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Jun 30, 2011

My journey of getting into a Graduate program in Canada

By Uditha Jayarathne

Years of hard work paid off! That’s what Uditha Jayarathne felt like when he got the news recently that he has been accepted to the prestigious Robarts Research Institute at University of Western Ontario, Canada.

Uditha graduated from University of Moratuwa, majoring in Electronic and Telecommunication Engineering, with a second upper. He demonstrated high academic performances consistently and was involved in several research projects during his undergraduate studies. He was greatly motivated from the research experience which aspired him to pursue graduate research in medical imaging and image guided interventions.

Uditha will be heading to London, Ontario, Canada in August 2011 where he will be starting a Masters degree in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Western Ontario. He is currently working as an associate research engineer at the Zone24x7 Electronic Systems Research Laboratory at the University of Moratuwa, one of the industry funded labs at the university.

In this interview with SL2College, Uditha shares his experience of applying to graduate programs and gives some advice to potential graduate students.

Congratulations Uditha! Can you tell us more about the program you got accepted to?

I got admission to Robarts Research Institute, a research lab affiliated to University of Western Ontario (UWO). For me, Robarts is like “MIT” – it is one of the best for Medical Imaging and Image guided interventions. It was my first choice and the first application I sent in.

I am thrilled and fortunate to have Professor Terry Peters as my supervisor: http://www.robarts.ca/terry-peters, http://www.imaging.robarts.ca/petergrp/.

How did you prepare your graduate school application?

My first step was to prepare my CV. I got it reviewed by several mentors, one of my friends at John Hopkins University, one in North Western, both my current supervisors and a director in the company that I'm working. I wanted to give it a professional look and get rid of the slightest mistakes. I knew that first impression is very important!

Simultaneously I prepared a good cover letter and got it reviewed in the same way. That's how I got through the first mile stone.

I then communicated on a regular basis with the professor. I knew that once you give a good first impression to the professor, they would ask the student to apply. I went through several publications of my professor and showed him that I am interested in his work. Actually I was also able to download a book written by my professor by talking to another student in UWO, who had access to the campus library.

How long did it take you to prepare the graduate school application? What was the most difficult/time consuming part?

I prepared it while I was working and I was incredibly busy those days. It took me about 2 months to get it prepared. The statement of purpose (SOP) was the most time consuming part since it has to be prepared well and should go through several review cycles.

Did you have to do any standardised exams?

I did IELTS and got 8. I was planning to do the GRE but couldn't find time to get prepared.

How about getting reference letters?

That was relatively easy! I knew both my current supervisors well and they knew about me. I had been working with them for more than a year. The only thing I had to do was to ring them every day and remind them of sending it soon because they were on busy schedules.

Was there a due date to send the graduate application?

For the program I got accepted to at UWO, the deadline was on 15 April 2011. But I couldn't send IELTS results before the deadline since it was Avurudu time here in Sri Lanka. So I mailed them and got a slight extension. They do consider requests for valid reasons.

Many students seem to have difficulty in finding a supervisor, which universities to apply and where to start. How did you find universities and your future supervisor?

I started researching on universities and graduate programs way back in 2009, when I was in my 3rd year. I went to sites of universities and looked for professors who were doing research in the area I was interested in. Then I looked at their publications and current research. I still have about 50-60 book-marked pages of potential supervisors on the internet! If you narrow down the research area and universities you want to apply to, it is definitely easier to get the other steps done.

Out of 50-60 potential supervisors, how did you further narrow it down?

I first heard about my future supervisor from my current supervisor. I read several publications authored by him and got to know about his research better.

My research interests lie in realms of biomedical imaging and image processing, computer vision and image guided surgery. Out of those, I am particularly interested in the field of image guided interventions. When you list down professors who are working in that realm my future supervisor was ranked highly in terms of publications and research contribution. Also, the research I did during my final year of undergraduate studies was especially related to this professor’s work.

