Assessing Students for Research Internships

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Recently I participated as a member of committees which were to select candidates for summer internship for two major collaborative sponsored programs. Though the number of internships were decent in each, still the number of shortlisted candidates were about 10 times the number of internships – indicating the strong demand for such internships. Other members of the committee included Senior professor from the US university, some senior academicians from Institutions in India, and senior members of scientific organizations. Given the volume of applications, each application had to be assessed quickly. The discussions clearly indicated that all members were looking for some features in the application. Based on these discussions, I noted down a few important aspects which experts were focusing on, and then briefly reviewed them with the members of the committee. I am sharing these here so student readers have an understanding of what such committees often look for. This can help students prepare suitably, and perhaps also to assess if research is a career that is suitable for them.

  • Academic Preparation. In any such research internship, what is being assessed is the potential of the student to do research. Clearly, for such an assessment, academic preparation is of great importance. This is largely assessed first by the grades of the student, and the standing of the institution where he/she is studying. Normally, it is expected that for research internships the student should be in the top few of his/her batch. It helps if the student is from an Institution which is respected for its research capabilities and focus.
  • Projects and internships. The next important factor is the projects the student has done. Generally projects beyond the course work, e.g. those done as independent study, BTech project, internship projects, etc are looked at more carefully. If these projects are research oriented and are challenging assignments, it strengthens the case. If internships/projects are far removed from research (e.g. internship in a bank), it can be negative as it indicates an interest in a business oriented career.
  • Publications. If some project done by the student has resulted in a publication in a decent forum (international journal/conference), this is a huge plus as it is a strong indicator about the capability to do good quality research and take it to completion. Submission to good quality forums also counts favorably.
  •  Aspiration/Goal. Often the applications will require some statement about what student aspires to do in future. This is often looked at carefully – and it is for the students to convince that they are indeed interested in pursuing a research career. It is best if the statement is brief, concise, consistent, and convincing.

It is well known that while academic preparation is necessary, to do well in research (or any career for that matter), motivation and drive is extremely important without which not much can be achieved. Most of the factors above not only indicate the academic credentials of the student, but also indicate the drive and motivation of the applicant – that is why committees look at these, and other such factors. I also believe that committees are able to assess whether the student is just claiming interest in research or is truly interested in it. Consequently, I feel that if a student is not interested in research as a career, he/she should perhaps not apply for these internships, leaving them for those who want to pursue research and for whom these internships can be truly a turning point in the career.

 

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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.

Constraints in Research Grants

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I recently wrote an article in TOI on research funding in India, highlighting three specific changes which can incentivise research as well as make research funding a potent tool for driving the research agend. The three specific suggestions are:

  1. Allow for some “summer salary equivalent” to be to given to the PI, as is done in US. This will create a huge incentive for researchers.
  2. Travel budget should not distinguish between domestic and foreign travel
  3. Overheads given to Institutions should be increased to a reasonable level (from the current levels of 15-20%), so it creates a strong incentive for Institutions to encourage research

The full article can be found here.  Since its publication, some colleagues have provided some other information and have raised one point in particular, both worthy of sharing.

  • It seems that countries like China and Korea now allow the PI to take some percentage of the grant (5%, I am told) as personal compensation.  This is much more direct method of providing PI incentive, and gets around the technical problem of providing “summer salary” type support when a faculty member is on a 12 month salary. It can also be limited like the summer salary, if desired, but stipulating that no more than some fraction (say 50%) of the yearly income can be earned through the grants. China has repeatedly shown that it is capable of taking bold steps to improve its research – this is one such example. A move like this in India can also change the scenario dramatically, and will provide granting agencies the power to influence research direction through funding, which is currently not as strong as not many scientists are vying for grants.
  • Many younger faculty members pointed out another area where change is highly desirable :  the level of transparency in the whole process of proposal processing. Often the process itself is not fully clear to the submitter, and no status information or technical feedback is provided on the proposals. The system of research funding will benefit immensely if the entire process from submission till approval and disbursal of funds is clearly explained, and systems are established for online proposal submission, tracking, reviewing, etc. A move like this will make the granting agencies more professional and dramatically increase the respect the young scientists have in these agencies.

Commentators often focus on the level of funding of research, and have not given sufficient attention to these factors which can help motivate researchers to do more and higher quality research.

Collaborative PhD Program

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A strong sentiment expressed in the survey I had conducted regarding doing PhD in India was the desire to have global exposure, and spending some time in a research group in overseas (there was also a strong sentiment in favor of spending some time in industry research lab). Though we provided for up to two international travels for presenting papers to PhD scholars so they can gain some international exposure, we felt that it will even be better if the student can spend a summer/semester/year in an overseas lab/institute.  Towards this end, we championed the “collaborative PhD program”, for which even in the first year we got about 10 collaborators.  First the key features of this program:

 

  • A PhD student is admitted into IIITD, from where he/she will get the degree. Interview for admission may be done jointly by IIITD and the partner group.
  • The main supervisor of the PhD scholar will be from IIITD; a co-supervisor will be from the partner group.
  • After doing the course work and starting the research, the scholar will spend 3 months to 1 year with the co-supervisor at the partner group/institution.
  • Most publications will be joint between the scholar, supervisor, and co-supervisor.

