Interview: C Gautham Ram (EEE- 2011)

Tell us about your profile and a typical day as an assistant professor at the university.

I work as an Assistant professor of electric mobility at the Delft University of Technology in the Department of Electrical Sustainable Energy (http://ese.ewi.tudelft.nl/). 

At TU Delft, the daily duties of a professor are built around research. I work with and supervise PhD and master students and have weekly meetings with them. My meetings are like, “What did you do last week, explain your results, what are you planning to do next week and next months,” and so on. We also have quite a few meetings in general with our (prospective) project partners (from companies and academia). So, I also have to coordinate with them, figure out what they’re doing, and try to synergize. Another critical task is to write research proposals to get research grants at the Dutch level, the EU level, and the international level.

On days I have to teach, I have two consecutive lectures of 45 minutes each, and I prepare for those lectures. For example, I teach a course on Electrical Machines, so I typically carry an electric machine to each lecture for demonstration, apart from preparing lecture slides and exercises and arranging to have the lectures recorded.

At NITT, we directly approach the faculty to get projects to work on in the summer and winter, as interns. So, if a student at your institute wants to do something similar, how do they go about it?

It’s very uncommon at the Bachelors (UG) level to work on short research projects because the studies here are extremely taxing and demanding. So during the holidays, people just take time off. Short projects are also not the preferred mode for us. A good research project requires a student to spend at least 1 to 1.5 months trying to learn and understand the nuances of the topic. Only after that, you start doing something worthwhile, and I personally think it requires at least six months to do proper research work with sufficient depth, which is useful. 

In Bachelors, students focus on learning the basics, and in Masters, they learn the advanced topics. And only at a Masters level, do they acquire the knowledge to do research, as you will be pushing the boundaries of what is already known. For master (PG) students, they can choose between many things: a credit-based 2-3 months project with us, a 6-9 month master thesis, company internships, or a thesis at a company. More often than not, master students go for an internship at a company during the summer holidays and later do a thesis at the university.  

People generally have an interest in research because of some specific reasons, for example, a project they worked on. What made you get into research into this field specifically?

What really inspires me about pursuing research and working in a university is the environment of learning. I like to be curious, to learn and experiment with new things. By being in a university, you’re encouraged and have the full freedom to do this. Further, you have full freedom, and your interests are not commanded by market forces or project directions given by your boss. So if I find electric aircraft interesting, I can start learning about it and start working on how to make such a technology a reality. Of course, there is a constant pressure of uncertainty in research, and not all your efforts will be successful. 

I also believe teaching is a very nice way to learn. Sometimes, my students ask me questions I do not know the answers for. I get back and discuss with my colleagues, read about it, and learn and share the knowledge with the class. 

A lot of the information students have about foreign universities here is second-hand. What do you think the students should consider before they choose the right foreign universities for higher studies?  

For Masters, it doesn’t matter that much because you are going more for education, and the concepts are all the same. They are not going to teach them to you in an exceptionally different way, at MIT say versus Delft. So from an educational perspective, if it is a good university based on rankings and so on, you will gain knowledge anyway. What could be different are fees, living costs, job opportunities, and for this, it is best to talk to alumni who have recently graduated from the specific MSc program.  

If you’re going for a PhD, it is a bit more complicated. There’s not really a single website that tells you the best university. There are subject rankings in QS, but it does not gauge the full picture. If they’re ranking Electrical Engineering, it’s a very broad topic; a PhD is going to be much more specialized. The only way is to talk to people who are in the field. In my field of Power Electronics in Europe, ETH, Aachen, Aalborg, Delft, Nottingham are excellent. However, during Bachelors, I had not even heard of these university names, let alone knowing they were excellent in this research area. 

Once you’re in your Masters, you hear things like “Read that professor’s work!” or “Follow their group, they’re doing excellent work.” You can go to Google Scholar, type in the keywords and see which professors and groups have papers that are highly cited. That’s a good starting point. So, only if you’re in the field, you start to get a feeling for which universities are good in that field and so on.

The decision to opt for a PhD is a very crucial one. What, in your opinion, is the right time to decide?

In my opinion, the right time to decide on a PhD is during your Masters, once you have a good grasp of the field. If you asked me when I was doing my Masters as to whether I would do a PhD, my answer would be, “It depends on what is the research topic.” The topic must be interesting enough to keep you motivated over the next three to four years.  

In my case, my MSc supervisor offered a PhD position towards the end of my MSc thesis. He told me that there was an exciting project on electric cars and how to charge them using solar energy. I liked the concept of electric vehicles, and I liked the idea of solar power. I saw a good match, and I said, “Sure! I will do it.”

