Report on PhD Production in Computer Science highlights the Opportunity for PhDs

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On behalf of ACM India, I conducted the first survey on PhD production in Computer Science in India. The report has been published and can be found, along with the background, here.

As the report clearly shows, while the number is not as low as one thought, it is still about 125. And if you consider PhDs from only the top 20 institutions in the country, the number is in two digits. And the projections are that this number will only double in about 5 years.

This study actually highlights the tremendous opportunity for those who are doing PhD in CS in India. Academics is growing rapidly with so many new IITs, IIITs, and other Institutes coming up. Even if you consider each such Institute will need about 5 faculty members each year, 50 upcoming Institutes can easily consume 250 PhDs. Then there are at least 20 research labs in many software companies, including the large software companies which seem keen to expand their R&D capabilities rapidly, and various other companies that can consume PhDs. Overall, the private sector can also consume about 250 PhDs per year. There are other opportunities in Govt sector also. In a nutshell, the supply is significantly lesser than the demand. And this gap is likely to increase as demand is set to increase.

Due to this mismatch in demand and supply, and the growth of academics, the compensation for fresh PhDs is now very good. Companies will often pay a package starting from Rs 15 Lac to Rs 25 Lac or more for a fresh PhD. Academic packages are also quite good after the sixth pay commission – an Asst Prof can have a yearly compensation of Rs 8 to Rs 12 Lac. Compare this with the starting package for software jobs – except for a few multinationals, the starting package tends to be around Rs 3.5 Lac for the large and medium sized software houses (which is where 90% of the software jobs are), and Rs 4 to 6 for the niche players. Even if one counts for the 4 to 5 years that one has to spend in getting a PhD, compensation wise, a student who does a PhD will clearly come out ahead.

And then there are the really strong benefits of doing a PhD – the main reasons why people preferred this route even when the compensation was not good. And that is, the freedom to explore and chose your own work agenda, the non-repetitive and challenging nature of work, the culture of R&D, lack of hierarchy, being a member of the global community of researchers, etc.

Overall, while the PhD production report does not have too much good news for those who want to recruit PhDs, it is good news for those who are considering doing PhD.

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What Young Faculty Should Do to be more Productive in Research

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At IIIT-Delhi, after the yearly review of all faculty members, the Director meets with each faculty member and discusses the review of the individual faculty’s yearly performance. Generally, the meeting will also discuss what support the faculty member needs for his/her work. Last year, I posed two specific questions to each faculty member.

  • Q1 – What do you need to do for you to be more productive.
  • Q2 – What does the Institute need to do for you to be more productive.

In this note, I will discuss the general summary of feedback on Q1. As almost all the faculty members are talented and bright young Assistant Professors (all have PhDs from fine Universities/Institutes across the world), and as the focus was primarily on discussing research productivity, the summary of the feedback may be taken as a reflection of what young faculty should do to be more productive in research. (Caveats – the faculty in IIIT-D is mostly in CS and EE, and hence some of the views may not be applicable to other disciplines. Also, the comments, even though are from the perspective of what an individual should do, may not be relevant to other Institutes and situations.)

Though a number of issues were raised, interestingly two points emerged very strongly and most people mentioned that as something they should do to improve their research productivity. These two points were: R&D Focus, and time management.

R&D focus was expressed in various ways: Focus more on the projects at hand before moving to other projects (i.e. pick a few projects/problems and take them to completion before moving on); focus on limited or fewer things or problems rather than having a very wide agenda; focus on right things (i.e. prioritize what are important problems/projects to work on and then work on those); concentrate more on R&D; be more aggressive or ambitious on research.

Time management issue was also expressed in various ways: balance between teaching and research (i.e. balance the time spent between the two and do not end up spending most of the time on teaching); reduce time in non-academic tasks; learn to say no to students and others; better email management so as to avoid being reactive or responding to email all the time; better delegation to save time; spend more time in office and on research.

Other issues that were expressed by some, though not that commonly are: managing personal issues, increase awareness of value of contributions, improve writing, train/better handle the PhD students and their constraints and work habits, learn to better handle Indian constraints, limit teaching to a few courses.

I believe that the two main points that came out – research focus and better time management – are indeed the most important issues which if young faculty members can address well can help make them more productive. Lack of focus on R&D is undoubtedly one of the most important causes of insufficient achievement levels in India – if one is not focused on R&D, as often is the case with faculty members and young researchers in various institutions, clearly the quality and quantity of research output will be low. There is no short cut to being a successful researcher – like success in anything else, it requires dedication, sharp focus, and hard work.

The second issue highlighted is also extremely important as faculty members, unlike their counterparts in research labs, have many more responsibilities and commitments – teaching, serving on various committees within the Institute and outside, interaction with students and external people, etc. So unless the faculty member manages time well, it is very easy for him/her to spend most of the time in teaching related tasks, discussing in committees and meetings, interacting with students and others, etc. If faculty members can spend more time on academics in general, and devise effective personal methods to address these issues on how to effectively manage the time so less is “wasted” so more is available for research, they will have much better control of their time and be more productive.

