Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

Email Etiquette- So much for it!

In Education on June 6, 2016 at 11:32 PM

One can find hundreds of posts, articles etc. on email etiquette, especially for those looking for jobs. How to address a person, what to write in the body of the email, how to close an email etc. A lot of this advice assumes that  those who need it are individuals looking for  grant, scholarship, admission or jobs.

The problem with all this advice is that it is very one-sided. Very few posts would mention email communication from the other side: a professor, a hiring manager, a fund administrator etc. Many of these posts perhaps assume that these people do not need to be aware of any etiquette or that they can get away with anything since there are in a position of authority to accept or reject. They assume that most people need help because they are “seeking something”. So seekers need to be advised while those who, let’s just say “disburse” need no advice! This is really one-sided thinking and half-thought approach to understanding email etiquette.

Those who “disburse” are also equally in need. However, very little focus is given to this subject, perhaps because the thought is clouded by the idea of authority. One example of this is the countless email I keep receiving from a few companies asking me to help them find a recruit by telling my friends! On  the other hand, if you have ever tried communicating with the HR department of such companies as a prospective candidate, you would know that it is not all good on that side as well! Of course, I have the freedom to opt out of receiving such emails but that does not take away the hilarity and the irony evident in such hiring practices!

I do receive a lot of emails from students wanting to intern in my research group and often I find that they have done no research on my background or interests. I mostly do not reply to such emails because they show a lack of sincerity. Sometimes, I do reply advising the candidate on how to approach someone. A company, on the other hand, can be regarded as mostly faceless. So, I do not reply to them even when I know someone in that company. It is unfortunate that the dictum “easy to preach and hard to practice” is so common.

Many people and organizations do not seem to understand that communication is a two-way thing, that engagement with clients, prospective employees etc. requires effort and well thought mails, flyers, emails etc. Acting like a king who announces his desire and expects the peasantry to oblige passively is marvelously not a good management practice.

When Economic Forces Influence Universities

In Education, Research and Development, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on January 31, 2015 at 9:28 PM

That universities are being increasingly subjected to economic forces is no longer a surprising news. Many articles have been written about the utility of research done at universities, transforming them into products, restricting funding to research in areas of less economic importance etc. I won’t discuss these in this post as this subject is vast. However, I will highlight one important development that I learned about only recently. I was talking to a professor and we discussed faculty appointments, research areas at his university etc. It came to me as a surprise that most students in his department were opting for courses that led to jobs in companies in a few prominent industries in the region. As a result, the university and the department were increasingly more interested in hiring faculty who had experience in those subjects. This was not always the case with those students. Five to ten years ago, the student population was not skewed this way. As a result, the department had faculty in almost all areas of study/research. Now that the student population had become so skewed, a number of faculty members have very reduced teaching load. In effect, these faculty members are now becoming “surplus faculty”. Needless to say that their areas of research and scholarship are only remotely related or unrelated to areas in which students are getting placed. Consequently, there is little hiring of faculty members in these areas and it may also have an impact on the number of faculty members who get tenure. Is this good for education and research? What should a university do in such a case? I would say that such an effect of economic forces is not good for education and research. However, in a world that increasingly wants to relate every human activity to some sort of economic force, it can be difficult to make a convincing case for hiring/retaining scholars in those disciplines. As far as what a university should do is concerned, it is not an easy question to answer. It requires administration with vision, foresight and strength to deal with such a scenario. Whatever be the case, it seems that the concept of a university is undergoing evolution and there is a need to choose a path that is least damaging to all/most stakeholders.

Doers vs.Thinkers or Doer-Thinker or Thinker-Doer

In Education, Research and Development, Startup on July 14, 2013 at 7:09 PM

Have you ever found yourself thinking about the topic of this post? Quite likely. And it is all the more likely that you tried to classify yourself as a doer or a thinker. Being human beings, we love to take sides most of the time. We (or others) are either this or that; we work this way or that way etc. Doers take pride in doing things while thinkers take pride in their ability to think deeply and profoundly. Many doers challenge thinkers by saying that they “only think” and do very little on the ground while many thinkers hold the ability to think and come up with ideas in the highest regard. A classic case is the question about work experience versus research experience which I discussed here.

