Thursday, 14 September 2017

A strategy to address econimic concerns in non-engineering / non-medical careers.

This post focuses on the economic concerns faced by folks entering non-engineering and non-medical fields of study and careers and presents one possible strategy to address them.

(I also think that our government needs to do far more than what it does today for our soldiers, hawaldars and people in other "essential services" such as school teachers and nurses - I'll make an appeal on this and present my views on the matter later in this post.)

But the proposed strategy first:

The central strategy I propose to address this concern is that more people consider taking up teaching positions at the school, college or university level. And alongside one's teaching responsibilities at different levels one can continue to pursue knowledge and work towards higher degrees (more on this below).

I think we as a society have lost sight of the fact that teaching is an extremely honourable profession. Perhaps the highest there is as Knowledge sustains everything else. We need to correct course on this front and have the very best in every field take up teaching positions. There is a dire need for good teachers in our country today in my opinion. So I propose this strategy both from the viewpoint of aspirants in different fields earning a decent salary while pursuing their own individual goals as well as to address the need for good teachers.

If there is a need to start earning money right after your bachelors degree, my recommendation would be to take up a teaching position at the school level. If you are unable to get a good teaching position right away, offer tuitions for a while. But be sure to pursue a Masters degree alongside. Don't stop studying yourself! That's the key. Don't lose sight of your long term goals. I know that salaries at the school level may be a concern. As I mentioned above, I'll make an appeal to the government regarding this later in this post along with presenting my views on the matter. But till such a time that the overall situation changes for the better, we still need to keep moving forward while negotiating any financial difficulties that may arise as best we can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with supporting yourself and your family using such a strategy as you work towards your goal. In fact teaching school children is such a great service!

But as I said above, be sure to pursue a masters degree alongside. Keep studying!

After you obtain your masters degree, try and obtain a better teaching position at the school level, or if possible, a lectureship at the college level where you can teach bachelors students.

Again, don't stop studying yourself :)! Enroll yourself in a PhD program alongside and work hard towards writing a good thesis.

Once you have a PhD, you can either obtain a more senior position at a college, or better still, try to become a faculty member at a University or an Institute where you can also be involved with post-graduate education..

This is how it usually works out in my field too. Pure research positions in science and technology are rare to find and by and large those of us who are interested in research take up academic positions in an institute where one has teaching commitments to fulfill. That's what pays the bill and alongside one gets complete academic freedom to study and research whichever area one wishes to.

So teach, and alongside, keep working towards your goal of becoming an author or a poet or a musician or a mathematician or a scientist or a painter. If you are lucky the roles will flip eventually. You will become a mathematician who also teaches. Or an accomplished Sitar player or Odissi dancer who also teaches others. And who knows maybe one day you will (if you want to of course) become a full time painter or musician or author or scientist who earns enough directly from his or her profession and won't need to teach anymore from a financial point of view. The thing to realize is that there is a whole range of possibilities that can help you stay in the field and keep moving forward.

In extreme situations if the financial conditions are very difficult at some stage in life it may be necessary to take a break for a while and return to pursuing your subject after some time. That's fine. Just don't lose your inner focus and commitment. Or you can pursue your subjects through distance education or correspondence courses (example: , look for other avenues too) while being on a job. No problem. The important thing is to gain as much knowledge as you can.

In fact this reminds me of something I wish to share. I met a young man working as a server in a Barista cafe recently (his name is Harjot if I remember correctly, but I'll double check the next time I go there). For some reason I asked him if he was also studying alongside his job at the cafe. He answered in the positive and told me that he was pursuing a BA degree through correspondence. I was so impressed to hear this. I believe we need to encourage this mindset. Yes, work early in life if your situation demands it - but find a way to keep studying alongside as well.

This is something fairly common in the west. Most students work part time even during their under graduate programs to ease the financial burden on their families. It may not be necessary for everyone here in India and many may not prefer to if the family is in a good enough financial condition to support their wards' educational program but we need to respect this approach as well whenever the situation demands it. To give a personal example, I worked at a McDonalds during my masters program in the US for a few months till I got a teaching assistantship. I used to stand at the sales counter for a few hours in the day and help clean up in the evenings. To this day I feel proud of myself for having done that. And my fellow workers were mostly students going to the same university, including one girl who was pursuing her PhD in western classical music!

Another cue we need to take from the west in my opinion is how the willingness of people to pay for experiencing art forms such as music helps keep these art forms alive. I am not just referring to concerts and performances by famous artists here. Pretty much every weekend you will find music performances happening at different venues where often local upcoming artists perform and one can go and see these performances for a nominal price. Of course the performances have to be of a certain minimum standard otherwise the concerned musicians don't succeed. So they have to continuously work hard and keep improving themselves. But the point I am making is that this culture enables artists to support themselves and stay focused on developing themselves and their art further which in turn enables art itself to progress further.

