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.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Getting a real job

Being within one's comfort zone may be a bad thing, but it is indeed comfortable. Having been a student all my life until now, it seems that I don't want to stop being one. I have really enjoyed my PhD and postdoc duration since I was able to completely focus on research problems without having to worry about many other things.
Now very soon I will transition to being an actual academic with all the actual responsibilities. My current state of mind looks a bit like that of the kid in this cartoon strip.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The 'two body problem' - and how we dealt with it

Countless articles have been written about the famous "two body problem". Here's my perspective and how I encountered this in the Indian context.

For those who are not familiar with this phrase, a two body problem is the situation when the two spouses are well qualified and due to the specialised nature of their jobs find it difficult to get suitable employment at the same geographic location. I personally hate this phrase due to the negative connotation and would rather like to call it a "dual career situation".

In most American and European universities, one is not supposed to talk about one's spouse at the time of job interviews. Either both of you apply independently and luckily get jobs at the same time; or one of the spouses lands a job and then persuades for employment of the other in the post-offer negotiations. In many cases, one of the spouses has to make-do with a relatively inferior job just in order to be at the same physical location. This phenomena has been discussed ad-infinitum and many times associated with the issues of gender inequality (link, another link).

like most cases, situation in India is quite different - in this particular instance, pleasantly so. During PhD and postdoc and while dreaming of becoming a professor and returning to India, this problem of dual career was the single most scary thought my spouse and I used to have. We had spent some years in different countries for the sake of career and had taken a firm resolve to accept permanent positions only when we get good and acceptable positions in the same institute. There aren't very many articles available online that discuss this problem in Indian context, barring small mentions here and there.

After conversations with some people - old professors in my undergraduate institution, friends who are currently in IITs and generally lurking in the comment section of Prof. Madras' blog - we came to the conclusion that the best way to tackle this problem in India is head-on. People are quite straightforward and most people (specially those in the newer IITs) are open to hiring of couples. Even during casual conversations people can easily ask your marital status and then offer free advice on how to make applications. During the casual visits to the IITs in the pre-application phase, we decided to go on the same days and give talk in our respective departments parallely (I was told it is a positive thing that we're not in the same field). It was also useful in gauging the mood of people and their attitude towards couples.

It turned out to be a good idea as we clearly rejected one IIT on the basis of the prejudice of faculty there. The attitude at N1 was very positive and one of our heads of department discussed our joint-case with the director who also gave a positive feedback. We applied at N1 soon after returning back from India around the same time. It so happened that the selection committees for our departments were scheduled only a few weeks apart from each other and we received our offers around the same time.

My observations during this whole process are:

  • Most places in India encourage couples to apply as long as they're not of the same field. They usually cite the fear of partiality during department meetings and possible unethical credits in case of research collaborations if they're in the same department. I don't know how true this fear actually is.
  • There is no concept of a joint application. The applications process, the selection committee etc. are all conducted independently for each candidate. (There may be some inherent bias in the director's mind if he/she wants to hire both candidates - but it is never apparent)
  • People can and will ask personal questions - this is fairly common in Indian culture. In most cases they're not trying to intrude but trying to understand your situation and thinking of solutions to ease your hiring process.
  • If one spouse is a superstar and the other one is sub-standard for IITs, most IITs will make only one offer to the deserving spouse. I was shown many evidences towards this.
  • During all these interactions, I did meet some "Science politicians" whose sole aim is to use a newbie's situation to further their own motive. Learn how to spot them and stay away.

Hopefully this experience is helpful to some other couples out there.

[N1 is an IIT I talked about in this post.]