Going for a Masters’s program, and then continuing education further with a Ph.D. program has always been a question of confusion and dilemma for many young graduates in the field of architecture and design. RTF recently interviewed Soumya Dasgupta, asking questions about his work and the journey of becoming a Doctorate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, along with questions received from the followers on how to pursue Masters and Ph.D. programs.
About Soumya Dasgupta
After graduating as an architect from the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology, Shibpur in 2015, Soumya completed his Masters of Urban Design From School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi in 2017. Thereafter, he joined the Ph.D. in Architecture Program (History And Theory Track) at The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where he received the Illinois Distinguished Fellowship to carry forward his academic pursuit.
Soumya’S research area intersects Geography, Sociology, and Postcolonial studies and focuses on the Urban Informality in South Asian Megacities. From a theoretical and historical perspective, Soumya wants to critically understand urban informality as a mode of spatial production that lies outside the canon of architecture and architectural history.
Apart from research, Soumya works as a Teaching Assistant at The Illinois School Of Architecture for Graduate-Level Theory and History courses. He has also been regularly invited to serve as a jury member in various undergraduate and graduate-level design studio reviews.
Read more about Soumya here.
RTF: Hi, Soumya. You are in your third year of Ph.D. in Architecture(History and Theory) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. You completed your B.Arch in 2015 and Masters in Urban Design in 2017. What was your strategy? How did you prepare for this?
Soumya: Hi RTF, thanks a lot for the question. Many of my friends have asked me similar questions, but I honestly did not have any masterplan for this. When I was in my third year of B.Arch in IIEST Shibpur, I was in contact with a few seniors who have gone abroad for graduate education (masters and Ph.D.). I always wanted to go overseas as well but didn’t have the financial means to sustain for a full course in the USA or Europe. I took my GRE exam in my fifth year while doing my internship in Kolkata. Initially, I thought about working for a year upon graduation in 2015 and apply for master’s courses in the USA. I also took the GATE (Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering) exam and got accepted to the Masters of Urban Design program in SPA Delhi. The GRE score was valid for five years, and a chance to get into SPA Delhi with GATE scholarship was too precious to let go. Hence, I went into that program for two years and parallelly prepared for my doctoral applications. Eventually, I secured a really nice offer from the University of Illinois and packed my bags to come here in Fall 2017. Unlike many of my peers, I never took a break from studying.
RTF: Why go for a Ph.D. program? What are the benefits and burdens of doing a Ph.D. in the USA? How does it compare with working in the field?
Soumya: While doing my masters, I found more interest in analyzing and critiquing different urban issues of India, than in on-field urban design work. My studio experience in SPA Delhi exposed me to several design issues that can be simultaneously addressed through research. It took me some time and some outside reading to figure out how similar micro design issues can be framed as broader research questions. This is when I felt the need to explore research opportunities. At the same time, I did not want to entirely abandon my disciplinary background in architecture. As a matter of fact, for my statement of purpose, I tried to articulate these contradictory thoughts and made my way into History and Theory of Architecture.
While on the one hand, I wanted to carry forward my academic journey, I also wanted to be financially independent. I wanted to be somewhere where I get paid enough to do what I want to do. Both my intellectual interests and my financial goals were met when I got my offer. Moreover, I also got an opportunity to teach an international crowd, which has been an enriching experience. Thus, it has been quite beneficial from my perspective. Other than missing home from time to time, personally, I can honestly note no burdens of doing a Ph.D. in the USA.
Comparing this experience with an alternate professional path is quite tricky. In my opinion, most architects in India are underpaid and overworked. Further, certain viewpoints wrongly justify this by arguing that such conditions of struggling yield better creativity. From what I heard from my friends and seniors, many commercially successful firms in India are excessively exploitative and have an acute lack of empathy. While I did dream of working as an architect and design my own buildings, I have no doubts in saying that, I was not too attracted to such a work environment. I saw many of my friends and colleagues innovating their way out of this mainstream, by doing freelancing work or by shifting to managerial positions which had better pay. For me, going into American academia as a Ph.D. student was a favorable option.
RTF: What would you suggest to our readers who are planning to go abroad? How should they prepare themselves?
Soumya: I don’t want to sound like a spiritual guru here, but frankly, it is imperative to find something that motivates you from the inside. This might not always come from your curriculum, but maybe from something beyond your coursework. I would encourage people to not only go abroad but actually broaden your perspective to find this “inner call” to use a fancy word. For me, it was the informalities of Indian cities. For some, it can be the politics of architectural productions or works of lesser-known practitioners or landscapes of abandoned industrial sites. Often times, it can be quite broad, to begin with, and we should allow ourselves some time to articulate it cogently. However, once we find this one thing that encourages us to explore more knowledge, it becomes easier to chalk out a practical path to achieve it.
