Interview with Githin F Alapatt (CEC 2007, Research Scholar at Clemson University)

We’re back with one more piece in the interview series. Today, we have with us Githin F Alapatt (Chairman of CEC, 2006-07) who did his BTech in ECE from CEC during 2003-07, and later went to Clemson University to pursue his MS and thereafter PhD. Githin needs no introduction to CECians, as he was instrumental in all the activities during and post his stay in our campus. He has been in constant touch with CEC, and has been generous enough to support our students academically on various occasions.

Here’s an interview which Kiran Chandramohan (CEC 2003) conducted with Githin.

Githin F Alapatt

Githin F Alapatt

Could you tell a few things about yourself ?

Lived in Kerala until I graduated from CEC. I loved electronics, so decided to specialize in that for my B.Tech. Loved it even more, so went ahead and got an MS and PhD in the same area. Now, I work for Intel as a Technology Development Process Engineer at one of the most advanced IC fabrication labs in the world!

You joined CEC in 2003. Why did you choose CEC ?

Honestly, I don’t know. I had not even heard about CEC until a week before the Kerala engineering seat allotment process. I guess my parents asked their friends about CEC and told me that it’s a good school to go to. I am sure they found out about the faculty and facilities at CEC. But, I must admit that I was shocked to see the state of the college building when I came in the first day. After a few days, I realized that such details are not really important, as long as there are good people around.

You seem to have had an eventful time in CEC. You held multiple positions of responsibility.

Yes. I began as a class rep and ended up as the Senate Chairman. I am grateful that I was given a chance to serve the student body in whatever capacity I could. It was really tough, balancing my schedule and energy. I needed to work towards my degree (and be real serious about it) and also do justice (and follow my passion) about my leadership. I acknowledge that I have failed to do justice to both sides – but I did my best. And I have sometimes regretted taking up so much that I cannot focus on one task. I must thank everyone around me for their help and encouragement.

After CEC, you taught for a while. How did that happen ?

I had visited a school in Kochi as a part of a Free Software Celebration a year before I graduated and I got a chance to meet some faculty and students. So after I finished my degree and I was hanging around waiting to start graduate school, I looked around if I could work for six months to get some experience and understanding of this student-instructor business. Ultimately, it was a good experience and it helped me clarify a few things in life.

Then you joined for MS in US. Was higher studies always in your mind ? Were you a topper in college ?

I was not a topper in college although I was usually in the top 10% of my class in college. I really did not like the education system where facts are memorized instead of understanding and applying. I didn’t care about my exams as long as I understood the concepts. I ensured that I understood the material. I would spend hours and hours to read about something that I don’t understand and actually try it out – even though it was “not on the exam”. The problem with this approach is that the system labels you as “not a topper” and might not be beneficial in some circumstances. The ideal way is to understand everything and then be a topper. The second best way is to understand everything and be reasonably good with exams – which is what I did. I remember while a 2nd or 3rd year student at CEC, one faculty suggested that I work on simulating advanced MOSFET structures. I spent many days trying to install and run PSPICE and got meaningful results. Although, I had little guidance, I was fascinated by what SPICE could do and kept exploring this area. This got me interested in microelectronics from that point.

Why not pursue higher studies in India/elsewhere ?

I had some really good friends among the senior batches at CEC. I got really good feedback from them regarding the grad schools and the system of education in the USA. In addition, USA has much more opportunities for EE engineers to get involved with research and development. I am sure that there are opportunities in India too, I have not really explored this.

How did you find Clemson University ?

I read through some popular message boards at that time and everyone writing there had a good impression about Clemson University. Also cost of attendance was on the lower side and they had some research that I was interested. Clemson is one of the top 20 public schools in US (this one is from the US News and World report), but that does not buy you much in a PhD program.

Clemson's Tillman Hall

Clemson’s Tillman Hall.
Courtesy: Wikipedia

You decided to continue for a PhD degree at the Clemson University. You seem to have liked the place.

Making the PhD jump is the difficult thing – consumes you for the next couple of years. Again, I was offered a PhD admit with promised funding and I liked what I was doing for research and I loved Clemson. The most important thing for the PhD is your advisor. Everything else comes secondary.

Can you describe your research in layman terms.

I did a bunch of things. Mostly materials development and characterization for use in electronics. One project involved understanding a polymer layer in a capacitor’s cathode and the other one was developing a process recipe to deposit thin films of copper oxide to build a Si-Cu2O diode for Photovoltaics. I was also fortunate to get involved in several small projects broadening my view of the world. The results from our research are published, please feel free to contact me if you have questions.

How was your PhD? Was it enjoyable? Or full of anxious moments?

