a pseudo-photoblog

Education

Story of a PhD

My PhD in book titles…

7 book titles & a cartoon face = summary of a PhD

7 book titles & a cartoon face = summary of a PhD

From top to bottom :

  • Freakish economics
  • At times : eating, being droopy faced from over-eating, but loving it
  • Born Free – to be as eccentric as you wish
  • Becoming a delhi walla. . esply wrt food
  • No explanation needed – the book title says it all
  • Your life seems like a great golden sacrifice.. with as many side-tracks & masala stories as the Mahabharata
  • At the end of it all, the whole thing feels worthy of being labeled ‘history’ & penning it down!
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PhD & Completion

WARNING : Long post ahead! May not make much sense to laymen (yep, we super smug researchers like to call the rest of the world that).

A question that I am asked (too) often :

“When the hell are you going to complete that PhD of yours?”

That’s a question which has been eliciting different non-chalant replies – “God Knos”, “Come on.. I’ve just started & talk about completion?!”, “Is that of any concern to the general good of the universe?”, “When my supervisor can tolerate me no more & kicks me out”.

But when a sweet Prof casually asked “So, when do you intend to start writing your thesis?” in the lift, I blinked!

I blinked, blinked again & finally blurted out “End of the year” & quickly add “that’s what supervisor wants”.

He smiled & asked, “When do you want to?”

I blinked, blurted out something, continued to blink & was left blinking while he left the lift on his floor.

Tadaa. . one of those “eye-opener” moments. . The only problem being that the opened eyes refused to close for a while, even to blink!

 

So, one question that I have been asking myself since :

“When am I ready to ‘complete’ my PhD?”

Answer?

A check-list :

1. Have I learnt to really appreciate research?

Around 3yrs back, when I was asked in the PhD admission interview “Why do you want to do a PhD in CS?”, my answer was “Because I am passionate about Computer Science research”.

Today, my answer would be “Because I am passionate about research, and CS seems to be my pet research area”.

Thanks to an advisor who was & still is more interested in pushing me to think more about the exploit-the-physics part of my current research topic, I today find myself enamoured by research problems in any field. There is that zoom out effect – from focusing on just CS problems to finding problems everywhere and finding beauty in them.

So, yes, I have learnt to really appreciate research in a wholesome sense.

Point 1 – Check.

2. Have I learnt how to keep alive that passion for research & rise above disillusionment?

Enter PhD with this utopian expectation of “next few years dedicated to research, problem solving, excitement”

One year into it : You feel “Oh, it’s not all green grass here”.

Finish course work & plunge into “pure research” : You know “It’s NOT green grass here”

And it comes with the freebies – crazy deadlines, TA work, work that seems to pile up in burst mode, frustrating duties as a TA , seeing the dynamics of the proferssors’ lives – not really free of monotony, boredom or absurdities, suicide-prompting ‘duties’ as a TA (I know, that’s an intentional repetition), etc etc etc.

Worst of all : Days, and sometimes weeks pass without an iota of research happening. Either for the lack of time or for the lack of mood/peace of mind. Or both. That hits at the very foundation of the “Oh, research in academia is intellectual bliss” notion.

But. .

The next time you get that stretch of few hours sans disturbance when you can really find/attack a problem at peace, all the disillusionment gets undone.

The trick seems to be keeping this cycle’s period as short as possible. By hook or crook.

For instance, going AWOL & being nocturnal for a week, staying away from lab and allowing yourself to get obsessed with a problem – not necessarily urgent/useful towards your thesis seems to work. Wonderfully.

So, yes, I can negate disillusionment & re-spark that passion for research whenever necessary.

Point 2 – Check.

3. Have I learn to come out of utopia when necessary & be practical in research?

Being a person who is prone to getting obsessed with one problem, however unimportant it may seem, I sometimes need to be shaken awake to be able to see the bigger picture.

Has that been done? Yes, quite often.

Would it need to be done by an external force in future? Perhaps, but not much.

I have learnt to “let go” of a problem when it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere for a while.

Point 3 – Check.

4. Have I learnt the importance of going back to fight with I had “let go” long back?

Whenever I find myself saying “Yes, that is an interesting idea, but I explored it 2 yrs back and it did not work out”, I almost always find myself getting more insights of the issue/solving the issue when I go back to the problem again. Don’t know if I get wiser with age or the problem gets easier with time! Guess the problem just gets marinated long enough at the back of my mind & becomes soft enough to bite through.

A lesson learnt long back, and reinforced recently.

