Tuesday, 14 March 2017

"Allocation" of students

There has always been an issue that I've not been fully able to understand ever since I've joined IIT. The problem is how should the M.Tech and PhD students in the department be paired with faculty. Currently there is no standard procedure that is followed by all IITs, even within one IIT various departments have their own policies that might change with time.

The two most common ways of pairing are:
  1. Let the students come and spend a semester or two in the department, then let them choose a person with whom they'll work on their thesis.
  2. The Head or DPGC or some admin figure in the department pairs students with faculty
Ideally the first method looks pretty good. This is also what is followed in most American universities that you first secure admission to the department and then choose the advisor once you're here. This also accounts for the students' choices and seems quite fair.
However, a general feeling among faculty is that most students aren't mature enough to take an informed decision. They tend to choose supervisors based on what their seniors tell them and thus go with the 'older' professors with established labs. It's very unlikely the student will themselves initiate and choose a young faculty member who has joined last year and still is in the process of setting up the lab.

Thus, stating this reason some departments simply allot guides to the students taking into account how many students each faculty has while trying to maintain an equitable distribution. This method, however, largely ignores students' opinion and thus can be unpopular. I've seen conflicts occurring in the department when a student makes an application for change of supervisor. This also gives un-necessary power in the hands of administrators.

In a fund-crunch scenario when the number of incoming PhD students is a quarter (or even less) of the number of faculty in the department, this question of student allocation assumes a much larger significance. I'm still undecided on which method should be used or is there a better optimized third method.
Any suggestions by the readers will be helpful.

Monday, 27 February 2017

On teaching

Going through this blog I realised that I made the last post about one year ago. It was probably too selfish of me to continuously blog at the time of my job search and then just disappear afterwards. My apologies to the occasional half-a-dozen readers who might have wanted me to post a bit more. Of course I can say that I was busy, but then who isn't.

By the way I'm not the only one who struggled with a writer's block.

Let me reboot this blog with a positive experience. I want to share something about an aspect of this job which, frankly speaking, I was least excited about when I was a postdoc. Teaching. My perception at that time was shaped mostly by my advisors and other news/blogs I used to read by other academics. Everyone dreaded teaching. It was considered a 'burden' that had to be borne in academia while you try to find time for more productive activities like research.

I just want to say that till now I have enjoyed it. Perhaps I am still immature and haven't got my priorities correctly, but at this moment in time I am enjoying teaching. I have taught courses at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels as well as a lab, and it has been an awesome experience. Teaching a course has constantly made me aware of how little I know about any given subject. Yes, I have done research and published papers and yes, I have studied the same courses as a student - but teaching a course takes your understanding to an altogether new level.

I already knew that teaching can be an extremely time-consuming process; but realised only now that the time spent is worth it. Preparing the notes, assignments, quizzes, and practicing lectures (I practiced on the whiteboard in my room how to deliver difficult content) can easily take away more than 50% of the week. During some busy parts of the semester, I have also given close to 80% of my time to teaching. But this aspect has also helped me personally for research. I now remember a lot more equations, theorems and proofs and am more confident while doing calculations in my papers (earlier I always used to keep a reference book handy to see how calculations were done).

Coming to the students, I think now I can say that I have encountered most types. There are those who love to learn new things, there are those who already know more than half of what you're teaching in the class, there are those who are sincere and yet struggle, there are those who just want to pass the course with a D and get a job, and then there are those who simply don't give a damn. The key is to help those who ask for it and provide a minimum level of support to everyone else. I just love it when I give a difficult question in the test and some students are able to solve it - makes me feel that I was able to communicate properly during the class :-)

I do hate administrative activities, however. I don't see myself becoming an HoD or a dean, ever. But I am loving teaching and research.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Experiences - part 1

I started this blog without any specific purpose, planning to document my experiences as I apply for jobs in Indian academia. As a pleasant surprise, the readership went much beyond than what I expected primarily because of  a couple of mentions in Kaneenika Sinha's and Giridhar Madras' blogs (Thanks!). Since my job search is over and I have returned to India, I think it would be now appropriate to document the experiences as a new faculty in an IIT.