I think we need to move in this direction a bit. From what I have seen most of us who are fairly well off financially would easily spend a few thousand rupees on food in an upscale restaurant but would hesitate to buy a ticket for even a few hundred rupees to go for a concert or dance recital where say a local upcoming Sarangi player or Kuchipudi dancer were to give a performance. Or for that matter an art exhibition featuring paintings by a local upcoming artist. We could perhaps occasionally forego an outing to watch a bollywood flick and spend perhaps half the money to watch a theatre performance featuring local artists in a regional language. If we can bring this shift in our mindset, we may suddenly be able to create avenues for our artists to express themselves and our society would be culturally far richer that it is today.

Coming back to the teaching profession: I promised above that I will make an appeal to the government regarding salaries for school teachers and personnel in other professions such those who enroll themselves to become soldiers or hawaldars or hospital nurses. So here goes:

I refer to the professions I have just listed as "essential services". People in these professions are fundamentally important to society. Our children need to be taught by the most loving and knowledgeable teachers we can find. Our patients and the elderly need to be cared for by the most caring and competent nurses we can find. The security of our villages and towns and our borders depends on the bravest, fittest and most committed people taking up careers in police and army services. And all these people and their families have needs to fulfill and aspirations for a decent life for themselves and their families. We must ensure that we pay them well enough so that these concerns are addressed and financial constraints do not become a factor that blocks people from taking up these professions. At the very least, complete medical care for the personnel in these professions and any dependents, education for their children, salaries that ensures a basic living standard at the level of food, clothing and shelter and a provident fund type option that ensures a basic level of financial saving and security for the future must be guaranteed. If we do any less than this we are doing a great disservice to not just the personnel themselves but to ourselves as well.

Here's an example to emphasize the appeal I am making:

I once took a cab from Delhi airport. Now I am in the habbit of striking up conversations with cab and auto drivers occasionally. It makes the time pass and I get to understand a bit about them. So I asked this can driver how much money he makes per month. I still remember him telling me (this was about 4-5 years ago) that business used to be much better but he now manages to make about Rs. 30,000/- to Rs. 35,000/- per month. I'm not completely knowledgeable about salaries in the professions I have appealed for above but in case we have allowed a state affairs to set in wherein it is more lucrative to be a taxi driver (with due respect to their profession and an acknowledgement of their hard work as well as the fact that they too have their needs and aspirations and a right to earn enough to fulfill them) than to be a nurse or a school teacher or a soldier or a hawaldar, then it only reflects our immense lack of maturity and foresight.

It is my earnest appeal to the state as well as central governments to put thought in this direction and ensure that all "essential services" related professions deserve the respect and monetary compensation they deserve.

To end this post: I believe that for quite a while professions of medicine and engineering have been emphasized the most, at least in our country, and a sense of these professions being more "prestigious" than others may have set in. I hope I have been able to convince you that if this is indeed the case it is based on nothing but ignorance. Choose to pursue these professions, just like any other, only if you are really interested, motivated and inspired to be a doctor or an engineer. Otherwise, do not choose to be one. Be who you want to be and do what you want to do with your life. Just remember to work hard and move towards your goal without hurting or disadvantaging anyone else in the process.

[The only exception I would make to this advice is if your family has been struggling financially. For people in such an extreme situation it may be important to sacrifice personal interests for some time and choose a career that beings economic independence to oneself and one's family fast. Even then, if possible, my advice would be to try and choose a path towards economic liberation for your family that is best aligned with your interests and aspirations. Hopefully some of the suggestions I have made above will be of some help.]

Friday, 1 September 2017

Implementing the tenure track system in Indian academia

The tenure track system followed by US universities and institutes allows them to be sure about keeping someone for the long term on their faculty after having carefully observed him or her for some years. In itself this is a good provision to have as it allows for a better quality check than the present day system of permanency after one year of probation in government institutes and universities in India.

However, the manner in which it is implemented needs some attention in my opinion: (1) If I'm not wrong, most tenure track appointments go through an evaluation of "research productivity" every year. I see a flaw here and propose a way to address it below. (2) It is my impression (which may be flawed) that excellence in teaching is not given its due and tenure decisions are overly biased towards research output and the magnitude of money brought in via grants, etc. The flaw here is all too obvious: there are students to be taught and their interest (and grasp of subjects) are clearly dependent on the quality of teaching. It is for university administrators to realize and admit this and restore balance : I will not dwell on this point in this post.

Coming to the flaw I perceive in Point (1) above and a possible resolution of the same:

Any serious research problem, fundamental or applied, requires a settling down of the mind and deep, careful and rigorous thinking. And I don't think this is possible with a gun to one's head creating pressure to "produce output" on a yearly basis.. What that can do is keep an academic unsettled and worried about producing enough output in the short term to secure his or her job instead of going after tougher problems.

