Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Funny Thing about Fellows

In 2013-14 at the University of Illinois, I am a fellow - formally, a Kinra Fellow in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. A fellowship, already rare, is little-understood among prospective students from India. I was also quite confused over my role within the research group, but it has become a lot clearer now and I can share my insights.

As a Fellow, my job is to perform new research. This might seem redundant, because all research is new. But what I mean is that, because I am an independent researcher within the research group, I am responsible for looking into new areas of research within the group. This is different from a research assistant who joins an established project: such a researcher would have a fairly clear path laid out, at least for the first one or two years; you would get a certain list of papers to read, a list of programs to master and a list of courses to take. It is not easy, but definitive.

A Fellow, on the other hand, has none of those. Because the research area is new, you have to start from scratch, doing an extensive literature review and gap identification, which can take several months, sometimes even a year or more. Then, you have to find the necessary computer programs and learn to use them; you have to hunt for a course either in the university or a MOOC to supplement your learning. Throughout, you are unsure of what you are doing and your adviser is also learning as much from you (possibly less because of the secondary nature of that learning).

A major roadblock is the absence of funding for the actual research. Because it is not based on a grant, you have to work with the infrastructure available in the university. However, that also means that you have the chance to work on a new topic with your adviser and actually build the groundwork for a grant - a rare experience for most PhD students these days, who are left to discover all this for themselves after they graduate. Another good thing about being a Fellow is that you learnt the core process of research: review, gap identification, hypothesis development and testing and conclusion, aside from the intricacies of publishing. A pleasure it has been so far, despite the inherent difficulties of research, and a pleasure it will, hopefully, remain! 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Congratulations! mr. Fellow...on the fellowship, beyond the RA-ship.