by Aahlad Manas and Ananth Sundararaman
In recent years, the institute has observed a greater influx of students coming back to teach as professors — usually after pursuing higher studies in top universities abroad — and thus continuing to give back to the campus through their time, skill and effort. In this piece, T5E speaks to three alumni professors about their motivations for coming back, their thoughts on what makes IITM unique, their opportunity costs for coming back to India, and much more.
Why Come Back?
It might seem puzzling to many that a young, bright student with a newly obtained doctorate and a plethora of opportunities open to him, including well-paying jobs at top companies, would choose to return to his alma mater to teach and pursue research. What could possibly motivate him to make that choice?
Prof. Rajsekar Manokaran (BT/CS/2006), who obtained his PhD at Princeton University and recently joined the Computer Science department of IITM as a faculty member, says that he made the decision to return while interviewing for a few companies, and planned to return and create a positive impact on society by starting a company. Smiling widely, he says, “It may sound cheesy, but I wanted to come back to make an impact. If you look at the technology that has come out of India in the last ten years, it has made a huge impact. Now we can try to attack the problems where there is a huge demand for innovation. If you ask me why I came to IIT Madras … it’s one of the best places to be, and I don’t mean to brag, but students here are among the best in the world. I feel much more at home in Chennai than anywhere else.”
For some, the question doesn’t even arise. Prof. Krishna Jagannathan (BT/EE/2004), from the Electrical Engineering department in the institute, acknowledges that he intended to come back to India after his doctorate studies, since the day he boarded the flight to Boston. He says, “Back then, I actually knew very little about whether my research career would go anywhere in India, but I decided to take the plunge and brave it out. The plan remained throughout, and I am happy that I stuck to it. There wasn’t any epiphanous moment when I realised that I am going to return. I was not particularly planning to return to IITM; it just worked out that way, and I am happy here. Thinking back to 2010-2011, I cannot quite place my finger on what exactly it was that I was coming back for.” Others make the choice on careful deliberation, looking at both career prospects and familial happiness. Prof. Radha Krishna Ganti (BT/EE/2004), for example, decided after completing his postdoctoral research to settle in India, as it afforded good career options for both him and his family.
However, would this choice have entailed any regrets? Did any of them feel like they had to give up something in order to come back to their alma mater? For some, the enthusiasm and opportunities that go hand in hand with teaching in a place with young, bright students, and the prospect of academia, attract them deeply. Prof. KJ, for one, does not have any regrets. Instead, he says, “I do not see it that way at all — indeed, I wouldn’t be happy if I felt I gave up something in order to be here. I made up my mind fairly early (high school to early undergrad) to be an academic. I still feel quite energised when I enter a classroom, and I hope this eagerness stays with me.”
For some, it is the scope for interdisciplinary research and the search for good research problems that interests and attracts them. Prof. RM, for instance, ponders and says that he had a good idea of the kind of research he wanted to do, and his interest in pursuing algorithmic innovations for interdisciplinary work was the deciding factor. “I should be able to find really interesting computational problems outside TCS (Theoretical Computer Science) as such,” he muses. “There is a lot of scope to do interdisciplinary work. It’s a very good thing to actively find problems from other fields. That’s something I learnt from my advisor. He used to find really amazing problems to work on.”
Prof. RG, on the other hand, used a Socratic approach to answer the question, asking, “You can’t compare careers just like that. Tell me why you want to go to the US?” Caught off guard, we talked about the research opportunities, state-of-the-art funding and peer groups at top universities abroad, which are generally believed to be better. However, he shot back, saying, “There is state-of-the-art funding in India as well and I am primarily a theoretician. Most of my collaborations happen over email. It’s all good. As far as funding is concerned, there are a few quirks. All the funding I need is there. That said and done, this is comparable to anywhere in the US.”
Opportunity Costs vs A Passion for Academia
We were also curious to find out what alternate career options these alumni faced as young students, and whether they felt any pressure or faced uncertainty from other motivations, being as they were at a crossroads in their career.
