One year at Leuven

Note: I started this article way before 15th of September and took several days to write it.

Although I officially complete an year in Leuven on 15th September, I thought I might pen down a few lines on how my year has been now. I have been told that there are two ways to write a review: compare your experience with the expectation that you had set out with; or write your review completely disregarding the idea that you had before you embarked on the experience. I, however, believe that a bit of both is necessary. This stems from the fact that I am too young and too less traveled to form an accurate idea of living in a foreign country or study in a top ranked university.

Now to give some background about myself, and why I left a very high paying job at Cadence Design Systems or a job offer at Samsung Semiconductors to pursue a Masters. Back in 2013, when I got my job at Cadence Design Systems, I did not study much for GATE and rather started working on various university events. But, thanks partially due to luck and partially due to my excellent concepts in the subjects, I secured an all India rank of 46 in GATE 2014. Those of you who are familiar with it, would know that even a rank of 46 is not enough to guarantee a seat in the MTech programs (Microelectronics) either in IIT Bombay of IISc Bangalore. I had no interest to pursue a MS program in India. Plus, the team in which I got into at Cadence had some of the best analog design engineers in India.

Anyway, during my job, my colleague and a good friend of mine, Gunjan Mondal asked me to get a MS. I also talked to other colleague including Vishnu who told me, “If not anything, you will enjoy the two years. These jobs will always be there for you.” Sunil Rajan, another brilliant mentor of mine recommended the same, “See in a Masters you can work on one thing exclusively for one year; you don’t have to do half the crap that you do in the industry. You will learn a lot.” And finally my boss, SKG told me, “You are young. You should always chose a path where you learn the most.”

At the time I was confused between KUL (offered me a full tuition fee waiver), TU Delft (offered a partial tuition fee waiver and a part of the excellence scholarship) and UTwente (full excellence scholarship). They all told me, if money is not the constraint, go to KUL. And here I was.

I did look at the subjects that I will have to study at KUL. It had a lot of circuits (which was fine by me) but also antennas and EM propagation. I never took a formal course on electromagnetics in my Bachelors and it was kind of scary. (But I still read some senior UG level textbook while I was working so I knew it won’t be mighty difficult).

I remember the first class. It was by Patrick Reynaert. Design of Electronic Circuits. The course covered operational amplifier design. There was a project (to design and layout an OTA; I was kind of lucky that I was allocated specifications that was not possible to meet. When you have to prove that something does not work, you will have to put in twice the effort to convince someone and you learn twice as much). Prof. Patrick is an exceptional professor who really taught the students a systematic way to design most of the common single stage OTAs.

And then we had Design of Digital Platforms. The project was really time consuming and kind of difficult. I was lucky to have a partner like Luis Diego. He worked several years in the industry, and was good with Verilog and we managed to finish the project and get a decently high score. We had a completely useless partner in <<name deleted>> who never worked, lied and tried to manipulate. I believe that none of my batchmates who teamed up with him in different projects had a good experience. (Lesson:Always select good project partners!)

The most difficult course was Digital Signal Processing. The course material was hard, and the project was not hard but time consuming. But then when you saw the finished project, you cannot help but remark that it is indeed a good learning. We had to transmit an image (of the professor; but I also did the same with my girlfriend’s picture) using audio. The modulation used was OFDM.

There were other courses like Analog Building Blocks for Signals and Systems. It was a great course for two reasons:

  • One, you learned of the top level specifications of analog blocks, what it means and some of the skeleton architectures of the most common analog blocks.
  • The exercise sessions were really good.

There was also a course on transmission lines and design of microwave amplifiers. In the final exam, we had to design the matching network for a potentially unstable amplifier. Its taught by Prof. Bart Nauewelers who is really nice professor.

Exams in KUL are held in January (first semester), June (second semester) and August (re-takes of courses that you may have failed in the first or the second semester). The exam periods are typically hectic. Other than the usual exam time late night stories, the only memorable part of it was my bed broke. There is this supporting frame on which the mattresses sit, and one of the ribs snapped. I knew I could fix it through some duct tape and wooden beams. So I went to my landlord.

“Yes Vivek, how can I help you?”

“Umm, my bed broke.  I was wondering if you had some duct tape and a wooden beam to spare.”

“Atleast tell me the girl was blonde.”

Despite what a lot of people thought, it did not break due to any girl. But anyway it was fixed and the rest of exam period went without any misfortune.

The second semester was rather dull as I had to take courses which were not that interesting . This was partly because I had to take Dutch classes, which was held twice a week from 7pm-9pm. It meant that two evenings in a week were completely wiped off.  I liked computer architecture.(The TAs were really great). I liked Design of Analog Integrated Circuits. I sort of liked antennas. I hated EM propagation. Technology fr Microelectronics is a course that gets special mention.

I also became homesick during my second semester.

Although I thought the most interesting part would be the project where I had to design a DCF77 receiver, it turned out to be rather boring. I was responsible for the digital part and it was okayish experience. Towards the end, I looked forward to the sessions because there was one TA I really liked in particular and we got friendly.

A better experience was with the project on Design of Analog Integrated ICs. We had to design a variable gain switched capacitor amplifier. The TAs were nice and because they were all international PhD students with whom we could connect more, share our frustration of the lives in Belgium. See the thing about KUL is that the classes are really small (in number) and you need to kind of bond with the TAs to have a good experience. Having empathetic TAs help. International people don’t have a home they can go back to on weekends. They need these little anchors to help them survive KUL’s MSEE program. It is nowhere close to being easy. I became good friends with one of them (Dileep).

Anyway after my second semester exams, I had an internship at Bell Labs. Unfortunately, I cannot talk of the work I did there but it was really nice working with Brecht Francois. Brilliant guy. Overall, Bell Labs was a nice place to work.

I returned to Belgium last week, and I joined IMEC for my thesis. As of now I am enjoying it and I hope to do good work on thesis. Lets see how my second year goes.

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