I should start a “failed ideas” diary & note down all the ideas I “let go” of & flip through it once a year or so.

Point 4 – Check.

5. <More such “have I learnt”s about attitude towards research, which are too many to list>

Point 5 – Check.

6. Have I had time to think, introspect, and “take it slow” that I now believe that I would not feel that my life as a PhD student was ‘incomplete’?

Absolutely. Had the luxury of a supervisor making the mistake of saying, once, “Take time, learn. There’s no hurry to produce results for a while.” and exploited that statement to the fullest.

The “a while” got extended to “quite a while” to “a long time”, but in the process, learnt to enjoy life inclusive of “work”. Learnt to explore & be adventurous – both in research and otherwise. Learnt not to be a workaholic. I know, that’s debatable according to ppl who know me, but please believe me, I am not a workaholic. 😉

Point 6 – Check.

7. Have I learnt to face the necessary but boring evils in research without sulking (much) – namely writing papers, preparing presentations (conforming to certain ‘rules’) etc?

I think so. Yet to be confirmed.

Point 7 – Half check.

8. Do I have the ‘results’ to flaunt & demand that tag of “Doctor of Philosophy”?

Not yet. But I have a feeling that’s the easier part, once the rest is covered.

Point 8 – Pending.

==================================================================================

Wow. . More than 81% (tentative) coverage. Good going. [Pats her back]

Tentative – cos there might be (should be) more metrics to judge how “ready” one is to complete a PhD.

If I want to boost that coverage number (as a true blue engineer), I would have to add the following points to the check-list :

Bonus-points :

  • Do I want to eat real food, without having to go through the trouble of going to restaurants? YES. Check.
  • Do I badly, badly want a washing machine & instant geyser of my own? YES. Check.
  • Do I want a scooty? YES. Check.
  • Am I fed up with that part of TA work which needs me to answer questions like “If I change that file, and something goes wrong, then?? [scandalized look]”, but not with “The world will come to an end. Please don’t trigger an apocalypse”? – YES. Check

That pulls up the coverage to 87.5%. Awesome.

Any additions? Especially to the non-bonus point in the check-list?


Feelings of a TA

Disclaimer :

I in no way under-rate the collective quality of education or the average talent level of students at IITs. Views presented here are merely the result of observations about a not-too-small section of students.

I’m disappointed.

Most of them do not want to think beyond what is evident. “What does this result tell me?” is not an oft asked question.

I’m sad.

Some of these people aren’t ready to put in effort. They do not want to contemplate any concept beyond what is mentioned in class. They do not even want to put in the minimal effort to understand the basic point of some things mentioned in class – they come up with their own absurd reasons as to why their wrong understanding of it is “right”.

I feel helpless.

When people do things only for marks. When they do assignments blindly and mechanically, without pausing even a second to think about why they are being asked to do it. After not being able to answer the few simple questions thrown at them during lab assignment demos, when people complain “She is asking questions just to cut marks. The assignment never stated that I had to know those things”, I pretend to myself that people here really want to learn, not just get good grades.

I’m curious.

Where’s the curiosity in all these people? Why aren’t they asking themselves “why is this so?”, “how is this so?”, “what will happen if this is not so?”, “what other possibilities exist?”.

I feel disgusted.

Many of them want to be spoon-fed. Hand-holding seems to be a lesser evil now. When a student tells me “I did not do that in the assignment because you did not explicitly tell me to do it.”, I roll my eyes. When a student tells me “I did not know that bit to complete the assignment. I was not taught that in class.”, I suppress a sarcastic retort asking “In which classroom were you taught to download 100s of GBs of movies & watch them back to back?”.  When a student asks me “Would you have the solution manual to the exercise problems in this textbook? If I knew the answer, then I would find it easier to ‘work’ towards the answer?”, I am left speechless.

I’m angry.

At the education system. The coaching industry has managed to be very successful in producing “pattern recognizing machines” who can solve problems of the sort they’ve been bombarded with a zillion times. The JEE kings & queens can no longer attack a problem with originality. The GATE nobility can no longer argue a point, they can only choose the correct option. They want everything to be told to them explicitly, everything to be put on paper. They want to throw any reference material other than class powerpoint slides out of their lives. The JEE-coaching-culture has made IIT BTechs to expect spoonfeeding with respect to the ways of approaching a problem. The indifferent and bookish teaching culture of the 2nd rung engineering colleges has made IIT MTechs to demand spoonfeeding as a right!

