Monday, April 27, 2009

The Application (‘Apping’) Saga – Why Did I Dare to Dream?

Pichle do posts mein apne dekha...... Ab aage!

Some miscellaneous items. Some universities require a rank form from your college. So check out the whims and fancies of each university. Some ask for financial certification. To put it simply, the univ wants to know whether ‘baap ke pass paise hai ki nahi’ so that uncle sam will not have to support you during your stay there. Typically you need to show finances for the first year which includes tuition fees and living expenses. This amount varies from university to university. Usually California and north eastern universities are expensive whereas Texas ones are cheaper. So how to show so much money. If you have that much money, well and good. If not, you have an option of taking a bank statement from some wealthy relative and getting a affidavit from him stating that he will sponsor your education.

So now you are ready to send your packets to the universities. Make packets for each univ consisting of what is required. You could save some money if you send all universities packets together to someone in the US who can then send the individual packets to their destinations. Packets can be sent by courier or post. I sent it by speed post. Yeah for once a government agency can be trusted to deliver.

You will also have to fill the online application form. This also can be annoying as each university asks for different things. UMinn asked for some diversity essay in which I had to prove I am different from other students and not too different so as to be considered abnormal. Gatech had four questions instead of the SOP. So don’t expect to fill all the forms in one sitting. Keep tea and music for the breaks. Don’t forget to make a resume which strictly talks about your research experience and academics and a short mention of your extra curriculars. Gold medals in the 4th grade and participation in elocution competitions should not be included. Also report your GRE and TOEFL scores to universities besides the ones you had already reported to.

So that’s it. Its over from India. Now over to the USA. After submission you will just have to sit and wait. The waiting period can be tough specially when your friends get calls and you don’t. I attributed my lack of calls to being out of coverage area and thus decided to change my cell phone service provider. You can keep yourself busy by mailing profs from the universities. You may have to make a webpage for the profs reference. You basically tell the prof how you can be useful to him in his work and whether he can offer you some assistantship. Of course you have to be more subtle. I will never finish this article if I get into the details of the ‘mailing profs’ act. You can also check for scholarships for graduate studies. I trawled the net for days. The only ones I came across and applied to were the NSF and the JN Tata scholarships. I also came across an ‘Education Advising Center’ during this search. You can contact them at 080-41251922 for help with the applications.

And then the last part. The results! It can be over-the-moon joy or heart-breaking sorrow. I thank my parents and friends for helping me cope with this roller coaster period. For instance when Stanford gave me a reject, some of my friends cursed Stan instead of agreeing with the fact that I am not good enough for the university. Now that’s priceless support! Finally you will have to choose one offer in case you have got multiple admits. I decided to take UMinn based on many considerations. So next up is the Visa process. See you same place for the sequel of the American Dream

Roll credits!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Application (‘Apping’) Saga – The Dream Turns Tedious

Welcome back. Picking up from where we had left off, you will also have to decide whether you wish to pursue an MS or a PhD. That took a while as I was, and still am, not quite sure what I want to do in life. So I decided on pursuing an MS first up as that would give time to decide whether I am PhD material or not. Also I wasn’t quite sure of spending the next 5 years of my life in some place I have never seen and working under someone I have never spoken too. It sounded too daunting. Pursuing an MS would give me a feel of research in the US and help me decide my field of interest. Basically I felt I could make a more informed decision during the MS program. About leaving after your masters, in the case of an MS-PhD program. It is not ethical in the first place and secondly it is illegal in some cases. The university may not give your masters degree at all or may blacklist you from doing a PhD anywhere in the US.

Now for the stuff needed from your undergraduate institute. You will need sealed transcripts of your grades. That created some confusion for us, as the form had some weird questions. Problem was solved through emails and phone calls and two days of unwanted tension. The second thing needed will be reccos from your profs. Now that can be a pain in the wrong place. First you have to decide who will be your recommender. That decision is based on how well the prof knows you and what he will write about you. Rank of the prof is not as important as the former two points. How well he knows you, depends on the number of years he has known you, subjects taught and projects supervised. Fairly clear. Now the point is what he will write about you. That cannot be known as the correspondence between the prof and university is supposed to be confidential. You will have to trust him and hope of the best. You could do your part by not choosing your enemy as your recommender. But what if your favourite prof isn’t so kind and generous with praise for you in his letter?

(Click on picture to enlarge.)

Is there any way to read the profs mind? Yes! Well not exactly. There is a way to read what the prof will say about you. You ask him for paper reccos for some universities. Ask for one university which you will not apply to, along with the required ones. Open that extra one and see what he has written. If he hasn’t written anything good, you can ask him to shove it up where the sun doesn’t shine. But that is not morally correct. Both, taking the extra recco and the shoving part.

Anyways I didn’t do this. I took all my reccos online and hoped for the best. Another couple of points on the subject. Approach the profs well in advance and if possible take the reccos before the rush season of November December. Different universities take online reccos at different times. Meaning some universities accept reccos anytime after you have started your online form while some accept only after you have submitted your form. So adjust accordingly. Maybe it might be easier to take paper reccos and send them yourself although some univs like Gatech and UTA have no paper recco option.

