From aerospace engineering to working in bank to studying statistics in Switzerland: Devendra is open to new possibilities.
While growing up, like most of the Indians my age, I was introduced to only two professional possibilities: medicine and engineering. As I was a lot better at mathematics than biology, engineering seemed like a good choice. Aerospace engineering seemed like a good match, as I wanted to serve my country by working for public sector defence firms like DRDO or HAL. I ended up doing my bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras.
However, guidance from peers and others at university made me aware of a range of opportunities in other fields like finance and machine learning. Like many of my counterparts, I switched fields and started my career as a business analyst for a bank in Mumbai. For my generation, i.e. kids who grew up in 90’s, it was quite typical to become engineer first and decide about the future later.
While working at the bank I quickly realised that further investment in my academic qualifications could help my career a lot. I decided to apply for a PhD in statistics since it is easier to secure financial aid for a PhD than a master’s programme.
At first considered I considered applying to Indian universities. However, admission exams to most of the premier Indian institutes are extremely competitive. I had no intention of cramming for exams again. That’s why I chose to pursue my studies abroad, where admission is less competitive but more selective.
Many of my friends were studying at typical international destinations like the US and Canada. Although, location was not that important to me, I only applied to the same countries as them because there wasn’t much guidance available about other places. Switzerland ended up on my radar for a PhD because I knew of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) because of its reputation for excellence. However, the PhD admission process involved contacting a professor directly. As I lacked a proper academical background in statistics, I decided against it.
Instead, I applied to universities in the US and Canada based on the world-wide ranking and reputation in statistics. Unfortunately, all the schools rejected my PhD application. A few schools offered me admission to their master’s programme instead. As I was changing my major, getting admitted directly for a PhD was a long shot anyway. As I was financially preparing to start an expensive master’s at a premier American university, I applied to the master’s program at ETHZ as a backup. The application process was straightforward. For my program they didn’t even require recommendation letters, so I didn’t have to bother my professors again. I received an acceptance letter within a month.
ETHZ was an attractive option as it meant I could reduce my expenses by more than half. Even though the Swiss cost of living is quite high, tuitions cost is negligible. However, it was still not an easy choice to make. I practically knew no one in Switzerland. My contact list in Europe was limited to a friend studying in Germany and a cousin studying in France. Job prospects for non-EU students were not that optimistic, but the recent stance of the US administration on the H-1B work visa made my decision easier. Finally, the potential financial savings made me choose ETHZ.
Although, Switzerland was not my first choice, I am glad that I ended up at ETHZ as a masters student in statistics. The one thing I regret is not considering ETHZ during my initial phase of application. If I would have applied during the regular admission period, i.e. for the fall semester, I would have been eligible for various Swiss as well as Indian scholarships. It is also hard to make friends if you start at odd periods as well, since there aren’t that many students joining. There are practically no welcome events where you can socialize. But that is a topic for another day!
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