Project requests and email responsiveness of Indian professors

In this article in the Jan 10th 2012 issue of Current Science, authors claim that Indian senior academicians and professors (so, I am excluded!) are either less interested in using email as key mode of communication or not as e-literate as their Western counterparts. I am inclined to agree with their broad conclusion.

Basically, authors posed as a bright student interested in summer internship, and attached a CV to boost their case. They sent out emails to faculties some 15-20 institutions within India and abroad, and waited for a response. As an example, it seems they got responses from 50% of faculty they emailed to at MIT as against 15% from IISc and just around 11% from our neighbors at NCBS!

Just a curious question: did participants have their consent to this ‘experimental study’? Is it okay to send emails with an intention to experiment without participant’s consent?

Anyway, here are some of my funny to sometimes annoying experiences in last four months of joining IISc regarding requests for project assistant/internship positions.

(1) Many emails are very generic. For example, a mail that reads like

Dear Professor,

My name is NAME and I am a n^th year undergraduate student in the department of ABC, at location (x,y,z). I am looking for a project under your guidance at an esteemed institute like yours in the month of may or june. I am aware of the superior quality of research at your institute. I have enclosed my resume in this mail which contains all the required details and my skills set.Hoping for a positive and speedy reply.

Thanking You,
Yours Sincerely,

NAME.

could be sent to 100’s of people without any modification. In fact, in this particular case there was an undisclosed recipient list meaning that Mr/s NAME took the easiest route of sending same email to all people he wanted in just one go! Awesome, so I never reply to such emails (there are exceptions, see point [3] below!).

(2) Other extreme is when someone wrote

As I’m interested in your work of ecosystem dynamics,animal behavior,animal mediated seed dispersal , and also interested in environmental science. .Could you please give me this great opportunity to work with you.Please Sir!

So, this student is interested in all aspects of my research work (fortunately, it did not include magnetoresistance!) which can happen with such minimal probability, so I tend to think that this student blindly copied key words from my website! Awesome again, so I did not reply.

(3) One student sent the same generic email four times in 2 hours. If someone thought thats the way to get replies for generic emails, yes thats right! I had to reply back  to make sure I don’t get more emails from that student.

(4) In one instance, a student wrote “I like to work on so and so” that your lab focusses on. I knew, almost certainly, I dont have that sentence on my webpage. When I googled that phrase, it was on the website of some other faculty of one of IIX’s! I promptly replied back and told that student to be more careful, before clicking SEND, as to who the mail is intended to go!

(5) Another student had sent a research statement, and I looked at it with lots of enthusiasm. It was rather incoherent, which is okay for an undergraduate student with not much experience in English writing (I still struggle to write). But incoherence was punctuated with a sequence of proper good english sentences. I knew something was fishy, and finally some sentences begin to make me feel very nostalgic. This time I did not have to google, since some of those sentences of research statement were picked as they are from the abstract of my very recent paper, still fresh in my memory!

I wrote back, since many students in India are not even aware, saying this is a bad practice and is a serious academic offense. Student wrote back apologizing and said he/she had no idea that we should not copy from other’s sources.

(6) Having said all this, I also do get quite a few emails that are genuinely written. I have had one such student visit me in December, and one is currently working the lab. These are great folks to work with and I hope we will do some good stuff together.

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14 Responses to Project requests and email responsiveness of Indian professors

  1. Amitabh says:

    My opinion on your `just a curious question’ is “no” in both cases. The experiment qualifies as spamming.

    From the study reported in Current Science, one can also draw a somewhat different conclusion: if the department of ABC at location (x,y,z) is in India, then the Indian professors (like you) are likely to be aware of the intent/ambitions of the student. Such a professor would do a little bit of analysis/reflection—as you do in your blog—before sending a reply. On the other hand, a professor in the West out of politeness or obligation might send a reply: it can still be positive and encouraging just saying that “Dear Student, Thanks for your email. I do not have any such position at the moment; you may perhaps want to explore if such options exist in the research group of Prof. Tom Hanks. Best of luck, Julia Roberts.”

