Strategic planning, unforeseen challenges and, ultimately, invaluable experiences on the pathway to studying in the United States.
Deepika Athinarayanan pursued her Master of Science in infectious diseases at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Photograph courtesy Drexel University.
After my bachelor’s degree in biotechnology, I knew a master’s degree was the next essential step toward a career in research. While I considered Indian universities, it had been my long-time dream to study abroad. I didn’t think it would be possible since it would be very expensive, but my parents were supportive. However, I quickly realized that it would be a long road to get to where I needed to be, and I had no idea where to start.
Building my academic roadmap
At the start of my search, I had the opportunity to attend an introductory session by EducationUSA, which helped make the process of research and applying to school clearer. I created a roadmap of tasks, and one by one I began to check items off a list. I focused on universities with microbiology departments, specifically infectious disease research. I shortlisted seven of them and began applying.
The process was not without its stressors. I was balancing researching and applying with preparing for the GRE and TOEFL exams and completing my final year of college in India. I also had to work through challenges beyond my control. For instance, my university had to shut down for a month because of the torrential rains and floods we had in Chennai, just when I was supposed to get my transcripts and mail them in time to meet the admissions deadlines. Eventually, the hard work paid off. I received two acceptance letters, one of them from my top choice—the infectious diseases program at Drexel University, Philadelphia. I applied for my student loans and a student visa, and finally made my way to the United States.
Life in Philadelphia
Living in Philadelphia was wonderful. My class at Drexel was small. We were all new to the city and became very close. Outside of class, we explored museums and attended events around the city. We made sure to use the student discount benefits to the fullest extent possible. However, my new life in the United States also took some getting used to. Chennai prepared me for city life, for transit systems and crowds, but it did not prepare me for restaurant serving sizes that could feed me for two days. It definitely did not prepare me for freezing temperatures, and I really struggled with the cold my first winter there. Luckily for me, I had friends who were always willing to help, and despite it being my first time living alone, in a country where so many things were new to me, I had a great experience.
Studying at Drexel
My time at Drexel was very rewarding and I enjoyed every moment. The academic system was very different from what I was familiar with. I appreciated having the freedom to pick the classes that interested me the most, and even take extra classes if I wanted to. As the program was geared toward working professionals, classes were in the evening, and it was also a great opportunity to talk to classmates who had work experience and learn from them.
As a graduate student, I had to work diligently to maintain a study schedule and keep track of everything going on with my classes and my part-time job on campus and other personal commitments. I joined a lab in my second year, and worked there for two semesters, helping with a C. difficile study in collaboration with Pfizer. It was through this opportunity that I applied for an open position in Pfizer, and received a job offer.
Deepika Athinarayanan at Drexel University.
The professional journey beyond classes
Currently, I am still working at Pfizer in the bacterial vaccines research division. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience and I learn new things every day. Looking back, I realize so many things have happened since I first thought of coming to the United States. There were definitely many instances where I was frustrated and upset, when I was at the end of my rope trying to juggle many things at once. But when I think about my journey, I most vividly remember the happy moments that I enjoyed along the way, and the knowledge that I am a much better, stronger person for having had this experience.
Deepika Athinarayanan is a former student of the infectious diseases graduate degree program at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She now works with the bacterial vaccines research division at Pfizer in the United States.