Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Online GATE

The GATE online was completed successfully for six papers last weekend. I was supposed to visit Hyderabad on Saturday morning and I had booked the morning flight of AI. On Friday night at 11:30 pm, when I was sound asleep, the AI call center person calls me up and says that the flight for Saturday morning has been cancelled and AI has helpfully rebooked it for the Sunday morning flight. When I told him that it is not acceptable, as I had to conduct a (mock) exam on Saturday and he can not rebook me, he was surprised at two things: (a) the necessity for me to be there on Saturday (b) my inability to speak in fluent Hindi (he refused to speak in English). Please note that I can speak Hindi reasonably well, just that I am not fluent it at it, especially at midnight. This person cancelled my ticket and did not charge me for the cancellation. In case you are wondering why they might charge cancellation fee for a flight that they have cancelled, all I can say that you do not know how AI (or the government) works.

I booked my ticket in a profit making airline (Indigo) at midnight, arrived at the airport in the morning, checked in and then went to the AI counter to make sure my ticket has been cancelled. The person there told me that the ticket has not yet been cancelled and they would have not have refunded my money as they would marked it as a "no-show". He, however, cancelled my ticket and when I insisted, he gave me a receipt that the flight and ticket has been cancelled. There was a long line of passengers who had switched off their mobiles at 11 pm and never got the message that the flight has been cancelled. I can not understand how passengers can switch off their mobiles by 11 pm :-7

Unlike AI, the GATE online exam went off smoothly. However, due to lack of electricity, the computers were operated using a generator. GATE is being written by 9 lakh students this year. If you remove the four major papers (EE, ECE, CS, ME), then we will have 1.5 lakh students. All these papers can be made online possibly in the next 3-4 years. The only issue that it may not be feasible to hold the online exam in tier III cites, where it may be difficult to source 300 computers for a session.

After the exam, one of my colleagues called me to check whether the exam was completed successfully and how many more papers can be made online next year. I remarked that the complete GATE can be made online next year considering the country's excellent infrastructure. He said, "Not many people understand your sarcasm; you should come back to Bangalore and read the comments of the recent post. People are discussing your h-index vis-a-vis your non-IIT undergraduation." The emoticons for sarcasm are known but what if people do not understand this either. Therefore, I should use something obvious, "Just like AI is the most customer friendly airline in the world, an undergraduation in IIT is required to become a good researcher and get a faculty position in IISc."

Friday, January 27, 2012

Just one more postdoc

I was talking to a former student (he was not my Ph.D student, but he was a student of my colleague) about his search for faculty position. He has completed three years of post doc in engineering and has now got a faculty position in what he calls a "second tier" IIT. He feels that if he does one more post doc in USA, he will get into that "first tier" IIT. I see many students, including some of my own former students, get into illusion that they will get this "dream" job if they do one more postdoc.

The following advice is apt,

The reality is that after 4-5 years of undergraduate, and 4-6 years of Ph.D. you've painted a pretty good picture of yourself. A few years of post-doc might help you gain some new skills, but that isn't going to make or break your career. Neither is that "just one more paper" going to make all the difference. Instead, people need to put the same effort into looking for a job as they do in doing research. The results might be a lot better.

There are still others who do not apply for these jobs thinking their resume is incomplete, whether they are worth applying and if they have to do one more postdoc. The best is to apply,

Because we all know that hiring is stochastic--that elusive "fit" you mentioned and variability in other candidates--it's probably a better strategy to start applying before we think we might be the ideal candidate. And with our minds' powers to reduce cognitive dissonance, we might just start convincing ourselves that we completely deserve what we're going after. I just stumbled on this thread, which I find pretty reassuring and hilarious. 
I would think that the chances of getting a faculty position actually decreases after the third year of postdoc in engineering (sixth year in sciences). It could be also due my conservativeness to think that one should have a permanent (there is no other job which is more permanent and non-transferable than a government academic position) job rather than a temporary post doctoral position.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lowered expectations

In an article in the chronicle titled,  "Upside of the Downturn", the author states that reduced expectations for our material success might make us happier, even if we’re poorer. The article goes on to say,

When expectations are high, the best we can hope to do is match them. When expectations are lower, matching them is easier and exceeding them is possible. By lowering expectations and keeping expectations modest, the downturn may actually enable people to derive satisfaction from activities and possessions that would previously have been disappointing. Managing expectations is a crucial determinant of well-being, and the downturn may be managing our expectations for us. 

This is good advice for almost everyone working in government jobs. As the article notes (in a different context), "They may seek what is good about their institution, and be grateful for it, instead of noticing the ways their institution falls short, and resenting it."

Friday, January 20, 2012


The above is the caption of the T-shirt featured under the column "Impressive Ph.D stories" The author concludes that the following are the keys to the success for finishing the doctorate quickly and effectively.

