Tuesday, April 17, 2007

My Indian Interview

I was asked by my academic adviser at Drew to write an article for our semesterly newsletter, The Dilated Times. I thought it would be fun to share. Enjoy!

I had been told there would only be three or four professors in the room with me. I was therefore surprised to walk into a room with nine people in it. I had thought that my admissions interview would be a casual affair, but the two girls who had been waiting outside of the room with me worked me into a bit of a tizzy before I was called in.

When the PI in my lab at NCBS offered me a chance to get a masters in research, I accepted with eagerness. My husband and I moved here to India for his education, but if I could walk away with a degree as well, it would be two years well spent.

NCBS, or the National Centre for Biological Sciences, is a research institution in Bangalore, India that operates under the auspices of the Tata Foundation and in affiliation with the Indian Institute of Sciences. I started in a lab there through my REU connections at Princeton. Mukund, the PI, was a great help, opening his lab to me and doing his best to help me feel at home here in Bangalore. After a few months of driving to work everyday, Mukund approached me with an idea that he’d come up with to make my time in India more productive. NCBS has a masters option for people that they deem to be very worthy of a place there. The admissions committee didn’t want my transcript, only two or three references. The hurdle I had to overcome was the interview.

Now, in the US, an interview is not so much about demonstrating one’s ability as allowing both sides to get to know each other a little bit. Goals are discussed. Perhaps a gap in one’s education or experience is brought up, but the main focus is on personality. So I was a bit surprised when I was asked to walk to the board a few minutes into the interview. It turns out that, in India, an interview is closer to an oral exam.

To the credit of the guys in my lab, they did their best to prepare me. They let me know their experiences: Sugat had been terribly nervous, Vivek had tried once already to get into the Ph.D. program but hadn’t gotten past the interview. There was one guy who had been grilled for two hours on the finer points of physics. Mukund told me not to worry about it, that I would just be asked basic questions.

So I stood at the board in front of nine Indian professors, a little concerned about the language barrier and clutching at the dry erase marker that I’d been given. I wanted to be impressive for so many reasons. I felt I was representing Mukund and the US and women and Drew University and Dr. F. and on and on. They asked me what my focus was within physics. I went with optics as I’d not only taken a class in it but had also worked in Dr. McGee’s lab for a year and a half. The questions came at me and I choked. There’s no way around it. I choked. It was dreadful. It was like the dream where you show up to class naked. They took their time and were patient with me, but my fears and lack of preparation shined through.

When I thought it couldn’t possibly go on any longer, they began with questions about biology. How do you measure the volume of a cell with a microscope? I’d been warned about questions like this. How do you find the percentage of a body’s mass that is taken up by the blood? Experimental questions that, had I taken extensive biology classes, I still may not know. By this point, I was so defeated that I didn’t even attempt to come up with an answer.

Certainly, now, now it must be over. But there was one set of questions left to be answered. Ten quick queries to test…well, I’m not certain what it was meant to test. Plot x^2 + y^2 = 4. What is 38 written in Base 17? I did my best to make it through and then stumbled out the door.

Putting aside my frightful display, it’s interesting to note the difference between a higher institution in the US and its equal in India. While Ph.D. programs in the US are competitive it is nothing compared to the system here in India. With 1.1 billion people living here, according to the CIA factbook, and only a handful of government-approved institutions for higher learning, there is a logjam when it comes to applications. Schools have to be demanding of their applicants.

In order to get into any major engineering or science institution, the student must apply to take an entrance exam that is administered by the institution itself. This severely limits the number of schools that a person can apply to, as each has their own exam. And the exams are known to be tremendously difficult. One recent exam at one of the most competitive schools had the following question: A bear is sitting on a shelf and falls 10m. If it takes 1 sec to fall, what is the color of the bear?*

The top scores, perhaps 30 percent, are then invited to submit another application that includes an essay. From this batch, 5-10% are brought in for interviews. With as many as 3,000 people applying for 10-12 spots, the competition is fierce and the universities have come up with the best methods they can in order to narrow the field down. I couldn’t help but ask myself: if we used the same system in the US, would I even have a physics degree?
To be fair, there is a lot of talk within the Indian academic community about the need for more schools. And there was recently an article in the New York Times discussing how American universities are extending their institutions to the Indian subcontinent, through both the internet and affiliations, in order to offer alternatives to a system that is lacking. They need more schools here. But I couldn’t help wondering.

Unfortunately, things did not work out for me at NCBS. Between visa problems and my debacle of an interview I was not able to enroll. I was invited by one of the professors to try again in six months, but by that time it will be too late to complete the program in time for our departure from India. I have instead applied to Georgia Tech to complete a masters of science in medical physics, which they administer as a distance learning course. My departure from NCBS is equal parts embarrassment from my poor performance and a desire to study something that will directly contribute to my future goals. Fortunately, Georgia Tech won’t ask me to fly to Atlanta for an interview with nine of their most challenging professors!

*The answer is white. I made up these numbers for demonstration. You’re meant to solve for acceleration, make note that it is larger than the accepted value, realize that the accepted value is taken closer to the equator, reason that farther away from the equator one travels the stronger gravity is and deduce that only polar bears live at the poles. Congratulations to those who got it.


mycaylyn said...

and being from Wyoming/Colorado area, my immediate answer was the black bear, not even the brown grizzly bear...I was so sure, and then imagine my surprise when I found out the answer was white...I did not even consider the polar bear! gravity/equator of course that is so clear to me now :) So IF you got that one in the interview, consider yourself smarter than your mother-in-law.. :) Oh, you've already considered that answer..ohmyword! :) love, mom

E(Liz)a(Beth) said...

Well, thankfully I didn't have to answer that during the interview. It was on a placement exam, which I didn't have to take. Not that I would have gotten it. I probably would have said blue or purple or some smart aleck comment.

Vivek said...

"It turns out that, in India, an interview is closer to an oral exam."

Also, in India, an interview is a psychological way for disgruntled superiors to show off how much superior to you they are and how little and meaningless you are ...

"While Ph.D. programs in the US are competitive it is nothing compared to the system here in India. With 1.1 billion people living here, according to the CIA factbook, and only a handful of government-approved institutions for higher learning, there is a logjam when it comes to applications. Schools have to be demanding of their applicants."

And yet graduate programs in India are nowhere near the caliber of those in the U.S. There are tons of Indians making a beeline for American universities and it's not because they're easier to get into.

It's because the American system of education stresses independence, creativity, and nurtures potential rather than crushing it under the proverbial boot, of which your interview was one particular representation.

E(Liz)a(Beth) said...

Vivek! Glad to see you!

You seem to be a bit bitter. Any horrible tales you'd like to share?? :) NCBS seemed like it was a good program with great research facilities, but it may be in the minority in that sense. I wonder if the "solution" is the ever-increasing number of American institutions that confer distance degrees on people, so that there isn't the added expense of moving to America. It may help more Indians (and Chinese, etc, etc) get a degree. What do you think?

Eupemia said...

Good for people to know.