FAQs. For new faculty in India - Research, Teaching, and Service
I received my Ph.D. in 2009 from the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. I am currently (Fall 2018) an Associate Professor of Computer Science at IIIT Delhi and on sabbatical at IIIT Hyderabad. In the last 9 years, I have had a rollercoaster ride in terms of being a faculty, I have enjoyed every bit of it (for more on this, search for #ProfGiri on Google). I have had the pleasure of working with some very cool students at all levels, Ph.D., Masters, and UGs; students have always been my academic family and in particular, some have become like real family. Most of these students are rocking the tech world at different levels now. It has been a great experience working with numerous collaborators around the world, both in academia and industry. Thanks to a lot of well-wishers in academia and industry around the world, and government of India, without the help of these well-wishers (for more on this, search for #strengthofwellwishers on Google) it is impossible to do anything. I attribute most things that I have been able to do, to these well-wishers.

It's been an interesting transition in the last year or so, where people have started looking and referring to me as “senior faculty” in India; it makes me feel old, but what’s in the age! Because of this transition, I have been asked questions about “how to be a successful faculty in India?” mostly by faculty who recently started their academic career in IITs, IIITs, and other institutes. I understand that the word ‘successful’ is very subjective but I have been trying to answer some of these questions through emails and phone calls. Given that these will probably be the questions that most new faculty will have, I have created this page to share the questions and my responses for the same. These are just my responses, mostly drawn out of my own experiences (which has been fabulous) and things I have picked from talking to my well-wishers and senior faculty in/outside India. Feel free to write to me at pk [AT] iiitd [DOT] ac [DOT] in if you see any questions you are not able to find an answer for here, I will be happy to answer and add it here. Currently I have used the questions that I have got, as-is to answer; this is a modest beginning in helping new faculty get a handle on their career.
Questions
  1. How did you select students?
  2. What all efforts would you recommend that a new faculty put to reach students?
  3. What traits do you think would make a good fit for a PhD/MTech/BTech student for working on research projects?
  4. The opinion seems to be divided on how quickly to grow a group and spread across multiple projects. What’s your take on it?
  5. Did you have any nervousness taking PhD students given that it’s a big commitment? How did you overcome this?
  6. Given that there’s always so much to do, what are some practical steps you took to maintain a decent work life balance without sacrificing family/personal time as well as professional goals?
  7. Do you have any suggestions for writing good grant proposals, especially in the Indian context?
  8. Did you align your courses to your research? Would you recommend it?
  9. Per hour of classroom teaching, how much effort would you recommend / estimate on the preparation?
  10. What are some of the ways you think one can contribute towards institute building (this question may be more pertinent to folks joining relatively new places)
  11. How should new faculty decide on what is the right ratio between research, teaching and service?
  12. What is your advice to new faculty in institutions where there is no TA support and class size is bigger than 100?
  13. What factors should go in selecting an institute to work for?
  14. Do you have any specific tips from your experience on creating a sustainable research group? In terms of students, infrastructure and funds?
  15. How to build industry, academic and government collaboration within India?
  16. Do you have any India specific tips for attracting funding for research or is it a direct function of publication records?
  17. Other random points which are super important for an excellent academic career
  1. How did you select students? [Go to top]
    • Thanks to a lot of students (Ph.D., Masters, and B.Tech.) who took the risk in working with me during my formative years, they set the bar really high and they are all around the globe now!
    • Over the years we have set up this interesting / time consuming process of selecting students; the philosophy is to spend a lot of time in getting good students, who are capable of taking things up themselves, if needed.
      1. I get CVs, go through the CV if anything interesting, I ask for SOP
      2. Review SOP, then give them a task, generic enough to understand their skills
      3. Technical interview done by students / RAs
      4. I meet with the student just to generally understand the interest, attitude, personal preferences, etc.
    • Here are some blogs written by students / alums that describe the process of selection and how they got to know us, and how some of the points that I mentioned in other parts of this page motivated them.
      1. Dhruv’s blog talking about getting rejected the first time, and then working on his SOP and application
      2. Divam’s blog on how OSMPalooza / Hackathon helped him to work with us
      3. Dipjyoti’s blog on how NPTEL course that I offered helped him to reach out to us
      4. Bhavna’s blog on how DHCS course that I taught in campus helped her to gain interest in HCI
    • Another approach that works well after a year or so, is to get the current students to refer / recommend students; given that good students are aware of who else is good in campus (from a competitive sense), their recommendations are very helpful.
    There are many more blogs and heart warming content written by students, please feel free to visit them here.


