Professor's Views

Professor Sameer Khandekar
Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Kanpur

Professor Sameer Khandekar is a faculty in Department of Mechanical Engineering, IIT Kanpur. He pursued his BE from Government Engineering College Rani Durgavati Vishwavidyalaya Jabalpur (1989-1993). After being employed as a Marine Engineer (sailing on merchant vessels as a power plant engineer) for four years, he resumed his research interests by pursuing M.Tech. in Mechanical Engineering (1998-2000, Specialization in Thermal and Fluid Sciences) from IIT Kanpur and PhD from University of Stuttgart, Germany (2000-2004). Professor Khandekar has not only got a brilliant academic record, but is also endowed with a charismatic personality and a very realistic and ‘down-to-earth’ approach towards life. We had a long discussion with him in his laboratory on various topics, only parts of which can be recounted here.
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GC: Good Evening Sir!!!
SK: (with a bright smile) Good Evening, have a seat.

After a short introduction and chit-chat:

GC: Sir, you have interacted with so many students. As per your experience, how is the general response of students towards higher studies?
SK: Well, as far as I have seen, students are not exposed to the flavor of research at their undergraduate studies. They are not sensitized towards the importance and role of knowledge generation for societal benefit and development. Majority of our under-graduate engineers are content with knowledge utilization or application. College teachers are often unaware of the research prospects, careers, importance of generation of intellectual property. Thus, they also fail to motivate students to take up higher studies. There are few role models around. Research requires not only intellectual ability but also a strong character, perseverance, emotional stability and a zeal for exploring the unknown. Fortunately, in my college I could find the company of a few fellow motivated students and faculty who were able to nurture my research aptitude and sensitize me to the joys of research as a career.

GC: Why do students come for M.Tech.?
SK: In essence, any post graduate degree ought to take you on a transitional journey from being a knowledge-bearer to a knowledge-generator. This is the time when should get a good flavor of research, independent thinking, time and resource management, generating new ideas with existing knowledge base, come up with logical hypotheses and test them, apply knowledge to synthesize, etc. In undergraduate education you are only expected to do courses and grow your technical skills with the present known knowledge of the art. Advanced level courses are taken up in the post-graduate education program so that a student is well equipped with exploring new frontiers and generating new knowledge. So, ideally, the mandate of a post-graduate degree is to expose students towards generation of new knowledge and equip them with advanced analytical tools to independently scrutinize their hypotheses.

Thus, in the ideal condition, if one shows interest in an M.Tech. degree program, he/she must have some inherent urge for systematic knowledge-generation activity. In India today, there is a serious ‘conflict of mandate’. On one hand, the ideal mandate of a post-graduate institute ought to be what I have discussed above, the mandate of most of the incoming students (I do not want to generalize this statement as we always have a bunch of highly motivated students too) is to ‘use’ the M.Tech. degree as a tool to obtain better jobs (or to obtain jobs), which they could not get after their under-graduate studies (for various reasons which I will not go into at this stage). This is what I call a ‘conflict of mandate’.

GC: In your view, what qualities should a student bear for being a good researcher?
SK: SK: Patience, Perseverance, Inquisitiveness, determination, dedication and discipline. In addition, commitment towards professional integrity and purity of mind and body are also required for long term success. A person ought to have a desire for knowledge generation. Easier said than bringing it all into practice! All good researchers know the value of hard work. In hindi we say: Ek hi Jadoo- Kadi Mehenat! Meaning: There is only one way to create miracles, and that is hard work.

GC: What is better- M.Tech/PhD directly after B.Tech or after some job experience?
SK: I would say it is a very subjective question. Both options have their positives and negatives and it depends a lot on the person and his/her circumstances/obligations.

For me, I would say industry experience served well. Sitting on a desk we can think of many ideas but not all of them are feasible in practical real life; this is what we learn by solving real time problems in the industry. We understand that technology per se is not sufficient; we need an economic, societal and policy and regulatory eco-system for the technology to generate wealth and make a difference in the society. Also, many of my doubts in theoretical understanding got clarified while working on real-life engineering problems. When I started teaching too, I found myself quite comfortable and confident because I could explain certain concepts very easily and clearly since I had actually worked on them. From the social and family perspective also, it has been quite a smooth journey for me. I got married while I was in job and earning well, and continued higher studies thereafter. My son was born when I was doing M.Tech. at IITK!

I would say that everyone has to take his or her decision looking into many things. Family, socio-economic conditions, planning of marriage, education of siblings and other dependents, health and age related issues, level of enthusiasm, overall aim and milestones under planning, etc., are some of the factors which one must consider. Try to make a balance between academic interests and your circumstances.

GC: What percentage of students in your department is inclined towards further research, leading to PhD?
SK: Well, I think at least 10-15% B.Tech. go towards higher technical education, be it directly or after a break in the industry. In a typical M.Tech. batch at IIT, I usually find three groups of students. Group one has students who are genuinely interested in knowledge-generation and have a fair idea of why they are here and what post-graduate education is all about. Group Two has students who are (or slowly get) completely disinterested in any kind of innovative activity (at least they show clear signs that their interest and professional commitment is, at best, marginal). Their purpose to land up at an institute of higher learning was completely out-of-sync with the academic mandate of the institute. The third group however, is a little confused; the students are not aware of the various options and/or are not able to weigh their options in light of their interests and obligations. It is this last group who need further counseling so that they can make up their mind and convince the eco-system in which they are living about their choice of going for a higher degree.

GC: Do the students that take admission here satisfy the academic and conceptual level that is expected of them?
SK: In the last years we are experiencing that the conceptual clarity of students entering into IITs has definitely declined. GATE exam is able to just choose the best in the lot that is available. Unfortunately, the raw human resource which we get at IITs has been nurtured by the society and the educational eco-system of the country, which is indeed sub-optimal. There are several factors that mould a child’s character, emotional health and intelligence, viz. primary and secondary education system, family environment, friend circle, societal belief, physical health and nutrition, availability of quality teachers and infrastructure in the under-graduate program, etc. We at IIT cannot change that, we can only evaluate the final product which we get and try our level best to upgrade their skills. The quality of under-graduate education across large parts of the country is certainly questionable and unless our raw-material is of a certain basic minimum quality it is futile to expect miracles happening at IITs. To create a knowledge based society, all elements of the super-structure must work in unison to achieve the desired goal.

Having said that, we still manage to get a small portion of highly motivated and dedicated students. But this number has to go up substantially for sustainable development of high quality human resource so as to provide vital support to our growing economy.

At this stage I would also like to remind that every financial transaction made in a professional system has a mandate and purpose associate with it. When a post-graduate student accepts the institute assistantship, he/she essentially has a professional commitment that he/she will contribute towards the knowledge generation activities of the institute. Therefore, your scholarship should not be taken as free lunch. At least, till the time you are associated with the institute, you must work professionally to deliver what is expected from you as a post-graduate student.

GC: Message for the students?
SK: Be realistic in life, take a balanced approach. As a post graduate student your responsibility is to generate knowledge useful for the society and contribute towards nation building. Be a true professional……