Interview:Harish Karthikeyan(CSE-2015)

A very brief description of your current research work and background

I graduated from NIT Trichy with a B. Tech in Computer Science and Engineering in 2015. I then went on to pursue my Masters’ in Computer Science at Columbia University, New York, NY which I completed in December 2016. I began, in August 2017, my Ph.D. in Computer Science at Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, New York University, New York, NY. My research interests lie in theoretical cryptography which lies at the intersection of Math and Computer Science.

 

What are some things about your career path you wish you knew in college, in retrospect?

In hindsight, considering I was always interested in doing the Ph.D., I wish I hadn’t applied and spent time working on my Masters. I could have always converted a Ph.D. admit into a program from which I also got my Masters degree. I also realized that as an undergrad applying for Ph.D., the scrutiny is less focussed on your depth of research and is more focused on the affinity/aptitude for research. I was scared of my profile not being deep in research and that held me back from applying for Ph.D. directly. I did enjoy and learn a lot from Columbia University, but in some sense, the two years is a bit redundant.

The other important information is that when you become a Ph.D. student, you honestly do not need to have a set research area in mind. It does help but it is not a deal breaker. Most schools offer a chance for you to figure out and identify an advisor in your field of interest. This happens in the first year. Especially as an undergrad applying for Ph.D., the universities do not expect you to have a set field of interest. In fact, they take into account that your research interest might actually change after beginning the program.

 

What skills should one develop to follow the career path you’ve chosen? Do include courses, internships etc.

One first needs to see if they enjoy research and working in an academic setting. It’s advisable to take a research internship under a professor at any good institution. Ideally, they should do it in the summer break of their sophomore year. At the end of it, even if the research lacked in depth, the student can judge whether he is a good fit in a research environment. If they are not, they can always take up an industry internship in the summer break of their junior year. The most important skill is the research inclination/aptitude. By far, this is the most crucial skill needed. There are a lot of instances (hopefully I am not one) where people who take up Ph.D. lose steam and drop out. They realize a bit late that they cannot handle the stress of research and the disappointment of slow progress. Perseverance forms the next soft skill. The fact remains that technical skills can be picked from dissecting research papers, it is the soft skills that are crucial.

 

Could you shed light on what recruiters look for in a student? What are the common mistakes students often make?

Well, in Computer Science, for some inexplicable reason every company tends to base the eligibility of the candidates on their knowledge in Dynamic Programming. They often reduce your employability to the binary of “Do you know Dynamic Programming?”. Surprisingly in the US, the focus is not on this topic but more about the overall approach to programming that the candidate shows. There are Dynamic Programming questions but it’s not a binary.

SDE positions test your knowledge of programming. They surprisingly base it on arcane C/C++ tests. Companies like Thorogood Associates evaluate the ability of the candidate to communicate and articulate well. The “core” companies test, with great rigor, the knowledge in the core engineering fields. Management positions in banking companies test your ability to think on the feet, stress testing and articulating positions well. They evaluate the soft-skills.

The most common mistakes students make can be found in the resume (Which is a very bad 2-page template, in my opinion). They pad their resume, because of the requirement of it being 2 pages, with stuff they have no clue about. They caught you in a lie and one strike you are out. Unfortunately, the importance that’s placed on the dress code (the whole tie, shirt, trousers and formal shoe shebang) makes any possible incongruity in the ensemble a crime and you are out of the process. Interviewer likes confidence. I still remember during the Yahoo internship process, I was there in one of the final rounds and I didn’t want to seem overconfident and I prefaced my answers with “I think” and seem very calm, collected and measured. It was the exact opposite. The interviewer wrote, and I could read, that the candidate seems to be less than confident in his knowledge. I was out of the process. It turned out to be a good thing because Yahoo went belly-up and they did not honor any internship offers made that year.

 

How can one be sure that a certain career path is right for them? What is a good way to make that decision?

This is a loaded question and I honestly do not have an answer beyond the clichéd, “One should do what they like and not be made to like what they do.” If you satisfy the adage, then you know the career path is the right one.

