Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Chemist or chemical engineer

I am often asked what is the difference between a chemist and a chemical engineering. Many of my friends, who are not in academics, think it is the same. In my native town, where I have several friends, all of them introduce me a chemistry lecturer, who teaches only 3 hours a week and always wonder what I do for the rest of the time (the answer is write blogs). Anyway, there is an interesting discussion on the differences between a chemist and chemical engineering. Here is what one of the authors, Rich Lemert, wrote,

The two biggest differences between chemists and chemical engineers, however, are 1) chemical engineers are much more quantitative, whereas chemists are more qualitative; and 2) chemical engineers have an economic understanding that chemists usually lack.

1) While chemistry (along with physics) is more quantitative than many other sciences, there are still large areas within the field where you don't really need much more math than some high-level algebra. Organic chemistry, for example, is more concerned with understanding reaction mechanisms and can often care less about the details of how fast the reaction takes place. Chemical engineers don't worry so much about how a chemical forms, though, put are very concerned with how fast it forms, how much heat is evolved/consumed in the reaction, and yield.

2) A chemist's economic concerns pretty much start and end with "how much will it cost to do this experiment". Chemical engineers are trained to go much further. To give an example, let's say a company has two potential products in development, both of which will require the building of a new plant to produce. Product A is more expensive to produce, but the process is not too challenging and a plant could be on-line in less than a year. Product B offers a higher profit margin, but it requires the use of some exotic equipment that require two years lead time to purchase. The company cannot afford to build both plants, so it must decide which one to build. The engineer knows how to make that decision.

My tryst with chemistry was only after I joined IISc. I was fascinated by the materials synthesized by my colleagues in solid state chemistry unit (SSCU), whose building is opposite to the chemical engineering. Encouraged by the colleagues in this department, my students and I worked on using these materials as catalysts for various reactions. This has resulted in several joint students and publications and I have been most benefited by this association, which has finally resulted in me becoming an associate faculty in SSCU. Of course, CNR Rao, who founded SSCU, has been an inspiration and I was extremely delighted when he congratulated me on the Bhatnagar award mentioning that he got the award the same year I was born !

Sunday, September 27, 2009

One more post

..on pay scales. I have been receiving some emails requesting me to write my views on the "assistant professor on contract (apoc)" and pay scales based on the current notification. I have been refraining from doing so because some of the faculty (iitmsriram, kaushal, for example) who have commented on my previous posts are more knowledgable than me in terms of salaries, comparison to UGC etc. But I thought I will write what I think on this issue of the pay scales themselves.

First, what I do not believe in. That the IITs do not need to do anything because the attrition rate in IITs is nearly zero. It is certainly not correct in many departments, especially in electrical sciences (EE/ECE/CS/IT) departments. Many good people do not even bother to apply looking at the starting pay and nearly 10% who join these departments leave within the first two years. The number of vacancies in almost all IITs is more than 25% of the faculty sanctioned strength because of the low pay.

What are the salaries? According to the table, for an assistant professor on contract i.e., with no postdoc experience, it would start at 37,000 + accommodation. A regular assistant professor will get 52,000 + accommodation and will move to 62,000 + accommodation after three years. In addition, they are other benefits. This includes telephone allowance, academic allowances, children education allowance, subsidy for single girl child, leave travel concession for the whole family every year,medical benefits to the family, travel money for attending conferences etc.

In addition, one can get fellowships that vary from Rs 60,000 to Rs 6 lakhs per year from DST/DBT, depending on the fellowships. Faculty can go abroad during the three month vacation every year and get paid in international currency. One can take sabbatical for one year every six years and get paid at both places. In addition, one can earn considerably from consultancy from industry (or even government labs) depending on the area they work in.

