A PhD is like a full-time job; for 26-year-old Takshak Desai from India, a doctoral student at the University of Texas at Dallas (UT Dallas), it happens to be one that he enjoys — a lot.
Desai’s weekdays start at 8 a.m. and end around 5 p.m. He goes for meetings with his adviser, shows him his weekly reports and after hearing his feedback, decides what needs to be done next. He says, “Sometimes, it gets very hectic, especially when the deadline for a conference is nearing, but sometimes there isn’t much work to do. Very similar to the life of a software engineer working full-time!”
The rigours of doctoral studies at the top-ranked Department of Computer Science can be demanding, but a lively campus offers the perfect balance of work and play for Desai. All students, regardless of their nationalities, are welcome to join activities organised by several organisations on campus. This offers international students the chance to socialise with people from diverse backgrounds and meet other students with common interests.
Desai is involved in the graduate student organisation Grads of Computer Science (GCS), which organises various technical events like coding clubs, hackathons and internship mixers for computer science graduate students.
GCS also helps the department with setting up webinars and orientations for incoming students. “All kinds of technical, socio-cultural and sports events are conducted by these organisations and it’s always fun attending them,” Desai says.
The old adage that “everything’s bigger in Texas” certainly holds true — in a good way — as Desai discovered. On his first few days on campus, he was blown away by the large, spacious facilities and lush green campus, something he never got to experience when studying for his undergraduate degree in India. “I like taking walks near my university village in the evening … it is a visual treat watching the sunsets from my school building,” he shares.
Impressive vistas aside, it’s the library that continues to impress Desai the most. Huge and with many rooms, the scale and breadth of the resources, both online and in hard copies, are a big help to Desai’s research. When he needs a break, there’s even a Skybridge — with large windows providing ample natural light and a bird’s eye view of the northern side of campus — for Desai to take a relaxing walk in.
Paving the path for prestigious careers
Academic life as a PhD student can be tough, but that’s part of the challenge. Desai considers himself lucky for having an adviser and peers supporting him along his journey. His lab seniors and tech staff are always ready with a helping hand with installing and running the software and tools he needs to write code and run experiments.
As for his adviser? Desai calls him his biggest source of inspiration and support. “His knowledge is immense and his experience is very useful, especially when we are brainstorming over a problem or writing a manuscript to be submitted to a conference,” he says.
The high-quality research and teaching at this university is what has led UT Dallas to become a Carnegie Tier 1 University. The Department of Computer Science is also ranked in the top 50 by csrankings.org.
Research within the department focuses on advanced technologies such as computer systems, cybersecurity, computer networks, data science, software engineering, intelligent systems, and theoretical computer science. Desai specifically chose to study here as he was interested in doing research in Natural Language Processing (NLP) and to join the Human Language Technology Research Institute (HLTRI) at UT Dallas.
With top-notch facilities and supportive advisors, UT Dallas doctoral students like Desai are set for success in academia and beyond. Over the years, graduates of the UT Dallas Computer Science Doctoral Programme have accepted jobs at top companies including Adobe, Amazon, Apple, Cisco, Expedia, Facebook, Google, Hewlett Packard, Intel, IBM T.J. Watson, Matterport Microsoft, Salesforce, Bank of America, IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre, Samsung Research, Walmart Labs, Department of Defense, NSA, FBI, and more.
Desai plans to join the industry after completing his PhD. His dream is to work in the research department of a big company like Google or Microsoft. “The department is very supportive in this regard: I received help from my peers and from the Student Affairs office in drafting my resume, preparing myself for interviews, and applying for the right kind of jobs,” he adds.
Empowering female PhD students in Computer Science
Since 2001, the University of Texas (UT) Dallas Computer Science Department has graduated a total of 333 PhD students, among them, 37 incredible women.
Srijita Das, a 32-year-old PhD candidate in Computer Science from India, started her programme at Indiana University but ended up moving to UT Dallas after her advisor Professor Sriraam Natarajan moved there. “He was kind enough to bring all of us from Indiana University, and that’s how I came here,” she explains.
It turned out to be an excellent choice as she found the campus very impressive with everything she could possibly need. “UT Dallas has a beautiful campus with loads of greenery. The campus is very compact, yet it also has everything — from the gym to several cafes. The campus is safe for students. I really cannot think of anything that I dislike,” she admits.
A self-professed gourmand, what Srijita loves the most about studying in Dallas is the diversity in cuisine. She says, “I am a foodie and there are restaurants of any cuisine you can possibly imagine in Dallas. I have been to Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Ethiopian, French, Indian, Vietnamese places so far and loved the food.”
Srijita is also discovering just how supportive the university community is towards female PhD students in the often male-dominated field of Computer Science, especially through UT Dallas’ scholarships and funding.
“The University immensely supports female PhD students. They provide scholarships for attending the Grace Hopper Conference [Ed. Note: an annual conference of women in computing from all over the world]. I was also supported by my advisor to attend the Women in Machine Learning workshop [Ed. Note: popularly styled as WiML 2019], held in Vancouver, Canada. I absolutely do feel that I receive the same support as my male peers.”
She says that the Department of Computer Science department ensures that females get equal opportunities and resources to succeed, encouraging and supporting female students by giving scholarship opportunities to minority groups and various other funding opportunities related to research.
Once she has completed her PhD, she will be going for a post-doctoral position at the University of Alberta in Canada, thanks to the support provided along her career journey by UT Dallas.
She shares, “All the faculty members at UTD are very helpful and are always available to help students out whenever they are stuck. The Grad Office is also very cooperative and helps us out in every administrative task promptly. I am extremely thankful to my advisor and other committee members for their immense support during my PhD.”