Four years in Academics

I completed four years in academics few days back. When I look back, especially at these last four years, I could see that I have added value for myself, to the student community, to the institute and to the nation as a whole. That’s the beauty of being in academics – you can add value locally and globally! But still, I would say that there were bouncy and flat periods in it, which is in addition to the coming-nicely-on-to-the-bat periods (World Cup effect!). One needs all kind of scenarios to equip him(her)self right! So, no complaints here.

This is how I had summarised at the end of my first year in academics:

In the first year my first job was to get acclimatise as a good teacher which I have done to an extend, now my priority is to do good research with students and publish well! Smiles in your student faces bring miles of satisfaction and that is second to none!

See this blog entry done three years ago:

With more administrative work that came on my way (as DoFA) in my second year it took a lot out of me, since (1) administration is a different ball game, (2) I had no experience in administration (3) it is not my piece of cake and (4) academics administration is not a difficult job but it takes lot of your time. During this catch-the-neck like scenario, I was able to somehow withstand the teaching part – I could try lots of innovative ideas to improve my teaching and at the same time, my students learning experience also. I succeeded in some and failed in some but ultimately learnt a lot more from the mistakes. Hence on the teaching part, I would say that on the whole I have succeeded by God’s grace. But the part that took a little beating was my research part. There were few reasons for this but the prime reason was I could not devote considerable time for it. Change in my area of research also added to that misery. But one lucky thing I got during this second year period was, getting two PhD students to work with me. I could continue the research part through these two students who, in turn, worked with my UG and PG students. This helped me to create a nice group / ecosystem as like in IITs and other world class institutions – PhD students working on the conceptual part and the UG students looking after the implementation and experimentation part. But I should note here that there were highly passionate UG students who got involved in research and came out with good results!

My administrative responsibilities as DoFA came to a close few months back and since then I have been able to focus more on the research part – now I am able to devote more time with less intervention from the other side of the academic quarters. With one PhD student seeing the horizon and another one feeling the horizon I sense that the progress is really good. There is no doubt that this is only going to improve further and further.

There were many small but important lessons that I learnt during this last three years period. I would like to list it here and explain how I tried my best to address those issues:

  • The most important thing that I have learned here in academics is to say “No” to things which I think are not possible for me to take it. I am, in general, a very flexible person in nature. So I had a habit of accepting more and more work that came on my way and I was elastically stretching myself beyond my threshold. This led to various stress related issues and I learnt the lessons in a very hard way. Now I take my time before accepting anything that come my way, and if I feel that it is worthwhile to be taken, and I deserve to do it, then I will accept, if not I will say No. Main point we need to understand here is that when you say No, we need to give proper justification, which may not be needed when you say Yes! If you have an objective and focus in your career you have to be selfish too. There is no other go! This has actually helped me to even out things and concentrate only on things that genuinely require my attention.
  • Other main issue I faced in academics was the issue of frequent context-switching. Let me explain what I meant by it here. In corporate atmosphere, you have a project at hand and you will immerse deeply into it. When you are working in that project, you may not get any other assignment until you finish that one. But in the case of a job in academics, especially from Associate Professor category onwards whether you like it or not, you are going to get both academics related admin work, in addition to teaching and research work. Hence there are three categories of work you may get: academic administration, teaching and research. Most of these last three years, many a times I have to hip-hop between various responsibilities. When you do that you may have to do the context-switching from admin to research, from research to teaching and so on very often. Even within one field, that is, research, you may have to hip-hop. You may work in various different problems with different types of students. So quick context-switching is necessary – and that’s where my problem was. I have got used to this lately by planning my schedule of work beforehand. If I had not planned for a work and that work is not of higher priority, I usually defer it for another day. That gives me sometime to plan for it. At this time, I still remember my Postdoc advisor Prof. Helmut Jurgensen‘s advice to me – one work at a time!
  • On the research side, I was facing a different problem. After I came back to academic from corporate life, my main focus area in research has changed from Theoretical Computer Science to Web Science. In Theoretical Computer Science, during my tenure as a research student, validation of result is done through Theorems and Proofs. But in the area of Web Science, Theorems and Proofs are not possible in most of the cases. So, only way to validate the results is by doing empirical analysis. The switch from mathematical proofs to empirical analysis took a lot of time for me to understand. I am still getting used to it. This comes only through experience.
  • Every research topic is different and within each research topic, every research problem is different. So, for a new entrant in a research topic, it is difficult to judge the standard of the problem and the results that (s)he is working on. Hence, when I met my research students I said that we are going to aim at top-tier conferences first for our publications. Main reason being by comparing our papers with papers at top-tier conferences, we shall come to know our level and through critical comments from the reviewers, we shall be able to improve on our negative points. By sending to tier-two conferences we may get more publications, but there will not be much opportunities to improve our knowledge in that specific or related topic. By using this approach, we have had almost 75% rejection rate on our submissions, but it has immensely helped me and my students to go much deeper into our problems which we would not have even imagined. Now we are at a threshold of acceptance in a top-tier conference. Hope it goes through in the next few months.

Just a few weeks ago, I was telling one of my very passionate student that life is not only about change. Change in life is not the correct word here. It gives only importance to what you are presently or what you will be in future – change is like ON/OFF switch – either you change to ON or OFF. But life is more about how one evolves – evolve, also includes change, but it also includes “how you changed and what made you to change” in addition to the lessons that you have learned. So, in a nutshell I am evolving in my academics life and thereby finding myself in my academics life. Hope I learn more and more – since, academics is to learn together!

EDIT: Corrected some typo errors…