Recent data suggest that hiring is slowing down globally amidst economic uncertainty in 2023. In the last couple of years, the phenomenon of “The Great Resignation” has been in trend. However, toward the end of 2022, we have been seeing mass layoffs.
According to LinkedIn’s economic graph data, up to 80% of Indian professionals plan to shift jobs in 2023. Professionals are feeling hunting for new jobs because they need more money is the rising cost of living and the desire for financial security. Additionally, a majority of professionals are also considering a career switch.
Job Market is Getting Tougher Globally
Studying abroad is another very popular way to give a boost to career growth and even to make a smooth career change. In 2022, more than 770,000 Indian students left India to pursue higher studies abroad, according to the latest education ministry data.
However, It’s getting more challenging to land jobs given the slowdown in markets such as the US. Students attending low-ranking universities and pursuing non-STEM degrees are at higher risk. Thy scenario is more or less the same in other countries as well. Have a look at the graph below –
So, what to do? How to plan career change and study abroad effectively? In this post, Rubin Sagar shares his experience and insights on how to plan a career change and graduate studies abroad. Additionally, he also discusses how working with an independent admission counselor can be beneficial in comparison to working with traditional study abroad counselors.
About Rubin Sagar
Rubin is from a Mechanical Engineering background. Later, he switched to Environmental Science & Research after completing his Master’s (MS) from the University of Michigan (US).
He worked in the environmental research domain (at the University of Michigan, The Nature Conservancy, Ashoka Trust) for around 4 years before switching his career again to admissions consulting.
At present, Rubin works as an independent admission consultant and helps students and professionals apply to top graduate programs globally.
Below are a few of his recent admits:
- MS in Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University (a top 5 program)
- MSc in Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Toronto (a top 10 program)
- MS Environmental Engineering, ETH Zurich (a top 10 program)
- Master’s in Health Informatics, Karolinska Institutet (a top 10 program)
- MS in Business Analytics, Purdue University (a top 15 program)
- MS in Computer Science, New York University (a top 20 program)
- MS in Business Data Science & Analytics, Michigan State University (a top 20 program)
- MS in NRE, University of Michigan (a top 25 program)
- MS in Finance, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University (a top 30 program in the US)
- MS in Computer Science, Northeastern University (a top 50 program in the US)
- MS in Computer Science, UC Davis (a top 50 program in the US)
- MS in Computer Science, Rutgers University (a top 50 program in the US)
Planning Career Switch and Graduate Studies Abroad: Q&A with Rubin Sagar
Tanmoy: How was your overall experience at VIT as a Mechanical Engineering student?
Rubin: Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) was a great place for me as a Mechanical Engineering student. It provided everything that a student looking into a conventional education and professional trajectory would want – good professors and resources, a pretty nice and spacious campus, extra-curricular opportunities, and placements. It checked the boxes for a great foundational profile for a “safe” career.
At the time, I did not think for myself as much as I should’ve, and trusted my parents’ decisions. However, looking back, I subconsciously knew that the conventional or safe path was not meant for me.
Tanmoy: What made you opt for MS in Conservation Ecology & Environmental Informatics?
Rubin: As part of VIT’s engineering curriculum, I completed a couple of mechanical engineering-oriented internships by the fourth year, and could not see myself choosing that line of work. The panic of not knowing what my life looked like after college took over. Hence, before regular college placements in my final year, I went down a rabbit hole of self-exploration about career options.
One thing led to another and I found myself enchanted by a wildlife conservation course (UW-Madison’s), which I could not stop thinking about. I lived in Thailand for the first few years of my life, and even in India, I grew up relatively far from man-made landscapes, with ample exposure to nature and wildlife. Even my school was (and still is) in the middle of nowhere.
Until that point (final year), I never imagined choosing a career in conservation. But, I had a discussion with my parents about switching careers through a master’s program. With their enormous support, I looked further into master’s programs where my background in engineering could be an advantage.
The University of Michigan offered one of the few (in 2014-2015) programs with a lot of flexibility, the assurance (by speaking with faculty) that I would be able to cope without a related educational background, and a platform to thoroughly explore further career options.
The blend of conservation ecology and environmental informatics seemed ideal given my aspirations of conserving natural landscapes globally. Based on my due diligence, such factors made Umich the best possible option at that time.
Tanmoy: Could you please tell our readers about your application/admission journey?
Rubin: My wish to switch from engineering to an environmental sciences-related program was virtually unheard of, and it faced a lot of skepticism from almost everyone in India.
Problems faced during the Initial Phase of Study Abroad Planning
As many do in such a situation, I spoke with a college counsellor/consultant who advised me to not go ahead, which led to some more thinking and talking to others.
Eventually, I decided to go ahead, but my family and I made this final decision pretty late (sometime in late October), which left me with little time to go through the proper preparation and steps that most others do.
For context, my roommates who planned to apply were almost done with their applications by November, whereas I was yet to even give the GRE and TOEFL.
So for me, I really had to crunch and get the applications done. My parents helped me with the writing, but I believe I had a decent command of written English (due to my early education in an American school in Thailand). That helped me manage and complete several applications by their deadlines.
Problems faced due to Biased Information
I also came to realize that the consultant I approached (and most conventional consultancies) operated with a huge conflict of interest with the applicant. They receive commissions from universities and make their decisions for the applicant based on these tie-ups, which are usually not in the best interests of the applicant. As a business model, it works well, but from an MS aspirant’s educational standpoint, I would have done things differently.
I was told that I would not get admission from the big-name universities, but I did (University of Michigan, Duke University, University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon, UC Santa Barbara, and a couple of others). That is when I vowed that if I am ever approached by someone for help with their applications, I would offer genuine advice and help, without any conflict of interest unlike conventional consultants (those with tie-ups, typically with lower-tier universities).
