Gauging Research Potential: Tales Of A Selection Process

Can you fry something in water? It’s questions like these that are all in a day’s work for the IIITH interview panels that each year scout for candidates with research aptitude for enrolment into the institute’s dual degree programs.  

This academic year IIITH has launched a unique Dual Degree program which awards students a BTech degree in Computer Science along with a Master of Science by Research in Geospatial Technology, abbreviated as the CGD program. This is in addition to the existing BTech programs which also award a Master of Science by Research in Electronics and Communication Engineering (ECD), Computer Science and Engineering (CSD), Computational Linguistics (CLD), Computational Natural Sciences (CND), and Computing and Human Sciences (CHD) respectively. Up until 2018, admission to these dual degree programs was based on the JEE Mains score just like for the regular BTech programs. “Interviews were conducted since 2009 or 2010 for the students applying for the CLD program through the Olympiad mode of admission and even those applying for the CND had a separate entrance exam followed by an interview. The idea was to offer admission to extremely talented students who may not have performed well in JEE but had other remarkable accomplishments. The intake was rather modest at the time,” recounts Prof. Kishore Kothapalli, Dean, Academics at IIITH.

“When we first introduced the CLD program, we decided to conduct our own exam to identify students who are interested in languages, have the right aptitude and know upfront about impending research,” reminisces Prof. Dipti Misra tracing the genesis of what we now know as the Undergraduate Entrance Exam (UGEE) mode for research candidates. Illustrating the meticulousness behind the selection of the students, she recalls the large amounts of time invested in the process. “We used to test them on various aspects, ask them to write essays, find out their ‘why’. All of this was to gauge their interest and their larger view of the world,” she says. It was in 2018 when the curriculum for the BTech and Dual Degree programs was revamped that a conscious decision to select students based on their research aptitude was made. Dual degree students typically spend their fifth year working on a research thesis. Hence it seemed imperative to identify students’ research proclivity. For this, admissions to all dual degree programs were merged through a new entrance exam titled the UGEE. “Essentially learnings from the previous programs helped us scale the new admission process and now we have a full-fledged model,” remarks Prof. Kothapalli.

Why A Novel Assessment?
“We found that students coming in through the regular JEE channel are all of a certain kind; doubtless good at solving problems that feature in the JEE but when presented with something new, they all think alike. We want different ideas and diversity in the ways of thinking,” remarks Prof. Vikram Pudi. Prior to the introduction of the UGEE mode of admission when all students were admitted to IIITH based on their JEE scores, it led to unfair comparisons between the research-inclined who sometimes had lower scores vis-a-vis the non-research-oriented students who scored higher in the JEE. “With students coming in now via different streams, the mindset has changed and the comparisons no longer exist,” says Prof. Pudi.

How Different Is It?
There are two parts to the institute-conducted UGEE, with the first part which is known as the SUPR, short for Subject Proficiency similar to the JEE but not as difficult according to both the students who have attempted it as well as the team that sets the paper. “The actual part where we differ is in the second section which tests Research Aptitude,” says Prof. Pudi. While the latter, which is the more significant one for the institute, is suggestive of an assessment of logical and analytical reasoning skills, the professor is quick to point out that they are not like the typical reasoning questions one encounters in the competitive exams conducted by the Central government. “The questions test Science-related reasoning abilities where you are not just trying to remember a formula and applying it but where the approach itself is being tested,” he says. Prof. Kothapalli adds that the questions are slightly more open-ended. “We believe that such an assessment captures the research potential of students better than multiple-choice questions with just one correct answer,” he says.

Filtering Via An Interview
Each interview panel consists of at least 3 members and there are about 11 such panels depending on the number of students shortlisted. “We try to ensure diversity in the composition of the panel itself in more ways than one, not just in terms of subject expertise but also a variety of viewpoints and the ability to deal with situations in a balanced manner,” explains Prof. Kothapalli. Since it is always possible for students to learn strategies to ace their way through such exams, IIITH also conducts interviews for all shortlisted candidates before offering admission. “They don’t need to give the right answer. All we are trying to see is if they’re trying to recall (memorised) material or trying to come up with something on the spot,” states Prof. Pudi. Admitting that it is probably the first time that 12th grade students are undergoing a formal interview process where the stakes are high, Prof. Kothapalli states that all interview panels take great efforts in putting the candidates at ease. The questioning during the interview is also open-ended. “For instance, if we ask some Math question where the candidate doesn’t know the formula or forgets it, we are really looking at how he or she can approach the problem. How does one think through and get from point A to point B; that’s what we are really looking at in the interview stage,” he muses.

