Insightful Suggestions by Chancellor and Chief Guest in IIIT-Delhi Convocation

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IIIT-Delhi held its 7th convocation on Sat, Aug 25. This was the last one for me as Director, and the first one we held in the 500 seater auditorium in our new Seminar Complex (a huge building with seminar rooms, class rooms, labs, etc, as well as one full floor of incubation center.) In my address to students, I talked about some lessons that are embedded in the IIIT-D’s decade long journey – the previous post gives a few of these.

IIIT-D’s Chancellor, Hon’ble LG of Delhi, and Chief Guest, Rajan Anandan of Google, gave excellent speeches. One point from each of their speeches really stuck a chord with me. I think they are useful for all – so will like to share them here.

Hit the pause button occasionally in life. Hon’ble Chancellor, in his speech (video of which is here) observed that in the world today everyone is running. All of us want to be in Fast Forward mode for life – achieve everything in a shorter time, cover more ground faster, …. He advised that we should also learn to “hit the pause button” occasionally – and use the pause to reflect, absorb, travel, etc. which can help us grow more and also help us do course correction that may be needed.

Such a wonderful advise. And how true – we are indeed all running to do/achieve more. Even with a noble/higher cause, people are driven to achieve or contribute more. But this speed will normally push the person to continue what he/she is doing – just do it faster and more efficiently. It does not allow for a rethink or reflection to change directions or do something else – and in the long life that most of us have, this lack of ability to change direction or purpose can be actually sub-optimal even for what one can contribute or achieve. And this relentless drive certainly makes the life less enjoyable, and the life journey less happier.

I often advise students to take a semester off (and in IIIT-Delhi we have regulations to do it easily) and explore life, or India or world, or go and work for a company…. Though there are some students who indeed do this, there is a strong desire and a clear pressure on students to finish their BTech in 4 years – parents also have this  expectation. Somehow, students are not able to see that starting the long life of working professional a few months earlier is of no consequence – though taking a semester off (i.e. pause) to explore can make the university life much richer experience.

As it turns out, next year I am also on Sabbatical. And I had decided not to work for any one organisation during this – but instead visit many places and engage with different groups. I hope to read, travel, connect with people, and write during this Sabbatical, without any “job requirement” for doing it. This will be my pause. This advise helped me put my plans for Sabbatical on a more solid principle.

People are remembered for their successes, not their failures. Mr Rajan Anandan gave an excellent speech (video is here) which connected excellently with the students – besides many examples from his life, he also pointed out how speeches given in convocation are forgotten. There is one point he mentioned which I found extremely insightful, and which helped me in clarifying my own thoughts and see things in a better perspective. I am mentioning it here – a small attempt to make sure that it is not forgotten easily.

He made an observation, which is also a lesson, which is so true, yet many of us do not think of it. He said that people are remembered for their successes, not their failures – it is us who remember our failures not others, who remember people by their successes. And he supported it by saying that there are many things he did in his life in which he failed – but no one remembers them – all remember him for the good things he has done or achieved.

This is so true in academics. Students are remembered not by the instructor of the courses in which they got a C or a D, but are remembered by instructors of those classes in which they got an A+ or did excellently, or by faculty with whom they did some exciting project. And it is these faculty members who give strong recommendation letters for the students, often without regards for grades students may have gotten in other courses. But many students, chasing a good CGPA, optimize by getting a decent grade in all courses, rather than excelling in some subjects (which will also make them much stronger in those subjects.)

Similarly, for contributions by researchers and faculty – most faculty are remembered and defined by the good books they may have written that are used widely, or great papers that are cited heavily, or technologies they may have developed that got used by companies, etc. Almost by definition, no one remembers the papers / books the researcher/ faculty member wrote that very few people read, and consequently no researcher or academic is defined by them.

Remembering our failures is done mostly by us. We sometimes let them become bigger that they really are, and feel bad over them or have regrets for a long time. If we realize that in the larger scheme of things, failures do not matter and few people give them much thought (except perhaps nagging relatives or negative colleagues who may be looking for opportunities to pull one down). We are defined by our successes – what we achieved and what we contributed. And others also notice these more (even the envious person gets envious due to successes.)

This perspective I personally found deeply insightful and helped me put some things in better perspective. During the IIIT-Delhi journey, there were setbacks every now and then. I often worried about these and worried endlessly on what I could do to revert them or avoid them…. For example, if a good faculty member left, I will feel really bad and it will pull me down for sometime. I now realize that the better perspective is that as long as the Institute is moving in the positive direction towards its vision and growing at a healthy pace, it does not really matter if some people leave or some setbacks occur – as both are inevitable. We just have to learn from them, and move on…..

