Join us for some insights into MIT’s Engineering Program [Show Summary]
Syed Shayan Zahid moved to the United States from Pakistan to pursue an education in engineering. He shares his journey from an undergrad at Purdue to a master’s at MIT and his next step, a career at Apple.
Interview with Syed Shayan Zahid, student body vice president at MIT [Show Notes]
Hello and welcome. Thanks for joining me for this, the 460th episode of Admissions Straight Talk. Thanks for tuning in. Before I dive into today’s interview, I want to invite you to download Applying To Graduate Engineering Programs: What You Need To Know. This free guide will complement today’s podcast and show you how to select the right engineering program for you, differentiate yourself from your competition in a positive way, and present yourself effectively as a talented, innovative future engineer and problem solver. One who will bring credit to any program that accepts you. Download it for free.
I’d like to welcome to Admissions Straight Talk, Syed Shayan Zahid. Shayan grew up in Pakistan and came into the United States to study at Purdue University in Indiana and graduated in 2019 with distinction. While there, he pursued multiple internships at Cummins Inc. and also worked there full-time briefly. In 2020, he began his Master’s in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at the famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. Now that’s the skeleton of his story. Let’s put some meat on those bones in this conversation.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Where did you grow up? How’d you get interested in engineering? [2:17]
My name is Shayan, that’s how I usually go by. Some people prefer calling me Syed, but whatever you prefer. I’m originally from Pakistan. I grew up in this metropolitan city called Lahore. It’s one of the busiest cities, I would say, in Pakistan and is known for its historical significance and cultural heritage. We have, from the Mughal Empire dated centuries ago, a lot of historical monuments and buildings, and the city is divided into two parts. One is called Old Lahore, and the other is called just New Lahore, or Lahore in general. I am from the more modern part of it, but it was really interesting growing up in a place where you have a lot of history embedded in your day-to-day life.
What do you like to do for fun? [3:10]
That’s a very good question. It depends on the time of the year, honestly. And then depending on how much time I have outside of my academic commitments. But mostly I like skiing. I’ve been doing ballroom dancing since 2015, since I moved to the US. I’ve been competing as well but COVID has stopped that spree of competitions. Hopefully they’re going to start back up soon. I like to also pursue interests such as hiking, anything that involves being outdoors and traveling.
How did you get interested in engineering? [4:20]
That’s a question I had a lot of difficulty answering for myself when I was applying to the US and undergrad. The main key thing that I looked to was what my experience was like in childhood and what I truly enjoyed. There were a few options. I took biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, all these STEM subjects in high school, and as I was evaluating, the one common thread that I found is, I really like understanding how things work and also how to make things that maybe make the world better in some way. That was kind of the vague idea I had in my head – that I want to pursue something that involves building something and understanding how things work. I wasn’t too interested in the biological or life sciences per se, personally. But what really propelled me to make the final decision was how to put things together that already exist in the world to make something that is totally new and that when people see it think, “Oh, why wasn’t this done 10 years ago?” So basically just a passion for inventing new things is what brought me to engineering.
Why did you choose astronautical and aeronautical engineering specifically? [5:31]
That was also a long journey. As you might have seen in my undergrad, I studied mechanical engineering. At Purdue University, the first year was very helpful because it’s just general engineering for you to explore different fields, for you to learn more by talking to different people. One thing that stood out to me was that I didn’t know what industry I wanted to specialize in. Even though I had that big idea, mechanical engineering was a broad enough field where you can pursue different interests. You can look into how to be a good engineer, not necessarily working on airplanes or rockets or automotive engines, but you have a good skill set that you can build upon later, maybe in the industry or in academia. So that was my decision for mechanical engineering.
Airplanes have always been very fascinating to me. It’s a work of art. It’s magic. You fly from place A to B and it’s a marvel of engineering how planes were invented, the whole story of the Wright brothers and that’s precisely what motivated me to pursue aerospace. I knew that I want to be in the transportation sector and what was most fascinating to me in the transportation sector was working on airplanes. In undergrad, I was split between aerospace and mechanical. I decided to give myself some more time to think this through and by the time I was pursuing my master’s, I knew what I wanted to do.
It was truly fascinating. Also, the education that you get, particularly when you do AeroAstro, which is what we call it at MIT, you get a bit of both worlds and you have flexibility. You often get to choose what you want to do between these two things and the education that you get can really translate between space and air because it’s really very similar principles.
What challenges did you face in applying to your master’s program? [7:56]
There were many. The first thing that was a big point of concern for me is whether I even wanted to do grad school. And after that, did I have the time to invest in my applications, because I was reaching my final semester I was taking about 80 credits at Purdue. There was a lot of coursework involved in my final semester. One thing that I knew for sure is that I wanted to pursue higher education because I wanted to gain a more specialized educational experience that goes beyond maybe the stuff that I learned in mechanical engineering, which is helpful, but generalized. The decision to pursue my master’s was based on my desire to learn more about a field that I really enjoy and love.