Here are some observations in no particular order. Some are negative, some are positive. Readers should not think that these experiences solely reflect the situation in IITs but also consider the fact that these are my personal experiences and the reasons are: (a) I've returned to Indian after spending a significant period abroad (b) It is my first faculty job (c) I'm working in just one IIT that happens to be a new one. Others institutions might be very different from mine.

  1. Colleagues: There are good, competent people and then there are rotten apples who survive using politics. Generally (not all) the latter group comprises of people who joined IIT in the initial period when standards of faculty hiring were very low. These people have since then been promoted and now head several committees thereby using their power to take stupid (sometimes harmful) decisions that annoy everyone.
  2. Punctuality: Nothing, sometimes not even the classes, start on time. I've been to departmental meetings that started 15-20 minutes late and people reacted as if nothing happened. Classes usually start 5 minutes late. There is no concept of taking an appointment before a colleague wants to meet you. If they do fix a time, they can easily keep you waiting for 20-30 minutes without apologising.
  3. Respect: The administrative staff and the students are very respectful. Not just that they are pretending to be nice due to hierarchy, but you can feel the respect with their politeness and their efficiency while working.
  4. Comfort: Personal life is better in many senses. There are multiple maids to do all kinds of household work, and we are able to purchase quite a lot of stuff from previous savings. India has become a little expensive in past few years but a faculty's salary is pretty decent in my opinion and we have considerable purchasing power.
    I wish I could say the same for our professional life though. The campus is far from ready and the ad-hoc faculty housing, offices, labs, and classrooms are of abysmal quality. With even less money coming in from MHRD and poor management of those funds (see point 1 above), I'm not very optimistic.
  5. Food and culture: This will vary for every individual. I miss the great variety of world cuisine and cheap alcohol that I used to enjoy. Although we do have some amazing restaurants, eventually it's Indian food everyday. It's nice to have a situation when the multiplexes have more than one Indian movie showing and the default language of the city is the one that you understand.

Friday, 20 November 2015

New trend in academic publishing

This post is motivated by the launch of a new mathematics journal - Discrete Analysis as announced on Tim Gower's blog.

As some may already know, Tim has been a leading figure in the movement towards open access in academic publishing. His movement 'Cost of Knowledge' directed against Elsevier has attracted thousands of supporters.

As Tim mentions:
...it will be purely an arXiv overlay journal. That is, rather than publishing, or even electronically hosting, papers, it will consist of a list of links to arXiv preprints. Other than that, the journal will be entirely conventional: authors will submit links to arXiv preprints, and then the editors of the journal will find referees, using their quick opinions and more detailed reports in the usual way in order to decide which papers will be accepted...
Most of the papers published in Mathematics are usually uploaded on arXiv first and then later submitted to journals for review. In the case of Discrete Analysis, the journal will have a rigorous review of the submitted articles and then will host the links of all the articles it deems worthy of its stamp of approval. Thus people can focus on the two things that matter most - the mathematics it contains and the competency of the editorial board.

Tim goes on to say:
Part of the motivation for starting the journal is, of course, to challenge existing models of academic publishing and to contribute in a small way to creating an alternative and much cheaper system. However, I hope that in due course people will get used to this publication model, at which point the fact that Discrete Analysis is an arXiv overlay journal will no longer seem interesting or novel, and the main interest in the journal will be the mathematics it contains. 
I sincerely hope it becomes true one day.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Why relocate to India?

Ever since we announced our decision to move back to India to our family and friends, we've been asked this question on numerous occasions. Why do you want to leave the comforts of the West and relocate to India?

