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.