For applying to graduate-level courses (which is referred to as post-graduate in India) in the USA, I think the most crucial component is the Statement of Purpose (SOP). For some universities, a separate personal statement might be required. I recommend putting the highest emphasis on the SOP, as it is the most effective way to communicate who you are and why you want to pursue a particular course at a school. You should be ready to make multiple iterations of this to reach a satisfactory level, and seek multiple feedbacks from people if you can. Next to this, of course, comes your resume, portfolio, and letters of recommendation (LOR). You must start communicating with possible recommenders as early as possible. Make sure to connect with more than the required numbers of recommenders, just in case you are not successful in getting one or two. For most graduate courses in the USA, the GRE and TOEFL scores are required. Preparing for these tests can be quite exhausting; thus, you should start early. There might be exceptions to these, and therefore it is vital to check the admissions requirements of the programs you are interested in as soon as you can.
RTF: How do you recommend going about choosing the universities to apply to? How to choose a course? From your experience, would you recommend doing graduate studies in India or abroad?
Soumya: There are plenty of pages and blogs with expert advice on this topic, but perhaps they are not explicitly addressed to architecture students. I picked up a strategy from some free webinar which was, by and large, this –first, shortlist some universities that have a program that meets your interest. Second, extensively read their websites to divide them into easy, medium, hard categories based on your profile. This doesn’t sound too subtle a method. Still, given that the application expenses are quite high, it is a practical approach. Most of my friends, who are doing their Ph.D.s in different disciplines, applied to 4-8 universities and got multiple offers to choose from.
Choosing a course mostly depends on what kind of career path you wish to pursue. If you are interested in working as an architect, look for an accredited professional graduate course like M.Arch. In the USA, this will also make you eligible for pursuing licensure if you want to start your own practice in the future. These are the courses that most people take. Alternately, some masters programs are more research-based, often with focused tracks such as MSArch. They provide a more flexible curriculum but are not accredited for any licensed practice.
For me, this is more a question of the cost of education than of geography. I think it is tough to get into masters courses in India as there are very few seats in the more sought after colleges. On the other hand, education-related expenses are exceptionally high in Europe and the USA. Some colleges in Europe might not have a tuition fee, but still, there are living expenses that you need to take care of. If you can secure a scholarship or some assistantship that would generate a tuition waiver, you might be able to cut down some expenses. But in most cases, people take enormous academic loans to pay for their education abroad, and I personally do not know how that feels like.
If we take the cost component out of the equation, I would still prefer to do my masters in India, as I was interested in learning about Indian urbanism. Understanding a city like Delhi through my urban design studio in SPA was an enmeshed experience of the lived and the learned. I don’t think that can be compared to an alternate course path abroad. However, when it comes to research, especially for Ph.D., the resources and expertise available here in the USA are simply excellent. The University of Illinois, for example, has a multi-billion dollar infrastructure that is highly accessible and a dream campus for contemplating, critical thinking, and writing. Hence, if you are planning to do both masters and Ph.D., try to take the best of both worlds!
RTF: Tell us a bit about your academic experience in Illinois. What are you researching?Has the COVID-19 pandemic situation changed specific scenarios?
Soumya: Ah! This is my favorite question so far! My academic experience so far has been excellent. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to be in an international educational space. My university has an excellent infrastructure and world-renowned faculties who are very helpful and approachable. It is also a multidisciplinary environment. I get to participate in an intellectually motivating and politically engaging discourse here, by taking courses from different disciplines such as Geography, Sociology, and Literature. I get to read and write a lot, something that was not in the forefront of my earlier experiences. My school also supports conference travel, which exposes me to my peer level researchers from other universities. However, perhaps the most rewarding experience has been teaching students from all over the world. You can learn a lot by teaching, it is quite fun, and it also prepares you for the academic job market.
My research area is at the intersection of geography, sociology, postcolonial studies, and architectural history. It focuses on the urban informality in Global South megacities. From a theoretical and historical perspective, I am studying urban informality as a mode of spatial production that lies outside the canon of architectural history. I have been interested in this topic for quite some time. I hope that by the end of my Ph.D., I will be able to come up with some meaningful findings.
The pandemic situation is quite unprecedented. However, my university has been more than cautious in dealing with it. We have transitioned fully to online platforms for all our academic activities, including studios. I am meeting my students on Zoom from different timezones, and while it is not the same as a classroom experience, it is not that bad either. Yes, indeed, the times are quite stressful, but hopefully, we will recover from this soon.