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Monday, October 18, 2010

Q&A with Dushyant Arora, undergraduate student at BITS Pilani, India

 In this series of posts (labeled QnA), students have come forward to share their experiences pertaining to R&D internships/jobs. This advice from the front-lines is an intimate view into the R&D world from a student's perspective.

Question: Please tell us your name, current academic affiliation, and degree pursued.

I am Dushyant Arora. I am presently working as an intern at Deutsche Telekom Laboratories in the Intelligent Networks Research Group. I recently completed B.E. (Hons.) in Computer Science from BITS, Pilani.

Question: What is your research experience till date – can you briefly enumerate important research internships/jobs/ projects ?

  1.    Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai, India -  May – Jul 08
  2.    Max Planck Institute for Software Systems (MPI-SWS), Kaiserslautern, Germany -  May – Jul 09
  3.    HP Labs, Bangalore, India -  Jan – Jun 10
  4.    Deutsche Telekom Laboratories, Berlin, Germany -  Aug – Oct 10
Apart from these internships, I have done a couple of research projects with professors at my University.

Question: How did you net your first research internship/job. In particular, did you have any help from your school/contacts/etc or did you do it on your own?

I was fortunate that my college, BITS, Pilani, had institutionalized linkages with various industries in India and abroad through its Practice School programme. This one-of-its-kind programme provides students with opportunity to apply classroom learning in an industrial environment. I got internships at BARC and HP Labs through this program.

Question: What skills and courses undertaken in college/university have helped you the most in getting the internship/research job and then, what knowledge has helped you the most in conducting the research itself?

I had some prior research experience before I applied for an internship. I had done a few research projects with professors at my university. I think this helped me the most. Also, I did some homework about the kind of research the research lab/group is currently doing. I did this by reading the latest papers they had published.

Skills and courses learnt at undergraduate level provide you with a basic foundation of knowledge to build upon. They can’t prepare you for everything you will encounter in an internship. You must always be prepared to learn new things. In some of my internships, I encountered new fields of study which I didn’t even know existed before. Having said that the core disciplinary courses that helped me the most were Data Structures and Algorithms and Computer Networks. Needless to say, one must possess good coding skills.

Question: What were some of the things you achieved with your research experience (new skills, wrote a paper, met people, landed a job etc)?

The internships provided me an opportunity to explore new fields of study and helped me narrow down my research interests. The exposure you get in a research lab is unparalleled. Over these 4 internships, I have learnt a host of new languages, libraries, and software tools. Also, after working in an organization you learn soft skills like how to work in a team, communication skills etc. I also got a few publications. I learnt a lot about research being done by other researchers and research groups through various talks and lectures.

Question: What is the most important advice you want to give to research internship/job aspirants?

Always be enthusiastic to learn new stuff and to learn what people around you are doing. And obviously, work hard.

Question: What are your future plans?

I will be applying to US Graduate Schools for Fall 2011 admissions.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Student tip: English composition

This post carries a very important message. Your success in R&D is strongly correlated to how well you write in English.When you write an email to a professor/researcher, when you write a research report,  when you write a paper, or when you submit a grant proposal, what carries your impression is the text that the recipient reads. What sort of impression do you want to make?

Herein lies a problem. Most science/technology/medicine undergraduates do not practice English composition after high-school. Then suddenly, they are faced with the prospect of writing professional sounding prose. Harder than you think, and more important than almost any other skill or transcript grade. The challenge is to improve English composition to a level where it can impress rather than put off people. Here are some ideas to get you started.
  1.  Start early. You need time to improve English composition. And patience.
  2.  Read standard English text on a regular basis - Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time Magazine. They are all available online.
  3. Start writing. Put in genuine effort in writing email, start writing a blog, volunteer for your college newspaper, etc.
  4. Take a class. Try to find out if English composition is offered in some faculty of your university. Some faculties offer specific classes in technical/business writing.
  5. Converse with people who have a better command over the language than you do: it rubs on.
  6. A book that I highly recommend (from personal experience): The Technical Writer's Handbook by Matt Young.
Superior English composition will impress potential employers throughout your life (this applies equally to non-R&D fields). With discipline, patience, and hard-work, you can make it your secret weapon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Student Tip: How to Approach a Researcher/Professor for a Job

This post presents a few ideas for students wanting to understand a professor's or researcher's professional work area. This is useful when you apply for a research job or internship.