I guess, all the people who've moved to India have their own reasons - personal or professional - and the answer varies for everyone. However, in the past few weeks we've been asked this so many times that sometimes we question our own decision. Are we doing the right thing? Are we going to degrade our quality of life and are we denying a larger set of opportunities to our future generations by moving to India? I think it's always better to clear one's head and what better way to organise one's thought than to write them down. So here's my list of reasons of moving back to India:

  1. Old school academia:
    When I decided to pursue PhD, a big motivator was the lure to have a career in academia where one is free to work on problems that interest you. I still have that feeling and that is the reason I chose to join an IIT which offers considerable amount of freedom to professors. This is one factor on which IITs rank much higher than their western counterparts. Professors in the west have to continuously get research funds in order to just maintain a lab (sometimes even paying rent and electricity bills) and pay the students. Many are forced to work fast and publish fast or risk losing their job - sadly leading to the "publish or perish" phenomenon. Many universities now treat their students as consumers and student evaluations have become an important factor in deciding promotion of a faculty.
    India is faring much better in this regard. Costs of lab maintenance aren't too much as the institute gives lab space and scholarship to all PhD students. Tenure isn't a problem as the job is made permanent after a year. Student evaluations of courses do happen but they're mostly for professors to improve their teaching. They're not a criteria for promotion or salary increment.
    All these factors make the academia in India a much more lucrative profession from a professor's viewpoint. Since you don't have to worry about so many 'trivial' distractions, you can focus on your lecturing and your research and prioritise on your own.
  2. Familiarity and ease of living:It's obviously much more convenient to live at a place with which one is familiar. Consulting with a doctor, getting a good school/daycare for children, getting your car repaired, getting a plumber to work on a Sunday, getting domestic help and hiring people to do odd jobs -- these are things about which one doesn't think much while living in India. But things like these can be a big challenge depending on which country do you live in.
    My spouse and I would really love to be in a situation where we can employ people to cook, clean, and drive for us.
  3. Family:
    One important reason is of course, family. No matter how good the life is in the west, one does miss special occasions like wedding of a cousin, or festive celebrations during Diwali and Holi. It's also important to be close to parents when they're nearing the age of retirement and aren't always in a good health.
    Another important thing for me is that I want my children to grow up in an environment where they can be closer to their roots, understand and absorb the good aspects of the Indian value system. Very often it is seen that children of immigrants face an identity crisis all through their adolescent years which isn't a very pleasant situation.
  4. Patriotism:
    Last, but not the least, I love my country. I usually do not tell this to people as patriotism is an often misunderstood emotion. It is also not very pragmatic, to be honest. But there are some times in one's life when heart wins the battle with the head.
    I feel that if I'm in India, I can contribute to welfare of the country. I will be teaching students, most of whom will stay in India and do something good for the society and economy. My spouse can also work on their pet social project of improving women's education in the country.
  5. Dual-career situation:
    [EDIT: this was added at a later stage] I realised after some people mentioned it to me, how easy it is to solve the two-body problem in Indian academia as compared to the west.

As Rocky Balboa once said "The world ain't all sunshine and rainbows"; we're fully aware of what lies ahead. Here is a list of some challenges that we think are waiting for us:
  1. Shift from a developed to a developing country:
    This is going to be hard. After having lived here for so long, I can't deny that we're very much used to the material comforts. We're also taking a significant reduction in our salary to move to India - and therefore many things (electronics, vacations, good alcohol, good meat) are going to be dearer.
  2. Family and orthodoxy: 
    It's often said that family is something that you can't live with and you can't live without.
    It probably suffices to say that our families do not have particularly progressive views when it comes to liberalism and feminism. Some of them still believe that husband must earn, do manly things, and shouldn't enter the kitchen; wife must cook, wear saree and perform fasts during festivals, and should prioritise family over work. There are going to be some conflicts in the first few months, probably even a year or more.
  3. Facilities at work place:
    A large number of good students go abroad for their PhD. Doing experiments is a very expensive and time-consuming affair as it is difficult to procure enough funds to set up a complete lab. People not being punctual in general and slow movement of the bureaucratic machinery due to apathy and/or corruption can be very frustrating at times.
But I think the challenges, though big, can be easily overcome and do not measure up to the advantages. And of course, what good is a life without any challenges? :)