  • Always meet and report your work to your supervisor. At least once a week.
  • Set a goal and reason why you want to complete your Ph.D. That will drive and motivate you to finish your study.
  • Publish your work in reputable journals with impact factors. That's like an insurance policy during the VIVA.
I would just add a rider to point #1, which my advisor told me,  "Give the progress and what you want to do in writing. What you say and what I hear may be completely different :-)"

Sunday, January 15, 2012


A postdoctoral student in USA (call him X) applies to the Ramanujam Fellowship and does not get even an acknowledgment. After a few months, he gets an offer for an assistant professor in IISc, joins a department in IISc and starts setting up his lab. On 2 Jan, a colleague calls him and says, "Happy new year to you. As a Ramanujam fellowship recipient, can you help me with my proposal?" X is surprised and denies being a recipient of the award. His colleagues points him to the DST website, which shows his name as being recommended ! He calls DST and finds that they have sent the money to IISc but had not informed X. IISc, of course, has taken the money but also had not informed X. Luckily for him, they did not ask him for a yearly report (yet!).

In another case, IISc is insisting that they pay me Rs. 25000 for JC Bose fellowship even though I am not a recipient of the same. When they paid me the fellowship in September, I informed them that I am not a recipient. So, they did not pay me the fellowship in October. In fact, to resolve the problem, they did not pay the fellowship of all the 39 recipients in IISc in October. Then, in November, after verification (!), they paid me the fellowship with arrears for both October and November!

In yet another case, IISc paid the fellowship of the DBT wellcome grant to a faculty, who had not got the fellowship. Apparently, DBT Wellcome grants are of two types: a project grant and a fellowship. Some get only the project grant while some get both. Apparently, this faculty had not got the fellowship but only the grant. He was paid the fellowship for one year before IISc and/or the faculty noticed. I will leave it to your imagination on how the case was resolved.Clue: The obvious solution is not the correct solution!

On this happy note of IISc paying fellowships to everyone ineligible, let me wish you a very happy Makara Sankaranthi and pongal.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Merit and academia

Professor Balaram, in his editorial on Current Science, writes,

    The Indian academic system  differs dramatically from the  American  model  in  that,  with  very,  very  few exceptions,  tenure  is  not  an  issue.  Faculty  are  invariably recruited  to  ‘permanent  positions’.  Even  in cases  where the initial appointment is a contract of fixed term, renewals  are  practically  automatic. Academic  performance  is not  demanded  and  academic  freedom  often  degenerates into  a  licence  to  legitimise  non-performance....While  both  the  carrot  and  stick  are used equally effectively in the West to enhance academic performance,  neither  is  available  to  most  institutions  in India.  Administrations  must  follow  the  policy  of  benign neglect with respect to high performers, even while turning a blind eye to the significant dead wood accumulating in our institutions. 

I do not know whether the tenure system will be generally successful in India, except in a few niche institutions like NCBS. In other places, this may actually result in high performers being denied tenure to ensure that "non-performance" remains the standard. Prof. Balaram fails to mention why administrators must follow the policy of turning a blind eye to the dead wood and neglect the performers. I do not think that there is an inherent need for an administrator to follow this policy. A strong head of an institution can turn down appointments and promotions to undeserving faculty. This may, of course, result in making him/her unpopular.Actually, it is the majority of (science) administrators who choose to follow this policy to keep their "bosses" (ranging from politicians to academic scientists who decide major policies/recruitment of "high" posts) happy.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pinned post for prospective faculty to IITs/IISc

This is a pinned post (i.e., this post will always appear at the top of this blog though newer posts appear below it) for prospective faculty to IITs/IISc. 

Please, please read this site and the old posts, here, here, here and here. There are over 1100 comments and replies to these comments in these posts. Read them carefully before you post here. 

  If you require an answer to your question, post it with a name, initials, pseudonym or anything that is distinguishable.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

New Year

Unlike last year, I am not making a year-end round up, though I did more publications, reviews and committee work for IISc! People often discuss about new year resolutions.

Just as I was leaving a committee meeting last year, a young faculty remarked about the problems he was facing with his chairman. I spoke to him for nearly 5 min on how he could potentially handle the issue. My senior colleague, who was next to me, smiled and said, "Now, I know you are getting old.  The older one grows, the more one starts giving advice.." And he was correct as I began to notice that I have really started giving unsolicited advice.

When you’ve been there and done that and have the battle scars to prove it, the temptation to offer unsolicited advice can be almost overwhelming. Avoiding doing so feels almost like watching someone go into cardiac arrest and not calling an ambulance. But there’s a big difference between the analogy and the reality: The ambulance will actually help that person; unsolicited advice will not. Unsolicited advice is almost useless for one simple reason: Many lessons must be learned, not just intellectually, but emotionally. Taking action to change your life requires not only thought, but intent, and intent is driven by our internal pain and pleasure associations.

If other people really wanted your advice, they would ask for it. Happiness is not obtained from listening to others but by listening to oneself. On that happy note, wish you all a very happy new year.