  2. What all efforts would you recommend that a new faculty put to reach students? [Go to top]
    • Word-of-Mouth is the best strategy, do super good work and let the students speak about it; I am a strong believer that word-of-mouth works as the best strategy. These days students are very well connected within and between institutes to get insights about faculty. Here are some blogs written by students who vouch for this approach
      1. Saravana’s blog on his senior at CEG & Precog Alum sharing his experience with him.
      2. Vivek’s blog on how an email from his mentor in IIT KGP helped him
      3. Divyansh’s blog on how weak ties (acquaintances) helped him in spending time with us.
    • Organise info sessions in the institute and present your research work to all the students.
    • Give talks in near by colleges and present your work. Say you are looking for students to work with you.
    • Get students to share their experience publicly through blogs, videos, etc.
    • University or campus wide mailing lists.
    • In general I believe these days students are very well informed, they look at your website, online social media posts, etc. to make their opinion and then only reach to you, so, would recommend considering these.
      1. Having an updated website with latest students, projects, etc.
      2. Listing down the collaborations, student visits, internships / fellowships, etc. on the website.
      3. Most students (those who dont go for graduate school also) are looking for Letter of Recommendation when they explore working with us, so being explicit about your expectations about when you will write letters, and you will be happy to write LoRs, etc. makes you more approachable.
    • If possible, teach interesting elective courses that are aligned to your research work, this will help students to be aware of your interests. If you are teaching core courses, sincerely teach the course, so the students get to see you as a sincere faculty. I believe students are not just looking for best faculty (whatever that metric is), they are also looking for faculty who are sincere and considerate to students. Some student blogs vouching for courses taught: Simran | Vedant


  3. What traits do you think would make a good fit for a PhD/MTech/BTech student for working on research projects? [Go to top]
    • Other than being technically sound, it is more important that the student is sincere, and has high integrity towards his/her work; if the students are coming from some good schools, then they have some baseline technical skills, look for those who go beyond and have the ability to own up, ‘will-figure-out’ attitude.
    • Ability to slog on a project even if there seems to be less / no instant gratification; research projects involve failing a lot and understanding why something failed. Latter is more important than former.
    • Get inputs from other faculty in campus about good students in their courses; look for good students in your own course, even though the course may not be in your areas of work. For example, some of my good students I have been able to attract from the core courses that I have taught.


  4. The opinion seems to be divided on how quickly to grow a group and spread across multiple projects. What’s your take on it? [Go to top]
    • Faculty life is a Marathon (spreading over many years), so don’t try to do anything quickly, I definitely tried doing somethings quickly (I will even say that I burnt myself a bit) and I would not recommend that.
    • You want to go long, so walk slowly and steadily, preferably take students with you.


  5. Did you have any nervousness taking PhD students given that it’s a big commitment? How did you overcome this? [Go to top]
    • I did not take any student in the first year of my career. This is something I recommend, not to take students in the 1st year of your faculty career. This will allow you to understand yourself what is going on, the ecosystem, etc.
    • I was super lucky to have 2 very great, sincere, and hardworking (read slogging) students in my 3rd semester of being a faculty.
    • Sometimes you don't have a choice, if you get some funding it can force you to take students.
    • Building the pipeline of PHD students is one of the key to success in a faculty career.
    • Each student is a different challenge. Take it case by case. What works for one student will not work for another. Some students will make you happy, some will make you proud, some super proud. But all of them will help you grow as a faculty.
    • I always like to think them as Mother-in-Law - Daughter-in-Law relationship.