In NITT, everyone applied for Masters from my batch. At the same time, my friends in IIT mostly went for a direct PhD. My IIT friends either went directly for a job, or went for a job after doing MBA or for a direct PhD. Some of these people (going for direct PhDs) were actually very research-oriented, and they were working with IIT professors during their bachelor’s. If you really like doing that, and if that environment excites you, you should consider this option. 

Becoming a professor after pursuing your research interest is not very common. Why do you think that is the case, and what made you take this path after doing a PhD?  

I think there are several reasons why many people don’t take up academic positions. First, a lot of people don’t do a PhD, a prerequisite for academic positions, and a lot of people join the industry after their PhD as well. Second, if you compare the number of MBA or engineering jobs to the professorship openings, it is far less; maybe a ratio of 100:1. Third, not everyone is interested in teaching, and academic jobs, in general, pay lesser than equivalent industrial jobs.  

In my case, as I said earlier, I enjoy the learning environment, and that’s what I like the most about universities. I think teaching is also a lovely experience. Though, I don’t know how I’d feel when I’d have to teach the course the tenth time (maybe I’d feel a bit bored)! 

But, a fascinating thing in university is that you can work with multiple companies and universities on different research themes. I work on one project with trolleybuses with one set of companies, power electronics with another set of companies, and smart charging with another consortium. So if you think something is interesting, you can bring a set of partners, funding, and can work on it. You’re free to work on what you want and collaborate with whom you want. I think that’s quite flexible. I don’t see such opportunities in a company. 

You are working with sustainable and renewable energy. Do you think the current research landscape is compatible with the growing demand for clean technologies?  

Usually, people think that the impediment to many of these sustainable and renewable technologies coming out is actually the technology itself. I typically try to distinguish them. If you see our Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on electric cars, you’ll find three courses: Technology, Policy, and Business. I think a lot of technological solutions exist. However, there tends to be a business aspect to it, which is connected to an economic and policy issue. I feel that in many cases, these two are much more significant impediments than the technology itself. 

For example, take carbon credits. People have been talking about it for decades. It’s an example of a policy. This can really tilt the landscape in favour of solar technology, which is quite well established. When people went to the moon in the ’60s, they took an electric car with them, and they were moving around with it. You still don’t see electric cars on earth on a massive scale, and here we are already in 2020. I think technology is a barrier, but once the technology has proven itself, you still don’t see it due to the economic and the policy aspects. I think these are essential barriers that are often overlooked. I believe that businesses and well thought out policies are necessary for the successful implementation of technology, especially for sustainable and renewable energy. 

There is a clear business case for electric two-wheelers in India. Take the Bajaj Chetak electric, for example, a scooter that costs one lakh rupees and will get cheaper in the future. A similar petrol two-wheeler in India costs around 60k rupees. Let’s look at the operation cost. Bajaj Chetak, which needs 3 units for 20 rupees, one can drive 100 km. So, for 1 km, it is 20 paise. It’s far lower in terms of operating costs. I don’t see a problem with technology. But I do know that the business and policy aspects are not enabling this yet.

You pursued your higher education in Europe. What sets Europe apart from American universities? Furthermore, what sets universities in the Netherlands apart from other European universities?  

Dutch universities are unique in Europe because the Master’s program here is in English (and of course, the UK). Most European universities don’t have Masters programs in English. If you go to Germany, for example, there’s a German one, and there’s an English one. Even the Dutch students have to follow the English program. In the Netherlands, everybody speaks English, unlike the rest of the European mainland. So, I think language is a big supporter of Dutch Universities. TU Delft is typically for engineering and is ranked among the top 20 in the world for engineering. I came here for my Masters because it was a good university, and I also got a scholarship.

The difference between European Universities and US universities is that your Master’s program in Europe always has a thesis. There’s coursework, and then you have a 6-9 month thesis. So there’s a research component to it. In the US, you can just do a Masters by courses and a thesis isn’t necessary. So you see students finish it much quicker, sometimes in 1 or 1.5 years. But otherwise, it’s more or less the same. 

For PhD, in some countries, it is three years, and elsewhere for four years. In some countries, you’re employed by the university as a PhD. You get a salary, pay taxes, and get a pension. In Germany and in some countries (including the US), you get a stipend as a student, but not as an employee on payroll. But the differences I think are more on the bureaucratic level rather than the type of work you do. You see great work from everywhere. On the research output, it doesn’t make much of a difference.

