Mihir Okte - Tokyo Institute of Technology
Mihir Okte, MT1
Interned at: Tokyo Institute of Technology
I began exploring opportunities for the summer break in early October by looking for professors with exciting research. I never had an interest in research as a career choice. Still, I plan to do a Master’s a couple of years after graduation (maybe in Japan, because of my love for Anime). I mostly applied to colleges in Tokyo and Kyoto. A Professor’s certificate gives you an upper hand in Master’s admissions in a country like Japan which is not a popular education destination for foreigners. I contacted 24 professors in Japan with personalized emails according to their projects and how I thought I could contribute. The emails were in English initially, but later I learned that there was a higher chance of getting a response to an email in Japanese and worked on translating them. I got only one reply for a meeting, which was from Dr. Hidehiko Masuhara. He was a little unsure about my interest in the research, but I had a good interview with him and was offered the internship.
There was a lack of communication for a few months after I accepted the offer, but eventually, I got a follow-up from him in late May and was asked to start the very next day. I was surprised by the speed at which things were progressing, as I didn’t know anything about the project or my assigned work. On my first day, I joined their weekly Zoom seminar in which they discussed their individual progress in projects. Right off the bat, I fumbled while introducing myself in Japanese, but everybody appreciated my attempt. I struggled on the first day because I had no idea which parts of the seminar were relevant to me. It all worked out in the end as the professor then contacted me to set up a meeting later that day to discuss the details. He also introduced me to a student of Indian origin who helped me acclimatize to the project and social scenario. The project, named Kanon, was based on the visualization of Data Structures. I got the opportunity to work on an older version of the live programming environment their Ph.D. students are still modifying to date. He equipped me with the research papers relevant to Kanon and the current implementation. I pointed out some shortcomings from the research papers that had not been corrected in the recent versions of the program, so he was pretty impressed with my effort. I worked on improving the UX and formatting-related issues and also on fixing the errors I had highlighted. Unfortunately, I could not work full-time with them for long because of the upcoming semester. Still, I did get the opportunity to present my work in the weekly seminar during my last week of internship.
The language barrier was an issue because their seminars were conducted in Japanese with only the slides in English. I had to contact my professor in charge with any doubts by email after the events. It was a hurdle not to speak the same language as most fellow students and researchers, but they were very supportive and tried to make the process easier for me. Overall, my rudimentary knowledge of Japanese from watching Anime over the years was not a deterring factor, in my opinion. The people around me were highly soft-spoken and straightforward and were kind enough to involve me in their online “socials” where everybody got together with their drinks and food. I enjoyed the relaxed yet motivating working style and exposure to a user-based research project.
Advice for juniors
My advice to those applying this year is first to personalize all the emails they send out. Most professors receive a lot of generic emails that are sent to the spam folder. This can be done by writing it in their regional language and understanding their research field and projects of interest to you. This is why I would suggest that you don’t look for professors only based on University rankings. Numerous professors are working in AI and ML, so you should focus your choices on their research. In my personal opinion, cover letters are more important than your resume during application. When you prepare your cover letter, mention all your scholastic achievements that align with the interest of the research project concisely as well as any previous projects and internships. Team projects are especially important because in an offline scenario, in contrast to online internships, workplace interactions are carried out as a group, and you have to work in the same schedule as those around you. Do not hesitate to add any small projects as professors understand that you are only in your second year. They want to see that you are interested in research and have the capability to work well in a team. While doing your internship, make sure to form good connections and socialize because this is the best time to develop your soft skills. Treat it as a learning experience and make the extra effort to engage with the work, rather than just to boost your CV.
Interviewed by: Aadya Agrawal