Advise: On requesting recommendation letters

Many students ask me to write recommendation letters for a variety of purposes, like internship abroad, summer school and most importantly – graduate schools. It’s an important part of our job as academics to encourage younger and aspiring students. Therefore, in general, I am happy to write supporting letters if I know you ‘sufficiently well’. Here are some general tips to follow when you request me (or more generally it may apply to others whom you approach) to send recommendation letters – this information will help me to write better-supporting letters.

  • First, do write a short note requesting if the person you think is suitable to write a letter is willing to do so. When you do so, state the purpose of your application, attach your cv and mention the deadline.
  • In general, write at least a few weeks ahead of the deadline and clearly state what is the deadline. If the deadline is very short – you can still write, but be aware that many mentors may decline even if they feel you are a fantastic candidate.

Once I have agreed to send you the letter:

  • If it’s a graduate school application season, send a list of university, department, their respective deadlines, the program (PhD vs Masters), etc all in a single email.
  • Do send an updated CV every time you ask for a letter – even if I had sent a letter last year for a similar purpose. I would like to know how your cv has improved since last time, so that any modifications to the letter can be done.
  • Provide as much information on what is the recommendation for? And any other relevant information about the application. For example, if you wrote a proposal or statement of interest that is not confidential – share it with me. Share any pdf/link to details of what the application is asking. Sometimes, some advertisements are aimed for specific candidates with certain background (for ex: this conf is aimed for physicists interested in biology, or vice versa). Do point out them to me. A generic letter won’t help the selection to committee decide whether you are suitable.
  • A short note on any specific points that you would like me to highlight about you. It could be about your project/work done with me, about your grades, a new publication/work of yours that I am unaware of, or anything that you think will help your application. If you are applying to unusual programs (e.g. Masters in conservation biology but your background is in mathematics), tell me reasons for the same. Such information is very important and useful for me to write a good supporting letter.
  • Do not hesitate to remind me whether I have submitted the letter. Check the status at least a week, and a few days before, the deadline.
Some places (in Europe I think) as for recommendation letters to be sent via student herself/himself. As a general rule it’s not a good idea to have the letters sent via your own application; I think it actually weakens it (certainly in the way we write, and how they read). Always ask if there is a way professor can send it directly to them.
Finally, let me know the outcome of your application because I am curious to know, and am also interested in making sure you succeed. Moreover, its a basic courtesy to inform the outcome (even if its negative) to someone has invested time in writing a letter of recommendation. A negative outcome may also help your referee to improve the letter the next time you ask him/her.

Article on “Discovering facts: Finding the longest day with school children” appears in Resonance

Long back, in 2012, I did a very interesting teaching project with primary school children. I also wrote about it in this blog. The same blog article, with some modifications, has been published in Resonance.

Click here for the article (pdf): Discovering Facts: Finding the longest day with school children

For some reasons, there were three footnotes in my article submissions which have been ommitted in the final version. The footnotes were numerically referenced as [1], [2], [3] in the text but what exactly those are got missed out in the final version (my fault to have missed it at the stage of proof). I am posting those below here:

[1] Disclosure: The school is founded by close relatives and friends. You can learn more about it by visiting the website:

[2] A preliminary version of this article appeared in the souvenir of the school in Jan 2013 and has also been put up on my personal/lab blog.

[3] Data for sunrise and sunset for most cities can be downloaded from: (you need to know Longitude and Latitute of the place) OR

Ecology: Individuals to Collectives – article in Resonance

I would be writing a series for Resonance on some aspects of theoretical ecology, and from the perspective of a physicist turned ecologist!

The first of the series came out two months ago. I copy paste the abstract here, and here is the link to the pdf if you want to read it in full! Do leave a comment or suggest me how you liked the article and what would you like to cover in the series.

“Common people and even scientists think of ecology as a discipline that exclusively studies wildlife and topics related to environmental pollution. My friends both within and outside the scientific community are often baffled when they hear that I am a physicist doing research in ecology. The aim of this series of articles is to emphasize the less known fact that theory and mathematics have been central to ecology since the inception of this relatively young scientific field. In this first article, I will talk about the following three points. First, I will discuss how the emphasis of the basic science of ecology is much broader than its applied aspects involving the conservation of natural ecosystems. Second, I will discuss a fundamental parallel between statistical physics and ecology that arises because both disciplines emphasize macroscopic systems (e.g., magnetic materials in physics or flocks of birds in ecology) as collectives of interacting units that are more than the sum of their constituents. What makes them fascinating is that interactions at small scales typically give rise to unexpected properties at larger scales. Finally, I will discuss how ecology offers a new and rich set of challenges to mathematically trained scientists because of variations among biological organisms and the role of natural selection in shaping ecological systems, both of which have no parallels in the physical sciences.”

