How To Gear-Up For Today's Ever-Changing Job Market?

Vinayak Naik, Professor - Computer Science, BITS PilaniBITS Pilani is one of India's leading institute of higher education and a deemed university offering programs in the categories of Integrated First Degree Programmes, Higher Degree Programmes, and Ph.D Programs.

The next 20 years are likely to bring more changes to humanity than the past 300 years, says the futurist Gerd Leonhard. In a lifetime of human being, there will be a need to retrain oneself multiple times. Unlike the last century, education obtained from a single degree program will not be sufficient. It will be true for all disciplines, be it engineering, science, medicine, or accounting. Al-though one can go to institutes many times in life, it is not practical. Even the institutes may not be able to adapt the syllabus so fast. The only option then is to do self-retraining. How does a person self-retrain? It is a skill in itself, typically not taught in the institutes in their Bachelor's programs. In the future, we will see that more institutes start teaching that skill and more students opting for it.

How do we learn a new subject, while undergoing a degree program? There is a course designed on that subject in our syllabus. A course broadly has sections, starting with an introduction, fundamentals, new ideas, and experimental techniques to test these ideas, applications of the ideas, conclusion, and future work. Once a student completes a course, the student can apply that knowledge in the workplace. Two activities beget a course, (a) innovating and (b) presenting the innovation in a structured manner. If a person masters these activities, the person will be able to form a course for own learning without depending on someone else.

If you notice, the two activities are what any researcher does. When researchers work on a problem, they first innovate and then document their intellectual findings. The structure of the documentation is a concise version of that of a course. Although there is an element of art in both the activities, with practice one gets better at each. These skills equip researchers to go into unexplored territory, understand its landscape, and document the understandings in an organized format. They make the researchers good at retraining themselves.
The Ph.D program has a mandatory component of research in it. While some Master's programs require research, it is optional, and it is almost non-existent in the Bachelor's programs. Even if the opportunity to do research is there, the Master's and Bachelor's students shy away from the research because it takes them out of their comfort zone. But moving-out of the comfort zone is an intrinsic part of research, as one is embarking a journey in an uncharted area. As one progresses, things start getting clear. In the end, one always comes-out with new information about the topic of research. Having an experienced researcher as a guide ensures that the student does not get overwhelmed with the uncertainties.

In today's era, one should opt for an experience in research, even during the Bachelor's programs

In today's era, one should opt for an experience in research, even during the Bachelor's programs. Of course, the research project in the Bachelor's program needs to be tailored to the knowledge and course load of a Bachelor's student. The student can take it towards the end of the program when he/she has completed the fundamental courses. A lot of institutes offer elective courses, but that is not the same as research projects. The elective courses are still courses with a well-defined syllabus.
There are some guidelines to follow while deciding on a research project. The student needs to consider in which courses he/she performed well. The research project can be taken in the advanced topics of those courses. For example, a student who has performed well in the Operating Systems and Computer Networks courses can select a research project in the area of the Internet of Things (IoT). Another factor to consider is whether the student prefers a theoretical or applied approach. While the former requires advanced concepts in mathematics, the latter requires hands-on experience in doing experimental work.

Many top institutes in India already give an option of doing research projects. For example, it is a regular practice for third and fourth-year students at BITS Pilani, IITs, and IIITs to take-up such projects for one, two, or even three semesters. The student closely works with a faculty member and other students, including Postgraduate and Ph.D. students. The Bachelor's student can connect with the fellow students better and gets a peer group to share the experiences.

Depending upon the efforts taken in the project, its documentation can take a form of a research thesis or even research paper. While the thesis is defended in front of a committee, the paper is reviewed by external experts. The institutes benefit from these research outcomes as these carry significant weight in deciding their ranking. If the student wants to pursue higher education, the chances of getting into a reputed institute improve if the student has already performed a research project. Those with an entrepreneurial bent of mind also benefit from the experience of conducting research. The skill of doing research and presenting its outcomes are also what is needed in coming-up with an idea for a startup and pitching it to the investors.

A couple of decades ago, China was comparable to India in research output, well behind the U.S. Now, it has leapfrogged India and inching closer to the U.S. They have realized the importance of training students with research experience. Our institutes and students should learn from them. To do so, our students must start taking-up research projects in their Bachelors' programs. It will empower them to face the fast changing today's workplace.