Consider, for a moment, that an internship is a running race. So a 3-month long summer internship is like a marathon. It’s worth noting that while just the race itself makes for a compelling story, there’s more to it – training, qualifying, injuries and so many other factors at play. You will have to start at the very beginning if you want the whole tale.
I hope you will bear with my sporting analogies as I tell you the story of my internship at the Reconfigurable and Intelligent Systems Engineering Lab (RISE Lab) at IIT-Madras in the summer of 2016.
“The starting point of all achievement is Desire” – Napolean Hill
At the end of my first year, I had interned at an MNC in Bangalore called SAP Labs. By the end, I found that software development was not really for me. All about hitting targets, beating deadlines and making presentations, I found that, though I had done some good work I hadn’t actually learnt that much more. Fast forward to 2nd year and a new member of ACM, I learnt that there was so much more to Computer Science. So many new fields that I had not touched up to that point. When there was so much left to learn having another go at software development seemed mundane and I firmly decided that I would try and get a research intern that summer.
Some people view researchers as geeks in glasses churning out boring papers that no one wants to read. That isn’t true. Research is more about finding viable, optimal, feasible, solutions to real life problems that are novel in approach or implementation. While it is unfortunate that a section of academia feels the need to publish every single trivial result, I would say that taking up a research intern, especially at the end of second year itself, should be more about the learning. This was another thing that was set in stone in my head. This year I would try and learn as much as I possibly could.
This is the point where the author usually gives you that feel good line, “… and now you’re more than halfway there.” But I’m afraid that’s not the case. It just means you reached the track for training for Day -120.
Training / How To Apply:
Like many others at NITK, I suffer from an acute condition known as the Insufficient Pointer Syndrome. Although mine was not a very severe case, this meant that I did not get selected in any of the open scholarship programmes. So personal mails was the way ahead. First a draft mail was prepared, which underwent lots of changes to take its final form.Next, some contacts were compiled and applied to. Suggestions from known seniors and friends kept pouring in, but even after a lot of mailing, not a single reply came through.
A test of patience but in the end I heard back from IITM in late January. At this point I should say that my field of interest was machine learning, something I’d learnt the basics of at ACM. I was told to take a course on NPTEL and await further instructions. This was the hard part as I had to juggle my 4th semester coursework with all the assignments and video lectures from the course. This schedule continued till early April when I was contacted by a research assistant at the RISE Lab and told that I was to take part in the selection process. Training done, it was time to crank it up a notch for the qualifying round.
Two rounds of telephonic interviews followed by a project submission equals one spectacularly bad week but as they say it’s always darkest before dawn. I received an offer letter asking me to report in early May for a 3 month period.
Cue Ecstasy. After the elation subsided, it dawned on me that I had just reached Day 0. As Melisandre said, “The Real War is yet to come.”
The Marathon / Work Experience :
“If you want to win something run 100 metres, if you want to experience something run a marathon” – Emil Zatopek, 4 Time Olympic Gold Medallist
Since I was the only second year in the lab and I had no prior experience with research, I was understandably terrified but right from the get go I was made to feel at home. Each intern is assigned a PhD student to work as his mentor and help give direction to our projects and also to provide feedback and advice along the way. Everyone in the lab is helpful and so knowledgeable even. Any doubt I had, they always had an answer or could point me in the direction of someone who specialised in that field and could answer.
So a concrete problem statement was defined with the help of my mentor and then the race began. At the start, it was a steep learning curve, having to learn new algorithms, new techniques, and trying to implement them; trawling through recent publications and finding which were applicable to my problem. And gradually the focus shifted from learning the subject to the specifics of my project. The atmosphere was so conductive to work that I found myself working long hours and getting more and more interested as time passed. It’s kind of like a black hole but in a good way. Once you’re too close you’re all in, no way out!
The environment provided a huge boost to productivity. Just being there surrounded by all the activity and positive energy makes you want to work. The lab is open 24×7 and many PhD students used to even sleep there in a special room designated as the sleep room, populated by recliner chairs and light dimmers. Every marathon needs it’s cheerers and we used to take turns doing coffee runs and getting food for everyone. Also when it looked like too much and you could never manage, new friends emerged to keep you motivated and strong. There are times in a marathon when you feel like giving up, for us it was mostly the abysmal Wednesday mess lunch and that moment at the end of the week when you’re staring at a huge pile of unwashed laundry. Independence comes at a price, one you can’t get around paying. But that’s an experience in itself I guess.
And I need to give a special mention to my mentor here. I can be quite unconventional when I’m working, often following seemingly unrelated tangents (as you can probably tell from reading this itself). He not only encouraged me to follow whatever track I chose but also gave me more resources to look deeper into those topics. So in the end, though I was doing a project involving Deep Learning and Data Mining, I ended up picking up the basics of a whole host of other subjects including Reinforcement Learning, Recurrent Neural Networks and NLP. It’s like also learning about bananas and oranges while you’re actually meant to be studying an apple.
IITM is strategically located within walking distance from two of Chennai’s biggest malls and also bordering the Guindy National Park. So you get the best of both worlds, black bucks and deer wandering freely around campus and also the modern magic of Domino’s Pizza and Multiplex Cinema. And though Chennai’s weather consists of hot, hotter and ARE YOU KIDDING ME?, we remained fairly sheltered from the worst of it through the thick foliage in the surrounding areas.
Also the eastern ghats are easily accessible, so trekking is a viable option and we spent an awesome day at the nearby Arai Falls trekking and swimming. (Why not have a look here :p) This could fit in with my earlier analogy as an easy downhill stretch where you can let fly.
Best of all, Pondicherry is just three hours away. Revelling in its laid-back embrace of life, you’ll love the quaint Indo-French cafes, great food and charming streets lined with colonial buildings. A must see destination if you’re in the area.
Just as with a marathon, crossing the finish line is an awesome feeling but more satisfying is seeing how far you’ve come. As they say, it’s not the destination, but the journey that brings closure. It wasn’t just a 3 month internship, it was a 6 month journey that taught me a million different things (including how to remove ants from a room but I guess that’s a story for another day.)