You need to read a lot in a particular field and work for sometime before you can identify your research interests! I always looked for a good supervisor and a good research lab, not particularly for a prestigious university. Ultimately I got what I wanted!

Your interest in research and pursuing graduate studies seems to have started with the research experience in your final year project. That seems to have put you on the right path. Is that right?

Well, I got into engineering because I really wanted to be an engineer. I always wanted to try things out. Even after I got in the Electronic and Telecommunications stream I experimented on a lot of things. I read a lot on other subject matters. I did not just focus on exams. Perhaps that's why I have a second upper class! When you get to know about things happening around and what others do, it becomes easy to adjust yourself and make yourself comparable to leaders in your field of study.

My interest in research, particularly in the area of Biomedical Engineering, came to me when I was in my 3rd year. In Sri Lanka, all Engineering students have to do an internship, where they have to work in a company for at least 6 months in order to be eligible for graduation. They are paid during the internship. Although it is not much, it enough to survive!

I participated in a small research project during my internship with a person who is now studying at John Hopkins University. I kept reading and doing research on the topic from then on till now. I cannot pin-point and say “This is where I started my research life”, but involvement in this project initiated a chain of research projects and gave me lots of motivation. In fact, my final year project was sort of a continuation of the work I got involved in during my internship. All I did was grab every opportunity that opened up during my tenure as an undergraduate!

When did you write to your supervisor?

I sent him the first letter on 25th of December 2010. He told me that my background was very relevant to work that was going on in his lab and he would keep my CV for future consideration. After that I kept on writing to him. I mailed him asking questions about matters I found in his publications. I knew that once I get to know him it will be easier. Professors like it when students ask questions about their work. It shows their interest! My supervisor in Sri Lanka had also worked with this professor so that might have been an advantage. He might have given a good recommendation for me. I was also preparing a publication when I contacted this professor which might have been a boost to the application.

Did you send in the full publication?

I had completed only the introduction part at that time and it was pretty long. It also had the proposed method and some good references. The professor wanted to know my writing abilities. So I worked on it, reviewed this incomplete publication with several people including some of my mentors, gave it an academic look and sent it. Even good references can do a lot. It shows that you are referring to cutting edge research and that you are aware of it.

What professors need from a fresh undergraduate student is a clear target in their research career and amazing interests. So whatever shows our interest as a student, impresses them!

How was the interview?

The interview was held over Skype on 2nd of May 2011. It went really well. The professor was very impressed by my academic work and interest in his research work. You have to be well prepared when you talk to a world class researcher. They know every single word that you speak. So, I gathered up every piece of work I did during my undergrad that was directly related to the professor’s work. That helped me a lot.

I talked about several publications from a professor called Yuri Boykov, who works in the same university and is considered to be a good contributor to computer vision research. The algorithm that I am currently using in my research applications originated from the work of a professor called Andre Blake at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, who is another giant in computer vision. That might have caught his attention. I had a lot to talk with him during the interview. The interview was about an hour long and that was the longest interview I had ever had!

Did it feel like an hour of grilling or was it more casual?

It didn't even feel like an hour. It went more casually and the professor was really nice – so was his lab manager, whom I also spoke to. I felt like I was talking with some one that I know. After reading so much about him it felt surreal to actually be talking to him. At that time, I was so glad that I got an opportunity to talk to him at least.

At the interview did it seem certain that you will be accepted as a graduate student? Or did the professor mention that it is competitive and he kept you on edge?

No, he was impressed with my work, and how much I was into the subject matter. He told me that the standard of my English is very good. During the interview, he gave me several indications that I'll be taken. So by the end of the interview I had the feeling that I did well and that there was a good chance that I would be taken.

Were there any other universities which you were considering?

Yes, I had applied to Simon Fraser University, in British Columbia, Canada and several universities in Switzerland. In Switzerland, ETH Zurich, EPFL and University of Bern were the places where I could find professors working in my area of my research interest. But they all needed GRE, which I had not done.

Generally from each graduating Engineering class, how many students like you pursue higher education?

