Sunday, May 22, 2011


I have been receiving several emails enquiring about the interviews for (a) our research programs and (b) faculty positions. I give below some common questions and guidelines.

For research students:

The research interviews are conducted differently in each department and it is difficult to generalize. Some departments have two rounds of interviews, some have a written test followed by an interview. The guidelines for computer science students is given here (It is always amazing to me how Prof. Narahari manages some many things; he serves on many committee yet does wonderful research and also manages to put up these writeups).

Many interview committees will ask you three or four subjects that you liked in your undergraduation and ask you several questions based on that subjects. The emphasis will be on testing the depth of candidate’s understanding of fundamental concepts. Never attempt to answer questions in which you do not know the correct answer. It is okay to say that you have never heard of such a principle or law. Because the emphasis is on fundamentals rather on memory, it will be always be appreciated if the student says that he can derive the equation but can not recall it from memory. For Ph.D students, expect some questions on the project done during the masters. The problems you faced executing the projects, the principles you learned in that project and how you think the project helped you overall.

For prospective faculty.

  • Why did you choose your dissertation/post-doc topic?
  • Tell us about the theoretical and experimental aspects of your research.
  • What changes would you have made to your work if you were to begin again?
  • Why didn't you finish your dissertation sooner or why did you finish your dissertation so soon?
  • What are your research plans for the next 2/10/30 years?
  • What are possible sources of funding to support your research?
  • What facilities do you need to carry out your research?
  • How does your research fit in with this department?
  • Who would you collaborate with?
  • How many Masters and PhD students would you try to have in your lab? 
  • Have you supervised any undergraduate or graduate students?
  • How would you involve undergraduates in your research?

  • What do you think is the optimal balance between teaching and research?
  • If you have to teach X course, what is the textbook you would follow?
  • If you could teach any course you wanted, what would it be? Why?
  • How will explain an concept of X to school children, undergrads, grads and colleagues?

  • Are you willing to become involved in committee work? If so, what committees?
  • What institutional issues particularly interest you?

I would advise that the faculty candidate read about the department, its current faculty and its facilities. Write to an unbiased person in the faculty and ask how much is really possible (Recently, we had a faculty candidate who wanted Rs. 10 crores to start up his laboratory. Some of my colleagues said it is not a problem. But, of course, it is. If you can do lots of research without the $2 million grant and then set up this large lab slowly, you can do it in 5 years or so. But it is very difficult to start up with a $2 million grant).

Have a clear writeup on your future research. It should NOT be a delta extension of your Ph.D or postdoctoral work. Be clear about the equipment (and its approximate cost) you need and an approximate size of the lab space required. If you say 500 sq.ft. of lab space is all you need but your equipment will occupy more than that, then the selection committee will not like it. A generic answer "I will manage with any lab space that is given to me" is worse.

Spend lots of time on making a good presentation. Most of the selection committee members come by the morning flight and leave by the night flight. Therefore, the number of hours is restricted to 10 am to 7 pm and this has to be divided by the number of candidates called for interview. Usually, the number of candidates called for interview is eight times the number of vacancies. Therefore, prepare for 10, 15, 20, 30 and 45 min presentations separately. Make the presentation interesting to an audience of your potential colleagues and answer all questions patiently. This is different in cases like IISc/NCBS etc. In these institutions, there is no formal interview of a bunch of candidates on a single day. In these institutions, the prospective faculty visit the department, spend a day or so. If the department is keen to pursue the candidate, the selection committee is specially convened on some other day and the candidate appears before the committee through skype or in person. The candidates who are called for interview in case of IISc are normally the people in which the department is interested in. The selection committee may overrule the wishes of the department.

In case of skype interviews/presentation, please keep the pdf of the presentations ready and mail it to them before the interview. The committee can follow the slides sent by you by looking at a local screen. Also, in this case, please be prepared to discuss your research without any presentation. As easy as it might sound, try practicing your presentation without any slides. Sometimes, we lose the connection during a skype interview. Quickly summarize what you have said so far and begin where you left off.

Be clear about the courses that you can teach and that you can not. Have plans of teaching in the first semester and clearly indicate which course you would like to teach. Do not give a generic answer such as "I can teach any subject in chemical engineering." If you are really that good in all subjects, you can say, "Though I feel that I can teach any subject in chemical engineering, I would like to teach thermodynamics ..." Expect a few questions in the subject you are going to teach.

Ultimately, different selection committee members look for different things in a candidate. For example, if a candidate has an excellent academic record (top 10% throughout in very good colleges, good publication record and recommendation letters that say he/she is creative and hard working), I would ignore a bad presentation. Others may not.  Some members give importance to recommendation letters from "stars". Some do not. Some members give importance to the college where the candidate has done his B.Tech/ M.Tech/M.Sc (a degree from IITs always helps).

However, almost selection committees try to look whether the candidate has self motivation. You will not be able to rely on others to get you motivated and there is enough negativity around you to stop working. My senior colleague is a very good judge of people and he is almost 100% right when he says someone will be successful in India or not. In India, to succeed as a researcher, you need to manage the inefficient finance/accounts department, poor maintenance staff etc., yet manage to do "world class" research. Therefore, the faculty have to be positive, patient, persevering, deal all this with a good temperament and have the self motivation to succeed.  If you have these qualities, you will also be put on several committees to help the administration of the institute and even if you stop doing research, you will be still useful to the institute !

I am sure that other knowledgeable readers of the blog can add to this in the comments.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Research Admissions

I have been receiving several queries on research admissions to IISc. Please note that the admission to the Ph.D and M.Sc (Engg) programs is based on a wide variety of parameters: GATE, CSIR, JEST, IISc entrance test and many more entrance tests. Qualification in one of these exams does not guarantee an interview call. Different departments follow different cutoffs in various exams.

All letters for interviews were dispatched this morning and the research admissions for Ph.D will be held from June 4-5 for the interdisciplinary programs and June 6-10 for the other departments. Please check your application status on the web or wait for the interview letter or call the admission office.

While I have tried to help as many people as I can to know about the results (i.e., whether they have received the interview call), I can not give out the cutoffs for different departments in various exams. I agree with the applicant who felt that such information should be displayed on the web but I do not agree with the other applicant who "threatened" to file a RTI against me for not providing this information!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Impact factor and journals

Two good articles in this issue of Current science.

The first article, Correlation between h-index, EigenfactorTM and Article InfluenceTMof chemical engineering journals,discusses the various parameters for ranking the journals. Irrespective of whether one uses the impact factor, eigenfactor, article influence score or the new factors like p-index, the top four journals in chemical engineering remain the same. The popularity of eigenfactor over the impact factor is that it is available for free and is quite comprehensive.

The second article,Use made of open access journals by Indian researchers to publish their findings, is quite interesting and discusses the use of open access journals and how Indian researchers publish in it. The authors rightly point out,

Both BMC and PLoS charge article processing fees as do many other open access journals. BMC journals charge between $ 1450 and $ 1640, PLoS ONE charges $ 1350, and PLoS Medicine and PLoS Biology $ 2900 and other PLoS journals $ 2250. This could be a deterrent to most Indian and other developing country researchers.

It is certainly a deterrent for researchers like me who do experimental work. We would be better off in publishing the paper in another journal for free and using the $2000 for experimental work. The best way to make the work open access in India is not necessarily by publishing it in open access journals but by depositing the article in an institutional repository.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Tamilnadu elections

Most ridiculous comment heard on Makkal TV as to why DMK lost.

Girls wearing jeans got carried away by Egypt rebellion, infatuated with anti-establishment, and voted against the DMK because they felt compelled to do the same as that of the Arabs.