The challenge was deciding if I could invest the time in it. It was a tough one. The key was starting early, but there were times when I had to ask myself, “Okay, is the exam that’s coming up three days later more important than the essay that I’m writing right now?” The time commitment is probably the biggest thing that I can think of. After that, I had to figure out what I wanted to do in graduate school if I got in. Having a plan and mapping that out is so important. There are so many experiences floating around outside of your previous experience and the key is asking yourself, “How do I tie it together?” I had to answer that question for myself first, before telling the Admissions committee that I really wanted to do this.
Did you ever consider finishing college, working for a year, and then applying to grad school? [9:31]
I definitely did consider that and that was one of the options. I did internships with Cummins, which is an automotive engine manufacturing company. One of the options I had was that if, either I’m not happy with my results, or if I don’t end up applying, I could still work and apply later. The key distinction between either applying later or applying now was that I was already in the academic mode. I knew how to power through exams, how to power through courses. The diligence that academia requires is often much more than industry, in my opinion, because you’re taking exams, you’re taking courses. More than that, in graduate school you’d also be sometimes doing research. So what I knew for myself is that if I waited, I might lose that vitality or rigor. It can always come back if needed, but it’s a bit more of a learning curve.
How did you choose where to apply? [10:32]
The toughest question for me was definitely where to apply because it was a trade-off between, first of all, what I think I am good enough for and then, how do I fit into the campus life? A lot of that involved just looking very thoroughly at different universities’ sites and looking at their programs and research they’re doing. Initially, it can be very enticing to say, “Oh, an institution like MIT, for example, is a very renowned institution in aerospace, that’s why you should apply there.” But more than that, I think digging deeper into what exactly MIT is doing that fascinates you beyond just, maybe it’s credibility or fame or all that. That was definitely the key question. My background is engineering but I had these different extracurriculars that I love like dancing and traveling. I looked at, definitely, the activities that the universities and campuses offered and what they encourage but their values were a big factor in the decision as well.
Combining all of that, it was really key for me to see where I fit in and how I can also contribute to the academic community beyond just getting the degree. It was a tough decision-making process, but the good news is that when you’re applying, you’re not committed anywhere. When I was applying, I didn’t have to think too much to, “Okay, if I apply here, I need to be here.”
How many schools did you end up applying to? [12:17]
I think I applied to five schools in total. And those schools were a mix of what I would consider my dream school and my “safe zones,” as I would call it. Everyone has their own academic profile.
Did you get accepted only to MIT or more than one school? If you got accepted to more than one school, how did you choose among the acceptances? [12:43]
I applied to five schools and I actually got accepted to all of them. I didn’t expect that. One key lesson that everyone can learn from this is to never underestimate yourself. Because often we tend to look at ourselves and look at the acceptance rates and think, “Oh, am I going to be in the top 6% or 10% of people who this school is going to take?”
The decision-making process between those acceptances came down to number one, funding. Who’s going to offer the most funding? There were a couple of schools, including MIT, that were offering full funding for my master’s degree.
Then the next step was looking at what I’d be doing. I had an idea of what research group I’d be working at, what type of work I’d be doing, and what kind of professor I’d been interacting with. Then came the time, for me at least, to look at the courses and see what the curriculum was going to look like. How was it going to add value to my profile depending on what I want to do in the future?
It was probably the toughest decision I had to make in my life, but it is a fortunate situation in some ways and sometimes an unfortunate situation when you look at it from a personal perspective thinking, “Am I making the right decision for myself?” But in the end, wherever you end up, you can always pursue your interest in one way or another . That was a very good thought to have in my mind.
Are you glad you chose MIT from those five schools? [14:37]
I’m very glad. More glad than I thought I would be actually. Initially, I chose MIT because of my technical interests aligning with MIT and also the courses and the academic environment, all of that checked off. But after joining MIT, the experience that I gained was much more than I had expected from a graduate education, especially considering that it’s a two-year program. It is sometimes harder than maybe at the undergrad level to incorporate things like extra curriculars and interests that you have beyond your academic life. But it was, I think, the smartest decision I’ve made. Not every decision I’ve made in my life was smart, but this certainly was.
You decided to get involved in student government at MIT, the Graduate Student Council, and you’re currently the Vice President. Why did you decide to get involved and assume that role? And are you glad you did? [15:25]
That is one decision that I made that wasn’t really expected when I joined MIT. I joined in a very virtual environment. It was a pandemic, COVID-19 hit. And my visit days were actually canceled the week in advance due to the pandemic. When I joined, after the first semester, I realized that I was really loving the work and talking to my professors and my peers on zoom. But then there was this burnout that wasn’t necessarily because of a high workload, but it was more the lack of interaction with my MIT community. At Purdue, I was used to going to call-outs, attending club meetings, talking to my peers, etc. That was something I was missing at MIT.