Comments on MOOCs

Last month, Swaha Sahoo, a journalist based in London wrote to me asking for my opinion on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). She had gotten to know that in CES, we had informally recommended students to take some online courses on Stats and Math to complement their coursework that we offer.

Here is the article titled “Students flock to MOOCs to complement their studies”. It quotes a number of people from India on the value of MOOCs. I think she has used my comments aptly in the article, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Here is the full text of what she asked and what I wrote (warning, its very long!):


Swaha: I read in one of the blogs that the Department of Ecological Sciences at IISc was thinking of recommending certain MOOC to students. I was wondering if this has been taken forward.

My response: I was the one in my department (Centre for Ecological Sciences) who suggested that we could recommend certain MOOC to students. But let us understand the context. We get students with very good biology/ecology background, and are highly passionate about research in ecology. However, like any other biology student in India, they probably stopped taking any math courses since their high school. But quantitative skills like basic statistics, math and programming is now almost surely needed for any ecology researcher. Although we do teach quantitative skills in our department, I believe quality of the class and learning can go up substantially if students can revise their basic math skills and perhaps add a bit more to it.

For this, we do not have the bandwidth needed to offer more courses. So we plan to recommend students to take certain MOOCs. To make learning more effective, and to ensure students don’t drop the MOOC (note that MOOCs have high attrition rates), we are thinking is to have local mentors/TAs who can clarify questions of students. So interactions are essential while MOOC provide basic materials to get things going. We may try this approach in the coming year in our department.

Swaha: Secondly, it would be great to get your perspectives on the potential for MOOC in India. Some of the areas I want to discuss are1. What is the potential for MOOC in India and can we leverage this to the benefit of thousands of Indian students?

My response: I have absolutely no doubt that there is a massive potential for MOOC in India and it can benefit of millions of Indian students. But, there is a big IF; this potential can be realized ONLY IF we do it the right way.

Let me first remark about the potential for MOOCs in India. As is well known, the state of higher education in India, except for a few colleges, is abysmal. Indian students deserve higher quality education but that requires good, motivating and inspiring teachers. We can not manufacture teachers overnight, but what we can potentially do is to bring a few great teachers, which I am sure we do have, to students through MOOCs.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Lets recall that NPTEL, an Indian MOOC where courses are taught by excellent professors from IITs and IISc, was conceived and started several years before the now famous UDACITY or Coursera came into picture. How many students take courses offerred through NPTEL? How successful have they been in achieving their goals? I do not have data on these aspects but what I do know is that just recording videos and putting them online will hardly work. In particular, I do not think just recording courses the way it is taught in IITs or IISc will work, because students who really need online education come from very different backgrounds and preparations.

This is not meant to be a review of NPTEL, but we need to understand what to students really want. Apart from understanding students’ needs, videos need to be lot more interactive, and engaging.The main point I want to convey is yes, there is potential for MOOC but only if it is done in the right way. I do not know what exactly is that!  But we need to keep trying various methods, understand the audience, improve teaching methods, make it as interactive as possible within the limitations of MOOCs, and of course evolve the MOOC based on the feedback.

Swaha: 2. Will MOOC replace physical, face-to-face interaction or complement it? Do you see a scenario where MOOC is taken seriously by universities and students successfully completing courses are given credits?

My response: MOOC can never replace physical face-to-face teaching and interactions. If teaching were all about delivering a set of instructions, or providing a recipe, then yes, MOOCs can rule. But teaching is less about transferring information or providing instructions, but more about learning. There is more evidence from research than ever that a typical lecture delivering style of classroom, even with a teacher, is hardly an effective way of learning. What we need are interactive classrooms, where students discuss new concepts among both themselves and with the teacher and this can provide an atmosphere of discovery and learning. I dont see how MOOC can provide such an environment. Of course, I have not even started on courses needing experimental work – where MOOC have no place at all.

There are some areas where MOOCs can, in a limited way, reduce need for direct teaching. Some examples that come to my mind are if a working professional wants to learn elementary computer programming but has no time to attend a full time class.    As a scientist, if I want to basic introduction to a subject I am not familiar with – I would look for a good MOOC. As a student attending a university with not the best education or teacher, one may look for a MOOC to complement his/her course work.

Swaha: 3. What does it mean for a teacher?