Now for the mother of all apping ingredients. The SOP! Well this statement or essay is supposed to talk about your research experience, goals, reasons for choosing that university etc. There are tonnes of articles on this and you can check them out yourself. I’ll just mention that the essay should have a ‘flow’ in a certain direction. It shouldn’t be random like the path of an auto in Bangalore. Also refrain from repeating stuff from your resume. Instead of describing your project, talk about what it taught you or what skills you acquired through it and how it is related to the field you’re applying to. All your projects should somehow appear related to your field. For example tomatoes and blood are related by the fact that both are red. Now the connection has to be stronger than that. Anyways I hope you get the point. As far as possible, the SOP should be customized with respect to length and content for each university.

Sigh! When will I see the end of this tunnel?

To be continued..

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Application (‘Apping’) Saga – The Dream Begins.

First of all, I thank God for all my results, the admits and the rejects. Without His help, nothing could have been achieved. I know He gave me the admits which are part of His plan for me. I also thank my parents for helping me, even when they had no idea what to do, for putting up with my temper and moods during those nerve wrecking days. I am also grateful to my brothers, friends, batchmates from BITS who are now my seniors, and the BITS2MSPHD forum for all the help and support right through the application process, which I am gonna describe in these series of posts.

Once you have decided that you wish to pursue MS/PhD in the US, go to the nearest book shop and purchase Barrons. For more info on GRE preps, please refer to my posts ‘My journey in getting 1560 in GRE!! :D‘ and ‘GRE=words+stupid words+crap+wtf+dumb formulae= madness!!!‘. According to me, it is best if you can answer the GRE and TOEFL by August of the preceding year if you are applying for the Fall semester of a given year. So try and book the exams in advance so you get the date, time and place of your choice. Booking is done online and you will need a credit card. Also decide on at least four universities you are sure to apply to, as you are allowed to report your scores to four univs on your GRE exam day. Don’t waste it as it costs $17 to report your score. I wasted one slot by listing UCB as one of the universities and ended up not applying to it.

A passing remark about TOEFL. It is a very easy test if you are reasonably fluent in English. But I got a pathetic centre, in the sense my exam was delayed by 4 hrs, the computer hung once, and then it took ages for each question to load. It spoilt my rhythm and by the end of it I was tired, hungry and frustrated. As a result I screwed my speaking part. It might be a good idea to take some biscuits or fruits along, just in case you end up with a similar predicament. Or maybe you could keep some pizza delivery numbers in your contacts. The centre was ‘Attest’ on Mission Rd, Bangalore. The second time round I took Christ College as the centre. Everything went smoothly, although I didn’t do very well in speaking again, as I was really nervous the second time. The decision to answer TOEFL again is in itself a long story and I will not go in to the specifics here.

As for short listing of universities, there is no hard and fast rule. I based my decision on rank, cost, chance of funding, research and profs in your field and opinions of experts, my project guide at I.I.Sc in my case. I also mailed many seniors at the univs to get info about the universities. Finally, I chose two dream univs, two mid level and two safe univs for my profile. It is really difficult to quantify your profile and the universities level of acceptance. There is no easy math that will tell where exactly you will get. Maybe you can go to a palmist or read your horoscope to help make decisions. It is really a mind numbing job. Of course you can apply to numerous univs to be safe. But each univ application cost $120 on an average. Anyways in my case Stanford and UIUC were my dream univs (both rejects), Gatech (admit) and Purdue (not known yet) were mid level univs and UT-Austin (Reject) and UMinn (Admit with aid) were my safe univs.

Now that you have decided your universities, start applying! First start applying to the ones that have ‘rolling admissions’. I am still not quite sure if such a thing exists. Basically rolling admissions is a concept in which applications are reviewed as soon as they are submitted and results are given soon after. So you have a higher chance of admission/funding if you apply early. In my list, UIUC, Purdue, Gatech and UTA had rolling admissions. I didn’t know Purdue had rolling admissions and ended up applying to it on the last day. Information about rolling or ‘stagnant’ admissions can be found on the university site if you read it thoroughly or ask some seniors. Now that the ball has been set rolling..

To be continued..

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Tackling the E-Monster

This is truly the ‘e-age’. Everyone talks about e-mail, e-ticketing, e-banking, e-books and even e-zone. But you don’t hear much about a term called e-waste. But this term may become the most talked about e-term if nothing is done to control this silent threat to the environment. E-waste comprises old electronic goods ranging from personal computers and peripherals like DVDs to various household appliances such as TV’s, refrigerators, cell phones, wires, batteries, and CFLs. Each of these products contains a plethora of substances and chemicals, many of which are toxic and likely to create serious problems to the environment and human health if not addressed appropriately. E-waste dangers stem from ingredients such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, copper, beryllium, barium, chromium, nickel, zinc, silver and gold.

