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The Undergraduate Summer School, CSA (2013)

The following are some resources that were mentioned in the "Research in CS" talk at the Undergraduate Summer School, CSA, IISc (2013). I plan to upload some notes for the "Cheat Sheets for Hard Problems" talk shortly. In the meantime, I highly recommend the book The Golden Ticket: P, NP, and the Search for the impossible by Lance Fortnow to those who were fascinated by the question.

Entrance Exams

Joint Admission Test (JAM), IIT

Joint Entrance Screening Test (JEST) - physics and theretical computer science.

After a MSc, you could apply for the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE).

The PhD Program at the Department of Mathematics, IISc - has details about both the PhD and the Integrated PhD program.

Resources for Self-Study

MIT Open Course Ware

Coursera

Visit public libraries in institutes near your locality to find books, periodicals and journals. Here is a recommended reading list from the TIFR Outreach program (a PDF file).

Other

Essays and Opinions by Oded Goldreich

N is a number - The Life of Paul Erdos

A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart

The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research by Martin A. Schwartz

Question/Answer website for academia

An illustrated guide to doing a PhD

Ideas Worth Spreading - TED Talks

Satire and humor about life in grad school: PhD Comics


Here is some random rambling, mostly summarizing the "Research in CS" session.

Opportunities in higher education

Further studies is increasingly becoming an attractive answer to the "what next" question that you probably often ask yourself during college. The opportunities are growing and the financial situation is such that it is quite feasible to be self-dependent in the pursuit of higher education.

Having said that, it is important to realize that no profession is made for everyone, and a career in research is no exception. While it is not easy to put down a checklist written in stone, some prerequisites for survival that most people would agree on include: a healthy amount of curiosity, a willingness to put in a fair amount of hard work, and the ability to persist and be patient - mostly with yourself!

If you have ticked off that mini-checklist, then let's move on to some of the frequently asked questions about a career in research.

India v/s abroad

There is no context-free answer to this one. What will work out better for you will be a combination of various factors - including your own temparament, your ability to adapt to new environments (socially, climatically, economically and culturally), your financial situation, and your field of study. Some specializations have good research groups in India, for others, other places might have better options.

Whatever you do, don't decide to go abroad just because it sounds like a fancy thing to do, be sure to investigate your options carefully, and go to a place that reflects your academic interests and personal style the best, as opposed to relying solely on rank metrics.

Masters v/s integrated PhD

This is another tricky one. For a long-term career in research, it is critical to have a strong foundation. The Masters is the time to develop it. Unless you feel very confident about assimiliating a lot of technicality in a short period of time, it might be better to spread out the learning period over a longer stretch of time. Of course,for this reason, it is important to get into a quality Masters program.

Remember that research is not about getting anywhere the fastest - the joy is in the journey, and it is important to learn things well.

On the other hand, if you are the kind of performs well under some amounts of pressure and/or want to save time for whatever reason, by all means, aim for the integrated programs.

In either context, enjoy your coursework and make the most of the learning phase. While there will always be chances to learn stuff later (in fact, the learning never stops!), this is one of the best times to be doing it with a lot of focus and energy, so try to put your best foot forward :)

Work-Life balance

While research is often depicted as a 24x7 profession, for most normal people it is impractical to devote every waking second to work. Your mind needs to unwind and relax to process all the stuff that is hitting it. Feel free to develop a hobby or at least take time off every so often. It can be tricky to find the sweet spot that balances out your work and other interests nicely, but keep at it! As long as you remember to sort out your priorities up front, things will fall in place. And no, don't skimp the sleep :)

Stints in the industry

Sometimes, a career in the industry is painted with one big brush - it's apparently "routine stuff", and for those who are obssessed with money. While it is true that industry pay scales are on the higher side, industry work does not have to be routine at all! Many people do their Masters' and/or PhD's to be eligible for research labs in the industry. These are often fun and challenging environments to work in.

On the other hand, many people return to higher studies after a stint in the industry. If you have compelling personal reasons to take up a job, don't let that make you feel like doors to academia are closed - just keep in touch with your academic work and there will always be possibilities to come back should you wish to.

Some of the most fruitful advancements in technology are a result of collaborations between industry leaders and researchers, so these lines of work co-exist with neither ruling out the significance of the other.

Acing the entrance exams

There is no formula down here, because entrances - and subsequently, interviews - all have their own very different flavors, and the isn't much scope for general remarks. If you have a call for interview, try interacting with students at the department to get a feel for what the interview culture is like. Don't hesitate to send a polite, well-written email. The worst that will happen is that you won't get a reply, but when you reach out to multiple people you will generally hear from a few.

Sadly, typical college education is often not sufficient preparation to clear the exams. GATE has standard training centers, for all other specialized exams, look up the syllabus and learn the material from good sources online - some links are in the last section of this document.

Summer Programs

Many research institutes have summer programs which are short mini-training-camps. These are great platforms for getting to experience the environment at the institute before formally applying for their research program. Depending on the specific program, the length mat vary from anywhere between two weeks to a few months. You might even be able to secure one-on-one time with professors and PhD students, which can be very instructional. The ideal time to get involved in such a program is the summer before your last year in college.

Here are some examples of summer programs:

IMSc Summer Program in Physics
IMSc Summer Program in TCS
The TIFR Summer Program in areas of Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Mathematics, and Physics
Indian Academy of Sciences - summer fellowship