Identifying The Research Mindset
For the exact line of questioning that interview panels follow, Prof. Kothapalli elaborates that it has to be within the reach of the high school cohort. “For example, we don’t ask them how the Large Hadron Collider works. Instead, we try to gauge whether they understand the basics and can apply their knowledge to simple problems with things around us. Textbooks don’t necessarily cover how everyday devices that we encounter like TVs, ACs, refrigerators or even LED lights work. But curious minds who are interested in Science will want to know. If they understand the basic principles and are able to apply them and communicate them well, then it means they are thinking like researchers.”

Interviewing For SPEC
The year 2018 marked not just the formal announcement of a new mode of admission for the research-based programs but also an attempt by the institute to bring in diversity in admissions. “We wanted a more diverse student group on campus because diversity is always better for learning. This means representation in terms of rural regions, socio-economic classes and of course gender,” states Prof. Dipti. The first attempt towards this was made through the introduction of the Special Channel of Admission (SPEC) which aims to identify talented students with challenging circumstances. This mode is available only for the 4-year-BTech programs in Computer Science and Engineering and Electronics and Communication Engineering respectively. “We try to understand their socio-cultural background and their interests, and try to gauge their basic Maths and Science skills because a basic level of the Sciences is needed. The teaching in IIITH is quite fast-paced and of a certain level; we don’t want to bring them here and find them struggling,” she says. Besides believing that financial constraints ought not to be a barrier to higher education, India being a multilingual country, the institute similarly believes that language should not be a barrier either. “If we see a particular student being uncomfortable in English, we switch to their native language to make them feel at ease.” Unlike aspirants from the mainstream, real-life challenges motivate SPEC candidates to pursue Engineering. “One said, I want to develop an engineering solution to water the fields because I see my father struggling, another said, I would like to be the Chair of ISRO someday, and so on,” recollects the professor.

Online Since Covid-19
After a 2-year run of in-person interviews, the second half of the admission process transitioned online due to the pandemic in 2020. “There’s definitely a difference between the online model and the in-person process in that there was more uniformity across the students in terms of questions posed and how we planned the entire 15 minutes. But that said, there’s an advantage for parents of the candidates in having an online interview in that they need not physically accompany their wards to the campus,” says Prof. Kothapalli. According to Prof. Pudi, there’s an additional advantage for the institute itself in conducting the process online. “We get a higher number of students appearing for the interview since it is easier for them. 100% attendance versus 75% or so if it were a physical interview,” he says.

Personal Perspectives
Prateek Sancheti who is currently pursuing his dual degree in Computer Science and Engineering recalls his own interview experience in 2019 and concurs. ”The interview panel might try to trick you even if you have the right answer to see how confident you are. And in case you are wrong, they want to see if you can identify your mistakes with their hints and approach the problem correctly.” When Srinath Nair was posed a question that left him stumped during his interview at IIITH for the Dual Degree program in Computer Science and Engineering, the panel asked if he would like to give it a shot or give up. “I said I would definitely like to attempt it,” he recalls. But when he couldn’t reach a satisfactory answer after 5 minutes of trying despite the efforts of the panel in guiding him, he says he chose to give up. “Rather than blurting out something stupid in the process of covering up, I opted to admit that I did not have the proper answer,” he says, adding that the interview panel is not only gauging research potential of candidates but also if the person is able to handle failures. Venkat P, who was a SPEC candidate in the year 2018 remembers his interview rather vividly. He avers that the panel is helpful, gentle and even guides you if you’re stuck at any point. “It is a stress-free environment and can be given either in your mother tongue or in English,” he says.

Acknowledging that it is a little early to call out successes, the faculty has however noted an increase in the number of students who have completed their thesis on time. “We had our first batch of students graduate last year. Since 2018, we have made many changes in the way we steer students towards their graduation by conducting more open-house events explaining the thesis aspect, how to plan their research and other awareness sessions. The increase in the numbers graduating on time could be attributed to a number of factors beginning with the intake of students itself based on their research calibre, admitting students who explicitly want to do research versus students who join the 5-year program because they couldn’t get into the 4-year one,” states Prof. Kothapalli. Calling the interview process, “the only way” to assess aptitude, Prof. Dipti remarks that certain kinds of abilities cannot be tested via mere competitive exams. “Maybe on that single day, you don’t do well. Besides there are other aspects about a student that you don’t get to know through an examination. An interview is a great way to know more about prospective students”, she maintains. The faculty however is also aware that the admission process cannot be set in stone. “If someone is preparing heavily for the interview process then I suppose it would go against the spirit of things and the question arises as to whether they are the kind of students we really want. We will definitely have to be more flexible and adapt to circumstances over the years,” concludes the professor.

Sarita Chebbi is a compulsive early riser. Devourer of all news. Kettlebell enthusiast. Nit-picker of the written word especially when it’s not her own.


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