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.


Deb said...

Dear Prof. Madras,

Just wanted to say a big 'Thank You' for this post.


Skeptic said...

Prof Madras, I am a social scientist who may never apply to IISC but still I want to congratulate you for this fantastic post. You are a great guy Sir!

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much sir. It's really informative.

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof. Sriram (IITM),
I am addressing this question to you because I have read several of your comments related to faculty selection at IITs and also because you are from IITM where I have applied for the post of astt professor in one of the engineering departments. Actually, I received an email from IITM few days back that I have to give a presentation and have to be interviewed next week (from 7th June). However, I am abroad now, so I requested them to consider my application in absentia. I would highly appreciate if you can give me an idea whether I would be asked to give seminar and later appear before interview panel via skype/phone on the date and time already assigned to me? Or they will assign another date and time for the candidates who chose to be considered in absentia?
(By the way, they have assigned me morning time for seminar and after noon time for interview on the same day). I would highly appreciate if you can comment on my query.

iitmsriram said...

Dear anon June 1 @ 7:37 am,

The selection panel has only one sitting, so the interviews, whether in person or in absentia (by phone or skype) will be at the same time slot. The seminars are organized by the departments concerned, so it is up to each department to decide how to do it. Most departments are doing skype seminar talks for in-absentia candidates, while some are skipping the seminars for in-absentia candidates. Contact the concerned HoD to find out what they intend to do.

Anonymous said...

Dear Prof. Madras,

This is a request to get an idea about IITB faculty recruiment procedure for the people staying abroad. Is it different than the procedure followed by other IITs? I heard that the shortlisted candidates take seminars through skype and if they pass this stage then only they are interviewed by the selection committee. But in other IITs, once you are shortlisted, you go through both the faculty semina and interview. It would be great if you (or others having knowledge about IITB) can comment on this kind of information about IITB.

Thanks in advance.

Giri@iisc said...

To the anon above,

In all cases, the selection committee decides on a candidate based on the interview. Selection committee members are not always required to attend the seminars. Therefore, IITB has seminars for all candidates before and get evaluated by IITB faculty. This is followed by a long interview by the selection committee.

I hope this clarifies the procedure for you.



Anonymous said...

IIT-M puts appointments on hold

Sugee said...

Prof Madras,

Many many many thanks (and a thousand times more) for the post.