How my academic journey took me to UAE, Australia and Israel

Aug 13, 2022
3 mins read



💼 PhD: Computational Neuroscience
⏳ Aug 2015 — May 2025
🗣 English
Student Visa

I am Nischal, a 2019 graduate from NYU Abu Dhabi in Mathematics. I am currently doing a PhD in Computational Neuroscience at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem following a Master's in Applied Cybernetics at the Australian National University.

I’ve had a meandering path through academia so rather than focus on the details of where I am at currently, I’d instead like to share my process in hope that it will be similarly helpful to you.

In Canberra, Australia
In Canberra, Australia

Keep track of what’s new and exciting

When I was in high school and thinking about applying to a university abroad, my research led me to the following conclusion: there are broadly two paths to it. First, the well-trodden path of applying to the “standard” school — Ivy leagues, Oxbridge and so on. It’s a tough choice but a choice where we more or less know what needs to be done to have a good chance of getting into one of them. Second, there were then brand new and exciting programs such as NYU Abu Dhabi, Yale-NUS, and so on that looked riskier but offered a different take on undergraduate education. One should, of course, apply for both kinds of the program but in practice, we generally tend to stick with what’s famous and known and consequently lose out on new opportunities. This is not only the case with institutions but programs as well. When I graduated in 2019, there was a constellation of topics that I was broadly interested in but it didn’t have a name attached to it. It involved AI ethics, responsible engineering, philosophy and design. People were increasingly drawn to these topics and I kept track of new ideas and approaches in this space (via Twitter, newsletters, and academic papers). Lo and behold, in 2019 the Australian National University picked up on this trend and started an experimental Master's program in Applied Cybernetics which dealt with exactly the above topics. This was the second experimental program (after NYUAD) I applied for, and ended up getting accepted with a generous scholarship and spent a year and a half in Australia engaging in this new field that barely had its name sorted out. I highlight these to encourage you to expand your vision beyond the known and established into new and exciting.

Look beyond the west

The world is big and there are at least a few other directions apart from the west, a fact that we tend to forget when looking for education opportunities internationally. In early 2019, in the final year of my college, I was introduced to computational neuroscience and deep learning theory, and I realized that these are the topics I want to study for my PhD. Alas, these topics are too niche to fit nicely into a program that says PhD in Computer Science to PhD in Neuroscience. I started reading papers and doing research on these topics and realised that most of the papers that I liked were written by Israeli scientists and that a bunch of them come from the same institute at the Hebrew University, which incidentally had one of the few PhD programs in the world that explicitly focused on computational Neuroscience! I resisted the idea at first because my default conception was that I’d go somewhere in Europe or the US for my PhD and Israel was too much from the left field. But I talked with the professors at the institute and read more, and gradually realized that this would be a perfect fit for me. Indeed, if I had one piece of advice to give about PhD is to try to find places that are doing the kind of research you want to be doing and try to go there if possible.

Find a channel to keep yourself abreast with the field

Many opportunities in research arise transiently and if you are not keeping up with the conversation, you might miss out on these opportunities. One particularly useful way that has emerged for students to easily join the academic conversation is Twitter — follow interesting researchers, ask questions to them and you’ll be surprised how often they’ll engage, try and read papers on the topic of your interest and reach out to the professors you might be interested in working with. Make your love of the topic known, opportunities generally follow.

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