Any discussion on pay scales in India takes several routes. One argument is the PPP (purchase parity power). Assistant professor in India gets $1200 a month, so by PPP, it is nearly $6000 a month. PPP is based on a assorted variety of food, services and housing. The service component is extremely cheap and a professor can afford to have a driver for his car, have a maid and cook, which is impossible in the USA. On the other hand, the cost of food is not significantly different from the USA if one buys food and cooks. A cost of an independent house just outside IISc would cost you a crore of rupees ($250,000) and that is also similar to USA. Thus, one can have a driver, maid and cook but no house ! So, PPP arguments are flawed because the lifestyles in India and USA are different. One would probably stay in an 2-bedroom apartment and have a maid and cook rather than in a five bedroom independent house and have no help like in the USA. The other argument is the comparison with IAS officers, who after all decide the salaries of IITs/IISc. One becomes a professor when he/she is around 40-45 and will get 10,500 grade pay, which is very high compared to what an IAS officer of a comparable age makes. So, the salaries proposed look fair. The next is the comparison with minimum wages. The central government minimum wage is Rs. 5500 per month. An assistant professor on contract gets around Rs. 50,000 (including cost of accommodation) and thus is roughly 10 times the minimum wage. In the USA, the minimum wage is $1000 per month while an assistant professor in engineering makes $6000 per month, Thus, an assistant professor in India gets more times the minimum wages than what he would get in the USA. But the lifestyles are different because what can be bought for $1000 can not be bought for Rs. 5500.

However, all these arguments have flaws for the simple reason that no faculty candidate who is applying to IIT from abroad is going to compare himself with IAS officers or with minimum wage requirements or by PPP. One simply can not compare the quality of life between USA and India. One often decides to come back to India for other reasons. I believe that the benefit of living in one's motherland, close to family, friends, local culture and having a secure satisfying job can not be quantified in terms of money. This is at least true for me !

When one decides to come back, one often compares the salary one would get in the industry and compare it with what one would obtain in IITs. The salaries at IITs look pathetic, especially because we advertise only the basic and not even mention DA, allowances, grade pay etc. In my earlier posts in this blog, I have tried to present details of salary and benefits just for clarification. Thus, I feel that IITs have not at all marketed the positions well to inform the applicants of the benefits of working here. This has led to a curious case of wherein many faculty (but not all) in IIT/IISc are quite happy with the salaries (not that they will refuse more salary) but those who intend to join are shocked at the starting salaries, especially seeing only the basic salaries, and even refrain from applying.

What a faculty candidate is likely to look at what he can make in India in industry. In India, the salaries are the same for a professor of history, math, chemistry, chemical engineering, elextrical engineering, computer science, management and law. In the US, the salary will rise as you go up in the above order.

Therefore, salaries given by the government will never reflect the price of a faculty member (especially in electrical sciences) and will be significantly lower. The salaries that are given by the government have to be lesser than that offered to the top IAS officers (which is why the salary of the director of IITs are matched with the secretary of the government). Because the top salaries given to IAS officers have to be linked in some fashion (20 times or so) to the minimum wages and have to maintain parity across disparate sectors, one can not expect anything significantly different.

Therefore, what can be done? The Institutes need not "fight" with MHRD on the issue of assistant professor on contract, the 10% cap on this cadre, the 40% cap on the promotion of professors etc. All they need to do is to tell MHRD to change the wording to "It is suggested that assistant professors that are recruited have three years experience.." "It is suggested that around 10% of assistant professors are taken on contract and only 40% of professors be promoted to AGP of 12,000. However, the BoG of IITs/council of IISc can make exceptions for deserving cases..." Currently, in IISc, we recruit an assistant professor in chemistry only with three years of postdoc experience while we recruit an assistant professor in electrical engineering with one year of postdoc experience. Let the selection committee of that particular branch make the decision where one should be placed and there is no point in saying everyone should have three years experience. The number of increments in the current system was always decided by the selection committee and thus the practice can continue in that the selection committee can decide where one should be placed.