Instead, if one's research output is evaluated (quantitatively as well as qualitatively : please also read: at (1) the three year mark (i.e. half way) and (2) the six year mark when one comes up for tenure, then that would allow the faculty member to make progress on his or her research in a more balanced manner in my opinion and still go through a comprehensive evaluation before getting tenure.

I think a case can be made for institutes and universities in India to implement the tenure track system IF (note the use of capital letters in the IF) they are also willing to make the required effort from their end to enable the faculty member:

1. Keep teaching loads reasonable : no more than one course a semester for the first two years with a UG/PG teaching balance and no more than one course and one lab per semester after that (again, with a UG/PG teaching balance). This will enable the faculty member to keep a healthy balance between teaching and research.

2. Provide good TA support for examining answer books, demonstrating and overseeing lab experiments, etc.

3. Carry out start-up grant and lab-space / student-seating-space negotiations during the hiring process and make sure these are provided the day the faculty member joins.

4. Make sure the faculty member gets a couple of Masters students and a PhD student to guide at the first student induction following his or her joining.

5. Make sure processes related to procuring and setting up research infrastructure are efficient and well supported by trained staff.

(I spent 11 years in the US after my B. Tech. across three different universities for my M.S., PhD and Post-Doc and can say from my personal observation that ALL these five points were implemented there.)

Basically, create the right conditions for meaningful research, provide the required support, evaluate qualitatively as well as quantitatively at sensible intervals and give both teaching and research the emphasis they deserve while making tenure decisions.

Then, I think the tenure track system can work in our favour.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Connecting more students with excellent teachers : What's coming in the way?

For quite some time there's been a heavy focus on selecting the "best possible students" in colleges. This is often through entrance exams of some sort: subject or aptitude. Apparently schools are into this too nowadays (even for kindergarten or 1st grade in instances?) which is really weird because if schools can't take the responsibility of educating children from scratch, who will? Innocent little kids running around and playing don't have to be tested before starting their education for heaven's sake! That actually seems cruel to me.

Then this idea of "fixed durations" for different education levels. 12 years for high school, 4 years for a bachelor's degree, 2 for master's. And if you go a little slow, you bad boy you...

I don't know. At least for me some subjects came easy (like math and physics) and some didn't (like biology and chemistry). Maybe there should have been provisions that allowed one to move along at different speeds in different subjects. I would've probably liked that better instead of somehow cramming and moving along in some of the subjects.

If I think about qualities based on which I would select students in my classes, I simply come up with this:

A sincere desire to learn, willingness to put in the required effort, patience to steadily move from benchmark to benchmark, humility, a sense of discipline and a firm commitment to use knowledge only for the good of society.

That's it. If these qualities are in place I see myself as being willing and committed to work with students from whatever level they might presently be at. If some students have a natural flair for some subjects, they'll likely move along faster. If not, we go slow, no problem. I would be fine either way if the right value system is in place.

(On the other hand if the right values have not set in in a student its better in my opinion that he or she spend some time in service and introspection till the mindset corrects itself before any advanced knowledge be given to them. Else there's every possibility that they will do more harm than good with it.)

There might be many such deserving students with a sincere desire to learn and a sound set of values in the country who perhaps don't get to connect with some of the better teachers because good academics seem to want to cluster in select elite institutes. At least as far as colleges and universities go I think this is partly because many (at least in India) have somehow managed to tangle themselves up with incorrect policies that perhaps discourage good teachers from joining them.

One issue is an imbalance between teaching responsibilities and the time available to pursue research and scholarship (something that most good academics want). I discuss this in this article:

Two other issues are economics and job security related. I don't think that needs to be elaborated on much.

Then there are things like making profs sign attendance registers. It gets worse: I know of places where profs are required to get permissions or sign out and in every time they step out of the department / institute. For such places: Good luck trying to absorb and retain quality faculty. No quality academic with a sense of self respect will agree to such stuff unless he or she is going through desperate times or is at your institute due to some personal reasons / obligations / commitments.

Last but not the least: Institutes need to work out their career progression requirements in accord with their ground realities. To be more specific: for most faculty members research progress and output depends fairly strongly on (a) lab infrastructure provided to them and (b) Masters and PhD students working with them. If an institute doesn't invest sufficiently in establishing research labs and/or does not have a well established post-graduate program (or is unable to attract quality post-graduate students) then this needs to be accounted for when making decisions on career progression. Prospective as well as present faculty members need to feel assured on this front.

If government as well as private institutions across the country start matching what they offer in terms of work conditions, salaries and job security with what elite institutes offer we might start seeing a wider spread of good academics thus making them accessible to a wider range of students.