MS Admits: Smith Sen on Leuven the good life.

DoJMA caught up with Smith Sen, who is all set to pursue his Masters in Mathematics from KU Leuven, Belgium. Here’s what he had to say about his journey thus far.

The Choice

  • Why did you choose to pursue an MS over other options (other post-grad options/work)?
  • When did you decide that this (doing an MS) was your calling?
  • Which area of mathematics would be the focal point of your studies?

I never wanted to do a 9-5 job so doing a job was out of the question for me. In my second year, I did a course on basic coding, the course is called “CS50” on edX and then gained some interest in cryptography, as one of the modules dealt with coding the Caesar Cipher Affine Cipher. Eventually, I figured out that I want to devote my career to mathematical cryptology.  I didn’t specifically aim to do an MS/PhD per se, but I did focus on the domain and professor I want to work with and applied accordingly. In mathematics, my focus is mostly on computational algebra and number theory.

The Exams

  • How did you receive the required guidance for GRE and TOEFL?
  • Which sources did you use for the preparation of these exams?
  • From which academic year/semester did you start preparing for these?
  • When did you sit for each of these exams? How do you think one must typically space them out?
  • How did you get the necessary recommendations from the professors involved in your LORs?

I did the Magoosh crash course of 1 month for GRE and my preparation for the English section of GRE got me through TOEFL with a good score. Few key points to keep in mind while preparing for GRE are,

  1. Although quant is easy, one should practise working on accuracy, it is easy but not trivial to get a perfect 170
  2. Do practise either Barron’s most frequent words or Magoosh flashcards of 1000 words. It is essential for both GRE and TOEFL.
  3. I practised the mock papers by ETS for a week before GRE and TOEFL.

GRE or TOEFL doesn’t take a lot of time, so I would suggest a period of 3 months will be sufficient for preparation. I sat for GRE on 18th February 2019 and for TOEFL on 9th March 2019. I know that people say that it doesn’t matter whoever gives a LOR, as long as it is a strong one, but I have been careful with that and focused on professors in my field of interest.

My 3 strong recommendations were from,

  1. The professor under whose guidance I am currently interning, in number theory.
  2. The professor I worked with and published a paper with
  3. The professor under whose guidance, I worked as an Official Teacher Assistant for a year.

The University

Please tell us the criterion you had in mind while

  • Shortlisting which universities to apply to.
  • Selecting your university of choice.

I focused on professors and the labs while I was applying, however, my options were restricted to the top 50 universities in the world ranking.

Groundwork & Profile Building

  • How did you build your profile to suit the requirements of the university? What were the strong points of your SOP, in your opinion, and what was your CGPA before applying?

A person can enter the domain of cryptography in three ways- as a student of computer science, electrical or mathematics. I chose the third option. Honestly, during my college life, I focused on internships related to cryptography and also did multiple projects in order to figure out my interests and to experiment and explore different fields. Among those, I did a study project with Dr.Prabal Paul which gave me some exposure to the subject. I participated in the R C Bose Summer Internship program at ISI Kolkata which helped to give me a background in cryptography. My final thesis under the guidance of Dr Sanoli Gun in number theory helped me to work on basics.

I think the strong points in my SOP were as follows.

  1. I had a vision on to what I want to do in the future and most importantly, I specifically mentioned the courses that I will take in order to move forward.
  2. I was able to connect my past work and publications with my current motivation and course of action for future endeavours.

My CGPA was 7.8 when I applied for universities.

  • What were some of the Math related projects you did (within and outside college)? How did they help you secure your admission?

