally applied to UTokyo’s online portal waiting for the formal letter of acceptance and then I’ll be off to Japan next year in April!!
No ladies and gentlemen there are no morals to this true story. Instead, there are lessons.
I failed miserably after my 12th board exams in clearing all the national entrance exams.
I did not give up.
I completed my undergraduate in a place that should have killed my dreams.
I did not give up.
I gave the GATE examination, secured a decent AIR but was admitted almost at the end.
I did not give up.
At IIT I changed my field of study, was faced with lots of uncertainties, and my thesis was extended.
I did not give up.
I was rejected from 13 universities and 4 internship programs with an uncertain future.
I did not give up.
Let me read to you the fine print – Living life at one’s terms is costly. Make a note of it, please. There will be consequences to what we choose for ourselves. A majority of us are content with what life decides for us but seldom do we take back that control and decide for ourselves. That takes a lot of strength, and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. I never settled for anything lesser than my dreams. Sure, I started out just to set myself apart from the crowd, but I realized that wherever I am, I have my identity which is not characterized by whether I am following the herd or not. And even if I am, I will stand out because of myself- my uniqueness. And so will anyone. We need to hold onto the identities that make us who we are. This identity is our aspirations and dreams. The moment we let go of them we lose our identity; it is then we indeed become a faceless part of the crowd. Patience is hard; perseverance is difficult. What is tougher than these two combined is patient perseverance. To really achieve something, something worthwhile this is the ingredient which is needed.
Be bold, swim against the current, wear yourself down, get beaten and bruised by whatever life throws at you but hell, do not ever give up.
– Afraz Khan
Afraz Khan is a fellow nerd, Potterhead and online gaming geek. If you find someone playing any game the way it shouldn’t be, then its probably him. He graduated from IIT Kanpur recently with his work on BioMEMS. There was not a single weekend without the intellectual nocturnal discussions on almost all the topics of this universe with him and Pushpender Sharma in IITK. He is planning to join me in Japan soon for his doctoral research.