I saw these announcements coming out, different clubs’ posters, around winter time, about vacancies and elections coming up. Before Graduate Student Council, I actually joined another organization called the DREF, which is Department Resources for Easing Friction and Stress. Essentially the goal of the organization is to support the graduate student-body by having conversations confidentially with people, and understanding if people are having issues, either with their peers, interpersonal dynamics, or if they just need help in general. That was my first step into the academic or extracurricular community. Once I got to interact with students, I realized that there’s much more to MIT than what we see from the outside, or what we see even in the research lab that we are working in.
A few months later I realized that I had the bandwidth for one more activity and that one more activity could either be ballroom dance, or it could be some other extracurricular. Now, unfortunately at that time, there was a pandemic and there weren’t any ballroom competitions going on. So, I just started shopping around. There are so many clubs and activities you can be a part of at MIT – it’s amazing. The Graduate Student Council posted that they had elections coming up in April and I thought to myself, “I may not be as credible of a member of the MIT community compared to more senior people who have been here before the pandemic, but why not give it a shot?” Thankfully, I was elected the VP. It’s been a very transformative experience that has been truly life-changing. It has opened my eyes to so many things that I’m passionate about that I implicitly was passionate about before, but I didn’t really know.
Could you give an example of a new passion that you discovered through your extracurricular involvement? [18:26]
For example, diversity and inclusion. There were some incidents that happened in the academic community, not just at MIT, but in general. Like Asian hate crimes or hate crimes pointed towards particular communities. Those experiences happened right during the time when I got elected so that was the first problem that we wanted to solve. We collaborated with the MIT administration and looked at what sort of programming we could incorporate into the community to help people understand why inclusion is important, why it’s important for an institution like MIT, and actually, any institution in academia, to bring different perspectives together no matter whether the opinions match or they digress. Working on these things with the administration and realizing what hurdles student bodies at different academic institutions are facing was a very satisfying experience. Looking back at it, I realized that it had much more impact than I would’ve hoped to have before I joined MIT.
Will you continue in this type of involvement when you are at Apple? [19:38]
Most definitely. I think everyone can contribute to their communities in a way that’s larger than maybe their employment opportunity or their master’s program. Certainly, every community needs improvement in some way or another. One of my missions, once I graduate, is to continue the work that I have gotten the opportunity to be a part of and apply it to places, whether it be Apple or maybe some community in California where I live, that needs that sort of leadership. I’d like to really be a part of alumni networks, both at MIT and Purdue, and also continue with different organizations that I’ve been a part of during undergrad and grad school. Hopefully, I’ll be able to have that same sort of impact that I have been hoping to achieve at MIT. I wouldn’t say that the work is completed or is anywhere close to what I would like it to be.
The good thing is that MIT offers the support that you need to achieve anything you want. It’s not to say that I’m the only person having that impact. It’s almost like everyone I talk to is making an impact in some sort of way, which is why MIT has been a transformative experience. Not only are you pursuing what matters to you the most, but also learning from people’s experiences and understanding why it is that someone is pursuing this activity or trying to connect the student body together, and what’s their motivation. There’s a light bulb moment when you realize, “Oh, I actually resonated with that, and that’s what I’ve been doing the past five years, but I didn’t know that’s why I’m passionate about it.”
What will you miss the most about MIT, since you’re graduating in a few short months? [21:39]
That’s a really expansive question. I’ll miss many things. Definitely the work and the experience I had, but most importantly, the people. The people aspect, I think, is what brings life to campus. It’s a very supportive environment, both from the administration side and the student side. And what I will miss most is those meetings that I have maybe 6:00 PM on a Monday talking about how we can make the campus a more inclusive environment, or maybe, how to resolve this funding issue in this department X. That is one thing that makes me sad about leaving MIT.
What could be improved or done differently at MIT? [22:28]
If I were to change something from the past, I could turn back time, I think I would focus less, or stress less, about how I measure up to my peers. That is often something that a lot of people run into, not only at MIT, but even at Purdue and other institutions. Particularly when you join as a new grad student, it is very easy to be overwhelmed, looking at all these people around you, working on amazing things, and having so much of an impact. Suddenly your first semester passes and you think, “Oh, why didn’t I publish this many papers like this peer of mine?”
The thing that I learned throughout my time at MIT is that everyone’s experience was different – the field of research, the way that you tackle problems, and how you come out with a solution. Just embrace that individuality and the types of extracurriculars that you want to pursue. It’s all up to you. One thing that I would tell myself is not to compare myself too much to my peers.