  6. Given that there’s always so much to do, what are some practical steps you took to maintain a decent work life balance without sacrificing family/personal time as well as professional goals? [Go to top]
    • There is a lot written and spoken about time management, there are some wonderful books, and tips that I have come across. Below, I have listed some concrete things I try to do.
    • Adhere to dinner time at home whenever in town, dinner time is strictly gadget free.
    • Taking a complete break from technology is a must, for a while I used to have my laptop, phone, iwatch all shut down for 24 hrs or so in a week. I don’t do it anymore, but, I kind of stay away from it.
    • Take a 4-5 day break once a year which also is completely gadget free.
    • Please take a look at Kai-Fu Lee’s (also a CS Ph.D. from CMU!) recent TED talk on 996 vs 965!
    • Irrespective of who (Your own Ph.D. students, Ph.D. students from campus, Your own / M.Tech. students from campus, Your own / B.Tech. students from campus, students outside the campus) speaking with you, be attentive to what they are speaking and be cheerful in terms of the interactions with them. Somebody once told me, "It is not what (e.g. co-organizing a summer school, writing a paper together, etc.) I did with you, you will remember, but it is the way I treated you that you will remember." So, treating students well should be the goal.


  7. Do you have any suggestions for writing good grant proposals, especially in the Indian context? [Go to top]
    • Understand what the funding agencies want, by talking to them, meeting them before even thinking of an idea, so the proposal can be appreciated when it is evaluated. My approach has always been, understand the demand/willingness of funding agencies and then plan your research accordingly.
    • Even with industry, being able to understand what they want, and then tailoring your proposal to that (not going too far away from your own expertise and interest but also staying relevant) will be effective.


  8. Did you align your courses to your research? Would you recommend it? [Go to top]
  9. During my formative years (until 3rd or 4th year) No, but I taught cool courses, like Research Methods, Designing Human Centered Systems, even though these are not my core research areas. Now I do a mix of research course and generic course.

  10. Per hour of classroom teaching, how much effort would you recommend / estimate on the preparation? [Go to top]
  11. In the first 2 years of your career, probably 10hrs to 1hr teaching, but as you cross 4 semesters of teaching or so, this will drop, so don’t freak out :-)


  12. What are some of the ways you think one can contribute towards institute building (this question may be more pertinent to folks joining relatively new places)? [Go to top]
    • Be part of decision making thread / path in the institute, be visible.
    • Attend department/faculty meetings as much as possible.
    • Participate in various important activities of the campus. Be there, always.
    • Take initiatives in starting new things on campus, I remember helping start ACM chapter, Seminar Series, CERC (1st Centre of IIITD), Incubation Centre, etc. at IIIT Delhi.
    • When I joined 9 years ago, my stand was, take on anything that comes my way, given that both IIITD and I was young, it worked in favor of both.


  13. How should new faculty decide on what is the right ratio between research, teaching and service? [Go to top]
    • It completely depends on what kind of profile the new faculty wants to build, we at IIITD have had great examples of different ratios and being equally successful.
    • I am fully convinced that new faculty can pick a ratio, stick to it for year or 2 and re-evaluate and adjust as one progresses. This also depends on the institute you are part of, for example, at IIITD when I joined in 2009, there were too many things to do for any faculty, including graduate admissions; I also remember going myself with an admin staff to a couple of vendors physically around in Delhi and deciding / buying Easels & poster boards for poster session for one of my courses.
    • Say NO when you have to say; I am not very good at this yet, but I am learning to do so.