 

The financial model for this was that while the student is at IIIT-Delhi, we pay, and when the student is with the co-supervisor, the co-supervisor pays.

This program is a win-win for most involved – the student has the benefit of two supervisors, and also gets the exposure of working in another group/institute for some time. The supervisor and co-supervisor benefit by having a PhD student without having to pay for his scholarship for the full period, as well as build linkages and collaboration, which can prove to be very useful in future as international collaborations become more needed.

And this model avoids the complexities involved in joint degree programs, which require academic processes on both sides to converge on a common view, before proceeding – and this is an extremely complex and difficult exercise.

This model of collaborative PhD program is working well, as there is a lot of interest now across the world to establish collaborations in India. This year also we have many collaborations – most of them established by individual faculty members.

 

Completing PhD in Four Years in CS after BTech/BE

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(Adaptation of a note I had written a few years ago)

PhD is a unique degree in that it is not focused on acquiring more knowledge, but is oriented around doing research. As research requires many abilities as well as creation of new knowledge, a PhD program is necessarily a long one.

Though many students who join the PhD program are not unduly worried about the time the program takes, there is also a section of students for whom the possibility of a long program is clearly a deterrent. So, even though the careers for PhDs in Computer Science have increased and continue to increase, in many cases, the perceived duration is discouraging these students from undertaking the PhD program.

In this note we will discuss how a PhD program can be comfortably finished in four years, after the B.Tech./BE, if the student is motivated and does not loosen up during the program. It is hoped that this note will help students who are inclined towards PhD take a more informed decision, and not just give up on PhD due to its large duration. (This is not just a hypothetical approach – I have successfully applied it on one candidate. Though one candidate is not enough data, as it was applied consciously and right from the start, it does provide a limited validation of its feasibility.)

There are essentially three phases in any PhD program. (1) Course work to gain breadth, (2) Identifying the area and problem to work on, and (3) doing the research work and writing results. All these three phases are roughly of equal duration – about 1.5 to 2 years each. They are often done linearly, leading to the program length of about 5 to 6 years.

The most difficult part of a PhD program is the phase two – identifying the area and defining the problem to be worked on in the thesis (which includes some a sense of how to approach the problem). It is often this phase in which a lot of time is spent – there is no tight course schedule to help, no deadlines, and no pressure of time as not too much time has passed. With some planning and initiative, however, it is possible to shorten the impact of this phase by doing parts of it in parallel with other phases.

To put this strategy in action, a rough schedule for a 4-year PhD is suggested, specifying what should be achieved in each semester.

Semester 1: Focus is on courses. The candidate should meet with different faculty; find out their areas of interest, and what type of problems they are working on, and try to Identify a faculty member with whom he/she may want to work with.

Semester 2: Do some advanced courses, and/or some “independent study” with the professor. Use these courses and extra study/independent study to engage with the professors to identify possible problem-areas for PhD. Here, it will help a lot if the potential advisor has some pre-defined problem which the student likes.

Summer, Semester 3: Finish the comprehensive (or qualifier or whatever it is called). Do further independent study to focus more on the problem-area, and generate (maybe small) ideas which can be developed further. Start active research.

Semester 4: Focus on developing the ideas and doing related reading. The developed ideas should be converted into research papers for conferences/journals, and where possible submit them for publication.

Semester 5, 6: Refine and/or expand the problem. Or work on some related ideas that got generated while working/reading. I.e. if the problem you are working on is not expandable, you can work on some related problems. Goal: Write at least two papers in this year. (It is better to start writing papers early, as they may not get accepted in the first attempt, and might need revision. As it is best to have some papers to your credit when you graduate, it is imperative that by the end of third year, a few papers have been written and submitted.)

Semester 7: Further development of ideas. Papers accepted in conferences which can be expanded, should be expanded as journal papers. Any pending or new ideas should be developed and papers written and submitted.

Semester 8: This is the closing semester. With papers written earlier, the thesis will be largely these papers plus a few chapters. The thesis writing effort reduces, but it is still a lot. The goal is to tie the loose threads, close pending issues to complete and submit the thesis.

The basic strategy in this approach is to start research work early, and to break the large problem of PhD into smaller problems of writing papers in closely related problems (or different aspects of some problem). In the process, it is ensuring that phase 2 of the PhD process is done in parallel with the other two phases of doing course work and doing research. Besides giving the satisfaction of visible progress in terms of publications, this approach has another advantage – with publications, the case becomes stronger and evident in the eyes of the thesis examiners.

