Sahil Bohra (EE)
Interned at: University of New South Wales, Sydney
Area of Internship
In my 3rd semester, I did a course on Data Structure and Algorithms, which sparked my interest in Computer Science, and I was quite sure that I wanted to do an internship in the same field. So, in my hunt for an internship, I looked up professors in CS fields, especially those in Machine Learning and Algorithms. Many people at IIT pursue corporate internships, especially those who want to get into consultancy. People even do corporate internships in electrical or chemical core companies. But for the most part, people go for research internships in their second year. One possible reason is that they have heard that seniors go for research internships. But personally, I wanted to do a research internship for the experience. I had not applied for any research programs like SURA in IIT, and I hadn’t even done any research projects under a professor, so I wanted to utilize the summer in experiencing the field of research once.
There’s an interesting story behind getting an internship. I had bagged an internship in Machine Learning in December 2020. That internship was in Hong Kong, and after speaking to the professor, it was decided that the internship would be offline since we were not expecting the second wave at the time. However, I lost that internship in May as the professor was leaving the university and could not take in interns that year. So, I had to start finding an internship in May, during my 4th-semester major exams, at a time when almost everyone had already scored an internship. In the 4th sem, I had a course on Probability and Stochastic Processes, which had also piqued my interest, and so this time, I applied for internships in both areas. I got responses from 3 professors within two days, and the internship I finally decided to do at UNSW had a blend of both CS and Math.
CV and Cover Letters
I started working on my CV in early September’20 and had completed 30-40 iterations by the end of the month, and it looked decent. However, I only sent 4-5 emails in October. My cover letters were customized, but the CV was generic because I had more or less the same projects in all CS-related fields. More importantly, the professor sees whether the student is disciplined, dedicated, and willing to work. Till the 3rd sem, the only projects I had done were the COL100 assignment and ELL100 lab project. They were the only things that could be included in the CV. However, I knew they wouldn’t do me any good because they were very elementary projects. I pursued a DSA course on Coursera from Princeton University in the summer after the first year, and that course had about 5-6 good projects. I included those in the CV. Extra-curricular achievements and PORs do not matter much. Anyone who wants to do a research internship should have project-heavy CVs with scholastic achievements and relevant internships.
The cover letter was different for all professors. I took references from the cover letters of some seniors. You can personalize cover letters by writing the professor’s name in the first line, something like ‘Dear Professor John Doe.’ Talk about his research areas to show that you have gone through their page and know the research area and expectations from interns. I calculated that every personalized mail would take about 20 minutes to design.
Mailing and Selection Procedure
At the end of November, we had a 14-day mid sem break due to placements. I started mailing as soon as the break began. I went to the CSRankings website, which ranks colleges based on their CS departments, to select colleges. There are a few colleges that generally give out internships to students from India or IIT. Such universities include the National University of Singapore, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, NTU, UNSW, etc. Then, I went to the college website and looked up the faculty directory. I saw the professors’ research areas, be it an assistant professor, visiting professor, or full-time professor. When you’re mailing, make sure that you do it during their office hours in the range of 8-10 AM. Don’t send emails on weekends. It is advised to mail assistant professors for internships as they are more willing to take UG interns. The calls I had with the professors were very different from typical interviews. The professors were easygoing and didn’t ask much about the CV. The professor from Hong Kong was very frank. He asked about the COVID situation in India, enquired if I was willing to come to Hong Kong, etc. It was a very non-academic call.
My professor at UNSW was from the Statistics and Mathematics department. The project objective was to design and implement the Parallel Tempering Markov Chain Monte Carlo (PTMCMC) sampling method and apply it to estimate the parameters of the Exponential Random Graph Model (ERGMs), also known as the p* model. ERGMs are statistical models for network structure, permitting inferences about how network ties are patterned. Put another way, ERGMs are tie-based models for understanding how and why social network ties arise. A major problem with ERGMs is that such models can have multimodal probability distributions for specific parameter values. The multimodality of the exponential graph distribution for specific parameter values seems a severe limitation to its practical usefulness. Sampling is essential to analyze graphical data. There exist many sampling models and algorithms for graphs. This also involved Parallel Programming, which was an entirely new concept for me.
Online vs. Offline Internship
An offline internship would have been an altogether different experience. You would have had the chance to work under the same roof and visit places and local attractions after work. In the online internship, you sit at home and have meetings with the professor and the team. I had weekly meetings, and the work for the week and time of the meeting were allotted beforehand. My professor was of Indian origin and used to talk about Indian politics, Netflix, COVID, etc., in the first 5-10 mins, i.e., mostly informal chat. However, there were some advantages of the online internship too. I could work from the comfort of my house and had the liberty to work whenever I wanted, not just during office hours.
This internship was beneficial in developing my time management skills since the OCS internship process was scheduled to start only six weeks after my UNSW internship started. For two days a week, I used to work in the research internship, and on the other days, I prepared for the OCS internship process. This was also the first professional experience I had as part of a team, that is, with two professors, and I learned how to work as a team in the professional world. I have been a part of teams before in school and college, but none quite in the very professional setup. The good nature of the professors made the experience much more enjoyable and meaningful.
Final Message for Aspiring Interns
Don’t feel that you don’t have the required skills and never think, ‘How will I get an internship?’ Most people in 2nd year don’t have much academics apart from courses. If you don’t apply for an internship, you won’t get any exposure or a flavor for the field. Start doing something; for example, take up a free course online. That has become very convenient to do now. Once you gain an interest in a domain, start working on the CV and cover letters. Include the courses you are still learning and your ongoing projects in the CV because you will become proficient in those areas by the time the internship comes. You may get to know what your interest is not in. You should start mailing professors by mid-November. After that, it will be late. This time, the internships may be offline, so professors would start finalizing their interns in January-February. Prep for the 3-4 months before the internship and ask the professors what skills will be required. When you put in the effort, you’ll make it.
Interviewed by: Arush Utkarsh