Thesis Tales: Rohan Ranganath at University of Queensland, Australia

DoJMA caught up with Rohan Ranganath, a fourth-year chemical engineering student who is pursuing his thesis in Australia. Here is what he had to say about his work and journey ahead.

  1. Why did you choose to pursue a thesis over PS2?

I decided that I wanted to do a masters around November of 3-1. Doing a thesis instead of a PS-2 was a more beneficial option for the same. There are two reasons behind this. Firstly, you earn a lot of research experience. For my area of interest(wastewater management), I felt that universities abroad offered more hands-on experience and I wanted to explore that. Secondly, as you are working with some of the greatest professors, it is easier to get a good letter of recommendation, which really helps with your masters’ application later on. 

  1. What criteria did you have in mind while applying to universities and shortlisting them?

I knew I wanted to do my research in wastewater management. I, however, did not know which particular avenue of that- whether it was reverse osmosis or photocatalysis or something else that I wanted to explore. I was looking for universities that currently have a lot of impact in the area of wastewater management. I also applied for a thesis in universities where I wanted to do a masters later on. This is because, when the university already has you in their books, it becomes more convenient for you and for them to evaluate your application.  Funding was an important factor too. It is slightly more difficult to receive funding in US universities. Australian Universities, on the other hand, are trying to encourage Indian students to take up courses here by funding their work. 

  1. What makes your choice of university unique to your field of interest?

I work under the Advanced Water Management Centre, which is a subsidiary facility within the University of Queensland campus. They conduct a lot of industry-related research work. This is perhaps the most important difference between a foreign university and a university in India. Indian universities conduct a lot of nascent research work. The work they do is very theoretical and does not find a proper industrial application. While here in Australia, they are working on cutting edge industrial technology. The projects are industry-funded too. The new work done here has an immediate industrial impact and the industrial problems are solved much more quickly. 

  1. How and when did you apply and get a confirmation for the thesis opportunity?

I decided that I wanted to do a thesis pretty late. The usual timeline involves you making a list of professors you want to work under and this should typically be done over your winter holidays. Emailing them around this time doesn’t really make a lot of sense as they are winding up their research quarters and preparing to celebrate Christmas. It is highly likely that they do not reply at all in December. The number of professors that you’d want to apply to varies but I’d suggest that you keep it around 30-35 because you will face a lot of rejections. Some professors might not even read your mail. But you have to keep going. You can start sending out emails in January. Around mid-March, I was asked to transfer from PS to TS. You might have to fill in forms and provide details of the university you will be pursuing your thesis in for this procedure to take place. Ideally, this process takes place during a window between January and March. 

  1. How did you build your profile and what skills did you develop to suit the requirements of the university? What were the strong points of your CV/credentials?

Most people think that CGPA is very important. I’d, however, say that it is not as big as people think it to be. You need to be able to show the professor that you have some amount of research experience, it might not be in their specific field of interest. You need to show a considerable amount of interest in the research work though. Besides, you need to possess some basic knowledge of the research methodology so that they can trust you to adapt to their learning curve. Having a couple of projects under your belt helps with this. I personally did not take up a project in 3-1. I had done a couple of informal projects before. I recognised my desire to pursue research a little late. So, when I realised that I needed to build my profile, I immediately took up an SOP under Professor Manjrekar who is currently working in the field of wastewater management. I knew I’d have had worked on one project by the time I had to apply for the thesis. Besides, I also took up a couple of relevant courses. I took up solid waste management (BIO F216) which is one of the courses that cultivated my interest in this field. So, for your CV you should have some research work done, preferably in the field that you are applying for. Taking up related courses also helps. My CGPA was at 8.67 when I was applying. So, it did not bother me as much. A friend of mine was however questioned on this matter in an interview. But, he was able to work his way around it and showcase his interest in research work. 

  1. What are the factors that have affected your funding for the thesis you are currently doing?

Unless you have received some scholarship, there is no formal way to apply for thesis funding. The mechanism involved in undergraduate theses funding depends highly on the university. No university where I applied, had a proper mechanism in place for the same. However, I was lucky in this matter as my professor had enough grant money to provide me with a stipend. After coming here, I was told that I was the only student to receive such a grant. Unfortunately, there is a lot of luck involved in this. If a professor gives you a place in his/her research group, you can ask for a stipend. Otherwise, you have to manage your own expenses. You can talk to the professor about other mechanisms to obtain funding. I have, however, not come across anything of the sort so far.

  1. Can you tell us briefly about the internships you have done before and how they have developed your skills?

I did a marketing internship at Biocon, Bangalore. This was during summer vacations after my first year. My PS-1 was at Century Rayon, a company that most chemical engineering students often opt for. I did my third-year summer internship at Honeywell.  These internships were not just about building a proper skill set. They have helped me to understand what kind of an industry I might be interested in. I wanted to explore the various options chemical engineering provides, namely – petroleum engineering, material sciences, pharmaceuticals and environment and conservation. Working with Biocon helped me understand how the pharmaceutical industry works. I worked with MS-office at the time. My PS-I, though it did not involve very hectic work, was an eye-opening experience for me. I saw how a proper core chemical engineering plant works and how the life of a chemical engineer is. I realised there is a lot of hardships involved but there is also a lot of scope to learn about the various aspects of chemical engineering in the plant. I learnt how to analyse flow diagrams and gained perspective on how large scale units work in the plant. I also learnt about man-management as these plants have daily labour and hence, daily conflicts between operators. In Honeywell, I was employed in services. I was more keen on improving my networking and corporate etiquette- basically, how to talk to people in a corporate setup. Along with that, I had to learn one of Honeywell’s licensed technologies for petroleum refining in-depth during my internship.

  1. How did you arrange for your travel and accommodation?

One of friends applied to a university in the USA. The university helped him with his visa application, which is really a complicated process. I, however, only got the invitation letter, the stipend and a couple of details pertinent to my visa application. I had to do the rest, including the travel, on my own. I did ask HR for accommodation. However, the option they provided me is within the university campus and thus, really expensive. My professor suggested a couple of websites to me and I was able to arrange for accommodation near the campus at a much cheaper rate via one of them.

  1. Is there any message that you want to pass on to the readers?

I was very lucky to be able to experience this. It is not only about the research and the learning process but also about leading a life outside the university. There are no mess facilities or laundromats abroad, and you have to learn how to cook and do your own laundry. I find it very difficult to incorporate all these chores into my daily schedule but at the same time, it is incredibly rewarding. So my message will be that if you do get a chance and if you are able to afford it, do not miss the opportunity to do a thesis abroad. At the end of the four months, you will definitely start valuing everything you have in India way more than what you would have if you had just stayed back in India.