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Fulbright Scholarship - PhD - Electrical Engineering

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Noman Bashir

I would be lying if I say I had a sense of direction from the start and followed my passion to reach the place where I am today.

I would also be lying if I say that I always wanted to pursue my career in academia and wanted to do a PhD.

I belong to a lower middle class family where no one before me have ever gone past the 10th grade due to lack of awareness and motivation for studies. My mother is illiterate and my father only knew to write his name and had studied only till 8th grade. I used the word "knew" as my father died, after long illness, when I was in 5th grade and we were left with no financial resources at our disposal. I studied in a government school where I used to take my own "taat" to school to sit on.

As I write this sitting on a comfortable chair with a beautiful view from the window, my whole life flashes before my eyes and I can only describe it in three words: persistence, determination, optimism.  There is nothing in this world that can't be accomplished if youput the required amount of effort. If you are from a privileged background, say thanks to Allah and use your resources for the common good. If you share my story, don't lose your heart and don't get weighed down by the flashy things around you.

I missed quite of few opportunities when my FSc classmates at GCU Lahore applied for scholarship programs such as LUMS NOP & IBA NTHP and I couldn't ask them about it just because of my shyness and being perceived as paindu. Studying at one of the best universities in US, I don't regret the missed ones but not all get to say well done to themselves at the end of the day. So be expressive and avail all the opportunities you can while being respectful and grounded.  

My journey was more about how things took turn in my life and how I did my utmost to get the best out of the situation I was in. I strolled through the initial 2 and half years of my undergraduate in Electrical Engineering (Power) without any deep-rooted interest in the field. However, my final year project was related to renewable energy, which rekindled my interest in studies. In order to pursue my interest in the area, I joined MS Energy Systems Engineering only to later find out that program was more suited to chemical engineers than electrical. However, fighting my way against the tide, I managed to get something out of the program with my thesis albeit my advisor having problems in understanding as basic things as V = IR.  

Meanwhile, I joined Systems and Networking Research lab at FAST-NU Islamabad as a Research Assistant, which proved to be a turning point in my life. I worked on a Microsoft Redmond (MSR) funded project in the area of Smart Grid and Smart Homes with a particular focus on demand side management. By the start of 2015, I had only two poster/demo papers at a very reputable conference and wasn't feeling ready to apply for Fulbright evident by the fact that even 15 days before the deadline I had not started preparing for GRE.

However, a lab alumnus pursuing PhD at Tufts pushed me to apply for it just for the sake of experience.

After submitting my research paper 7 days before the application deadline,

I prepared for GRE in 4 days and managed to get 320 (Q170, V150). I also wrote PS/RS is 4-5hrs and submitted the application. I was not expecting to be selected but I had a full paper by the time of interview which went really well. USEFP/IIE applied to UCLA, USC, GATech, WSU, and UMass Amherst on my behalf.

Although I got into UCLA, I opted for UMass as advisor matters the most in PhD and Prof. David Irwin has proved to be an excellent choice.

I would like to shed some light on my GRE preparation strategy as it may come handy for some people. The secret lies in the simplicity of my approachand identifying what I needed the most. I took a mock test on the first day and scored 307 (V148, Q159) and immediately knew that I can't improve my verbal score beyond 160 even if I put the next 4 days to it. I was always good at mathematics but instead of relying on my previous expertise, I decided to sharpen my skills for quant section as it matters the most for engineers.I reviewed some concepts from Barron's GRE and solved 2000+ questionsof varying difficulty from Nova. I know Nova is not a highly recommended book but it gave me what I wanted the most, lot of questions to solve. A day before the actual test I scored 312 (V149, Q163) on the second mock test. I just crammed few hundred words from Magoosh GRE flash cards and reviewed the verbal section pattern.

All of this doesn't mean that you leave your preparation to the last week, but suggests identifying your strengths, requirements, and intelligent time allocation.

Apart from this, I would like to share a few random things related to Fulbright and graduate admission in general.

  • Research experience, especially at undergrad level, is invaluable. However, not all researchers/professorsin Pakistan target top-level conferences/journals. I know a lot of students who worked hard to build their research profile but only to later find out that all of their publications are in third-tier conferences/journals and mean nothing.

  • It's better to wait for one year and build your profile to get to a better university than going to an average university the year you graduate. This advice carries more weight for the PhD student, but they should look for a better advisor than a better university.

  • Please think carefully before embarking on a PhD journey, it is not easy. Also, please don't get admission to a MS leading to PhD program with an intention to leave after completing MS. I see more and more people doing that just to get funding for their MS. It's one thing to genuinely come to know that PhD is not your thing but totally another to intentionally betray the trust of your advisor. It doesn't leave a good impression of you, your university, and your country.

  • Fulbright takes into account a lot of factors while selecting people such as research experience, GRE score, GPA, publications, RS/PS, and interview. You can always cover one weak aspect of your profile with good showing in other areas.