For the institution, if we were to take it that way, I think it is really hard to actually come up with a solution to a problem that MIT faces because it’s been worked on for a very long time. The one thing I would say could be done better at MIT and other institutions is preparing the grad students towards the beginning of their entry to MIT, to be a part of the community as much as the undergrad student body. I feel like that is a very common problem in academia, this idea that once you are a graduate student, you’re tied to a lab and tied to your research. Undergrads have a more cohesive student body because they’re taking the same courses, same classrooms, they tend to naturally connect more easily with each other. Whereas for a grad student, you have to go out of your way to actually engage with the community beyond maybe the work that you’re doing. It would be great to see them empowering the community in that way.
That was definitely exacerbated by COVID. You’re in front of your Zoom screen the entire day, and it’s even harder and perhaps more demotivating even for some people to think, “Okay, I’ve been on Zoom from 9 to 5, I don’t want to be on another Zoom call.”
What are your plans for the future? [25:17]
I’m still trying to figure it out. I know I’m going to be working at Apple and the biggest reason for working at Apple is it is really fascinating to see how a product comes together and impacts almost the entire world. I would say more than half of people use an iPhone. My main goal in the future is to continue having an impact that goes beyond me, beyond just personally improving myself, and having a greater impact on the world. I certainly gravitated more towards leadership when I joined MIT. I was split between whether I wanted to do a PhD, or go into industry, or get an MBA. Now it’s clear to me that, while I do enjoy all these experiences that I’ve had at MIT, I, at some point in the future, want to be a leader that contributes to some sort of a positive change beyond myself. That could lead to an MBA, it could lead to maybe some sort of an impact in the industry. I guess I’ll have to just wait and see.
Sounds to me like you’re definitely glad you made the decision to pursue the MS, even if it was a difficult decision initially, is that correct? [26:29]
Yes, definitely. It was a difficult decision because getting into the full-time employment world can be very attractive, especially after a long time in education. You want to start earning, start supporting yourself and be this person who can proudly say, “Okay, I have my first full-time job now.” I think doing a master’s requires patience in some ways, especially if you’re doing it right after your bachelor’s and you’re going to still be in academia for a while. The good news is that the academic experience also really sets the course for the entire future that is in front of you. It was a tough decision, but it was a decision that I definitely would make again.
Are you at all considering any further education, either a PhD or an MBA or some other degree? [27:32]
That’s a good question. All these paths have been opened, especially a PhD which is very easy to do once you are already in the flow in the master’s program at MIT. Since I gravitate more towards leadership and want to have that impact on organizations and see that change that translates from what I learned in the past to me applying it to things around me, I would say that I’ll probably pursue an MBA at some point in the future.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing an MS in engineering at MIT, or at any other top engineering program? [28:21]
That is actually my favorite question because I think this is probably the most daunting for people looking to be in graduate school. Many things come to mind. One thing is, first of all, embrace your individuality. Embrace who you are and what you want to do. Don’t try to mold yourself and be someone who society wants to see.
That is a big part of my journey that I think has really helped me get to this point. I see this personally in pursuing opportunities or extracurriculars, say ballroom dancing as an example, which is typically not construed to be an ideal engineer’s skill set. The thing that I had to ask myself at that point was should I continue this or should I be just the quantitative way that people want me to be. Definitely the former is what I would recommend.
As far as applying to grad school is concerned, the first key question is to answer for yourself why you need it and why you want it. How are you going to contribute to the graduate environment, in whatever way form? Is that a decision that you are making considering all the opportunities that you have? For example, if you have a full-time job as an option or if you have the option to go back to your home country. Weigh these decisions very carefully because it’s going to dictate the next few years, and you certainly don’t want to be in a situation where you start graduate education, and then you realize, “Oh, I maybe didn’t think this through as much.” Introspection is something that really helped me a lot.
A lot of people, especially from where I come from, think about how this degree is going to be perceived in the employment world or, “Am I going to be someone who’s marketable?” I think before that, the question to ask is, “What are your passions? How does your talent align? And in which direction?” Trying to, again, mold yourself less to what the world wants to see and more toward something that will make you feel satisfied. If you are satisfied with what you’ll be doing, you will find a way to make it work.
What would you have liked me to ask you? [31:59]
You’ve asked the majority of questions. I think just to expand on the advice to applicants and maybe to people who are considering grad school. You asked that already but as I think through it more, one additional key thing is don’t worry about the admission statistics or focus too much on this online research of, “What are my chances? Am I going to get in or not?” I feel like when I was applying, I spent a lot of time measuring myself up to the stats and considering whether it was worth it or not. It’s certainly something to keep in mind and something to be aware of but if you have a realistic shot, don’t keep yourself from taking it out of fear of failure. I think that applies to everything, not just admissions, but in general.
Where can listeners find you online? [34:39]
If anyone wants to reach out or has any questions, I’m happy to share my LinkedIn.
- Syed Shayan Zahid on LinkedIn
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