  14. What is your advice to new faculty in institutions where there is no TA support and class size is bigger than 100? [Go to top]
  15. I can fully understand the difficulty; one of the things that has worked with me in the past is to get senior students from the institute (say 7th or 8th semester ones who may have taken this course in the past or who are just smart) who are interested in helping with the course and have them as TA. I have had some wonderful TAs in the past who never got paid or got official credits for it, but I wrote about their \contribution in their LOR and other recommendations. So, you may end up getting good TAs through this method.


  16. What factors should go in selecting an institute to work for? [Go to top]
  17. As in many other cases, without knowing the background about who is asking the question, it is hard to provide pin-pointed suggestions, but here are some parameters that I would highly recommend considering. Here is an abstract way of narrowing down the possibilities. Put a value of 1 - 10 where 10 is the best and 1 is the worst, candidly put the value in each cell. Look at the total for each institutes, this will help select or reject a institute; the key is to be very candid in putting the values.

    Institutes Proximity to family/home town Weather /living conditions Metro cities vs smaller towns Established institutes vs new institutes Existing faculty profiles Alumni profiles Opportunities for spouse / kids school Total
    A
    B
    C
    D

    Another broader philosophy that I usually use to make a decision is “Do you want to be a BIG fish in a small pond or a SMALL fish in a big pond?” The kind of person you are, will help you narrow down an answer for this question, which will probably guide you deciding on the options you have to explore.


  18. Do you have any specific tips from your experience on creating a sustainable research group? In terms of students, infrastructure and funds? [Go to top]
    • Develop a Ph.D. students pipeline, this will be the best way to have your research group and themes sustain.
    • Pick a couple of themes (not more than 2 I guess) in the formative years, stick to it for say 7 - 8 years or so. This will allow you to establish yourself in the area, and make a mark. Be opportunistic for sure, I remember jumping onto Privacy and Security in Online Social Media as a topic during my formative years.


  19. How to build industry, academic and government collaboration within India? [Go to top]
    • Be approachable and available; one of the biggest skills I took away from my Advisor was this! This one skill I believe can be a killer for being a visible and excellent faculty.
    • Respond to emails from external people / outside the institute (focus is only on the collaboration part), even if you want to deny the request or say no to the invite, etc.
    • Show enthusiasm and excitement in your response; everybody likes to have positive and exciting people around; again if you were to deny or say no, keep a positive note. For example, say something like “Thank you for the invite. Due to other commitments, I will not be able to accept the invite. I am sure the event will go great. I look forward for future interactions.”


  20. Do you have any India specific tips for attracting funding for research or is it a direct function of publication records? [Go to top]
  21. I am not sure if it is a direct function of publications, I think it is more a function of whether you are able to deliver what you promised (I understand that there has to be a first one!) and whether you have the appetite to continue working in the space.


  22. Other random points which are super important for an excellent academic career [Go to top]
    • As a faculty, we generally underestimate the strength of the Admin staff who work with us in various aspects of our career, e.g. equipment purchase, academic calendering / final grade uploads, IT help desk, facilities management, communication team, HR team, IRD team, office cleaning staff, estate officer, finance team, the security guards who man our office floors or the gates in campus, etc. A small ‘how are you doing today?’ or ‘All well at home?’ goes a long way. I use #IIITDAdminRocks to commend / applaud their support in my online posts, and appreciate them in person wherever possible.


Other resources that I like in this context:
Thanks to Profs. Arun Balaji, Aman Parnami, Shriram Venkataraman, Rajiv Ratn Shah, Mukulika Maity, Tanmoy Chakraborty of IIIT Delhi, Nipun Batra of IITGn, Venkatesh Vinayakarao of IIIT Sri City, Rijureka Sen of IIT Delhi, Dr. Mainack Mondal of Univ. of Chicago, and many other fresh Ph.Ds. who joined the academia in India or are exploring, who probed me with some of these questions. Special thanks to Nipun, and Venky for nudging me into developing this page. Thanks to Vedant Nanda, Abhinav Khattar, and Shaan Chopra for inputs.