It was everything. But, mostly enjoyable. I feel that it mostly dependent on yourself. I can put two people in the same situation and get opposite reaction from the two individuals. You have to strike a balance between what is available to do for research and what you know or like. Don’t expect to do what you did earlier. Go with the general flow – not 100%, but enough to get busy and running. Going against the flow is somewhat like trying to learn swimming when you are in the middle of the desert. But, never give up your specific interests completely. At some point in your journey, you will find a lake and you can swim all day long. You should try your best to find new things to do and learn. But, be systematic. Don’t learn all around without getting to the depth. The PhD is basically a piece of paper that tells the world that you have been taught properly to think properly. That is all. However, some people have won Nobel prizes with their PhD work – I have not been that smart!!!

Post PHD, why did you decide to go to the industry ? 

I realized that I was not cut out for the academia – at least for now. I love the challenges and problems unique to the semiconductor industry and I am working at one of Intel’s most advanced fabs bringing the world the next generation manufacturing technology. This is really a job that I in my mind since I read the last few pages of Boylestead’s circuit analysis when I was at CEC. In addition, industry is as real as it gets. Things on paper often times don’t get real and I like it better this way at this point in life! And usually, going to the academia involves couple of years of Post-doc work after the PhD. The experience you get in the industry in unparalleled. Especially if you are working on cutting edge technology.


This iconic pic of CEC was shot by Githin. It was him who set up a page for CEC in Wikipedia

What will be your advice to a CEC Alumnus working in a company wishing to go for higher studies?

I am probably not at that level to write out this advice – however, since I am asked – You can learn a lot of things by CRITICALLY reading QUALITY text books and now using the open coursework from good schools. It’s a waste of time to go to school and spend so much time for a lot of things. But, there are specific areas that not like that. Also a higher degree often enhances job opportunities, promotions, wages, social status, and so on. Be serious and ask yourself what is the goal of going to graduate school. And do some soul searching. There are good schools everywhere, make sure that the school and program are aligned to your goal. School is also a great way to take time off from busy work and re-focus on some career building and life. In general, a good job is usually the best way to learn for that specific job. Use resources available in hand and try to look for additional resources by taking with manager or seniors in specific areas. Always write down your goal and plan out a path to achieve it. And take time and energy for planning.

It would be wrong to not share the flip side of the coin. In my batch, there are only a handful of students pursuing higher studies. Most students end up working for the giant IT sector. That is not a bad thing, but if CEC has to really show a difference, it must be encouraging individuals to do their own thing – be it business, or ideas, or whatever. Once you leave Kerala/India, it becomes a challenge to compete with students from IITs and NITs just on a brand level basis. Even the NIT brand name is reasonably well known (also so many schools with same name) in the academia – you can land on scholarships just based on that and a recommendation. From CEC, to get to the top, one has to work harder since the brand name won’t help much. And let me say this – attending CEC gives you a reasonable path to success (which is always in your own hands). But, there is a lot to be done if you have high ambitions; and for sure, you can. Just keep focus.

What will be your advice to a 3rd/4th year student wishing to go for higher studies?

Pick a core area – focus only on that. Read serious textbooks. Never open one of those “made for exam” books – unless you just want to pass. Very important – plan ahead – at least 2 years in advance. Checkout the financial aspect early on. Look at a typical university and find out the application deadlines and tests required. Find out more details as early as possible and start working towards it. Education to me is like an investment. It must bring in returns. Find out what you like to do in life and follow it reasonably. You might not get to do everything, but, you can get close. I have heard that in many schools, students get an MS admit while they are in their starting of 4th year. This is the smartest way to do it. I made the blunder of waiting too long. Don’t fall into this trap. Also, if you don’t like the education system, don’t be disheartened, cross the Atlantic and get here ASAP!!!

What fond memories do you have about life in CEC? Did it play a role in your career and higher education?

I found in CEC the right mix – it was not a sink or swim school and at the same time there was not much of spoon feeding too. All the relationships I formed at CEC are fond memories. I met my wife for the first time at CEC. There was enough of everything and I am sure that many good schools around the world are like this. I have found in CEC some good teachers, role-models etc. No doubt about it. But, no one is going to push you to do something. If you are interested, you will be helped a little bit and motivated. No babysitting here.

We did a lot of things at CEC – made trips to conferences across the country, raised money for hosting SUMMIT and then organized the event, lost a good friend in a car accident, went to Goa for New Year’s with friends, failed exams, taught high school students… its tough to put in to words what a good – somewhat free school life can do for you, if you start to make use of the opportunities. And CEC did that. I can surely point out many shortcomings, but, the big picture at CEC was absolutely enjoyable. I firmly believe that everyone gets a bunch of opportunities at CEC, its usually up to you to take them up.