Pranav Shankar - Carnegie Mellon
Updated: Aug 3, 2022
Pranav Shankar, ME1
Interned in Operations Research at Carnegie Mellon University
The Area of Research
Operations research is a pretty broad field. I approached a professor whose primary field of study was OR and stochastic processes as in the second year, I did a project in IITD, which gave me an idea of what OR could be. I only had a brief idea though and I knew that I could potentially be interested in this field because of its large mathematical base. I’m a person who likes math a lot. Any work I do in the future has to involve math. I didn’t want to work in a purely mechanical field; I had dabbled with other fields in mechanical in my second year as well, but I saw OR as an entry to more interesting and quantitative fields.
The Mailing Process
I didn’t send many mails but instead sent targeted emails to the professors I wanted to work under. I started mailing around November and was initially looking for an in-person internship. I kind of wanted to watch the Euros live, so I was applying mainly in Europe. Then around February, I got a response from a professor in Belgium for a project in robotics. It was all well and good because he was funding me, and he was interested in an offline internship. In the meanwhile, I had also applied for a SURA. Fearing the internship might revert online, I had also shortlisted 5-6 professors in the areas of Business Analytics, Management, and OR under whom I wanted to apply to as I was looking for things I could do in addition to my Belgium internship. But after this, the second wave of covid occured and my in-person internship got cancelled. I also didn’t get a SURA.
Luckily for me, this worked out well because I got my CMU intern on the same night SURA results came out. At the end of the day, not getting a SURA was actually good because I ended up getting a much more wholesome experience out of my foreign internships.
The CV and Cover Letter
The IIT tag works a lot in foreign universities. CGPA, branch, and projects all go hand in hand when scouting research internships. Besides that, I started a project under a professor in IIT Delhi in my 3rd semester with a friend of mine. I also wrote about relevant projects from my courses in my CV. In addition to this, I wrote about PORs and ECAs. I don’t think professors care very much about that, especially in research interns but I remember my professor saying that my position as LitClub rep and the other ECAs I’d included were an indication that I could communicate and work well with him.
My cover letter talked about OR as a field and my general love for mathematics. I focused on showing the professor why I liked their research interests. Your cover letter can’t be generic, no professor would want that. I read about professors’ research a bit and tried to incorporate that to whatever extent I could.
I’m honestly not sure how much the professors look through these things, though. My CMU professor didn’t just give me the intern after one email, there was a thread of emails afterward. I realized in retrospect that he was testing me, he asked me deeper questions to gauge my interests and to see whether I was self-motivated. He asked me if I could pick up certain concepts of probability and queueing theory fast and apply them by the time of the internship. I studied the topics he had asked me about a little bit, for I knew it was up to me to show that I was self-motivated.
The Experience and Interactions
My internship was affiliated with Tepper School of Business at CMU. In the first few weeks of the internship, we talked about the areas I was interested in, and we figured out the kind of project we wanted to work on. Even though the field was OR and stochastic processes, the professor was very flexible about the project. I appreciated this opportunity to be able to choose the project topic myself. After this, we had weekly meetings every Friday to figure out what work we would do in the upcoming week. The professor had the ability to guide us so that we would be reinvigorated going into the following week. Those meetings were very good.
The research project focussed on electric vehicle sharing systems and using queueing networks to stochastically model and investigate them, focussing on methods of expansion of such systems to city-outskirts and rural areas. We developed models to estimate demand, pricing and adoption potentials, in addition to modelling the network distribution with synthesized data.
I did the entire project with another student who had just graduated from CMU. The professor had suggested this early on. The prospect of doing a project on my own was very daunting since I had another intern at the time. I bonded well with my co-intern, she’s sort of becoming a mentor figure for me. I’ve asked her questions about masters and general research and have also talked to her freely over the past months, which was relieving as a remote internship can feel very isolated at times.
There was one occasion when instead of doing the assigned work, I explored an alternative path and presented that. My professor, after an initial shock, was actually impressed and lauded my determination. As a result of this, we re-tracked the project and that's the direction we’re going in now.
Key Takeaways and Suggestions
I feel I lucked out by getting the internship at CMU pretty quick, which meant I didn’t have to mass mail anyone. I also had a certain ownership over the project, which is not the case with most second-year internships. With all this, the professor continued to offer his unique perspective on things in ways we could never think. So all of this led to my experience being an extremely positive one.
In the very first meeting I had with the professor, he extensively explained to us how one goes about doing a research project, and what to expect over the course of it. This was extremely memorable as it taught me a lot about how research happens in general, how to really understand what fields interest you, and roadblocks to expect along the way. I really liked the way the professor framed everything to us so clearly that we knew exactly what we had to do. Joking about how Russians could always end up stealing our ideas was a bonus too.
As for suggestions, I would say try and identify a few areas of interest, or of prospective interest. If you already know what you’re interested in then go full on. Do an internship in a field that you’re passionate about or think you could be passionate about, as doing one for the sake of it wouldn't be the same experience. During mailing season, don't be put down by rejections and save mass mailing for later in the year. In general, if there's even the slightest chance you'd want to study something further or build a passion for something, I would surely recommend a research internship as one of the best ways to gain valuable experience and explore these interests effectively.
Interviewed by: Stuti Lohani