What? No vacation?

Post date: Jan 12, 2015 8:24:37 AM

Come December or May, I often get asked the question, so why are you going to work? Is it not vacation time? I have now been at IIT Madras for nearly 18 years and this question is asked by many friends and relatives, almost without fail, each year. The first few years I would patiently explain how an IIT faculty member is different from other College faculty in the country. Nowadays I get irritated that such questions arise. Of course when my irritation subsides, I realize that they are not to blame as they do not know what we do.The IIT brand is only recognized among the general public by our flagship B. Tech programme. There is very little idea about our M. Tech/ M. S./ Ph. D. programmes and the impact they have made on Indian society.

So how is my work time spent at IIT Madras?

Of course one of the important things I do is to teach classes. The Institute expects the faculty member to teach 3 to 4 courses (including laboratory courses) in a year. Suppose I teach one theory course and one lab course in a semester. This means I have 6-7 student contact hours and maybe an equal amount for preparation. Of course if I had to teach a new course the preparation time is more. So in effect one is talking about 15-18 hours of time associated with teaching. I can hear some of my corporate friends comment when they read this .. '' this fellow has a cushy life ... we have to slog 40-50 hours every week and he has to spend only 15-18 hours per week?" Not so fast ladies and gentlemen ... I stated that teaching is ONE of the important things I do at IIT Madras.

So what else do I do apart from teaching?

One of the expectations from IIT faculty is to do research. I have earned a Ph. D. trying to understand how rattling sound is produced in manual transmissions used in automobiles. Reducing unwanted sound (noise) in machines has been my "mantra" for research. For this, extensive modeling, analysis and experiments have to be performed and only then can I come up with suggestions for improving the product. But I cannot do this on my own all the time. I rely on an army of students, who register for the M. S. or Ph. D. programme, to perform these tasks. These students are usually supported by the Government of India through half-time teaching or research assistantships (HTTA/HTRA). The duration of the financial support is for about 5 years for a Ph. D. student and 3 years for a Masters student. Since they are on an assistantship the students have to be present in the lab everyday and are allowed a vacation of 15 days each semester.

Research is not a 9 to 5 job and requires hours of tireless effort to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Of course I am only a guide to each student but I still need to spend sufficient number of hours with each research student of mine. I have currently 12 research students and hence even if I spend on an average about 1.5 hours per week with each student, I spend about 18 hours per week for research guidance. Add to this the time spent with B. Tech/ M. Tech students who do their final year project under my guidance (currently about 7) then guidance takes up at least 25 hours in my work week. This activity, of course, goes on every week irrespective of whether the classes are held or not.

Research scholars do two things, (a). publicize their work through "papers" in conferences and archival journals and (b). write a thesis. This is done to inform the world of the new ideas that have been the outcome of their research. As a guide I have to read and review these "papers" and theses before they are published. This is a very important exercise as the quality of our research is judged by these documents. When one reads in the newspapers that IIT Madras Mechanical Engineering (ME) department is among the top 60 ME departments in Asia, these publications have played a part in that. A fair amount of our time is spent on this activity and I must say my estimate of 1.5 hours per week per student may actually be on the lower side !!

There are administrative roles that one has to perform apart from the usual research and teaching. I had served as an Advisor for Co-curricular Activities early in my career for 2 years. Currently I am Advisor for Internships. Both these are Institute wide roles and typically take up a minimum of 6-8 hours a week. Apart from these, the Department will assign tasks such as conducting the project viva for our course based programmes (B. Tech/ M. Tech), interviews for recruiting the M. S. /Ph. D. students, chairing the M. S./ Ph. D. annual progress review meetings. So on the average I spend at least 2-3 hours per week on these activities. Please note that a lot of these activities also happen in December/ May-June every year.

Nowadays, our role has expanded. To carry out world-class research, infrastructure has to be constantly upgraded. This is done by writing research proposals to various funding agencies such as Department of Science and Technology (DST), Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD), Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), Defence Research & Development Organization (DRDO). Also to ensure that there is a fair chance for funding, I need to travel and meet people involved in the funding process. I am also very active as a consultant to Industry. Interestingly there are not many experts in my area of Noise and Vibration especially academics with an industry stint. I have been a retainer consultant to many leading industries and I also help them solve problems by taking up projects. Apart from this as a service to the nation, I am called to be on interview/recruitment panels of other IITs, DRDO, ISRO and also participate in design reviews held in DRDO/ ISRO.

So you can see from my job profile, that I have my hands full and so do most of my colleagues. Hence next time I hope after reading this people stop asking me why I am going to work during the vacation period at IIT.