The Fellowship Diaries – Episode 1

By Ninad Pundalik

reSEARCH v/s jOb

My grades/results were never spectacular. I had always been part of the top 15 in a class of 60 in school, and college was not very different. Historically, it was the toppers who thought about research work. Most of us not so brilliant guys aimed at engineering, or to put it in more abstract terms, implementation work. A similar line of thought prompted me to take up internship during college, instead of thesis. And, since then, I had been working full steam for the past 3 years. I knew I was in for a surprise with this fellowship, where I would be carrying out research. Friends from college, who had taken up MS and/or PhD talked about the challenges of doing research, and I would just sit back and listen to them yap, a little aloof.

A month ago, I started the fellowship. The first week flew past, and I met my mentor/guide. We discussed the project statement, and confirmed that we had a common understanding of the problem. In the next couple of days, we collected information and material about the work that had already been done on that topic inside as well as outside SAP. What followed, was a shock to me.

I read. I read some more. I searched a little (online, obviously). And, I read some more. In a span of 10-15 days, I had read more research papers than I had ever before in my life (which is 24 years, as of today). For someone who loves understanding by examples, and learning by doing, it was a daunting task. Finally, sanity prevailed. I started to note down my thoughts and various facts related to the problem. Things were a little clearer as compared to a week before.

This week, we decided that we have covered a lot of breadth and touched a lot of topics. We make some assumptions now, and going forward, look at specific problems in the topic and study them in depth. What follows, in this post, is my empirical comparison between life at a run of the mill job and life at a research institute. None of these are path-breaking observations, I am surely re-iterating what someone else has said before.

  • A job is heavily goal oriented. Does that mean a research project is not? Both have long term goals. But, for a job, it is often easy to convert those long term goals into short term ones. And, then, we can start checking them off a list. A job is like a trip from city A to city B on the highway. The route/milestones are well known, the destination is fixed, the focus intense and the maximum possible pace. Or, as others like to call it, a rat race. A research project, on the other hand, is like a walk in the park. There are no set routes/paths. There is a hand drawn map of the park, that is not to scale. And, you know that you have to spend a certain time or go in a certain direction. Nothing more is known beforehand.
  • To borrow from the Ladder of Abstraction, a job is all about a fully concrete system. Research is about stepping up the ladder, and observing the patterns.
  • A job is intense and fast paced. If the company/department has been around for some time, the quantum of work is fairly stable. The kind of work varies, keeping the job intense and us hooked to it. Research is all about slowing down. Or, at least, it has been so for me till now. Or, maybe, it is just an illusion because I spend all my time reading and not doing some work in the traditional sense.
  • Research lets you jump down the rabbit hole. In most job scenarios, we do not get a lot of time to dwell on the intricacies of how something happens, and why. We talk to each other in the cafeteria or at the end of a team meeting, and mention the need to sit down and understand it. But, time pressures ensure that only those with enough perseverance take it up. While researching a project, though, you can branch out at any given point of time and spend some time understanding the nuts and bolts. You might even want to go a layer lower and look at the physics and the friction. We can go down the hole as much as we want to. But, laziness rules and we only cover parts that are relevant to our particular topic.
  • The time management model is very different. Most of the better jobs today give us sufficient leeway in deciding when to do an actual task. But, the task often has a strict deadline, and we have to prioritise. For research, though, we optimise for learning at the cost of possibly more time (related to the previous point). Deadlines aren’t that strict (unless it is about submitting a paper to a conference), and we can choose more freely how to distribute our time.
  • If you know BITSian lingo, you might have also noticed the reference in the title. A job is about doing Ob(-vious) things. Granted that they are difficult to do in the first few months. But, after a year or two at the job, the operational tasks are pretty obvious. Research, on the other hand, is about searching for facts and ideas. Whether they are your own, or someone else’s.

I have done my fair bit of projects where I did not know what the final picture is going to look like. The post-it logo at BCB 13, or the photog mosaic from 2008 and 2010 definitely qualify for a shot in the dark. But, this research project gives me a feeling of uncertainty that I have never before experienced with work.

These observations are subject to change, and will depend on how our project pans out in the next few months.