I am filled with self-doubt.

Am I the only one who thinks concepts need to be appreciated and not merely acknowledged? Am I the only one who thinks assignments are a fun way of learning, thinking and applying? Am I the only one who thinks that the more challenging questions you face, the more you understand the concept? Am I expecting too much out of people? Am I harbouring utopian ideas?

BUT..

I haven’t given up hope yet..

Because..

I’m glad

When I argue for an out-of-the-box point, someone comments “Well, that’s an absurd line of thought. But it is an interesting way of seeing things.”, I find that grin creeping across my face. When that single soul tells me “I enjoyed doing this assignment. It was interesting to observe some things & think about some things.”, I can’t but feel happy & satisfied that small assignment that I put up with the aim of making people think & enjoy learning has served its purpose. When people trust me enough to ask me to clarify some doubts or teach them some stuff from a class they missed, the feeling of “Oh, I could endure this for a lifetime just to experience these occasional moments” brightens my day.

I have a hunch.

That even in today’s education scene, teaching is not too thankless a job after all 😉


The Student-Teacher divide

Read all mushy posts for Teachers day a couple of weeks back..

Get outraged by the kind of innovatively wrong answers students come up with while checking exam papers a week back..

Witness both clever thinking and pointless-ly done assignments a few days back..

‘Enjoy’ an all time high interaction with students as a TA (in teaching concepts, clarifying doubts, arguing abt the correctness of their answers etc.) during the past few days..

You tend to think about the way teaching & learning is perceived by students & teachers.

You realize that there is a clear divide. Feel it more since you yourself are positioned ON the dividing line.

You find the divide depressing & put up a status message saying..

Looks like an entire generation has been ‘educated’ to believe that Good Teaching=”preparing short notes of a text book & presenting them in class as slides” and Learning=”memorize slides vaguely.. you can let your imagination run wild to interpret them when confronted with questions in the exam“.. Sadly, Thinking & Appreciating concepts do not find a place.

Well. . that sounded more like I am lamenting on behalf of the teacher (which I was doing), and it was quick to provoke heated arguments with friends. . All who have been only on the student side of the divide..

I say : Students do not utilize a teacher’s earnest effort to put across concepts in interesting ways.

They say : I haven’t seen too many teachers put any kind of effort! May be they do in YOUR dept, in YOUR institute. . But how many teachers do you remember from your previous institute who made learning interesting?

I say :

I say : Students refuse to learn & appreciate basics or contemplate about any concept in detail. . They refuse to go beyond what the slide says.

They say : They would do that when someone provokes thought in them.. When someone makes them see that learning & thinking is fun. Who does that?

I say : It is a 2-way process. . Learning can be fun only if both parties put in effort.. For instance, students should be thinking why an assignment is framed the way it is. . What it is trying to make them learn/experience/appreciate. . and THEN attack the problem . . there is no point in mechanically doing an assignment and presenting a solution which most of your peer group agrees upon. How many do that?

They say : Do we have the time for that? You give us assignment after assignment, deadline after deadline in course after course. . If we sit & meditate on each assignment, when are we going to finish? And when are we going to find time to enjoy life?

I say : Well. . You can enjoy learning too. . If only you stop treating life as a rat race where courses are laps finished. Students seem to be more interested in scoring more than their peers than in learning. Why worry about “Am I getting a half a mark less than that fellow? Should I fight/beg the TA for that half a mark?” instead of thinking “I made this mistake & lost marks. . I have learnt what not to do now” ?

They say : Life IS a rat race, honey!

I say : Why do students (esply the post graduates who have graduated from non-IITs) seem to think that ‘covering’ a textbook is better teaching? Why do they prefer a prof who runs through every detail in the textbook in marathon-mode to a prof who takes it slow & steady & tries to get the class to think & appreciate the stuff? If I had to ‘cover’ a textbook, I would sit under a tree & read it. . not come to class at 8am in a cold November!

They say :

They say : For all that talk, how many profs approach teaching with a passion? How many approach each classroom session with an infectious enthusiasm? They do a mechanical job, we too go through it mechanically.

I say : As long as students do not take the course seriously & show enthusiasm & commitment, how do you expect profs to retain their enthusiasm and do a great job? They are bound to get frustrated from seeing no fruit for their efforts. That means, you get a poor course experience cos you did not respond positively to the Prof’s efforts.

They say : !!! Profs get frustrated? I thought they’d be cool with their jobs. . Though it may be thankless & boring.

I say : !!!