Tanmoy: Could you please provide some insights into the field of Conservation Ecology & Environmental Informatics?
- Conservation ecology studies the relationships between biotic and abiotic factors specific to a region of interest to make decisions about conserving or preserving habitats at various scales.
- The environmental informatics I studied and practiced focused on the use of geographic information systems and remote sensing tools to assist with conservation decision-making.
Tanmoy: Would you like to share any career advice for students who wish to get into the field of Environmental Science & Research?
- In my experience, people in the field who do the best, are very often passion-driven. If you can find that passion, environmental science & research can be incredibly rewarding.
- I also realized that finding the right people to work with and receive mentorship from is crucial. Generally, almost everyone I worked with was extremely kind, friendly, and chill.
- I would also advise gaining some relevant research experience before deciding to go ahead with a graduate degree because it would help a lot with the graduate school journey (including financial aid, thesis, research work, building relationships with faculty and fellow students, etc.).
Tanmoy: Could you please tell us a little bit more about your research projects – any challenging and/or rewarding moments?
- The most challenging experiences were related to securing funding for original research ideas. There are so much the world needs, but so little money to go about conducting research. I received 2 grants in my career as an ecological researcher, but I had applied to at least 10, ranging from $5,000 to nearly $1,000,000 (and was even shortlisted among the top 10 for the nearly million-dollar grant. It was actually about INR 6 crores). I had a similar experience when attempting to secure funding to support my PhD journey.
- The most rewarding set of experiences would be enjoying the various landscapes. I often traversed forests by myself or in a small group (2-3 people), which made me feel connected with my surroundings, a feeling, unlike any other activity.
Tanmoy: Why did you switch from environmental research to admission consulting? Is there any story behind the move?
- While pursuing research and related endeavors, I wanted to establish another stream of income besides my monthly salary. I had helped friends with their applications while in the US with incredible results and decided to explore the world of freelancing in foreign education consulting when I returned to India.
- The first two years (before Covid) as a freelance consultant were very rewarding both personally and professionally. Gradually I realized the increasing distance between research and my career intentions, which moved closer to consultancy. After my final (and unsuccessful) PhD interview and completion of an independent research project in 2021, I decided to switch completely.
Tanmoy: What are the common mistakes you see among MS aspirants and how should they avoid those?
Rubin: The top 5 mistakes I have come across in the past 5-6 years are:
- Planning too late, or not planning well: Given the increasing competition and complexity of applications, the decision to apply should be followed by at least a year of focused preparation before MS aspirants even begin starting the application process. This is especially true for top-tier programs with a very competitive applicant pool.
- Underestimating the importance of application documents (essays, statements, recommendations, etc.): A high GPA, test scores, and 1-3 years of work experience at globally leading MNCs are now a requirement. And these factors only form a portion of what could make someone a strong applicant. Very strong recommendations, statements, and essays always take time and have the potential to significantly strengthen the overall application (assuming an excellent academic and professional background).
- The assumption that what worked for someone in the past will work again: Every year the applicant pool is different, admissions committee members may look for different qualifications and qualities, and other factors change. So the argument that my senior got into an Ivy League is baseless. MS aspirants should not rely on seniors or friends who have applied only once in their lives (typically) and should at least communicate with a consultant or someone with much more experience.
- Inadequate information: Now, just browsing through a program’s website is not enough. It is important to speak with current students, subscribe to newsletters, communicate with faculty (if possible), watch webinars and other media releases by the university/program, and much more.
- Not having a backup: Applying to top-tier master’s programs is a high-risk and high-reward game. Apply only after having a solid backup plan in case admission decisions are not in your favor.
Tanmoy: What should applicants expect from you as an admission consultant? Could you please provide some insights on your working style?
- My strengths and expertise lie in preparing high-quality written application material – essays, recommendations, statements, and the CV. Given my background in research with leading organizations, I can provide specific insights for applicants who want to focus on a research-oriented program and career.
- Besides my own experiences with applying, several applicants I worked with received feedback about their statements or profile from faculty, which have informed my approach. In other words, I bridge the gap between what a first-time MS or PhD applicant wants to write and what faculty or admissions officers would find appealing.
- Given the widespread misinformation through popular consultancies in India, I usually begin with extensive conversations to probe into each applicant’s experiences. My process involves relatively more back and forth with the drafts until both the applicant and I are extremely happy.
- I am a strong advocate for beginning early and taking time, and generally avoid last-minute work, unless it is minor.
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Tanmoy: You have helped close to 200 applicants with their graduate school admissions. Would you like to talk about a few challenging cases?
Rubin: I have helped close to 200 in varying capacities, ranging from just an hour’s session to complete applications support (clarifying). A couple of tough cases come to mind.
- One of the most challenging was someone with a very closed-minded approach. Their college senior had gotten to one of the Ivy League schools and this applicant wanted to apply to the same school. The applicant had their senior’s SOP (which was not great by any standards) and wanted the exact approach, but their profiles differed considerably (the applicant had lower scores and less research experience), which the applicant was not ready to accept. It was a huge challenge to help this applicant see the differences and believe me when I said that the senior’s SOP was not great. Eventually, the applicant got through to one of their other top preferences, but not the same as their senior.
- I recently worked with an applicant with one of the most unique backgrounds – a successful entrepreneur who took a 5-year gap from university but eventually returned with an interest in researching a hyper-specific area in physics (quantum mechanics related). I have never studied or read about the field, but through discussions and reading the applicant’s publications, I got a sense of how to edit their statements for top-tier programs.