Studying Abroad

Many students have over the past couple of years been asking me how to prepare for their studies abroad (outside India). I have been telling them almost the same answer over these years, so I have decided to put everything I know in one place as easy reference.

Before I go into this, let me give a brief overview of my education. This is already available in my CV, but to be a bit more self-contained I give a brief summary. I did my Integrated Masters in Mathematics from Tezpur University in India. This was a five year program which I joined right after school. During those five years I did projects in the summer at Chennai Mathematical Instiute, the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (Mohali), The Institute of Mathematical Sciences (Chennai) and the Indian Academy of Sciences (Bangalore). I had applied for the Visiting Students’ Research Programme at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (Mumbai) in my second year and was selected for that, but I choose not to go. In addition to this I attended many workshops, Advanced Instructional Schools, conferences and met and talked with many people (PhD students and faculty) wherever I went. During the last year of my university I applied to the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics (Trieste, Italy) for their one-year diploma program in mathematics. I was selected and I joined ICTP, before which I had given Test of English as a Foreign Languages (TOEFL) test and scored 112/120 in the internet based test after preparing for a week or so before the exam. In addition, I had also cleared the National Eligibility Test for Lectureship in India conducted by the CSIR in my final year at university. Once I was at ICTP, I started to apply for various PhD programs in many countries and finally selected the University of Vienna (Vienna, Austria) to do a PhD and that is where I am now.

Now coming to applying abroad for your education, I usually tell the following to prospective students. This is divided into three sections below:

  • Masters studies: For your masters studies abroad usually very few scholarships will be available. You first need to decide on what subject you want to study and then look for universities that fit your aims.For the US, it is absolutely necessary that you get a TOEFL and GRE score before you start applying. Once the university accepts, if they do not provide you with scholarship then you should look into various scholarship schemes available in India from either the ministry of human resources or from corporate sectors.For the UK, the process is similar as the US, but some universities want an IELTS score instead of a TOEFL score.For the rest of Europe, however test scores do not matter much at this stage and you apply directly to the universities. There are however almost no scholarships here, unless you apply in a specific program, like say Berlin Mathematical School.

    In all the cases, one would need at least two letters of recommendations from either your teachers or from people with whom you have worked with.

  • Pre-PhD Diploma at ICTP: There is an admissions page which has all the information you require. However, I do not suggest this to Indian students as selection is extremely rare. I was the first student from India selected into the mathematics programme ever and since then there has been none.
  • PhD studies: The process of application in similar to masters application, but now you would need more focus into your application then before. (See below for some tips as well.)For the US, you will need a TOEFL, a general GRE and a subject GRE score in almost all universities. Aim for a score of at least 90/120 in TOEFL and 315/340 in the general GRE. This is however no guarantee that you will be accepted as the application consists of many other components. You will need to write a general statement of why you are interested in the particular school that you are applying to. This statement should be not longer than two pages double spaced. You should write in simple language and try to give a general idea about your interests in the subject and what you wish to achieve with your PhD.For the UK, the process is similar to the US with the caveat that some universities require an IELTS score instead of a TOEFL score and some do not require any GRE scores.

    For the rest of Europe, unless you are applying to some specific program like say Berlin Mathematical School or Max Planck PhD programme, then normally all universities consider PhD students as employees. That means, you will need to first contact suitable professors in the area you wish to work in and then talk to them about possible projects that they might have where they might consider recruiting you as a project fellow. After this, if the professor shows some interest then you apply for the job which is usually advertised in the particular university’s website with all your grades and scores and then you either give an interview or you get selected without one.

    In all these cases, you would need at least two to three letters of recommendation from either your teachers at the university or from someone who knows your work.

    The European Mathematical Union has a jobs page which is sometimes used by prospective employers to post information about PhD opportunities.

Here are some more general tips:

  1. Start thinking about where to apply before at least a year in advance.
  2. Do projects and internships, as they help you get good recommendations and shows your interest for the subject.
  3. Give your tests (TOEFL, IELTS or GRE) by August of the year before you expect to start your PhD.
  4. Do not write long emails to professors, they do not have time. Attach a short CV and grades with your email.
  5. Start searching online for scholarship opportunities, there are a lot of them depending on where you are studying and where you wish to study.

If there is some specific query which is not answered by this post, then you can contact me and I will try to answer it. The above works for any subject actually, not only mathematics.