My response: As explained in my previous answer, MOOC can never take away need for a teacher. Perhaps, if there are really high quality MOOCs on a subject that a teacher teaching, that teacher may need to put better effort to provide a good quality classroom environment ensure students come to the class! But my view is that even an average classroom face-to-face teaching can be better than high quality MOOC. Of course, in an Indian context, even an average teaching quality is absent in most colleges and Universities.

Swaha: 4. Will it democratise higher education in the country and be accepted by students as a valuable addition if not alternative to a formal degree?  

My response: I very much hope it will! Let me close by saying that we should try MOOC in India, in as many different ways as possible and by understanding needs of students. We need to continuously evaluate the success and the failure, and adapt accordingly.

Finding the longest day with school children

I wrote this article a while ago for a school souvenir. I got delayed in posting it here since I wanted to put a picture of the plot of duration of the day that students came up with. I still don’t have the picture, but I decided to post it and update it with the picture whenever it is available. Click here for the pdf of the article.


Date: 21st Dec 2012.

During the year 2011-12, I interacted with students of Purnapramati [1] only once or twice, but I really enjoyed my time with them. I wanted to interact children more regularly this year. So, after discussing with Indumathi akka [2], the science teacher of the school, we thought it would be nice to work on a short-term project where students get some hands-on experience of learning science. Exactly six months ago, on 21st of June 2012, I began interacting with students of 5th class of Purnapramati.

As I kept thinking what could be a feasible short-term yet interesting thing that primary kids can do, I was already in the class and I began my interaction by exchanging greetings. But the answer was elusive until our interactions gained some momentum.

I asked students, “Is today any special day?”. The answer came almost immediately when one student said “Today is summer solstice”.

I then asked the student back, “I have never heard of that. What does that mean?”

One other student laughed and said, “Don’t you know, it is the longest day of the year”.

“May be, but how do you know about this fact?”, I asked.

“We learnt in the class. Our teacher told us”, came a response from one corner.

“How did your teacher know about that?”. I continued my questions.

“From her teacher” was one answer while the other student said “From our text book”.

“How did your teacher’s teacher or even the text book writer knew that 21st June is the longest day in the year?”.

Although I immediately heard the answer “From their teachers”, it was already clear to some students that I was going to ask “How did that teacher come to know?”

After teasing their minds for a bit, I got the answer I was waiting to hear when I one student said “someone must have measured length of day all throughout the year and found it out”.

I then told students, what if your teacher had never told you that June 21st is the summer solstice? If our challenge is to find it out yourself, how will you do it?

I got to hear a lot of creative and courageous solutions which ranged from how they will wake up and note down sunrise time and also sunset time every day. When I asked how can they see precise time of sunrise or sunset if there is a huge building next to their home, some volunteered to go to mountains and deserts where one can see horizon to horizon. Some even thought of setting up automatic devices that will record sunrise and sunset times automatically.

Finally, we all agreed to take a short-cut given difficulties of going out of home to a desert or even that of waking every morning without fail. The short-cut, as suggested by students themselves, was to look at the newspaper (or panchanga) everyday and note down sunrise and sunset times.

Once the concept for the project was ready, it was time for implementation and that took nearly three to four months, working on this at a frequency of twice a month (sometimes even less).  For this class of 12, each student was assigned a specific month and was asked to note down sunrise-sunset time from newspaper collection at their home. Based on that they calculated daytime duration (which they learnt in the process of our project). They also learnt how to use graph sheets and produced nice plots of duration of daytime for each day of their month.

When they finally put together all those data mostly on their own with occasional help from Indumathi akka (science teacher) and myself, we were all extremely fascinated to see the oscillating pattern of duration of the day. Students immediately went back to the original motive of our project, and found based on their own analysis that the duration of the day was maximum for about 10 days towards last two weeks of June. So it was not one day when it was maximum, but for 10 days!

It was probably in all students’ mind as to why does everyone say June 21st as the longest day of the year when there are 10 days that are longest. But they had figured the reason discussing among themselves; they had data of sunrise-sunset only up to minutes accuracy. To find which day of among those 10 days were longest, they said they would need data of sunrise-sunset time unto seconds, or even milliseconds.

While it is clear what students learnt from this exercise, it was also extremely interesting to interact with students, answer their amusing and intelligent questions. It was also revealing to me to learn finer details of such simple facts, which we all take for granted.

[1] Important Disclosure: The school is founded by close relatives and friends. You can learn more about it by visiting the website:

 [2] Teachers are affectionately called akka (meaning sister) or anna (meaning brother) in this school.