Anyway, these are my current thoughts just before moving. I'll post again after a few months of moving to compare how are the things progressing.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Citations and Impact Factors

Recently, I was engaged in a debate with a few colleagues about the importance of citation metrics. Is the Journal Impact Factor (IF) really an important factor to consider while choosing a journal to publish one's paper? Is a scientist with higher citations or a higher h-index really doing better quality research in comparison to his/her colleagues? A lot of people, when asked, usually say that citations are an imperfect way of measuring scientific output; but at the same time they look at the very same metric when taking decisions relating to promotions and employment.

In some fields which are not yet fully affected by the seduction of IF, people look at other factors such as quality of the editorial board, reach and popularity of the journal, and cost of the journal before taking the decision to publish there.

A recent article in the journal Nature methods has some nice comments:
.. the IF of journals in which a scientist publishes should not be the criterion on which his or her scientific contributions are judged, for instance when making hiring or funding decisions..
IF varies by field, is affected by editorial policies - publishing a lot or reviews can have a positive effect, for example - and reflects citation practices good and ill.
The IF also does not report on other aspects of impact - whether a method is commercialised, for instance, or whether it has other societal effects.
and finally concludes by saying that
It is a truism, which nonetheless bears repeating, that no metric should be wielded without judgment. This depends, in turn, on knowing what the metric reports and what its assumptions and biases are. Just as for any other method. 

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Avoidable mistakes by IIT staff during faculty hiring process

Communication with many IITs, including a range of several people during my job application process was an interesting experience. Although most people work sincerely, the lack of professionalism and the lack of proper training is very evident when one interacts with them. I think a big reason for this is the fact that nearly all the administrative positions are occupied by professors (sometimes reluctantly) and the regular employees are no better than ordinary sarkari babus when it comes to management and handling technology.

I'm listing only some problems that come to my mind which are very small and can be easily removed with effort of just a few hours. Small things like this can sometimes make or break an important deal. As someone said - You can spoil a royal multi-course meal just by adding extra salt.

Situation 1 (This happened at multiple IITs):  I received an email with an invitation to attend the interview/seminar on so-and-so date. But the secretary in charge of sending the email was a bit lazy and didn't want to send this email separately to everyone. So they sent a generic email starting with "Dear Sir" to all the candidates at once. 
First of all, they completely disregarded the fact that some of the applicants were female. Secondly, they were careless enough to send email while keeping everyone in CC. No concept whatsoever of data protection and privacy. I'm amazed that no one teaches them the trivial idea of using BCC while sending mass emails.

Situation 2: Managing a large group of faculty applicants on the 2-3 days of interview. Many of those candidates were visiting the institute for the first time. It's a common practice across the world that faculty candidates talk and discuss with the existing faculty, go out for lunch/dinner, and in general a healthy interaction is developed. This did happen when I paid individual visit for a seminar. But on the day of the interview, people just seemed to have a bizarre attitude and stayed completely aloof. 
Ideally I would expect that in addition to the interview, a schedule is made up for all the candidates to meet with the current faculty and/or a tour of the campus and various facilities. Is it so hard to understand that most people who will be given an offer are very likely to have offers from multiple places and it is the institute's responsibility to make this place look attractive?

Situation 3 (This was an issue almost everywhere): Punctuality. Yes, I know that things in India almost never start on schedule, but this is one thing that makes me furious every single time. At all places, my seminar started 10-15 minutes late because some 'important senior professors' didn't come on time. At one place, even the selection committee interview was delayed because the all-important director was half an hour late. And instead of giving a proper interview schedule to everyone, they called everyone at 9 AM and asked to sit in the waiting room while people were being interviewed one after the other.

P.S.: I didn't write this article just to complain. I sincerely hope that once I'm in the system, I can work on improving at least one, if not many, of these things.