If one thinks that the contract system will be like the tenure system, it is not. Let us take a case of someone who joins IISc with 1.5 years of postdoc, he will be placed under contract for 1.5 years. Considering it takes atleast two years to set up a lab and write papers with students, one can not comment on the productivity (or the lack thereof) in the first two or even three years. Therefore, all people taken on contract will have to be confirmed. To judge scientific productivity, one needs 4-5 years and that's why the tenure system is normally for 6 years in US.


Considering that salaries can not be increased much higher, what can be done by departments, Institutes and the government in the current system to attract and retain faculty?

The easiest thing the government will propose is to have a performance linked incentive scheme (PLIS). This is a great tool for an administrator who has an objective number to judge faculty. However, evaluation of individuals in academics is not easy. Scientometrics is a great tool for examining groups of individuals or institutions but can be abused and misused if used for individuals. Further, scientometrics differ significantly from department to department. Let us take publishing. Publishing in a journal of impact factor of 1.5 is an achievement in Mathematics, is good in chemical engineering, is not at all good in chemistry. Then the journal impact factors have to be scaled. Evaluation in terms of patents have to be introduced but there is a huge difference in filing for a patent and licencing a patent. Let us even assume that we develop a perfect measurement tool to objectively judge faculty based on a combination of publications, citations, patents, teaching, committee work and other aspects. Of course, the "formula" has to be different for each department. An applied engineering department may prefer patents over publications while a basic science department may prefer publications over patents etc. But, then, the individuals have to be judged not just within the institution because the best faculty in a particular department of IIT may be just an average faculty in IISc (or vice-versa) though the base salary of both will be the same.

Therefore, faculty have to be compared nationally and internationally. This is primarily the reason that government has introduced several national fellowships, which have both research and personal money, that can be awarded on a nationally competitive basis. The government has instituted several fellowships ranging from Rs. 60,000 per year to Rs. 6 lakhs per year. The funding agencies should increase the number of fellowships awarded at various levels to ensure that a wider group is rewarded. The institutes can reduce their share in consultation fees. For example, currently, the institute takes 40% of the fees as overheads. This can be changed to what some IIMs do. No overheads upto six lakhs, 20% for fees between six to fifteen lakhs etc. The former would increase the salaries of faculty who do fundamental research (like in sciences) while the latter scheme would increase the salaries of faculy who do applied research (like in electrical engineering).

Departments should form inter-department committees of senior faculty who have a track record of mentoring young faculty. This committee should meet new faculty both formally and informally and ensure that he/she is nominated for awards, fellowships, is advised on applying to different funding agencies, facilitate collaboration within the institute etc. Few departments in IISc already do this. The department should also ensure that the new faculty get doctoral students and have negligible teaching load in their first year after joining. Few departments like my department in IISc already do this. Finally, departments should ensure that the young faculty come to know the various administrative rules and regulations like purchase, leave, sabbatical etc. For this, they should send their young faculty to people like me who serve on a myriad of committees.

Institutes can pay signup money for new recruits, pay for administrative jobs like head of the department, warden etc. This has been already implemented in IIT-Bombay, for example. In addition, the institutes can provide better housing for young faculty, better startup funding and advertise better. For the established senior faculty, the institutes can establish chaired positions and many institutes like IIT-Kanpur already do this.

What does it imply? Without increasing the base salaries, both the government and the department/institutes themselves can do a lot to make the prospect of joining IITs as a faculty more attractive, especially for a young assistant professor.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


...is the number of visits to this blog for the last six month period (March 25, 2009 to September 25, 2009). A big thank you to all the readers, especially the readers who have taken the time to comment and/or respond to queries of several faculty candidates. Thanks again!

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

New pay scales

The new pay scales have been notified by MHRD for IIT/IISc/IISER. The major change (and excellent news) from the previous notification is that assistant professors will move to PB-4 after three years of service. However, if my interpretation is correct, only
people with 3 years experience and Ph.D can be recruited as assistant professors. This is not good because engineering departments will find it difficult to find candidates with three years experience.