Clearly, the arguments lead nowhere. . They are never-ending. . But they do throw up some interesting points..

  • When would teachers retain passion for teaching & approach each class with an aim to put across basic concepts & provoke thought?
  • When will students realize that going through the works of a course mechanically is mere waste of time & effort?
  • When will teachers recognize the need to pause the grilling for a while & help students realize that their active role is important in making the course worthwhile?
  • When will students realize that not all teachers fall in the category of “know nothing. . repeat something from textbook. . gives a damn about whether I learn something or not”? That in most cases, a lot of thought goes behind the way a course is conducted?
  • When would this student-teacher divide be bridged?

Questions sound too idealistic & utopian eh?


“Education consultancy” = Confuse young minds!

An early morning “Bull-shit!!!” provoker : “Choose computer science and IT courses”

This article opens with :

“Students waiting to join engineering colleges have been advised to choose computer science and IT courses since they have huge potential for jobs.”

Congratulations for an absolutely [err.. excuse me] retarded opening! Bravo!

Another “D’oh!” statement :

“Stating that the core engineering branches have limited job potential, Mr. Gandhi said that students need to do career planning every year to make themselves employable and successful.”

What ever happened to “Follow your dreams”? So its “Follow the herd” now!

Oh sorry. . How can it be “Follow your dreams”? Youngsters are not even given the time or chance to “dream”. They are deliberately kept ignorant of the concepts like “dream”, “passion”, “do what you enjoy” etc. How can such thoughts even enter their minds? After all, they are constantly reminded that the purpose of life is to clinch a high-paying job the highest-paying job and live happily ever after!

Agreed that it is important to create skill pools for promising industries, channel talent towards strengthening the economy etc etc etc. But. .should it be at the cost of the individual?

Why don’t the so-called “education consultants” realize that by taking the job oriented approach, they are doing more harm than to good to an entire generation? Why don’t they realize that they are creating a “career caste system” when they say things like these?

“For the students, the analyst had given an order of preference while choosing an engineering branch after the Plus Two results were declared and when they go for Anna University counselling. The top three, he said, will be Computer Science/IT, EEE and Civil engineering. Then comes mechanical and ECE, he said based on an analytical study based on investments, Government policy and job potential.”

“CS > EEE > Civil > Mechanical > ECE. . . .” reminds me of the distorted Varna System – “Brahman > Kshatriya > Vaishya > Shudra”!

To list a few consequences of such propaganda :

  • Youngsters, who are yet to discover what they like to do in life [and the majority falls in this category!] start believing “CS > EEE > Civil > Mechanical > ECE. . . .” and that “If I get a CS engineering seat, I am superior… If I can get only a Mechanical engineering seat, I am not good enough”. A notion damaging the morale & self-confidence of students who pursue forced to pursue one of the “lower” streams of engineering.
  • It is not just the youngsters who are confused. . Parents too start believing in this “career caste system”. A child has not lived up to their expectations if he/she doesn’t procure a CS/EEE seat! And of course. . Comparisons between my child, your child and his/her child follow. . More of “morale boosting” for the students!
  • Lots of misfits! People who have a flair for mechanical engg. end up spending 4yrs and probably their life trying to code C and Java programs all of which appear latin to them.. All because they made the mistake of scoring well enough in exams and the parents-peers-others combine brainwashed them to take up CS cos it is the “in-thing”.  The reverse too. . ppl whose marks could not afford their cherished EEE seat and they end up yearning for it all their life. A B.Tech in the wrong stream is a life-long burden for many. . for not many people get the opportunity to switch streams later.
  • At some point, it no longer matters what stream you did your B.Tech in. For Infosys, CTS, TCS, Wipro etc are all too eager to take you in just for sitting through 4yrs of courses you don’t appreciate. They say “Come on in.. we know you have the patience. .and you are malleable. .though you are still technically only as good as you were after school. We would train you to do just exactly what we want you to do. . both of us happy”!
  • People stuck in “careers” mechanically working away. . No passion. .It is merely a job that pays. No passion = No good work/thinking/research. Don’t you dare complain that India is in a deep rut when it comes to research!
  • All fields apart from the “chosen few” languish. And are you wondering about pure science, arts, journalism etc? Oh Come on. . stay off. .they are the untouchables in the “career caste system”.
  • You have a generation full of confused folks, who haven’t identified their interests or realized their potential or have had even a glimpse of the pleasures of working on something they enjoy.

When would this kind of blind social conditioning change?? 😐