Interview: R Vignesh (Prod-2016)

I’d like to state in advance that my views are heavily influenced by the quality of teaching at the NIT Trichy Production Engineering department (Which I graduated from in 2016, so my views may and hopefully are a little outdated), which I frankly consider to have been very poor, especially after my time at Penn State.

In addition, my answers with respect to research may not be best, as I’m not doing a thesis. In addition, Industrial Engineering involves a lot of applied mathematics & statistics and not too much theory.

Please state your current major and explain the area of research you are currently involved in. Do state your past research if any.

I’m presently pursuing an MS in Industrial Engineering & Operations Research at Penn State. Currently, my research is focused on the application of data science techniques in supply chains, specifically inventory management. In particular, I’m working on this project aiming to develop an inventory planning system for weather sensitive items, such as ice cream (if the weather is hot) or umbrellas (if rain is forecast). With respect to past research, I’ve worked on a production planning project here at Penn State. Prior to Penn State, I did 2 research internships at IIT Madras. One involved the formulation and solution of a pollution routing problem, a variant of the vehicle routing problem (A well known OR problem) and the other involved the preliminary design of a supply chain network involving collaboration between an e-commerce retailer and local vendors.

What should students know before taking up research? How should they pursue their career in research?
The key with research is a desire to learn. If one does not possess that in his/her respective field, research is definitely not a path to be pursued. With respect to getting started towards research, I’d say preliminary reading always helps. If one is interested in his/her branch (Which is often not the case at NIT, understandably so), the first way to begin would be to read further about particular topics or subjects of interest within said field. This reading needn’t necessarily be just academic and restricted to chapters in a textbook. There are several sources online and there are always articles online. One impetus that made me learn outside my college academics (and still does today) are online courses, offered on Platforms such as Coursera, edX, DataCamp, etc. These usually provide solid fundamentals in respective topics and have syllabi designed by professors from eminent universities. If a student finds topics of interest, the next step would be to try and obtain a research internship to further enhance his/her skills. This isn’t easy, especially the process of obtaining that first internship when one does not have prior experience. Reaching out to professors and networking always helps. I’ll expand a little more on these in the next answer.

Why are research internships important? How do students hone their skills through these internships?

In my opinion, research internships are really important from a learning perspective. I learned a lot more about fundamental concepts in Operations Research through these projects than through my course syllabus. I think that these research internships serve a few purposes. Firstly, you’re exposed to different research areas that professors are working towards. This means that you can actually see applications of concepts seen in textbooks. In addition, you get used to reading research papers and understanding where they are applied. It may sound trivial to someone who hasn’t read many research papers, but they can take getting used to with respect to the manner in which they are written. It definitely took me a while to get used to the technical terms and concepts that are mentioned. For anyone who wishes to pursue research as a career, understanding research papers is really important. Also, you’re exposed to a different academic environment in itself, ranging from the professor who is probably knowledgeable than one at NIT to the academic resources offered by the external university (such as better journal access, research labs, etc). Finally, a research publication is always useful as it shows interest in one’s subject, as well as reasonable work ethic.

What other skills do you think students need to learn before/while pursuing highers in engineering and sciences?

This is hard to answer, as my personal opinion is that NIT left me woefully underprepared for my Master’s. My answer would be really long if I were to detail every skill that I think is necessary which was not imparted by NIT. I’ll stick to two skills which I think are really important. Firstly, coding. I never saw any department apart from computer science and the circuital branches perform much coding. Production Engineering was notoriously bad at this. That’s really sad, considering how important a skill it is. There seems to be a misconception that the only sort of coding required would be for say, software or web development. That really isn’t the case, as so much coding can be used to automate many tasks and make them much easier. Engineers are prized in the US for their quantitative skills. The fact that I only had one semester of nonsensical C++ (taught be a very inept professor), a semester of AutoCAD and some hopelessly outdated CNC coding was really sad in my opinion. Secondly, I would say that presentation of one’s skills (especially resumes and LinkedIn profiles) are really important in the US. It’s not just resumes, but conference papers and research presentations as well. Knowing how to communicate effectively is an important skill, in the US at least. This isn’t something that can be picked up overnight and should be honest constantly. As an addition, I’d just say that one should always have the mindset to continually keep learning. That’s always a good thing.

