Off-Topic: Research- What Does It Demand?

In the last post, I had penned a few rudimentary non-novel obvious thoughts on what it takes to nurture a culture of innovation based on Prof.Vijay Govindarajan’s (VG) work. In this post, I intend to delve deeper into one of VG’s recurring themes (“leitmotifs”) – absence of fear of failure. I had an interesting experience which I wish to draw from, to articulate better on this point. 
(Disclaimer: This post could be slightly off-topic, with an extended introduction (“bhoomika”, if I may) and probably an abrupt obvious conclusion, so for those who are looking for hardcore insta-opinions/analysis, this may not be to your liking.)

Sometime in 2007, I was at the Kharagpur railway station standing in a long queue waiting to book a ticket to home. The queue was not that long, but thanks to the laidback work ethic which is fiercely preserved and encouraged by the world’s largest commercial/utility employer, I was stuck for a good hour and a half, and was wondering at the sheer bankruptcy of colourful vocabulary in the Queen’s language when you so direly need it.
Just when I was about to put to test my native tongue’s range in this department (i.e. after having exhausted what I knew in the other languages I am fluent in), the gentleman standing in front of me turned around, and with what I mistook for a patronising smile, enquired if I was from the Southern part of India (he’s careful not to call me a “South Indian”).
As I answered in the affirmative, I noticed he was wearing a ‘70s style half-sleeve shirt in checks and a grey trouser, had an old huge rickety watch in his right arm, a sixth finger (the smoking stick of course) between the fingers of his left hand and wore a  pair of run-down “standard issue” Bata slippers. (The piling up of stereotypes should have alerted me to his background, but I guess my mind was still pre-occupied and in fact, was in awe of the stupendous verbal dexterity and reach of my native tongue). I managed to notice that he had sharp eyes.
He then asked me which department of the “insti” (IIT Kgp in the local lingo) was I from, to which I told him I was from the Law School. Once the usual questions were done with, I was informed that he was a Professor from the Computer Science Department of IIT Kgp and also, one of the founding members of the then newly-established Centre for Theoretical Studies (CTS) at IIT Kharagpur.
Upon asking further, he told me that he was an IITian himself, who did his Masters in the US (if my memory serves me right) and Ph.D from one of India’s renowned institutions. At the time of this discussion, I was briefly flirting with the idea of taking up studies in pure or applied mathematics after law. So I asked him the qualifications he looked for in the applicants to the CTS; I was told that interest in and aptitude for math was all that was needed, no references or glittering exaggerated CVs were required whatsoever.
The conversation then slowly veered to what led him to take up a career in research (and that too in an Indian Institution…), and from there on, to what did research demand from its aspirants.
The Professor’s insights rang of conviction borne out of experience; he said, contrary to the popular belief, research did not demand a 200+ IQ or a certification of genius from Mensa. He said the best of brains lacked patience, and were hence not cut out for research. Most aspirants, according to him, didn’t realize this until they stepped into research and more often than not, they were disillusioned and disenchanted within a year or so. The Professor confessed that he too was, at one point in his early days, on the verge of succumbing to disenchantment and motivational boredom.
However, as time passed by, he realized that research, more than dazzling brilliance, called for perseverance; failures were to be expected and one had to continue plodding one’s way through until the process grew on you. He also clarified that patience and perseverance were not to be confused with one another.
He felt that the reason the cream of the talent from the country’s elite institutions chose career paths other than research could be that they simply did not have the patience to slog through the years, more so when there was no dearth of easier opportunities to make it big within half a decade or less. 
Personally, I didn’t think he was making this point on moral grounds, he was analysing the issue from a very practical point of view. Also, I would think it is fairly banal to point out that his observation applies to all fields of study.
If his observations were right, which I think they were, no wonder an undergraduate degree becomes merely a stepping stone to a lucrative graduate program (read a management degree).  If a career in management is opted for out of love for the subject, then one really cannot judge the choice; after all, management too deserves a great talent pool. But funnily, barring one or two Raghuram Rajans, I am not sure how many aspirants of a management degree really look forward to a career in management research. 
If this be the case, I don’t think lack of resources or opportunities can be held as the primary reason(s) for paucity of researchers…it all comes down to our approach towards learning.
As long as contribution to a particular field of learning is not our idea of success, we can keep racking our brains and breaking our heads for all eternity as to why we lack in innovation, and yet we would still be barking up the wrong tree. (We had discussed on similar lines in an earlier post)
I probably sound “pontificatory”, that may be because I don’t know how else is this issue supposed to be addressed. As for relevance, I think when we discuss intellectual property and innovation, supposedly “abstract” issues such as these too need to be addressed because if we don’t do that, we are probably attempting to dig our teeth into the kernel of an apple without touching the skin…


  1. AvatarShankar


    I liked this post. Having worked in a govt lab for 20 years doing applied research, I can tell you that research can be exciting, but can go hopelessly astray if not directed correctly. Misdirected research can turn out at best to be irrelevant or useless and at worst can become an instrument of clout with practically no accountability. To achieve great things in research you need to collaborate. Unfortunately, for various reasons this seems to be very difficult to sustain in our academic and research environments.

    Yes, it requires a lot of patience and self-belief in a student to do good research. It also requires mentoring – that rare quality of nurturing excellence while fostering values, in the teacher. In other words, it takes certain qualities in a mentor to pull in excellent students into research. If more students are not taking up research, perhaps these mentors are rare in India.


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