    I have reviewed several such requests for my friends in the West. On many occasions I had to tell them not to spend too much time on sending replies. They are working against a systematic spamming mafia (e.g. the experiment of the study reported in Current Science).

    I know of several Indian professors who have explicitly written on their webpages to stay off from sending them separate mails with requests for internship positions. I support such a viewpoint if the spammed person belongs to an institute where there is a dedicated summer student program. Students can consider applying to these programs rather than spamming professors.

    Although I do not agree with the way or the conclusions drawn by the Current Science study, I do agree with the general phenomenon that the email responsiveness of Indian professors is less than as compared to the West. I have felt is myself. It can be an interesting exercise to quantify such a feeling; but I am afraid I am not the right person for this job.

    • vishuguttal says:

      Hi Amitabh, Good to see your comment! As you point out, since many Indian academicians are aware of the general spammy nature of these project requests, they are less likely to reply compared to those abroad.

      But even in abroad there have been discussions on this, apparently. See this link and links there in:

  2. Andy Nonymous says:

    As a new professor at one of the II*s, I used to reply to every one of these messages diligently, but then I rapidly found myself getting overwhelmed with it. Many students can be quite persistent even after getting a no with requests to find someone else they can work with, or if they can be accommodated in another semester or if a friend of theirs can be taken instead of them. I once received a marriage proposal from a girl’s dad just after I had told her that I was all booked. Then, I adopted a policy of sending them standard emails from a template about going via the summer student program. As one receives several emails per day (if you’re lucky!) around the end of the semester even just going through the attachments can be decent enough time commitment when one is already stretched with the oncoming exams and the like.

    • vishuguttal says:

      @Andy Nonymous: Thanks for sharing your hilarious experience of marriage proposal :).

      So far, I have been lucky, and am getting only one or two every week (no marriage proposals yet)! That much volume is easy to handle than several mails everyday. Most of the spammy requests come from Biotech engineering students. There are always exceptions, as I now have a very good biotech student working with me for his BTech project.

  3. Abhishek Sharma says:

    Dear Indian Sci. Students’ Community

    On having a quick look at the text by the blog moderator and other participants, I would like to make it a point that the study just states true findings (a problem). The study is aimed at promoting healthy Student-Teacher relationship. So, we may gain more by looking for a reform, instead of criticism.
    True, the point of raising ‘THE CURIOUS QUESTION’ is significant. In my opinion, science starts with observation and the subsequent questioning, not with a motive of publishing papers. The authors must be somewhat skilled and wished to contribute to science. Observing the responsiveness pattern itself must have landed them to this Curr. Sci. article.

    For further info/debate; See the Curr. Sci. paper cited by the NATURE (http://www.nature.com/nindia/2012/120207/full/nindia.2012.18.html) and the Down To Earth (http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/when-will-indian-scientists-unbolt)

    Regards
    Abhishek Sharma

    • vishuguttal says:

      Abhishek, Thanks for your comment. Myself or any other commenter did not say your findings are false. In fact, I myself have faced the lack of response to emails when I was applying for faculty positions to Indian institutes from abroad (in roughly half-of the cases) and that is why I said I broadly agree with the conclusions. But we were only worried whether the research practice is okay (I am not an expert on that, so I posed the question) [edited].

      Glad to know that your article attracted good media coverage. Congratulations on that.

