I am writing this blog after spending more than two life-changing-years at PreCog – I joined in December 2016 as an intern and “graduated” as a Research Associate (RA) earlier this year. In my previous blog, I tried to capture my experience as an intern. As an RA, I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to initiate and lead the WhatsApp Misinformation/WhatsFarzi project with some amazing undergrads. Much of the technical details can be found in another blog. It feels extremely satisfying to share that the project I worked on as an intern got published as a full paper at ACM WebScience 2018, and WhatsFarzi got some cool media coverage (ToI article) recently.
As any decent researcher would do, I prepared to write this blog, by first going through the ones previously published by our alumni, just to make sure it’s not redundant stuff. So here, in this blog, I won’t talk about technical details, but rather I will try to reflect on the entire experience from a much broader viewpoint, with some small instances from my personal experience – how PreCog equipped me with the life-skills to achieve my dreams, and how PK’s general life philosophies (which PK calls #PKGyan) have inspired, and continue to inspire, tremendous confidence in me (and hence the organization of the blog using four of the personally most impactful ones). Also, while selecting a research group to work with, culture is often the most important parameter, so here, I will talk about that. It can also get a little too much at times, but please bear with me. 🙂
All in all, my purpose with this blog is to convince the reader that PreCog can change your life – for the good!
After a close call between USC, UIUC and Georgia Tech, all of which had phenomenal potential advisors for my PhD, I will be joining Georgia Tech as a Chair’s Fellow PhD student in Computer Science, starting Fall 2019. This was clearly never possible for me had I not joined PreCog, and hence, it has clearly changed my life – for the better.
“If someone believes in you, and you have doubts about whether or not you deserve it, better focus on working your ass off to prove them right.”
The first memory I have of PK is of 4th January 2017 – PreCog’s 6th birthday. We were casually discussing where I was coming from i.e. MAIT (my undergrad institute) and where I wanted to be in a few years (and let’s just say, there was clearly an insurmountable gap between the two). I was sheepishly expressing gratitude to PK for giving me the opportunity to work with his group. What PK said in response, got etched in my memory, and fuelled me for a long time – in his typical style: “Hey Dhruv, that’s okay… you shouldn’t think so much about the past… this is only the beginning… you have a good platform now… just make sure you make the best of the opportunities you get here… that should get you where you want to be…”. Doesn’t seem like much now, but at that time, those words gave me all the motivation I needed.
“We might not be the smartest, but we all have the skills to achieve our goals. It is about using them and achieving our goals.”
Another memory that has stuck with me is a newspaper article clipping on PK’s office whiteboard, with the headline “’Wasn’t academically brilliant, but would put mind and heart into duty”, describing the personality traits of N Chandrasekaran, which led to his astronomical rise from a mere employee of TCS 30 years ago, to becoming the Chairman of Tata Sons, one of the largest conglomerates in South Asia. In fact, PK’s thoughts, in general, resonate with ideas expressed in Malcolm Gladwell’s books such as “Outliers” and “David & Goliath” (PK has also written a blog on his time with “David & Goliath”), which also talks about underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants (sidenote: I am a huge Malcolm Gladwell fan and these two are my all-time top favourites). These small things that PK keeps mentioning here and there, end up making a huge impact on us students – personally, I have never been the “typical academically brilliant student”, and through personal interactions with me, PK has inspired great optimism and confidence in me, enabling me to aim ambitiously. It has been truly life-changing for me.
“We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.”Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture
On a different note, one thing that definitely sets aside PreCog, from other research groups in India, is how we recruit students. As PK always says, he will prefer a “will-figure-it-out” guy over a “know-it-all” guy, and in line with this, our guiding principles for recruitment are not to filter based on colleges (clearly!), or GPA (again, clearly!), but rather to look for the student’s attitude and skills via the projects they’ve done and their performance in the task we provide. So now you know – you don’t need to be an NIT/IIIT/IITian to get through PreCog, you just need the right attitude and skills.
“I want to (and mostly always will) move ahead in life, it is you who have to decide whether you want to go with me or not.”
Anyone who has interacted with PK closely will know that PK actually endorses being selfish, and I don’t think anyone else (let alone a professor) is as transparent as him about this. As is obvious from the lab’s graduate admissions “results”, PK has incredibly high standards as far as work is concerned, and it is clear to students that they have to meet them in order to stay relevant and useful. Let’s just say that PK has perfected the balance between strictness when it comes to work-related issues, which pushes the student to their absolute limit, and understanding and helping students when they’ve actually done their best. Having personally been at both ends of the spectrum at different points of time, I feel, ironically, this is a major reason why PreCog as a group, succeeds – everyone is expected to be selfish enough to make significant progress in the project they take up, while also participating in the group activities that define the direction of the group, in general.
“In whatever you do, you should hit the pinnacle of that vertical once in life, especially if it is about your education or work, for sure. Going to CMU was one such thing for me.”
This is something PK mentions a lot – implicitly, and sometimes explicitly encouraging students to aim higher and higher as far as work is concerned, and then do whatever is necessary, to achieve it. After six months at PreCog, this immensely strengthened my resolve to aim for the very ambitious, but absolutely best universities for my graduate studies, namely CMU and GT (GT, since PK mentions them in the same breath :P).
Overall, I feel Precog has some great practices and systems set in place to ensure that all of us stay motivated and keep working hard, and while we’re at it, have a bit of fun. It has the perfect environment to incubate top research talent, which is also why it is the perfect stepping stone towards graduate school. If anything, I only have one regret – and that is of not joining early enough. It is easy to take for granted what PreCog teaches and imbibes in you – it really comes that naturally. As I said in my last conversation with PK – he’s really in the business of creating lives!
More about me @ dhruvkuchhal.com.