In this schedule, the advisor has to tightly manage the program (assuming that completing the PhD soon is a shared objective of him and the student). This approach implicitly assumes that the advisor has a relatively well defined problem to offer to the candidate. With the problem defined, in the second year, the advisor has to really guide the student in doing the work – i.e. the work is to a large extent decided and directed by the advisor, but executed by the student. The paper writing exercise will also be the same – the advisor will guide the student in the art of paper writing, and through many rounds of the first paper, help the student develop the ability to properly write scientific papers. In the third year the role of the advisor matures to being a collaborator – actively engaged in developing and generating ideas together with the student and writing papers. In the final year, the role should actively become more passive so as to let the student take the lead. The advisor should become more of a bouncing board, giving suggestions and feedback.

This approach is primarily geared towards completing the PhD quickly and developing research doing capability, on which a research career can be built. There are, however, some disadvantages of this approach. Due to its focus on time, it discourages looking at hard problems, which are risky and may require much more time. Also, the approach of having papers in related problems can provide breadth, but it can discourage working at a larger problem for a longer periods where results may come only towards the end. And it can also reduce the development of the problem-finding ability of the PhD candidate, as it relies a lot on the advisor proposing the problem. Overall, this approach  is geared towards someone who treats PhD as a starting stage of a research career where he is learning the skills of doing research, which he will further develop in the rest of his career.

 

Reducing the Duration of the PhD program

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The basic objective of a PhD program is to develop researchers. PhD programs across the world vary a lot in the method they follow to achieve this objective. There are programs which have no course work (e.g. in UK and Australia), to programs which have a huge amount of course work requirement (e.g. in some Universities in US).  Some programs have elaborate, and often time consuming, PhD thesis evaluation process (e.g. in almost all IITs and most Universities in India), while some have far shorter with greater reliance on the evaluation of the PhD supervisor (e.g. most Universities in US).

How long it takes a student to finish a PhD in Computer Science also varies a lot – from 3 to 4 years in UK and Australia to 5 to 7 years in many universities in US, as well as in IITs. I have strongly believed for a long time that it is possible to have a high quality PhD program where PhD students can expect to finish their PhD in 4 years. To achieve this objective of completing in 4 years but without diluting quality, we took some key decisions.

  • Course Requirement. A PhD should have some course requirement – that was very clear as I had seen that  often graduates of PhD programs with no course work requirement often do not have the breadth and rigor in their approach and are insufficiently prepared for a career in research, particularly the academic career (this is the primary reason why, for example, PhDs from Australia, where course work requirement is minimal, are often not preferred for academic positions in India, particularly when compared to PhDs from US, where most universities have decent course requirements.) After a lot of discussion and thinking, we settled on a requirement of doing 8 courses after BTech (and 50% of this after doing MTech), while keeping the option open to increase/decrease it, depending on the background of the student. This is equivalent to about 2 semester’s worth of effort (though a student may spread it over 3 or 4 semester, as he/she may spend some time doing research even in early semesters). This requirement will ensure that our PhD students will have decent breadth.
  • Identifying the area of interest early. It is well known that in PhD programs that take 5-6 years, the first 2 to 3 years are spent in identifying the area the student wants to work in and the problem to work on. We decided that we will require students admitted to the PhD program to have some clear ideas of the areas they want to work in, and we will take them only if we have strength in those areas. Towards this end, even in our fliers and advertisements, we listed the areas in which we are looking for PhD students. By “forcing” the student to identify the areas early, we hoped to reduce the front end of the PhD cycle – the student can then easily identify the group and the advisor almost in the start (our rules require the student to identify the advisor within 2 semesters), and start identifying the problem to work on. This approach has the disadvantage that it disallows exploration, and it does not allow “uncommitted” students,  but we felt that it is better to stick to students who have a clearer idea of what they want when they are coming to do PhD. This seems to have at least one desired effect – students are getting involved in research and publishing early – within the first two years, many of the PhD students of the first batch have published some papers.
  • Tight progress monitoring. Given the unstructured nature of PhD, it is very easy for a student to lose a year or two if the student relaxes a bit – it is far too common to see students who spent a few years just reading and exploring, but not pursuing any focused agenda. We decided that we will monitor each PhD student regularly for progress. For this we instituted a rule that each PhD student has to give a seminar once a year, which will be attended by most of the faculty, who will carefully evaluate the progress. (Of course, this also helped improve the communication abilities of the PhD student.) Later we added that in the winter semester, a short presentation will be given by the advisor of each student on progress of the student to the faculty. In other words, the progress is monitored each semester.
  • Thesis evaluation. Thesis evaluation can easily take a year or more in many Indian Institutes. This is clearly one area where at least six months can be saved easily from the PhD duration, without any effect on thesis quality. We took the basic structure of evaluation in IITs, which requires the thesis to be evaluated by a few external examiners, and combined it with the use of technology and the evaluation process used in CS conferences, in a hope to reduce evaluation time. Essentially, the evaluators will be like PC committee members who are assigned a paper (the thesis) for review – they will submit their review in 8 weeks, after which there will be a PC meeting (the thesis defense) in which the final decision will be taken by the committee.

With these measures, we feel confident that a good student can comfortably complete his/her PhD in 4 years, without diluting the rigor and quality of the PhD.

 

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