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.

 

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.