The Reluctant Researcher — The Quest to Diversify
During my three years at the rural Institute mentioned in earlier blogs, my research went no where. Lack of time was just one reason. Another one was a lack of ideas combined with a reluctance to do research and put in the hard yards. It is difficult to work hard for something one does not enjoy. I was willing to put hard work towards teaching and learning, because I enjoyed it and my Institute needed it.
When one is not enjoying any work, then there is a tendency to procrastinate. And research is one area where procrastination is extremely unhelpful. It requires continuous concentration over long hours and dedicate at least 1–2 days every week to completely focus on it.
As mentioned in an earlier blog post, my PhD focused on implementing architectures for various applications on hardware. This area of research required access to certain softwares that were very expensive to acquire even on academic licenses, like the Cadence or Synopsys design suits or FPGA simulation and synthesis softwares provided by major vendors like Xilinx and Altera.
Initially I did have access to systems in Sweden with the required softwares but I cannot give access of it to some of my students who did work initially with me on some research ideas. I was able to use it for sometime to work on some left over projects from my PhD but then that access was taken away, understandably so since I was no longer an employee.
Furthermore, the area in which I held expertise was not very attractive to undergraduate students. Most of the students in our Institute wanted to do more practical work that can help them in getting employment and somewhere I also inclined towards the opinion that undergraduate senior/final year projects must be more oriented towards developing products that can help the students gain knowledge about different skills including going through a complete product cycle and be, in some sense, market ready. Pure research based projects were more suitable, in my opinion, for those pursuing a research based graduate/masters degree.
It is not that undergraduate students cannot do research but at their level, the effort required from the main researcher is considerably more than with students at a more advanced level and there my reluctance, lack of research ideas and procrastination kicked in, preventing me from doing any meaningful research.
However, the bread and butter for an academician is research. If I were to leave the Institute and get a faculty position elsewhere, most of the universities and institutes will focus on my research or lack thereof. As mentioned in the previous blog post, my Institute was not appreciating the effort I was putting towards quality teaching and unfortunately most Pakistani universities or for that matter many universities around the world also do not. The sooner I focused on research, the better the long term prospects for my career and I realized that I need to put in the hard yards to further my career.
Furthermore, the world was changing and I was left catching up with the expertise I had and there was a need for me to diversify my expertise. I decided to try out my hand towards neural networks and computer vision. My habits of reluctance and procrastination continued but still I offered projects in this area. I did try to get myself out of my comfort zone by studying courses and doing some very basic implementations. This at least gave me some starting point, but being new to the area, I was again unsure how to do actual research and what are the active fronts in this field. Also, it was essential that there was some overlap with my previous expertise so that I can build on them while in this new field but I was finding it hard on where to start. There was no faculty member in the Institute that even partially worked in the area I used to and with such a small size of my Institute, having active research groups was impractical. Hiring in our Institute was based on diverse areas of expertise so that all courses of our undergraduate program can be covered, which was fine as ours was an undergraduate institute. And that was the paradox the Institute was, as highlighted in my previous blog about the pretentious focus on research.
For a number of reasons, some of which were mentioned previously, including the desire to diversify myself, I started looking for opportunities elsewhere. Initially I looked for opportunities in my home city of Karachi, still with the purpose of finding a teaching position. However, with engineers finding it hard to find jobs in Pakistan, the number of students choosing electrical or computer engineering was getting low. This had an impact on the hiring policy of different universities. Despite getting positive signs during interviews, I was not able to land any position.
In the meanwhile a dear friend and colleague at my Institute pointed towards a post-doctoral research fellowship funding opportunity for two years under the Marie Curie scholarship administered by Lero, the Irish software research center under the ALECS program. Post-doctoral research fellowship or post-doc in short is a research position common with PhD graduates who want to build a career in research, with people going for multiple post-docs before settling into any permanent positions. Initially after PhD, I never had the intention of going for it as I wanted to settle down quickly, which was a mistake on my part and one of the presumptions I listed down here.
Although the fellowship was focused on computer science, I was able to find one professor whose area of expertise was embedded systems and was currently working with his team of PhD students and post-docs on researching ways to efficiently implement neural networks on embedded devices. There was partial overlap in our areas of expertise and I realized that it could be an opportunity for me to build on my own expertise while diversifying my research portfolio at the same time.
The initial conversation with the professor led to submission of a detailed research proposal which was eventually accepted and after a long drawn out process of contract agreements and visa processes, I was finally able to leave the rural Institute (albeit on a two year unpaid leave) and join the School of Computer Science at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, Ireland.
However, again I was embarking a research journey for partially wrong reasons. Although I wanted to diversify myself and further my research career, it was more about me leaving the Institute I was working in. And as mentioned earlier, research needs dedication and singularity of purpose which I was lacking. I saw this opportunity more in the sense of getting a few more publications so that I can land a safe faculty position back home in Pakistan for good money or may be, if family situation allows me to, get an industrial position in Ireland itself. Having a career embedded in research was never, at the time of moving to TCD, the most appealing one.
This meant that after my latest sojourn, I might end up at the same place I was after I did my PhD. But something happened during the initial days which I hope will enable me to correct my ways and help me become a determined and eager research. What happened? That’s for the next blog entry.