Karthik “Paco” Sangaiah, is a first year PhD student in Computer Engineering and a recent recipient of the three-year NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. His goal as a researcher is to develop cutting edge network-on-a-chip (NoC) designs that will cater to future exascale computing workloads in industry and the research community. In addition, Paco is a teaching assistant and mentor to undergraduate students.
DFO: What motivated you to apply for the NSF GRFP?
Paco: I saw that many influential scientists started out with NSF awards. Leaders in my field, or scientists I’d see on TV, I’d look through their CVs and find that for many of them, the NSF GRFP seemed to be the first major step that really kicked off their careers.
At first I was discouraged when I didn’t see many computer engineers win. This is a really dry field for people don’t understand it, but I thought I had a chance when I figured out how to match each of my experiences to a greater objective. My field is not curing cancer, or fusion energy, or creating next gen space rockets, which are really hot topics, but it makes those other fields work better. When the broad impact became clear – if it got read the way I was thinking it, I felt that I had a chance.
DFO: What was the application process like?
Paco: It was hell. Can I say that? First of all, you don’t realize how much work it takes when you first get into it. A few weeks into it you realize, “Wait, how do I write this personal statement?” especially after reading the essays of previous recipients, and you see how spot-on they are about what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it. It’s very hard to conceive how a handful of ideas can go into a “best-of-you” version on paper in that short amount of time, and to have those ideas so well formulated that someone who’s an expert in the field will agree with you.
I’d say the first two weeks are the worst though – creating a draft from nothing – that’s pretty hard. By the end of it, I had 10 drafts of the Personal Statement, and 13 of the Research Statement.
DFO: You were successful, but did you find that applying benefited you in other ways?
Paco: Having a polished research statement at the start of my graduate program really helped me define the objectives I wanted to accomplish toward my greater goals, and what those goals are. I find a lot of graduate students get into stuck in the mental limbo in the beginning – what to do, what profs to work with – so having all of that figured out was a great bonus.
When I was prepping to do one of the info sessions [with the DFO], I had just worked through a bunch of deadlines and finished doing a lot of nitty gritty stuff. Reading my personal statement reminded me why I’m pursuing what I’m pursuing, why I’m working so hard and am willing to make sacrifices more than perhaps some of my friends. To reflect back on your experiences, your goals, and trajectory forward, and knowing you’ve defined this for yourself, that’s really rewarding. And I felt that way even before I got accepted.
DFO: Did it help you to share your application with other people?
Paco: When I first started the process, I didn’t open up to anyone. The personal statement is so well, personal, and it’s essentially a boast about yourself, the best qualities that you have relative to everyone else, so you don’t really want to open yourself up to criticism.
You’re afraid that people will say, “That’s not a good idea,” or, “You shouldn’t write about that.” So I really had to get over that fear, which is what happens when you go to a workshop, because you get put on the spot. Then you realize, everyone’s in the same position!
Once you share your drafts with a couple of people, it really does become easier. The process becomes much more of a discussion, and you find that people you didn’t expect can help you figure out what you should include. For me one of those people was an old roommate – I happened to tell him about the essays and he reminded me about being a leader at Tau Beta Phi. I ended up writing about that role because it really connected all my experiences.
DFO: Who were your key supports during the application process?
Paco: My advisor, Dr. Baris Taskin, was super helpful throughout the entire process, though lots of people contributed different parts to how I crafted my essays. But he really gave me the space to focus on my application, and every day he’d ask me, “Ok, what do you have? I’ve got 20 minutes to look at it.” And he would read it and let me know what he liked, what wasn’t working, he’d suggest new ideas, or remind of experiences that I should include.
DFO: Now that you have the NSF GRFP, what is it like? What does it enable you to do that you couldn’t have done otherwise?
I have more time, flexibility, financial freedom, which is a real luxury for grad students. And that opens up more international opportunities, like the NSF GROW program, which I’ve been looking into.
I also have special access to certain resources, like the XSEDE Super Computing Cluster – which is a bunch of super computers based at different universities that are networked to each other. This is very useful for our field because we are always running tons of computations, hundreds of them at a time, as a matter of fact. You usually have to pay to use it, but I have free access, which I’m pretty excited about.
DFO: What’s your advice for this year’s applicants?
Paco: The number one thing: go bug the DFO folks. They’re much better than many fellowships offices, and everyone there really wants to help you. Also, use the Writing Center! They helped me cut down unnecessary details, which is hard because you value everything you’ve written so much and you don’t want to trim things. The DWC is really helpful for this, and they can also be a great sanity check in the process.
At the end of the reading your essays, a reader should know who you are, why you deserve this, what you’re working on and what’s your motivation – that’s what really matters.