In my batch I know one who went to University of Calgary for his masters and another went to Germany.

Many engineering students have high grades and even research experience but they don't go into graduate studies. Instead they go into the workforce. Most of them turn towards management afterwards and are offered good positions in companies. I'm afraid in a couple of years, Sri Lanka will be left with a work force of only managers! I wonder how a country will develop when there is no one to make inventions, try things out and commercialize good designs!

You had also joined the Mentor program at SL2College. How did it help you in preparing your graduate application package?

I knew that with good academic and research qualifications I will be able to find a good opportunity to carry on with my graduate studies. Yet I needed guidance. That's why I approached SL2College! My mentors, Dayan and Yoshani, shared articles with me, like opinions of students who succeeded in finding a good university for their graduate studies, and gave me guidance in the application process.

In the process of applying I got help from a lot of people. I would especially like to thank Tharindu, who is now a PhD candidate in the same research institute at the University of Western Ontario. He helped me out in many ways and was a huge support during the application process. Special token of appreciation should also go to both of my supervisors here at University of Moratuwa. I did research with them and followed several courses taught by them.

I was also glad that SL2College had organised the Skype session in October 2010 at University of Moratuwa. There was an online panel of 10 speakers, who were graduate students from US and Canada. I got to know many of them personally, including Oshani, Dayan, Sanjeewa and Yoshani – all of whom became mentors to me. I hope more interactive mentor sessions could be provided by SL2College. I would like to thank everyone for all the help, advice and guidance.

If I get the opportunity I would like to mentor prospective students and help them out just like everyone at SL2College did for me. The message I’d like to convey to them is that preparation can get them anywhere they want!

What advice would you give to students who are considering graduate studies?

For 3rd year students: read a lot about what seems to be interesting as you learn things. Talk to professor - they might get you involved in projects so that you get an in depth knowledge.

For 4th year students: find a good research project for the final year thesis, work hard, look at what top researchers are doing. This may take you a long way. When you write to a professor you should be thorough with the knowledge that you gather during the final year.

During the interview process when talking to a professor, especially one from an English background or country, being able to communicate in good English is a must. This shouldn't be a barrier during the application process.

By getting to know seniors and current graduate students through various SL2College events, I realised that sometimes relationships are worth more than the knowledge that a person can acquire on his/her own. Also having the right mentors is very important. So people who want to apply for graduate studies should talk to those who went through the graduate application process.

What advice would you give to students who have low grades but have the interest in pursuing graduate studies?

They should have minimum grades. But I think what a good professor looks for is not grades but interests and ability to work, so it is important to show that!

I would advise students to first earn credentials and do things that can fill their CVs. Make the CV impressive to the professor and then talk to them. Once you establish a good first impression it's not that hard to proceed.

Grades and research are two different things. People who have a good memory and writing ability get though exams, but to do research lots of other qualities are necessary - hardworking, ability to think, and especially the interest to know things and work them out. Once you get into graduate school there's a lot you have to do on your own. Other skills like writing abilities and presentation skills can be developed as you go.

Try to publish! I know a student who did not do very well in his exams, but has several conference publications and a journal paper to his name. He was contacted by several professors who showed their willingness to take him into their research groups. So try to publish. It is fine if you fail to get your publication through. The knowledge you earn through that process is enormous!

SL2College would like to thank Uditha Jayarathne for taking the time to share his experience and would like to wish him the very best in his future endeavours. Yoshani De Silva from the SL2College team, is also thanked for conducting this interview with Uditha.

Date of publication in the Sunday Observer: June 26 and July 03, 2011 (in 2 parts).

This and other related articles are available on www.sl2college.org, under the resources section. SL2College is a global community that provides FREE advice and guidance to Sri Lankan students. Envisioned in 2005, SL2College helps Sri Lankan students access relevant information that would assist them in making informed decisions about their educational goals. Please post your queries on: www.sl2college.org or email - info@sl2college.org.

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