Role of Students in Teaching

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(This is a modified version of a note I sent to students of IIIT-Delhi – it assumes the context of an Institute like IIIT Delhi which has highly qualified, all-PhD, faculty.)
We all know that the basic teaching-learning process is that the teacher teaches using various instruments like lectures, tutorials, assignments, labs, and student learns (exams etc are used to assess the quality/level of learning). But what is not often appreciated or understood is that there is an important role the students play in extracting the best teaching from the teacher in a college setting where the faculty member has considerable freedom in various aspects of teaching. This note discuss this aspect.
It is well established that the quality of teaching depends hugely on the teacher. In places which don’t have high quality faculty (which probably is the vast majority of the colleges in our country), quality teaching cannot happen. However, even when good quality faculty is available, the quality of teaching depends significantly on the environment created by the students. In this note we focus on the effect of students on the quality of teaching, when the teacher is highly qualified and capable of delivering good teaching.
Teaching a class is also a performance – with similar kind of performance stresses/concerns (what if the audience does not like it, is uninterested,…). I can tell you from my own experience and from that of my colleagues’ in the various Institutes I have been associated with,  that a teacher’s performance in the class depends hugely on the positive cues the teacher gets from students – interest in what is being taught, understanding in the eyes, engagement in the material, incisive observations/questions, etc. Like any performer, lack of positive feedback from the audience creates a negative energy which dulls the desire to perform well. And then, like a performer, the teacher can slip into a mode of “getting it over with” (i.e. just complete the syllabus.)
What this means is that the students play an important role in the *teaching* process, even though  teaching is the responsibility of the teacher, and how much a class extracts from a teacher depends a lot on the students in the class. So, whether a teacher prepares hard to give good lectures to communicate the depth of the topic he/she is lecturing, or is mainly eager to finish the syllabus – depends a lot on the students of the class.
Final word to the students. If you would like to have your teacher give the most to you, play your role well – engage, learn and show your learning, and emanate positive energy. You will find that your teacher will give you much more back in return, improving the learning significantly, and making the overall teaching-learning process much more enjoyable and fruitful.
Happy Learning. Happy Teaching.

Some Insights in Faculty Recruitment

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IIIT-Delhi (www.iiitd.ac.in) has had some early success in recruiting good faculty. Reflecting on what has made it feasible, I have identified a few insights, which I think can be useful to other Institutions as well:

  • Recruitment should largely be the responsibility of the person who is administratively closest to the faculty being recruited. The farther the recruitment decisions are from the unit for which the faculty is being recruited, the less the chances of attracting good people. In a small Institute like IIIT-Delhi, the Director can and should directly handle recruitment. However, for larger Institutions, having the Head of the Institution responsible for recruitment is not suitable as the people responsible for recruitment will have much lesser stake in it. In India, even in institutes like IITs, the recruitment process is centralized, and is the responsibility of the Institute (the Director and the corresponding Dean) and not that of the Department for which the faculty has to be recruited. Consequently, the departments and their Heads often do not feel the responsibility or the need to be very proactive for recruitment – making attracting good candidates harder. In the US, it is the academic Department which is mostly responsible for recruitment (within the lines given to it) – this decentralized model is far more scalable and responsive and that is why the US universities, despite being among the largest in the world, are able to respond quickly and compete for the best faculty.
    There is a more direct implication for those Institutions in India that rely on another agencies like UPSC for faculty recruitment  – they should not even dream of attracting good faculty – if they can get decent teachers they should be thankful. (This lesson is perhaps for the Government, which still requires for some Institutions recruitment to be done through UPSC).
  • While having good compensation is important, perhaps even necessary, it is clearly not sufficient to attract good faculty. Good people never come for compensation alone. Besides creating an exciting environment in which good people can realize their potential, as argued above, it is also extremely important to have a vision and articulate it to the prospective candidates, along with what the Institution is doing to achieve the vision. Here also, I believe, academia in India has often not risen to the expectation – while salary differentials have been highlighted and lobbied for, not very serious attempts have been made by established Institutes to have some shared vision/mission/goals,  and when some vision is stated, actions/plans to achieve them are not shown, making the vision statement mere words.
  • It is important for the Institute to woo prospective faculty, and make them feel wanted and desired – something that is traditionally not done in Indian Institutions who mostly believe that the good candidates will and must come to them. In fact, many take it as a matter of pride that they “don’t run after candidates”. Top candidates are hard to get and proactive approach of getting them can help. However, at the same time, it is important not to shorten/bypass the process even for good candidates – they must demonstrate that they pass through all the filters in the recruitment process. This last point is important as otherwise they may not respect the Institution if they feel that they are bigger than the Institution.
  • While opportunistic approaches for recruiting faculty  (i.e. get the best people from those who apply) are necessary in India, as the number of applications may be less in many areas like the CS. However, a proactive and planned approach for building some area can also work – it sends out messages that do attract some people. In other words, it is best to have a combination of opportunistic and planned recruitment for faculty.
  • Recruitment with focus toward building groups can help, both in recruitment as well as in keeping faculty productive. That is, instead of breadth to cover all areas, a better strategy is to have groups in fewer areas. Often Institutes go for the former approach, concerned about the education imperatives. This approach clearly relegates research to a secondary position, and the message is not lost on recruited faculty. Interestingly, as it turns out, the latter approach of building groups in a few areas can also serves the education needs quite easily – competent people can always teach the main core courses of a discipline, and so “covering” them is really not an issue that one should be too worried about.
  • Finally, for an academic Institution it is important for the Director or Head to be a respectable academician him/herself. I believe without this the moral authority of the Head to expect and demand more is severely eroded.  Unless the Institution Head is comfortable with excellence and has confidence in his/her credentials as an academic, he/she will neither attract nor even be comfortable in attracting, the best talent (“an A hires an A, a B hires a C”). Reliance on the position/title for authority is not always sufficient in academics/R&D. Implication for those who aspire to become Director sometime: build your academic reputation – it will help a lot later.