Approaching a researcher or professor for a job or internship requires that you have an idea about her work beforehand. This helps in preparing your pitch and improves your chances of bubbling up to the top of the pile of student resumes she has received. Nothing impresses more than a student who can have a brief intelligent conversation about the professor's research field.

Understand that applying for a research job is not the same as applying for a university admission. Why? Because your interest in the research job should be genuine and specific to the work being offered by the professor or researcher. Your desire to get a university degree is also genuine, but the university was convinced about genuineness for every student who applied because a non-serious student would stand to lose the most anyway - her gpa, tuition fee, and time.

On the other hand, a wrong student hire can significantly degrade the output of a research project and harm the researcher's career prospects. Moreover, arbitrarily removing an under-performing student worker is politically unfavorable for a researcher or professor and is rarely an option. Therefore professors and researchers tread with extreme caution before hiring and are experts at sniffing out the good genuine students from the lackluster ones.

But lets put on the student's hat here. The student is obviously not an expert in the researchers field, the desire to do research partly stems from the financial aspect of the research job (tuition waiver/stipend/internship experience), she must cast a wide net, spanning dozens of professors/researchers, in order to net a "catch", and sometimes she hasn't ever met the researcher or professor to whom she is applying for a job. Its hard enough trying to understand one professor's work, but what with dozens?

Unlike university applications,  which tend to be almost identical across universities, each professor or researcher requires a unique effort on part of the student. Moreover, In fact, this arduous task is a natural selection process that separates casual student job hunters from the serious ones.Here are a few things to bear in mind when fishing for research jobs/internships

Approach Medium - Cold emailing is brave but can be construed as spam in the eyes of the researchers/professors. Not because they are snobbish and proud, but because they receive a barrage of the i-want-a-job emails every day. A classic tragedy of the commons - email is free to replicate and send for students. But it is expensive (in time) to read and act on the recipients part. If you can afford it, or if you are fortunate to be in the vicinity of where you want to work, then please arrange a face-to-face meeting via the appropriate channel (e.g. calling the secretary, asking your dad's uncle, who happens to be an academic, to introduce you, etc.).

However, you may not have the resources to personally meet potential employers, so email is by far the only plausible medium. Make sure your email is not spam. Heres how
  • Find out if there is a HR channel to send your application instead of directly emailing researchers/professors your resume and work samples. And yes, this is information you dig out through the organization's website, not by asking the professor or researcher!
  • Most i-want-a-job emails come roughly 4-6 months before the start of the job (e.g. most summer internship applications arrive between the preceding October and January) . Why should that be? How about some extra effort, much in advance, to start reading and learning your prospective employers' work and start a genuine conversation thread regarding their work. If you have good ideas then  most researchers/professors would be happy to hire you, and assign your time to you so that you can pursue your idea.
Another great idea is to pull interest toward you instead of fishing for jobs. How? Start your own blog, post interesting things you've read or you've worked with - that homework assignment when you programmed that hash table or a sideshow of your herbarium. Or how about posting a review of a research paper you read and then asking for the author's take on your review? I once had a student who send me  a few data inputs for which a program I posted on my website didn't work. No offense taken. And yes I badly wanted to hire him (but he wasn't available - the good ones are hard to get!).

Show you are passionate about what you do and that you are willing to go the extra mile and contribute to others' benefit. Think, reflect, opine - its creative minds they are after.

More on this later...