  4. percy says:

    Dear Moderator and all my fellow students who are reading this blog,
    I would like to make it very clear that the way the experiment was conducted was in no way unethical. We were just gauging the nature and frequency of responses between teachers and students in India and the West…and not making guinea pigs out of anyone. So the question of asking permission does not arise. We just wanted to see the outcome for ourselves, and publish the findings to make the public aware of a prevalent problem in the education system which is yet to get its due attention. The authors were not looking to slander or humiliate anyone…..they just tried to drive home a point, and they did not have any vested interests behind publishing the papers….so using words like ‘spamming mafia’ for them is degrading their sincere research work to some idiotic timepass where professors at important institutes re spammed by students who have no other job. I request the eaders to be more respectful to the study’s authors in the future. Thank you

  5. Aanchal Malhotra says:

    Dear All
    It surprises me to see that everybody is busy either defending or proving them, thus digressing noticeably from what the published findings wants to bring to attention or what the blogger wants to highlight.
    So according to me the answer to the “curious question” posed is very simple. The intention of sending the mails was purely applying for the internship and not any experimentation. But eventually the lack of replies/interest led to this article written to bring to notice this important issue and to contribute a little towards initiating a healthy student-teacher relationship. So an observation led to the cerebration of writing this article and it was not the other way around.

    Regards
    Aanchal Malhotra

  6. Keerthi S Chandran says:

    I too had sent two mails like this sir. I had sent them to two people whose names were sent to me by many professors. I have quite some back papers so my HOD and my physics professor denied to give me any recommendation letter so I could not even apply for centralized programs. Well I would like to know some things about summer projects. Do students do any useful works there? A friend of mine who went to IIT Mumbai said that all she did was roam and make friends? And as someone who has no experience about summer projects I would like to know what will I be able to do if I get one. I wrote in the above format as I had no idea what we are supposed to do there. I have no experience in research field. So what do you expect from a second year integrated M. Sc student? About the work they do and how they write a letter? In our institute we have physics and chemistry practicals a week like in school. What do you expect from students who scrapped through, got high marks by mugging/cheating or even who has got backs? Or even from an above average or intelligent student? And have you felt that the marks they receive determine how productive they are. I am planning to a project under a philosophy professor on history of science and one in physics department if I can. I hope it to be productive. Thanks anyway for this interesting post. My friends send the same kind of mails (first format) to professors in different institutes.

    • Keerthi says:

      typo error what i meant to say is I sent mail to two professors whose name was given to me by a professor of mine.

  7. Abhishek Sharma says:

    Dear Keerthi
    Well, I agree with most of your above statements. It’s true that the evaluation pattern followed by our system has many flaws. Having backs (in past) shouldn’t affect your present potential. Pass/Fail are the outcomes of Exam; and there is no harm if we fail once or twice, provided we work harder.
    I am surprised that your friend simply wasted a chance to learn from an internship at IIT-B. Unfortunately, I never got an internship offer by much Indian uni (except a couple, where I wasn’t interested).

    Leaving everything aside and keeping it short–>
    My professor (an interdisciplinary and one of most successful researcher) says, ‘One can learn even by spending 2 hrs at a tea stall. All you need to do is ‘observe and Question, followed by finding answers to them’.
    Any work will be helpful. And it’s good that your profs are willing to guide you. Read as much as you can. I am not sure which journals should I suggest you. But follow, Nature, Down to Earth, The Hindu-Science section. Reading will make you write and be read.

    Regards
    Abhishek Sharma (Manipal University)

  8. Chhavi Chawla says:

    This note of yours Professor, is an eye opener.I came to know about your work from Prof. Nanjundiah(I am a summer fellow in his lab) , also I saw your name as an invited speaker for the “summer school” ISI Kolkatta,of which, I am an aspirant. When I was going through the articles, listing your reserach interests , I came across this. As a matter of fact,I am a biotechnology student and apparently, also wish to apply in your lab. And now, I am really conscious,about, how to put my words. Nevertheless,I will try to convince you through my reserch interests.
    Thanks Professor.

    Cheers
    Chhavi Chawla

  9. Pingback: How to write an email/application for a short-term or summer research internship/project? | Vishwesha Guttal

  10. john tuxon says:

    All that is fine but can you show how to write a proper mail to the professor in a way so that he can be impressed by it.

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