I would like to add a personal view on this. The above holds for professional life. In personal life and interactions, it is probably the exact opposite – friends and relatives will often remember the things you did not do or things you did which offended them. They are likely to forget all the good you may have done before that. I.e. personal relationships often, unfortunately, get defined by the negative interactions and experiences, rather than the positive ones.

 

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In Search of Excellence

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Pursuit of excellence is an integral part of Academics. I had written an article in Times Of India editorial page a few years ago. I am giving that article below. Many years have passed since that article and during this period much more attention has been given to (lack of?) excellence in our country – largely due to the absence of Indian Institutions in the global ranking of universities. There is a stronger desire to have some Institutions globally ranked and respected. As global ranking is largely based on research excellence and impact, there is a need to better understand the reasons behind why excellence often eludes our institutions. I am writing a followup note on this topic – in the process I found that the article I wrote a few years ago is still very relevant. Hence am sharing it here.

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Think of the names of the best-known scientists in India, and examine their resumes. Inevitably you find that, besides being great scientists and researchers, they were heads, directors or chairpersons of various committees, advisers to ministers/the prime minister, etc. It will be very hard to find a well-known scientist in India who did not become an administrator particularly in the past few decades. (In an exercise we did, a few PhD students were asked to list the Indian scientists whose names they knew and then check their CVs all 21 scientists listed had held significant administrative positions.)

Now let us look at the best researchers in the scientifically advanced countries. Of the 27 Nobel laureates in physics of the last 10 years, only seven hold any major administrative post.

This reflects a basic difference in how science and scientists are viewed in our society and how they view themselves, as compared to the situation in the scientifically advanced countries. We still remain a very hierarchy and title conscious society, where power and title are regarded more important goals than anything else (except money perhaps). When a scientist does good work and is recognised globally, the best way the government and the civic structures seem to reward the person is by giving an administrative title and role, so he becomes a ‘big administrator’ who will rub shoulders with the ‘powers-that-be’. Not only is the thinking of administrators and government like this, this is the nature of thinking of scientists and academics also after an individual has achieved some name in science, he starts looking for ‘elevation’ as an administrator.

We do not seem to have reached a state of evolution in our scientific community where science and research can be ends in themselves, and not a means to a ‘higher’ end. To be fair, a good scientist or a researcher starts with intentions of doing great science/research. However, slowly after a decade or two, often he starts facing the ‘what next’ question. Rather than striving harder to reach a higher level in science and research, either due to complacency which over the years sets in as it is systematically encouraged, or due to lack of recognition or visibility as compared to administrators, or some other reason, remaining a scientist no longer seems sufficient. The senior scientist then starts aspiring for administrative positions with power.

This situation is not likely to change unless there is pride and satisfaction in being an academic or a researcher, and unless there are icons in society that are academics and researchers. In the last two decades, people like founders of companies such as Infosys have created new icons. This has put entrepreneurs and business people on a high pedestal you can see that they no longer feel ‘below’ the bureaucracy but treat them, and are treated as, equal (or sometimes even superior as they are rich).

Similar icons need to be created in academics scientists who are held in high esteem and are ‘stars’ not for the position they hold but for the science and academics they did and contributions they made to the furthering of science, research and education. And the way the government should support them is by giving them labs and grants, awards, monetary rewards, naming buildings, roads and the like after them, promoting them in national and global forums as icons, etc, and not merely by giving them administrative posts.

The management of scientific and academic institutions also needs to change. They have to imbibe the value system where an administrator feels pride in what scientists and academics have done rather than what he as an individual has achieved. And instead of feeling dwarfed by the fame of a scientist working ‘under’ him, an administrator ought to see that as a sign of his doing a good job that should be rewarded.

Unless we reach a stage where the stars are the scientists, and the administrators are understood to be good only to the extent they provide support to create such stars, we should not hope for much excellence. Excellence in research cannot be achieved by half-hearted commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. We must develop a value system where a star scientist wishes to remain a scientist and is respected and admired for the science and research he does.

It should, however, be added that a scientific establishment, if it is to achieve any levels of excellence, must be headed by a scientist/academic of decent calibre who understands excellence and what is needed for it. Putting an average scientist/academic or a bureaucrat in charge can be a recipe for disaster, as such a person is likely to surround himself with average people (“An A hires an A, but a B hires a C”). But the administrator must support the value system in which he is mostly a facilitator for getting good science and research done. The limelight rightfully belongs to the brilliant scientists and researchers doing excellent work.

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.

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.