Take for instance the dry-cell batteries so commonly used and disposed along with regular waste. Everyday thousands of batteries are disposed of in Bangalore itself. About 55% of these batteries include the zinc-carbon and zinc- chloride batteries which are known to contain heavy metals and mercury. Another 25% of batteries used are button cell batteries which again have mercury content. The relatively safe alkaline batteries which do not contain mercury currently make up just 10% of the market. It is the same with the widely promoted CFLs which contain mercury and should therefore be collected and recycled rather than be disposed along with regular household waste.

So how and where is this e-waste disposed?

Land filling of e-waste, one of the most widely used methods of disposal, is prone to hazards because of leachate which often contaminates ground water resources. Older landfill sites and uncontrolled dumps pose a much greater danger of releasing hazardous emissions. Mercury, Cadmium and Lead are among the most toxic leachates. Mercury, for example, will leach when certain electronic devices such as circuit breakers are destroyed. Lead has been found to leach from broken lead-containing glass, such as the cone glass of cathode ray tubes from TVs and monitors. When brominated flame retarded plastics or plastics containing cadmium are landfilled, both PBDE (Polybrominated diphenyl ethers) and cadmium may leach into soil and groundwater. In addition, landfills are also prone to uncontrolled fires which can release toxic fumes.

In India we also have scrap yards where the young, the old and everyone in between dismantle e-waste to extract small quantities of various metals. Laborers smash and unhinge devices, spraying toxic shrapnel all over the ground, where people with no shoes walk. Then workers employ a variety of methods to track down and remove the metals from objects like circuit boards, semiconductors and wires. The methods used for retrieval of valuable components are terribly harmful to the environment and human health. Mother boards are regularly burnt for retrieval of copper. Gold extraction is seen to take place is small rooms with no ventilation. Here chips from printed circuit boards containing tiny specs of gold are heated with nitric acid. The final retrieval uses cyanide - this cyanide is finally flushed into the open drain outside the unit. Inhaling or handling such substances and being in contact with them on a regular basis can damage the brain, nervous system, lungs, kidneys and the reproductive system.

Harmful effects of e-waste chemicals
• Arsenic may disrupt cell communication and interfere with the triggers that cause cells to grow, possibly contributing to cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes if someone is exposed in chronic, low doses.
• Cadmium affects your body's ability to metabolize calcium, leading to bone pain and severely weakened, fragile bones.
• Chromium can cause skin irritation and rashes and is potentially carcinogenic.
• Copper can irritate the throat and lungs and affect the liver, kidneys and other body systems.
• Lead poisoning can cause a whole slew of health problems including the impairment of cognitive and verbal activity. Eventually, lead exposure can cause paralysis, coma and death.
• Nickel is carcinogenic in large doses.

Scientific disposal of e-waste.

So what can we concerned (if you have become concerned by now!) citizens do, to avoid this mess our fancy gadgets create at the end of their life cycle? This is where an NGO called Saahas comes in. They have taken initiatives to reduce uncontrolled dumping of e-waste in Bangalore and in the long run hope to eliminate it all together.

Saahas has also setup nine public collection points for CDs, DVDs and batteries.
• Safina Plaza, Commercial Street
• Landmark store in Forum Mall, Koramangala
• G K Vale Photo at M G Road, Indiranagar and Jayanagar
• Fab Malls at Indiranagar and Bannerghatta Road
• Fitness One at Koramangala and Jayanagar

Saahas office address:
#431, 8th Cross, 1st Block, Jayanagar, Bangalore
Tel: 41689889, response AT

To set up a collection bin in an apartment complex, an initial amount of Rs.3500 must be paid to Saahas, after that there are no other fees required ever for the timely collection or for any other promotional programme. After paying this amount, a bin is set up in the common area of the apartment complex (usually near the security room). Collection is done once in two months and Saahas collectors take it to their office.

At the Saahas office, the e-waste is further segregated into batteries, CDs and floppies. The lot is then sent to e-Parisara, which is an authorised company for recycling e-waste located in Dobaspet industrial area, in the outskirts of the city. Other bigger items can be handed over directly to the Saahas office for safe disposal.

Recycling e-waste helps recover important natural resources for reuse and decreases the need for surface mining. Recycling is a better, environmentally friendly solution to finding these metals in existing products, rather than digging up the earth and impacting nearby forestry. Also the insatiable demand for all kinds of metal has fuelled gruesome gang and tribal wars in many parts of Africa. The following is an excerpt from a New York Times article.

Columns of men, bent double under 110-pound sacks of tin ore, emerged from the colonel's mine shaft. It had been carved hundreds of feet into the mountain with Iron Age tools powered by human sweat, muscle and bone. Porters carry the ore nearly 30 miles on their backs, a two-day trek through a mud-slicked maze to the nearest road and a world hungry for the laptops and other electronics that tin helps create, each man a link in a long global chain.

The proceeds of mines like this one, along with the illegal tributes collected on roads and border crossings controlled by rebel groups, militias and government soldiers, help bankroll virtually every armed group in the region.

So here you are the facts are out in the open and the decision is yours to be taken. It is time the educated class of India takes steps towards eliminating this growing hazard which they themselves created in the first place. Now you know how to give your old beloved PC the farewell it deserves!