Prof. RM describes his journey to us, starting from the startup he worked at briefly right after completing his PhD. The epiphany presented itself when he sat for interviews at Google and another finance company in New York, and he decided that this was not what he wanted to do. “Back then itself I had decided to come back to India,” he says. “So, I did a postdoc in Stockholm for about two years and then came here.” At IIT M, he intends to focus on entrepreneurial work and to found a company. While acknowledging the better funding available in Silicon Valley and other entrepreneurship hubs abroad, he also weighs the huge demand from India, saying, “I think there is more demand here because many of of the technologies that have come here are simply not calibrated to the scale of India. It’s a much bigger country!”
In contrast to this, both Prof. RG and Prof. KJ have wanted to pursue academia since their undergrad. Prof. KJ puts describes his motivations quite succinctly, saying, “I did not see myself working full-time in the industry, but I am quite keen to work with companies on relevant, interesting stuff! Indeed, I wouldn’t give up something I like doing for something I don’t, even for three times the money. I think the faculty salaries are decent, if not great. On top of that, there are also enough opportunities for consulting. At the end of the day, money is only a means, not the end.” Prof. RG, on the other hand, says happily, “I have wanted to become an academic since a long time. I was very clear about that since my time at IITM. It’s a good opportunity for me. It’s also fantastic to be working here!”
Research at Insti — Graduate Studies, the Paper Rat Race
But how does insti compare with top universities abroad, when it comes to indicators like the quality of the research atmosphere, the competitive spirit and thirst for knowledge, and the freedom from the race to publish, for faculty? We posed the question to the profs, wondering how they saw it, being researchers who have had exposure to some of the best research environments in the world.
According to Prof. RG, the research happening in India in his field is on par with that in the rest of the world. He does most of his work over e-mail and does not see any difference between working here or in some other university. “We also have a race to publish!” he stresses. “Out there, the competitiveness is mainly for funding. Faculty write a lot of proposals because their graduate students are financed by the funding, whereas in India, the graduate students are funded by the government. That’s the major difference.” He points out how from a publishing perspective, it’s a good thing to have more competition, both on an external and internal level. However, in talking about the situation in India, he notes, “The pressure from the university is not as crazy as in the US. On the other hand, there’s definitely more freedom and flexibility here.”
Prof. KJ agrees with this perspective, saying, “In India, it is a very good feature that the PhD students are paid for by the ministry — so I am not forced to raise money just to feed them! Indeed, plenty of research funding is available in India for equipment and hiring personnel. Only international travel is a bit tricky, but it’s not all that bad either.” On the other hand, he says, “The success of an academic in the US depends to a very large extent on the ability to raise money, which automatically pushes people to work on the `hot areas’ in which funding is easier to get.”
On funding and peer groups, Prof. RM feels that India’s situation is improving rapidly, with a lot of young talent returning to the country. He spoke enthusiastically about very good peer groups, that would help formulate new results, starting to form in India. As far as funding is concerned, he is happy with the situation at hand, saying, “I have more freedom in what I want to do and at the same time it is also possible to find a lot of funding — there are a lot of grants from the Department of Science and Technology. The process is rather easy if you want to find a new grant. They are quite fast these days.” In his opinion, the condition has improved a lot.
While Prof. RM observes the need in a top-tier research institute to have a kind of rat-race for publishing, he believes that the trade-off between freedom and pressure to publish is a personal preference. With regard to himself, he says, “I like to be a little free, and one good thing about IITs these days is that they are very flexible with respect to consulting or starting a company.”
Prof. KJ adds to this line of thought, saying, “Personally, I did not find the tenure race very appetising either. I just decided at some point that it is not my cup of tea. In India, I do think that there’s more freedom to really think about what you want to do, and pursue your passions without worrying about tenure. However, this is also a double-edged sword as we all know — since our secure government job engenders complacency and passivity in some faculty.” Putting the point across with customary brevity, he says, “As far as I’m concerned, the IIT system fits me well. Although I often end up working late through nights and weekends, I do so by choice. It is nice to be driven by one’s own purpose, rather than constantly have a Damoclean sword of tenure looming over one’s head.”
