Prior to joining NITK, I was fortunate enough to have access to computers at my school at an early age, where even though I did not know how to code or even what code was, I got the spark to tinker with computers. I knew I wanted to build software, but when I joined college I still did not know what that actually entailed, mostly because I didn’t even know anyone who had done engineering. The only vague idea I had was from reading stuff online, telling me I would build applications as a Software Engineer.
And so in my first year, I started to learn to make websites and Android apps, although I did not understand most computer science fundamentals. Even though in hindsight most of these projects were, well, garbage, it did feel good at the time to try something new. And luckily this helped me get my first “real” experience, when I got selected to work for a startup in college. This was pretty much the first time I interacted with seniors, and while I was expecting it to be an intimidating experience, what I got were some of the most helpful and interesting seniors. Throughout my time in college, apart from helping me technically, seniors have also helped me broaden my perspective to the numerous possibilities, guided me through them and believed in me, even though I still struggle with it. At the same time, I also met some amazing peers, who have been a constant source of motivation and inspiration. These two factors have been incredibly important in helping me explore and decide what I could do and what I wanted to do.
Now, with a broadened perspective, to find out what wanted to do, I tried a bit of everything else apart from building applications. Looking at everyone doing Competitive Programming, I tried doing that, and well, I sucked at it. Bummer, then I thought why not try something esoteric, so I tried looking at Quantum Computing, and quickly realized I was way too dumb for that. Eventually, I was introduced to this buzz of Machine Learning, and surprisingly I wasn’t terrible at it.
Even when I started a couple of years ago, Machine Learning was evolving fast and had already started to become extremely competitive. I studied from online courses, took part in Kaggle contests, tried to implement algorithms and build projects. Most of these were not very sophisticated but helped me gain better understanding of the fundamentals. It was here where I was first introduced to “research”. Before this, I had no idea what research was, what it entailed and how to get into it. Learning a bit more from my seniors, I started the never ending cycle of cold mails, to get research opportunities. I read research papers from professors , tried to understand them and demonstrate something in the mails. I sent mails to many profs that I was super eager to work with but It was a game of patience. I never heard back from most of the mails, in hindsight probably cause they were not great. But eventually, it was due to a lot of luck that some of the mails got noticed some times, and I was able to get internships.
What did help in these emails I believe was good grades. While I don’t think grades are in any way a good measure of abilities, unfortunately they do tend to be easy metrics to judge students on, so having good grades is usually helpful, especially in academia. Fortunately for my department there is a pro-tip for getting decent grades: just look at past year question papers. So I was lucky to have decent grades, and that certainly helped.
But grades alone aren’t enough. It is important to demonstrate one’s skills through projects. These projects can be reproducing research papers, kaggle contests, and even simple extensions to existing ideas and projects. Another important thing I learned over the course of these was how to formalize and present my work. So I submitted some work to a workshop at a NeurIPS and luckily it got through. Through some financial support from a couple of scholarships I was able to attend the conference and it was an amazing experience. Interacting with some amazing researchers learning about their work was a great way to know people who work on things I am interested in and getting collaborators.
While I still haven’t found an answer to the question of what I want to do, the people I’ve met and the experiences I have had throughout these years have helped me to look in the right direction.