For a long time now, technical has come to be associated with Robotics, Coding competitions, ATV competitions and the like. Amidst all the technical talk, somewhere hidden, lies an altogether different world called Research. The difference between building a robot, quadcopters, competitive coding etc and formulating and solving a research problem is evident right from the learning phase. Tools and tutorials required for the former are readily available on the internet whereas the latter involves literature survey and reading and comprehending research papers . The first step in itself sounds daunting to most and suffices to turn people away. If it is so scary, how is it that some people have managed to get going? This is where the mentor steps in. The mentor plays a crucial role in guiding a student along his/her research path and making the experience enjoyable and fruitful.
This article is all about finding the right mentor and the amazing opportunities that your mentor can help you discover. Most of what is presented in this article is from my own experience and hence will be directed towards mentored research projects. So, I hope that it will also give you a peek into what it is like to be involved in research and dispel some of the inhibitions that you may have.
“We all need someone who inspires us to do better than we know how“- Anonymous
The process of finding a mentor does not happen overnight. It is a consequence of hours of effort both from the student and the mentor. The weekly project (read SOP/LOP/DOP) discussion sessions slowly turn to bi-weekly sessions or more if the students begin to show interest. In my case, we used to have it from 10 pm to 12 mid-night. Just imagine, a Professor walks all the way from his home at night, just so that he can discuss and advise you on your project. If you are thinking, “So what? Profs are boring people and two hours meeting with them on a weekly basis must be such a pain.”
Then you’ve never been more wrong.
We end up discussing not just science but also pro-shows for Pearl, the World Cup, movies, we crib about classes, seek advice on non-academic issues and occasionally discuss some philosophy too. And you know what the coolest part is?
We end the meetings with a cup of tea from BRU.
Since you are involved in an original research project, any exciting result is worth showcasing to the world. That’s right. You get to go to conferences, both national and international, to present your work. A well deserved Educational-cum-Recreational holiday. We had lots of fun when we went to Israel and Istanbul with our professors. We went to the Masada fort, floated on the Dead sea, went to Jerusalem old city and a took a tour of Istanbul that included The Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet mosque. All of this along with 5 days of talks from big-shot scientists and our very own poster presentation made the trip a really memorable one. A more recent trip was to Pondicherry, once again with our professors. Every morning and night we went for a walk along the famous Promenade beachfront in the French quarter, had a nice cup of coffee in a French cafe overlooking the beach and visited the Aurobindo ashram. So, as I said it is not ‘All work and no play‘. In fact, you end up learning to balance both in your daily routine.
These trips also provide an opportunity to interact closely with your mentor away from campus life. You get an opportunity to draw inspiration from how they dealt with setbacks in their lives. At times when you are lost or de-motivated, recollecting their anecdotes help you overcome the problem and find a solution. Thus, a mentor is not just a person who guides you directly towards the resources for a solution, but also a person who motivates you indirectly in some form or another.
However, to sustain all of this, constant and sincere effort is expected from the student towards the research project.
The general BITSian mantra Lite doesn’t help at all.
The motivation of the faculty to mentor students is solely dependent on the enthusiasm and sincerity of the student. In this regard, there are a few things that I think might be useful. In the initial stages of the project, it is very important to work out a comfortable understanding in the way of doing things. Failing to do so would cause a mismatch in the working styles between students and the professor. This is definitely a signal that you may end up losing interest. Also, it is always better to personally meet the professor to discuss anything related to the project as opposed to sending emails. This not only reduces the communication gap that creeps in via emails but also paves way for a better student-mentor relation. It is also important to note that both the students and the mentors have their own expectations. As a student, it is not right to expect the mentor to do everything that works well with you and benefits you in some way. Some compromises have to be necessarily made on your part. Lastly, being honest about the work that you have done and the results that you have obtained is a very important aspect of any research project. Any compromise on this front will not only impact the research project but also the understanding between the student and the professor.
The general feeling is ‘Not many are lucky to have mentors’ and my answer to that is probably yes, in college, but that isn’t the end of the story. A mentor can be from very diverse environments, from arts and science to the corporate world and industry. I have begun to firmly believe that we are all destined to meet certain people, some of whom may turn out to be our mentors. The crucial factors that bring you under the guidance of a mentor are passion and sincerity for what you are doing and an awareness of the people around you.
Now that I have shared my cup of tea, I hope that you’ll look back, ponder and initiate an action to find out what your cup of tea is.
-Sruthi V Babu