Insti Over the Years
Finally, we were also interested in finding out the professors’ perspectives on how insti has changed over the years, what made them happy here as students, and whether the things they were unhappy with in their student years here have have improved in any way.
Talking about the culture of work at IITM and India in general, Prof. RG says, “The thing about India is that different departments talk and interact a lot more than in the US. There’s more flexibility. I have had a very nice experience coming back here. The whole process was very pleasant — to come back and settle here. The whole transition from going abroad to coming here was very smooth.” On his experience here at IITM, he reminisces, “I had a few fabulous guys in the class in communication back then. Most of them did PhDs and at least a Masters. They were extremely good and very smart.”
Prof. RM and Prof. KJ gave us similar responses about graduate studies back in their days. All three profs remembered being students at a time when most of the batch used to pursue at least a master’s degree if not a PhD, and this sentiment had persisted with them as well.
Prof. RG called for greater emphasis on graduate studies, to improve IIT Madras’ standing as a research institution. He talked about how IITs were predominantly undergraduate institutions and how great research work cannot happen unless there is focus on the graduate studies as well. He explains, “Earlier it was all undergraduate but now it’s changing towards a focus on the graduate experience. There are a lot more graduate students. A lot of young faculty want it to happen. Nowadays, we see a lot of people coming back and going into IITs and IISc. We are going to get better and better. There’s no question about that.”
Further, he also talked about how there should be a greater inclination among students to pursue higher studies. He says, “The thing is, there are not many people who are taking up graduate studies. The top students end up going into tangential fields like finance, etc. In the long run, you earn a lot of money, of course, but you can do the finance job after a PhD also. I think at least a Masters needs to be done. These days, a B. Tech degree is okay, but it doesn’t specialize you in anything. This is what it comes to, in my personal opinion. There are a lot of smart people here. Of course, you should go get high paying jobs, but at the same time, you should also explore an academic career. It’s not bad. I won’t say it’s the greatest of all careers but all said and done, it’s fun to be a faculty member. No other job gives you this much freedom.”
Prof. KJ, too, feels that the campus has acquired a more PG centric and research focussed character of late. “After all, if the research environment is healthy and improving, UG education will automatically be up to date and of high quality,” he says. “I obtained a firm basic foundation during my time at IITM, thanks to some very good teachers, some of who are my colleagues now! I have no hesitation in saying that I am very happy as a faculty member at IITM. The EE department is quite enabling and friendly towards young faculty, and I am fortunate to have two or three like-minded colleagues in my department who I work closely with.”
On his days as a student here, he says, “One of the things I didn’t like back then was the huge load of core courses, and very few elective. I felt the overall picture was quite diffuse and disconnected, except in certain cases. Unfortunately, this situation has changed only a little bit as of today as far as the UG curriculum goes, although the PG curriculum is much more sensible now.” However, he also points out, “The good news is that our HoD has nominated a committee of some excellent faculty members to seriously revamp the undergraduate curriculum in the EE department. I look forward to their recommendations being implemented!”
Prof. Rajsekar Manokaran (RM) obtained his doctorate under the guidance of Prof. Sanjeev Arora, one of the giants of theoretical computer science (TCS), at Princeton University. He has worked with many big names in TCS, including Noga Alon, Johan Håstad (for his postdoctoral work at KTH Stockholm) and Venkatesan Guruswami.
Prof. Radha Krishna Ganti (RG), after completing a PhD under Prof. Martin Haenggi at the University of Notre Dame, worked as a postdoctoral researcher with Prof. Jeffrey G Andrews, these being two of the biggest names in wireless communication, networks and stochastic geometry.
Prof. Krishna Jagannathan (KJ) completed his PhD under Prof. Eytan Modiano at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge in 2010 and went on to become a visiting postdoctoral scholar in Computing and Mathematical Sciences at Caltech, and an off-campus post-doctoral fellow at MIT.