Update: I had been travelling and did not have access to internet to post the fitment table for new AP. Knowledgeable readers like iitmsriram please correct the table, if you find anything wrong. I have not included allowances like HRA (30%, if you live in metros), academic allowances, telephone reimbursement etc. TA quoted here is based if you live in metros. Please note that the years need not be post-Ph.D, it could be any experience except the experience during your Ph.D

Continuous increment of 3% of Basic+AGP will ensure that one will reach the end of the scale of 67,000 at the end of 23 years, if never promoted (see orange columns). If promoted to professor under the IISc scheme of 6 years as assistant professor followed by six years as associate professor (see green columns), one will reach the end of the scale at the end of 21 years. The only difference will be in the grade pay.

PS: IITMsriram points out that the 3% increments are to be rounded up to the next highest multiple of 10 so that the pay will always be a multiple of 10. But because the table is generated in spreadsheet in google docs, I do not know how to do it automatically.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Grade pay and entitlements

There has been several posts on the academic grade pay (AGP) and entitlements in some blogs. Some questions have been raised on whether faculty will be eligible for air travel or not (see the comments section of this post).

Here is the official notification. What does this imply?

The transport allowance that one gets every month is the same for everyone who have grade pay of 5400 or above. Otherwise, lower AGP means lower entitlements when traveling on government money. If your grade pay is less than 5400, then you can not travel by air. If your grade pay is between 5400 to 8900, you are entitled to travel by economy class by air. The government has not notified what happens if your grade pay is between 8900 and 10,000 because the grade pay of 9500 was specially created for associate professors in IITs. If your grade is above 10,000, you are entitled to travel by air in business class. Regarding other things you might miss out is that if you draw more than 10,000 grade pay, you are entitled to A/C taxi; otherwise, you have to travel in an non-A/C taxi.

Friday, September 4, 2009

All are equally outstanding?

Subsequent to my colleague, Abi's post on "All of us - yes, all of us are outstanding", some of my colleagues read my post that he cites and asked me whether it is true of all institutions in India and whether groups of institutions also follow this rule.

In my post of Gini index , I had written that 23% of the faculty contribute to 77% of the publications. A more recent analysis for the period of 2004-2008 indicates that the ratio has improved to 27% faculty contributing to 73% of the publications. However, it has a caveat. 22% of our faculty strength are assistant professors who have joined within the last six years. [In IISc, the normal period of promotion is six years from assistant to associate and six years from associate to full]. They are establishing themselves and their labs. So, one can not expect them to contribute significantly.

Back to the Pareto's principle and Gini index, in most of the institutions in India, the 20/80 rule applies and 80% of research output is by 20% of the faculty. Similarly, 80% of funding is brought in by 20% of faculty and 80% of administrative work is done by 20% of the faculty. I am not counting teaching because I assume nearly all the faculty teach. Ideally, if each of these 20% of faculty are different, this would mean that atleast 60% of the faculty are active. But it is not !

However, if one discusses the research output of institutions and compares them, it is even worse than 20/80. 10% of the top institutions in India contribute 90% of the publication output and 3% of the top institutions in India contribute to 50% of the publication output. Naturally, many of the institutions like IISc, IITs, TIFR, AIIMS etc fall in the top 3%. Because these institutions are small but contribute significantly to India's research output, there is a tendency to think that everyone in these institutes are outstanding. But statistics and nature are wiser and the Pareto's principle applies even in these institutes.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Ratings and rankings

Soon, departments in IITs, IISc, IIMs and universities will be ranked and rated. This will based on the manpower trained in terms of undergraduates, postgraduates and doctorates, number of publications, citations of these publications etc. It may not be long that a formula is evolved such that the funding provided to the institution depends on this number. One of my colleagues mentioned that it will not be long before some of these institutions create high-paying industry/alumni funded chair positions so as to attract faculty to their institution. The presence of these faculty would lead to higher citations or patent numbers leading to higher funding from the government.