There is a lot of difference between teaching in the Netherlands and teaching back in India. What sort of reform or suggestions would you like to give to bring about an improvement in India?

In the Netherlands, you have three types of high schools. The classroom is segregated into three in secondary school. Universities are more theoretically orientated and are supposed to go into research. There is one set, which will eventually go to university. Another set goes to ‘Hogeschools’ or ‘HBO’. HBO’s are more application and practically oriented, kind of like the polytechnic colleges in India. The others go to ‘MBO’, which is more for trade-related jobs, say if you want to become a hairdresser. 

In India, everybody is considered eligible to goto universities. Here, that’s not the case. In a class of ten people, the ratio is like 1:3:6, 6 go to MBO, 3 go to HBO and 1 goes to university. The university course is more theoretical, whereas HBO is more practical. If you take electrical machines, for example, the people in HBO will learn how to use a machine, how to put it inside a fan and how to repair it. If you ask them to design a machine, they cannot develop one. The expectation of a person at the university is that they can develop a machine or think of a new machine. The books used by the HBO are very different from the books which are used by the university. So, the concepts which are taught in the university are more design-oriented to invent the new machine; not just applying existing knowledge. 

I feel that a lot of our syllabus in India is more application-oriented; it is not really on the research level, conceptually. The vast majority of our university graduates don’t understand the fundamentals in a way that you can apply it and make fundamental breakthroughs. Often, the books used are on the HBO level rather than on the university level. While, so many Indian institutions call them universities and offer university degrees, the standard is not necessarily that of a university.

Delft University is challenging. Every year, 30% of the first-year students fail, and they leave the university. That’s very normal. In a particular year, if only 10% fail, they think, “What’s gone wrong?” The attitude is that “if you want to produce the world’s best researchers, you have to keep the level high”. This is a very Dutch attitude. It’s intended for a certain kind of research job which requires a particular type of skill set. 

Attendance here is also not compulsory because I’m paid as a professor to provide a service to the students. If the students don’t find my lectures interesting, they won’t come, obviously. And if they don’t find my lectures interesting, then there is something I need to improve on my side. The professor must make the classes enjoyable. 

What, in your opinion, is the difference between students and the system in general in universities like Delft and students here?

Mainly, the students here work really hard. In NITT, what happens is the majority study the day before the exam, and that pretty much works all the time. Here, with that technique, you can’t survive. I would say in terms of effort, passing a course with just a 6 is an equivalent of getting an 8 at NITT. So here, if you go for an interview, no one will ask for your grades because they know that if you have a degree from Delft, you’re an excellent engineer. You need to put in a lot of effort just to pass the course. So, students here really slog. 

Also, as a student here, you can’t expect the professor to teach every single thing in the curriculum. The professors teach only the difficult bits and leave the rest to the students. But, they can approach professors with any doubts that they might have. So, the difficulty level of courses needs to be increased in India. But making a course difficult doesn’t just mean that the questions in the exam are difficult. A professor needs to train the students in the difficult parts and make sure their understanding is strong. I can’t merely teach easy concepts and ask tough questions. 

Here, there is a feedback form that will ask the students about the match between the course objective, the learning activities, and the assessment topics. If I don’t meet the criteria of maintaining congruence among these three things, then I’m in trouble. The good thing here is that the students here are also fair in general. They don’t give bad feedback just because they don’t like a professor. 

What did you take from NITT which other places could not offer that ultimately turned to be helpful in your development over there?

I went on the DAAD internship, which was very useful. We went on an industrial visit to Bosch, which was an eye-opener because I got hands-on experience in how these companies work. I also had some fascinating conversations with some professors, apart from asking doubts and having a nice discussion in the class. Those conversations were constructive, and I have a deep respect for them. Many professors encourage questions, and this is vital to inspire students. 

If you had another chance at redoing your B.Tech at NITT, what would you do differently?

It is a tough question. I spent a lot of time having fun, and if I have to change something, that would mean losing out on the fun part. But from a purely professional perspective, I think I could have involved myself more with some professors’ projects and spent more time with them. I didn’t do any projects except for my final year project. I could have gained some experience if I had had some projects to do in college. 

Is there anything else you’d like to tell the current students of NITT?

I noticed that there are a lot of advancements made on campus. I see that you can get credits from MOOCs, which is wonderful because colleges can’t give state-of-the-art courses in all topics. Students can be benefited a lot from this. Also, all the best to all!

Any further queries may be addressed directly to Gautham via email.

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