Updated: Dec 29, 2022
Interned at the Max Planck Institute of Solar System Research, Germany
Motivation and the Process of Application
Like most students in the 2nd year, I was in the phase of exploration and I wanted to utilise this opportunity to explore the field of research. I felt that opting for a corporate internship would completely sideline the world of academia for me and I wished to try something different. I had no specialisation in any specific domain but I am passionate about Mathematics and Programming and knew that I wanted to pursue a project in a field that lay in the intersection of Science and Technology. I was interested in Machine Learning and Cybersecurity (more specifically, Blockchain).
Initially, I was mailing professors from Foreign Universities but given the restrictions of the pandemic, they preferred an online arrangement. I was in the midst of a few online courses after having received positive responses from some professors in the field of ML when my application to the Max Planck Institute of Solar System Research, Germany, through OCS turned out to be successful. I appeared for an interview organised by the 5-6 project supervisors themselves, that was aimed at testing my confidence and determination more than my knowledge and skill-set because that component of judgement mainly comes from one’s CV and coursework. I was asked a few technical questions and some questions pertaining to Physics, which isn’t my area of expertise but I answered the best I could confidently. I was also asked about the programming languages I knew, and the supervisors were extremely supportive in the sense that they did not have unreasonable expectations and they trusted me to learn all essential skills in the duration of the internship. The supervisors inquired whether I had read any research papers recently, which coincidentally, I had, as I had mailed several professors, so I was in the position to discuss the research-work I had read with them.
After my selection, I received an email with the complete list of projects with their detailed descriptions and had the liberty to opt for the project of my choice. I opted for a project that was based on Visualisation of Data sent from a spacecraft orbiting Mars.
Preparing for the Project
I had coding experience in Python but I was not experienced with the specific libraries that would be critical for the project so I spent this time familiarising myself with them. Moreover, though my contribution to the project was mainly technical in nature (visualising images, plotting data points and manipulating data), I did require some background on what exactly I was doing. My Project Advisor, who was a PhD student herself, sent me study materials that were, interestingly, more related to the geographical aspect of Mars (craters and magnetic fields) than the physics-related aspects as that was more relevant to the data.
My advisor was extremely supportive and amicable, especially in terms of navigating through the internship. Since our relationship was more informal than the bond between a student and a professor, I could confide in her easily the challenges I was facing and whenever she was unequipped to diagnose the problem herself, she would mail a reputable researcher from a suitable domain to clarify my doubts. Even in the months preceding the internship, she conducted online sessions to guide me through the project and outlined the entire flow of the internship well in advance so that I could be prepared.
The Internship: Apprehensions, Experiences and Takeaways
The internship was a lot of fun! Given that it was offline, I had a lot of new experiences. The workplace environment was oriented towards productivity and the quality of output as opposed to the quantity of manual labour, and the work-from-home policies were extremely supportive. There were no hard-and-fast deadlines or external pressures but my advisor and I had mutually agreed on a rough timeline and my own sense of responsibility ensured that I did not shirk from persevering. There were times I had to figure out why the code was not giving the correct output, and the reasons could be beyond my scope of understanding so the component of analysis and modification of approach was extremely time-consuming. It was also especially arduous since the data was obtained from the HOPE Spacecraft, a very recent project, so not a lot of people had worked on this data and there weren’t a lot of experts and resources available to help debug the code. Nevertheless, my advisor was extremely enterprising and always tried to find contacts of people who could help, through contacts of her own.
I did face some personal challenges as well, ranging from the situation of security to having to cook my own food, and my stay was interspersed with two-three personal adventures, but the experience was extremely valuable in the sense that I understood the value of independence and maturity. The Schengen Visa and 9-Euro ticket greatly simplified travel and tourism, and I was able to explore cities and countries at my free will. It was all very enjoyable.
It’s a very common myth that a research internship has a high amount of prerequisites in terms of the background one requires; on the contrary, Professors are very accommodating and supportive and take responsibility for their interns independently, unlike a corporate internship wherein decisions depend on the entire corporation. Personally, I was initially terrified of the workload and fearful that I would not be able to live up to the expectations of my supervisors but within a couple of days, my fears vanished, the workload seemed doable, and I thrived in the positive atmosphere. I learned a lot about astronomical data and libraries that can be used for applications in Machine Learning, and also that I am more interested in the technical aspects of projects and research is a field I do not wish to explore any further.
Do not procrastinate about mailing. In your mails, it is important to support your skills with the help of a portfolio of your projects and ensure that your entire CV does not stand on your CGPA, even though it is critical for preliminary screening rounds. There is insufficient time to heavily personalise the mails but they must not be very generic in nature and you must express a keen interest in a specific field of research. Keep the cover letter succinct and to-the-point. Target professors smartly.
It is NOT necessary to pursue a research internship, even if many students around you are applying for it. Follow your passions. To understand which domain you want to pursue a project in, you may read blogs, follow the news and customise your in-shots. It is not important to consciously chase your interests, just keep your mind open. Inspiration strikes in mysterious ways.
Be confident in calls and interviews. It is OKAY to not know everything, but it is not OKAY to be unsure about yourself.
If you are pursuing a foreign internship, make sure you apply for your visa on time, else the logistical difficulties faced can really exacerbate the overall stress, even cause delays, like it did for me.
Plan well: make sure your internship duration does not clash with the institute time-table and manage your time efficiently during the internship. Explore and enjoy, but not at the cost of your productivity.
Interviewed by - Aanya Khurana