Where do you think, the research scenario in NIT Trichy needs improvement, and how can it be improved?

There’s a lot of scope for improvement I think. In my time, students wasted a lot of time on ultimately useless activities such as writing lab records. In addition, students have little to no choice with respect to the kinds of subjects that they wish to pursue. These could be amended. Also, very few subjects involved critical or creative thinking. All of my courses were just rote memorization and blind problem solving. If one were to try and incorporate projects into subject curricula, it would help towards developing the sort of mindset required to pursue research. Professors could also try and ask questions in tests and exams that were open ended and required the student to actively apply learned knowledge, rather than simply regurgitation of a few chapters in a book. Also, I cannot emphasize the importance of applying code and software to problems, rather than sticking to Pen and paper. This was apparent to many subjects during my undergraduate times such as Numerical Techniques and Applied Statistics. While none of the suggestions mentioned affect research directly, I think they would help inculcate a mentality more conducive to learning than what I encountered during my time there.

With respect to direct research activities, it has to start from the professors. Unless they actively encourage students to work beyond the textbook and come up with original ideas themselves, there isn’t much that can be achieved. One way to try and obtain more research activity on campus would be research assistantships. Research assistantships in the US are programs were the student gets to work on an industry sponsored project that a professor is working on and has to provide some meaningful results. In exchange, the student is provided some stipend and a fee waiver. This kind of partnership is a strong impetus for students over here to pursue research activity.

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

Assuming that one has finalised his/her university, there’s a lot to be looked at. If one is more intent on pursuing a job, it’s a good thing to try and find out the different resources that the university offers that helps students obtain an internship/job. This includes university career services and career fairs. It’s quite a strange process for one who is very used to how placements work in India, as a student is expected to do all the work to obtain a job himself/herself. There is not much help provided through the university itself usually. In addition, one would have to reformat one’s resume entirely, as different criteria are used here in evaluating resumes.

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

If one is more intent on research/pursuing a PhD, it’s always good to find a research advisor quickly. A research advisor is a faculty member who guides you towards the research required to complete a Master’s Paper/thesis/PhD dissertation. Hence it’s important to find a faculty member whose interests align with yours. Once you find an appropriate advisor, it’s easier to approach faculty members and ask if they need assistants on a project. Professors in the US are very accessible and encourage students to pursue research activities. This helps establish contact and gives some preliminary research experience.

Industrial Engineering and Operations Research are fields where work experience are highly prized if one is aiming to work in the US immediately after degree completion. This was something that I didn’t know. While companies in general value work experience here more than they do in India, it’s especially so in the case of Industrial Engineering. In addition, the whole system of talking to company representatives in career fairs takes getting used to. I was very new to a placement process myself as I could not attend career placements at NIT thanks to their policy of not allowing letters of recommendation. In general, career fairs occur very early into the semester here (My first career fair was two weeks after my semester began), so a lot of company research is required. As NIT did not let me sit for placements, I was further hampered.

In addition, I never know what a big issue visa sponsorship is. Not every company can hire a foreign student. Only companies that are willing to sponsor an H1B visa can hire a foreign student. I’d say only about 20-30% of the companies that do hire are willing to do so. This makes the process of obtaining a job much harder than for US Citizens/Green card holders. I was unaware of this until I came to the US.

What exams do you think are most important to write before applying for highers?

While GRE and TOEFL are required, they’re not particularly important as criteria for admissions in IE at least. A good GRE quantitative score helps, but is not a major selling point in admissions. A good TOEFL score can help with obtaining TA positions, but isn’t useful apart from clearing the basic university criterion. This is usually 90/120, which is very easy to get. GPA, previous work experience and previous research are much more important when selecting students for admissions.

How useful is having work experience before applying for highers? Is one year time for work experience ample enough?

Work Experience depends largely on the field that one wishes to pursue higher studies in. Theoretical fields do not really require much work experience. Research internships are helpful for this. For applied fields like mine, work experience is helpful for admissions, but is not a big plus. However, to obtain industrial internships and full time jobs, work experience is a huge plus. A year’s work experience is helpful. However, from what I hear, usually half of that year is just spent training. Two years is a better option,, as that would give one ample time to work on projects that provide meaningful industrial experience. /

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