Having said that, the pressure of getting a good salary and satisfying the wagging tongues of the neighborhood gossip girls (very generously used) often takes precedence over whether they like the job or not. A close friend of mine was mentioning about his colleague in the US. This colleague graduated with top honors from Harvard Law School with highly appreciated research papers. He then decided to do his Ph.D. in Physics from Columbia University and again with top honors and well-cited papers. He then took fascination with Data and now works as a Data Scientist at a company in NYC. The company lawyer looked at this profile and commented that the colleague could actually apply for a corporate lawyer at any top firms and the top firms would fight overtaking him on. This flexibility is something that is encouraged in the US but missing in India. Unfortunately, in India and in NIT Trichy, in particular, there is no second chance given for careers. If a student gets a Pre-placement offer, they are beholden to that offer. The student cannot sit for the remaining companies.  The opaqueness of the list of companies arriving for recruitment makes it even harder for the students. The argument for this notion of “One Person One Job” stems with the goal of ensuring maximum students leave the university with employment. In the scenario where universities are pushing out engineers by the lakhs and struggling for employment, this goal seems to be having its heart in the right place.  However, it cannot be argued that the goal does a disservice to the students who are deprived of an opportunity to take an informed decision based on all competing offers and it does a disservice to the companies who are invariably forced to pick the best of the lot, who might not be good fit for the company, just because they arrive later in the slot. Having been the architect of the rule in T&P that forces the student to choose between pursuing Higher Education abroad and sitting for placements, I immensely regret my role. This is because, the rule merely chokes the students pursuing Higher Education abroad (by leveraging the requirements for Letters of Recommendation) while letting those pursuing Higher Education in India (CAT aspirants, etc) scot-free is a lopsided, partisan rule. This forces people to apply to “safe” universities for Masters where the quality of education is below the level at NIT Trichy for very high tuition, just because they do not have a backup job offer for them to work on their profiles and reapply next year.  

 

What are the challenges faced during learning new skills and adapting to new environments?

When I moved to the US and NYC for my Masters, what struck me the most was the completely different approach to the teaching. Classes were scheduled in advance and none were canceled because the professor had a marital argument with their spouse. The extreme importance placed on original work and the strict penalties for plagiarism was another thing that struck me. Students could interact and discuss assignments but the actual solutions are to be their own. This is in complete contrast to India where no one reads the assignment and it is just a matter of 10 points and the submitted one are copies of each other. I know of several students who found this change to be very daunting and have fallen to plagiarism and have academic penalties placed.

One should never be scared to ask or get things clarified. It is a new culture and one should be deferential to the culture and strive to embrace and learn it. The excuse of “I am new here” does not cut it anywhere. The proverb “Be a Roman in Rome” is paramount in a new academic setting. The basic challenge here is that the new environment runs counter to every single rule and structure we have gotten acclimatized to. The resumes (for the industry) need not mention the GPA and in fact, no one cares about the GPA. The companies do not filter out based on the GPA. This runs counter to every grain in our body which has placed orgasmic importance on marks and scores and one-upping your neighbor’s kid.

 

What should students know before taking up research? How should they pursue their career in research?

I have covered this in an earlier question. Not everyone is a good fit for research and one needs to determine whether they are a good fit. Going into Industry and working as an SDE does not mean you are away from research. It just means that your name might not be on a research paper. There is no use in getting disenchanted when you realize you don’t like a career in research.

 

What do you think are the inadequacies in research in research in India, and specifically in NIT Trichy?

In the US, an assistant professor without tenure has to teach while guiding Ph.D. students and progressing on their research work for them to even hold the position. It is this lack of penalty for lack of good research that has fostered a sense of complacency and the result is for all to see. I am not denying certain schools do good research in India has some good research happening but the incompetency of the faculty and the complacency is an open secret. Things have to fundamentally change. Incentivizing research might have to be replaced by penalizing lack of research. It is astonishing to see the number of assistant professors without even a Ph.D. Also, the inbreeding in schools in India is staggering. It is not uncommon for someone to do their undergrad, masters and the Ph.D. in a school and join the same school as faculty. IITs have a rule explicitly barring this. 

 

What must one do after getting admitted into college? I.e How do you feel time must be utilized post-admission?

People might disagree but my recommendation would be to drink and make merry. You have earned it. You have made the cut and congratulations. After sobering down, compare the admits to figure out which is the best school for your department and your post-completion plans. Get in touch with alumni from the schools or current students to get an idea of the school itself. You can then enjoy the summer while preparing the paperwork and visa applications.

 

How useful is having work experience before applying for higher studies? Is one year time for work experience enough?

For a Ph.D., work experience is immaterial. However, for most fields work experience does help, even for just a year. Even if it doesn’t help towards the applications, they certainly do help in job search. It is just an added bonus and is frankly not a deal breaker. There are some schools offering programs geared for people with work experience. The admission process is slightly easier for these programs. Having said that, when I applied for my Masters, I had zero work experience (not even an internship) and I still got an internship with Amazon and a return offer despite me not being particularly good or interested in programming. It helps but it certainly doesn’t rule out anything

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