Interview: Joseph Louis (Civil – 2008)

A very brief description of your background, your career path, and your research interests.

I completed my B.Tech. in Civil engineering from NITT in 2008, after which I joined Purdue University for my MS in Civil Engineering with a focus in Construction Engineering and Management. At this point, I had done one internship in Bangalore for a Project Management company. I completed my MS in 2010 and stayed on for a Ph.D., which I completed in August 2016. Towards the end of my Ph.D., I secured a faculty position at Oregon State University, which is where I work now.

What should students do at an undergraduate level to work towards a career in research and teaching?

Undergraduate students must proactively seek to make full use of their summer breaks and work as interns or as research assistants if possible. I would say that internships are an absolute must, as they teach students about work ethic and professionalism. Exposure to research would allow them to gain an understanding of what it entails, and to compare it to working in the industry. This initial research experience can have a profound impact on one’s resume and skill set, and make them stand apart from their cohorts in future research endeavors.

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

The only way that I can think of is to jump in and try out different career paths with enthusiasm, and there’s no better time for this than now when you are still in your undergraduate program. There really is no way to be sure but to be open to the experience and visualizing what the typical path is and asking yourself if that is what you’d want to be doing. An alternative way is to articulate your life goals and chart out a plan to achieve them. That exercise can provide some clarity on choosing a path forward.

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

They should be exposed to at least a little bit of what happens in the industry. They should also understand the expectations that their advisers and programs have of them as researchers and what the pros and cons of a career in academia are.

It is also very important to identify the general area that you want to be working on and to define your long-term research objectives at some point. That can eventually serve as a roadmap for all your activities in research and even teaching.

Would you recommend students to complete their masters before beginning to pursue Ph.D.? What should one keep in mind before starting one’s Ph.D.?

Yes, I would recommend a Masters before a Ph.D. If not MS, some professional experience such as being in the industry would suffice. This is because Ph.D. is a long-term commitment, and an MS can let students know if they are cut out for the journey ahead. Both an MS and professional experience will provide you with the foundational communication skill set and work ethics that will be invaluable during your Ph.D.

How would you compare masters and doctoral studies in India with courses offered by universities abroad?

I cannot really comment on the graduate courses offered in India as I have not taken any of them. I do know that we have some excellent programs in India that exist due to the stellar faculty, who do the research. In the USA, research comprises a large part of a university’s activities to a much greater extent than in India. It accounts for a large proportion of the university’s budget, and research output (journal publications, PhDs graduated annually, intellectual property) is a very important consideration when universities are ranked. This has resulted in a very formal institutionalization of research within the university, which has in turn given rise to (arguably) the best research programs in the world.

What do you think are the inadequacies in academic teaching and research, especially in engineering in India? Is there a solution to bring accountability in research in India? Would having a tenureship programme (like in the US) work here?

There is a very marked difference between the high school – college experience in India and a country like the USA. In India, students need to do extremely well in their high school years to get into a good college, after which they can sail through the classes without applying that previous level of effort and still be assured of a nice job and career waiting for them. By contrast in the USA, it is relatively easy to get into a good college (e.g. top 20 in the US World News Report Rankings), but very hard to graduate in four years’ time without putting in a consistent level of effort throughout the course of study. I feel like this difference is really at the root of all the inadequacies of the Indian higher education system. In India, we have the finest teachers and excellent facilities for research and overall student development, but our students are not motivated enough to make the most of all these taxpayer-subsidized resources because they can rest assured believing in the power of their college brand. I wish to use this opportunity to shine a light on the “learning” aspect of our education system rather than the usual complaints about teaching and lack of government support. As far as I know, Indian universities also have a tenure system that is similar to the US, which definitely does introduce accountability to research. A tighter partnership with industry would also help with that.

What are some common mistakes students make while applying to a university for higher studies? Is there anything specific that universities look for that most students seem unaware of?

Some of the common mistakes that I’ve seen are an emphasis on test scores, lack of prior research exposure, formulaic SOPs. Reviewers do actually consider the whole package and look for student experience in areas that they are interested in. I would highly encourage students to start the process early and invest time in researching not just universities and their programs, but also the faculty.

Apart from academia, what are some career options open for Ph.D. graduates? Do use your own field of study as an example.

Ph.D. graduates in my field (construction engineering and civil engineering) have gone on to work in the construction industry, consulting, software development for construction, created startup companies based on their research, and gone on to work for national labs doing more research. There really is quite a broad range of possibilities based on the type of research with which you were involved!

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