If we stop for a moment and decide not to analyze these two traits from a usability perspective and detach them from their economic outcomes, what do you think will win the doer vs. thinker debate? I guess it will still remain open because in their absolute existence, these two traits offer two different kinds of results. While the former generally gives birth to something tangible, something that our sensory perceptions can respond to, the latter gives birth to something that our minds can (or cannot) comprehend. For instance, a carpenter can produce chairs, tables etc. while someone who studies trees and plants can propose a theory on growth of trees. These two guys can exist in isolation without any problems. Problems arise when we try to assign a monetary value to their efforts and it is then that the debate starts. Since the aim of practically all economic exercises is to maximize the return on money and time invested, whether a doer is more important or a thinker, depends on who brings more value in a given context.

However, instead of identifying yourself with one of these, you can as well be both of these: doer-thinker or thinker-doer. You are one of these two depending on the ratio of these two traits in your character. The good thing about being both is that you appreciate both. You do not become dogmatic and you understand the effort and the skills required for each of them. You can appreciate both kinds of people (who exist in the either or world). Your attitude, character and style of functioning becomes more fluid and you probably gain the knowledge to get  the best out of not only yourself but also out of those who exist in silos. All this becomes really helpful when you are in an organization or you are leading a team. Thinkers can inject new and fresh ideas while doers can execute them. But as you are both, you know very well that an interaction between these two may lead to even better results than the sum of their individual results.

On Mentors and Mentees

In Education, Research and Development, Science & Technology Promotion and Public Policy on July 5, 2013 at 4:58 PM

The traditional Indian education system holds a teacher with the highest regard. A teacher is supposed to not only educate a student but also shape his/her character given  the fact that a significant amount of time is spent by a student in a school. A teacher with profound knowledge and insight and the ability to inspire students is referred to as “Guru”. Of course, times have changed and the education system (schools to universities) is as much a producer for economic forces as much a product of it. By economic forces, I don’t just mean the market forces but also any force that controls the funds and the resources to be allocated. While this interaction is important and probably unavoidable, it has also opened up the system to the vagaries and at times unreasonable demands of these forces on the education system. The effect can be seen on students as well as teachers. Probably, it is those genuinely interested in a well formed education system who experience more the push of those forces and the pull of their innate desire and commitment to the highest standards of teaching and mentorship. And the outcome is not always pleasant or holistically fruitful.

While the term “Guru” has religious origins, its use has permeated every sphere of knowledge and workmanship; now often used in a diluted sense to refer to someone who possesses exceptional knowledge and skills in a particular area.  The English word “Mentor” is the closest in meaning and spirit. A mentor these days faces the same challenges and being a really good mentor takes a lot of effort. But what exactly constitutes good mentorship? Well, there is no one single answer but an ensemble of insights, challenges and skills which forms the answer. Nature, a world renowned science journal, published an article  in 2007 on what all constitute true mentorship. It is based on an award program, named Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science, that it runs to recognize exceptional mentorship in the field of science. It is an excellent read for those interested in this subject. While it is based on inputs from people associated with science, they are so general that anyone in any other field will find them useful.

Role of Discipline in Graduate Research

In Education on January 7, 2013 at 7:32 PM

I recently came across a blog post titled “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” on Harvard Business Review blog network. The author, Greg McKeown, describes in this article what distinguishes successful people from very successful people. There are many people who are good at doing many things and are willing to do them. They excel in almost everything that they do, no matter how varied those tasks are. Some of them, at one point in time, begin to ask themselves if they want to keep on doing things this way or they want to be remembered for just a few things where they excelled to astronomical heights. The HBR blog post is for those people. There are many who are just happy doing different kinds of things and never bothering themselves with that introspective question. They are happy with the many significant contributions, no matter small or big,  that they have made. But some of the more ambitious ones who are not satisfied with whatever they do, no matter how good they are at it, might want to read that blog post. The author has described in a very nice way the importance of priorities, the need for conscious decision making about what we choose to do with our skills.

It happens in graduate research also. Often, graduate students have the option to try many different options in their research. But in order to make the 4-5 years of their graduate research meaningful, they need to carefully consider which options would make them feel more satisfied. A tightly knit story can be made around a few related research questions that have been pursued in detail compared to a loosely knit story that would result from the pursuit of many research questions which often lack an assigned order of priority.