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It Starts With the Right Choice

It is important to choose the subject before choosing a university.

I can’t recall when the idea of studying in the United States first came to mind. Unlike most of my friends who were sure since childhood what they wanted to become, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to study beyond the usual 10 + 2 + 3.

It wasn’t until my biology teacher in Class IX went beyond books to tell us about biotechnology and I began reading more about the subject that I understood the road map better. Somewhere along the way, my interest in molecular biology led me to find out about the latest developments. A considerable amount of the work in this field was being done in the United States.

The Academic Adviser

When you enter a university or college, you will usually be assigned an academic adviser who will help you select your classes and plan your program. He or she may also monitor your progress. You are free to seek advice from other faculty members as well.

Before you meet with your academic adviser, it may be helpful to design a tentative program plan. Know what the degree requirements are, or if you are not certain, prepare a list of questions. Study the university catalog, departmental course schedules, and the printed schedule, which lists all the courses being offered during the term and the days and times the courses will meet. Note that not all courses must be taken in a particular order; there is usually some flexibility in designing your program.

At the first meeting with your academic adviser, you may wish to discuss what you hope to do both during your program and after you finish your academic studies. You should discuss the tentative program plan that you have drawn up for the semester. You may also wish to discuss opportunities for field experience, study abroad, and other activities that might enrich your educational experience.

Many international students are hesitant to express their opinions to their academic adviser, since this may be perceived as inappropriate behavior or a sign of disrespect in their own cultures. In U.S. culture, it is very appropriate to voice your opinion. The role of the adviser is to help you make your own decisions, not to make decisions for you. On most campuses, your academic adviser is responsible for approving your plan of study and the number of courses you will take each term. Remember that SEVIS requires international students to take a full course load (usually 12 to 15 credit hours for undergraduates and nine to 12 credit hours for graduates) for their visas to remain valid.

Your academic adviser will help you decide on a study plan based upon your goals and the requirements for a degree. During the academic year, you should make appointments with your academic adviser at regular intervals (a good time is just prior to the next semester registration period) in order to review your progress.

Source: EducationUSA booklet "If You Want to Study in the United States."

This, that or the other?

When I look back, I realize that the most important decision I took was to identify the subject where my interests lay. Unless one is passionate and confident about the choice of subject, it will not reflect in the statement of purpose or CV. It is important to choose the subject before choosing a university. It may be tempting to go by the advice of others but it is best to read up thoroughly on one’s subject preferences and then make an informed decision.

Since I am just joining my university, I honestly don’t know exactly what universities look for in an application. But this is how I went about mine: no detail of one’s work, whether professional or extracurricular, is unimportant, so I updated my CV regularly over the years. I wrote each statement of purpose myself because no one can know me better than myself.

I applied to universities that I wanted to study in because of the courses they offered. Rather than analyze what they wanted, I laid my cards on the table. I believe you need to be honest: I didn’t make up anything that I wrote nor did I play down my sentiments. I believe your application has to balance the head and the heart.

My application, my thumbprint

Each application is as unique as the applicant. It probably helped that I was active in workshops, seminars, poster presentations, cultural and literary activities and sports from my school days. Laboratory training sessions were opportunities to learn my subject rather than finish mandatory holiday homework. The other activities I have been busy with, like writing, were a genuine reflection of my interests and concerns. At no point have I done something because I wanted to garnish my CV.

It’s tempting to go by university rankings, but I would rather follow the heart in deciding on the subject of study. A university may have picked up its reputation for another field in which the applicant has less interest. So, it makes sense to find out the best universities for your interests. I’ve also heard that most students give more importance to bookish knowledge and grades and less to extended subject-related activities.

Get a good counselor

It helps to have a proactive, informed and helpful counselor. I went with the United States-India Educational Foundation (USIEF) because I believe they understand the U.S. educational system best. My counselors worked with me right from before I appeared for the GRE till the time I was packing my bags. They supported me with suggestions and encouragement whenever I needed them. 

Read. Ask. Ferret.

Read up on the university, the course and the specific subject interests of the faculty before applying. Ask around. People who have clambered up to the next rung would know better where the bolts on your rung are rusting. Find out all the information you can about facilities offered by the university.

I chose the graduate program in molecular and developmental biology at the University of Cincinnati because I found it to be one of the most interesting programs. It has a great mix of research and hands-on work at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. The structure of the department amazed me: it has more than 85 faculty members. The wide range of topics, and the depth to which each is researched, is remarkable. As I went through my interviews, I found the faculty encouraging, cheerful, helpful and flexible. The choice was clear.

My father is in a transferable job so I’ve studied at several places across India. I am going to the United States for graduate studies after completing my B.Tech in biotechnology.

As Albert Einstein said, “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.” As of now, I see myself working in a laboratory for years so that some day, I can make a tiny contribution to making a positive difference.


Moen Sen is a Ph.D. student at the University of Cincinnati.

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Frank Wilson's picture

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