Friday, 10 April 2015

Visit to IITs - I

During my last visit to India several months ago, I visited some IITs. I recount my experiences in this post, just to give the reader an idea that what can be expected of such visits.

At this point I had not applied to any IIT, but had mentioned about my intention to do so in future. Let's call the old IIT as O1 and the two new IITs as N1 and N2 (following Kaneenika Sinha's terminology). I know some professors in O1, and knew one assistant professor each in N1 and N2. I directly asked my contacts that I wanted to visit and they gladly arranged for a seminar in the respective departments. N1 is an amazing new IIT doing very well while N2 has been in news for some wrong reasons and not doing so nicely. The same was easily evident to me after the visit.


First visit at N1:

I spent one complete day at N1 during my visit. My talk was scheduled in the morning at 9 AM - which I later realised wasn't a good time. Not many faculty could attend since they were busy taking classes. (Hat tip to prospective applicants: make sure that your talk is arranged at a convenient time). However, three young APs (assistant professors) of my sub-discipline in that department were there and asked some nice questions. I was later able to meet many other faculty during the day including the dean. HOD was on leave that day so couldn't meet him.

Some common questions that I was asked: What kind of courses can you teach? Are you going to continue working in the same research area as that you presented in your seminar? How will you diversify to more areas in future? What kind of research facilities will you need?

Overall, I got a very good impression of N1. All the people I met were cordial, knowledgeable and quite energetic. The best part was that most of the faculty are young, hence full of willingness to work on new ideas. They are soon moving to their new campus and my host was nice enough to drive me to the new place to give a glimpse of the buildings coming up there. They are actively looking for someone with my research background, so I got a lot of positive vibes from them. I was strongly encouraged to apply.

However, one thing that stood out was the level of hierarchy in the institute. All the young APs were addressing senior faculty as "Sir" or "Prof. XYZ". I could see a sudden change in their tone and body language when senior people were around. This is probably an Indian thing though.


Second visit at N2:

I reached N2 the night before my seminar was scheduled. They provided me accommodation in their amazing guest house (which was ironically the only thing that I really liked in that institute). My host their is a new assistant professor. He and a couple other people in the department are doing great research work, but overall I found the institute in shambles.

I met with the HOD and several other faculty and nearly everyone was openly critical of their director. The head even told me that they really like my CV and would like to immediately offer me a contractual position (to be later made permanent by the selection committee) but the director has put all academic appointments on hold. This was quite evident when I went to meet the director with him. He was quite polite while talking to me (probably because I was a guest) but the language he used with other faculty was unacceptable, to say the least.

The seminar was scheduled in a lecture theatre which was, funnily enough, being used for a class at that time my talk was supposed to happen. The poor souls there quickly ran around and found a seminar room that was luckily available. After scrambling around for 20 minutes, my seminar finally started. I found the faculty to be quite cordial and they asked good intelligent questions during the talk.

It seems that N2 has all the right things except the director. As his tenure is about to end very soon, I am hopeful that the situation there will improve pretty quickly.


Third visit at O1:

O1 is a place I was already familiar with and know several people there. It's a reputed place with a strong department of my field. I spent two complete days there with my talk scheduled at the end of the second day. Soon after my arrival, my host quickly called everyone on mobile and chalked out a schedule of meeting all the relevant people for the next two days. This way I could meet all the people and personally interest and invite them to my seminar. Most of the faculty here are doing great research and were very welcoming in their approach.

The differences between an established and a new IIT were quite visible after coming here. The faculty were quite independent and 'disconnected' - if that's the right word to use - from each other. The closeness and warmth I witnessed at N1 was missing but at the same time I could see much more professionalism and organisation. I did witness some politics and it was evident that some faculty members have formed groups that doesn't like the members of the opposite group very much.

I had an interesting meeting with the head of the department. He found my research to be interesting but was more interested in the courses that I could teach in the department. When I mentioned that my research is largely theoretical, I received an unsolicited advice of trying to do some experiments and set up a lab as that leads to more funding! I was also told that teaching is the most important aspect and "research is an extra-curricular activity in IIT". Needless to say, this last statement was a bit confusing but I decided not to think too much about it.

The seminar I gave here was the best attended one among all three places. There were about 60-70 people with professors from several different departments. People found the work to be interesting and the senior faculty (who were probably part of the faculty search committee) made sure to understand what was my specific contribution to the nicely woven story I was presenting.


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To summarise my experience, I found that both old and new IITs have some desirable and some undesirable features. Depending on the things you value, it's not necessary that old IITs are better (as is commonly assumed by many people).
Another interesting observation I made is that in India, a lot of things happen on phone rather than email. It seems that anyone can call anyone on mobile phone at any time of the working day. It is so common that now many people do not take emails very seriously and wouldn't respond to regular queries unless you call and talk to them.
N1 and O1 graciously reimbursed my travel (airfare, train and taxi) and accommodation. N2 provided accommodation but reimbursed travel only to the nearest big city.

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