I did SOP and DOP with Dr.Prabal Paul. Maths courses which were crucial were Number Theory, Algebra 1 and Algebra 2, Linear Algebra (Math 2) and Cryptography. These courses clearly showed that I have a basic background in the subject and also my interest in cryptography and the inclination towards the subject and domain was premeditated. Apart from that, I had done all the fundamental courses which are essential for undergraduate studies. One thing which is crucial for every math major who wants to go forward in mathematics, the fundamental courses like real analysis, topology and complex analysis are very important (I know complex analysis is not provided as a CDC, I’ll advise students to take it up as an elective or reading course). I didn’t do very well in Real Analysis which was a bit of a problem for me wherever I applied. Also, please make sure that you have your basics clear in linear algebra, might seem really trivial when you are reading the subject but it is not that straightforward and a student has to spend a considerable amount of time to get a grasp of the subject. Please do read 2nd and 3rd chapters of Artin to understand the basics.

  • Could you tell us (in detail) about the internships (outside of PS) you’ve done before? How did they help boost your credentials?

Over the course of my college years, I did an internship in the following places.

  1. Winter Internship at C R Rao Institute of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, University of Hyderabad.
  2. Summer Research Internship at ISI Kolkata.
  3. Research Internship at IRD in Montpellier, France.
  4. Research Internship at IMSc, Chennai.

While I was doing an internship at the University of Hyderabad, I had the opportunity to attend the sixth international conference on SPACE (Security, Privacy and Applied Cryptographic Engineering).

  • How will you rank each of these, in increasing order of importance, for an admit to a coveted university?
    • CGPA
    • GRE score
    • TOEFL score
    • LOR
    • SOP
    • Projects and research work
    • Extracurricular involvement such as a PORs, etc.
    • Good fortune

I don’t think good fortune really matters; If you are aiming for a European Institute, you can get a scholarship or join as a research assistant. I missed the deadline for scholarship but since I had contacted a professor, he gave me the position of research assistant in his lab. PORs don’t really matter, as it will fill up the last line of your CV and I don’t really think anyone goes till there while reading your CV. If you have enough proof which includes considerable work on projects related to your field of interest, if you have a publication then that is better and strong recommendations from good professors or professors from reputed institutes then you are good to go.

I don’t think if CGPA is more than 7.5 it really matters unless your CGPA is above 9. Personally, I think GRE and TOEFL scores are just a criterion to eliminate a lot of applicants from the pool of applicants. So, if I am supposed to rank the above points then I will say,

  • SOP
  • LOR
  • Project and research work
  • CGPA
  • GRE and TOEFL

I don’t think the other two points really make a difference. I was a marketing manager in DoSM and DoMaC and also worked in the business team of Hyperloop India but they didn’t add a lot of value.

The Funding

  • Did you factor in funding while applying to universities?
  • What are some scholarship schemes available for funding?

Yes, I did consider funding as a major factor. As I said each university has a scholarship scheme, one has to be really careful about that. I missed in every case. Apart from that, in Europe, there are funding organizations like Erasmus Mundus, specifically for France, Campus France. I don’t remember the whole list but simply searching them up on Google will surely help. Apart from that, one can always mail to labs with their CV and if they have a vacancy then they will arrange an interview. In my case, the interview was 3 hours long and I had to write a C++ code based on dominos (My point is, it is not that easy and you should be prepared. Since they will be paying you, you will get tested for everything).

Miscellaneous

  • How did you arrange for accommodation near your university?
  • If you could have done something differently, what would it have been?
  • Any message that you would like to pass on to the readers?

I just applied in the university portal for accommodation and they gave me a studio apartment in student residency. I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I mean it is a process, no one really knows what they want to do in their lives. It is through their experiences that they decide what to do. So, my advice to juniors will be-

It is great if you have figured out what you want to do in future but do explore. This will give you ideas, knowledge about different fields and makes you stronger as an academician and a determined individual. If you want to go for higher studies then find your passion. Please do explore, undergraduate studies is the time to explore and make mistakes. This is the time for learning, grab the opportunities when you get those and move forward. It is well known that everything happens for a reason, so, never think that whatever you have done or are doing might go waste. You never know how useful a thing can be later. So keep exploring and learning. This is the age to learn and build up experience.