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A preliminary look at the contents of physics department websites

Before going any further, I just want to add why it is that I went through this exercise and why I think it is worth sharing with people. Deciding on a graduate school is a very tough decision to make for a student interested in pursuing a PhD and the design and content of a department website is of course going to weigh in on that decision. If we can't find the information that we're looking for, we might feel discouraged about joining the department. As such, in my opinion, it is in the best interest of a university/department to maintain an up-to-date website if they want to attract graduate students of high caliber. I am not going to be specific about the absence of the web presence of any specific lab or group or person because that's not cool. While individual faculty should strive to maintain a web presence, the responsibility falls upon the department to create a minimal web presence for it's faculty. I hope people won't get offended by what I'm saying and I hope that people will take away the positives and the things we can change for the better.

Now, coming to the why,

Because I have nothing better to do on a Friday night, I thought I'd go through the websites of the Physics departments of the IITs. Stay with me, there is a meaning behind this madness. Going through the websites, I was looking for these four specific things -
  • Did the department keep track of all of the publications originating from it? (1)
At a superficial level, a department can simply be judged by it's academic output or the total number of papers that it produces. More seriously, understanding the kind of work pursued by faculty at the department is important because it helps interested students make an informed decision. Information about the various research groups will also give an idea of the various flavours of science being explored under the same group!
  • Did the department profile it's faculty members individually? By that I mean, does it give information on what research they pursue, whether they are part of a collaborative group, whether or not they have graduate students and are willing to take on new ones, open graduate student projects and a list of publications. Let's stop there for now. (2)
This, IMO, is more important than the previous item. Even if the department doesn't maintain a cumulative list of all publications, I think that it's important for it to maintain an up-to-date publication list for each individual faculty. Again, if an interested student doesn't know the kind of work being carried out, his interest might wane. Information on the faculty's research group will give an idea of the various flavours of the subject matter than can be explored under the same umbrella, as mentioned earlier. Information on the number of graduate students is important because a student might want to work with a faculty with <2 graduate students because they want more one-to-one time. A list of possible graduate projects is the cherry on this cake.
  • Did the department keep track of it's graduate students, and provide information such as which year they started, who they are working with, what their research topic is and how they can be contacted? (3)
The reason for this being that students interested in working with a certain professor might feel the need to talk to his/her graduate student regarding the faculty's work ethic and what not. It also helps to know how big the graduate student body is and whether or not one will have company.
  • Does the department keep track of it's alumni, especially the PhD students? (4)
Students interested in joining the department would definitely want to know what future it holds for them. It is also good for the department because alumni can be a good source of confidential information/recommendations if necessary.

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I hope you guys understand why each of the things I listed above is important, both from the perspective of a student interested in pursuing graduate education and for a department interested in pivoting from being a primarily-teaching based to research-driven center.

Now, coming to the IITs, while it might not be obvious to those outside the system, those who've been (and currently are ) inside the system see that the IITs want to move from simply being (called) a primarily undergraduate teaching institution to a research institution. PhD admissions have been ramped up in many IITs.

As such, I thought it'd be a good idea to look at the websites of the Physics departments in particular (because I have roamed the hallways of the Physics department at IIT Madras in my past life) and see how many of the IITs provide the information that I mentioned earlier in this post.
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Let's start with the Dept. of Physics at IIT Bombay.

(1). While the department does have a specific website where it supposedly accumulates the publications, it appears to be outdated. Of the options present to choose from, only 2013 and 2014 provide any results. If one chooses to look for papers produced in 2015, 2016 or 2012, the page is empty. Also, if you choose 2014,  there are a total of 36 papers displayed. On the other hand, if you choose 2013, there are a total of 72 papers displayed. While I understand that peer review takes time and that the publication process is nuanced, it is highly improbable that the output of the department DROPPED BY HALF in an year. It's more plausible that the list wasn't maintained. And it isn't even the case that the website didn't receive updates since mid-2014. If you look at this list of undergraduate students in the department, you will notice that it contains details of those that joined in 2015.

(2). Again, while the department does have a list of faculty members and individual faculty pages, most of them are minimal, containing contact number and email addresses. A handful contain publication history, although incomplete. A few provide a link to their personal webpages, which contain more information. The department does provide an option to group faculty by research interests so that's a plus, I guess.

(3). Again, while a list of PhD students is available, contact details of a lot of them are missing, there is no information on what they work on or who they are working with or what year they started their PhD.

(4). Finally, here's a link to the Alumni page, which proudly/sadly displays "Page Under Construction."
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Now, the Dept. of Physics at IIT Delhi.

(1). There's a wonderfully complete page containing papers published by the faculty at IIT Delhi from 1996-2015. Let that sink in. 1996! Along side Journal papers, there are also conference papers, books and what not that have come out of the department. Very, very impressive.

(2). The faculty page also seems more complete, with individual faculty profiles containing a list of publications in some cases. There also appear to be more personal pages of individual faculty than in the previous case.

(3). Sadly, the list of PhD students was last updated in 2012 and lacking in any meaningful information regarding contact or research group the student is part of. And again, the argument can't be made that the website was last updated in 2012 because the list of on-roll B.Tech students was last updated in 2015.

(4). Finally, coming to the list of alumni who graduated with a PhD from the department, while information on name of student, research title and supervisor names are available from 1966-2012 (again, take a step back, 1966!), there is no information on where the alumni are at the moment. And I don't see a reason why e-copies of thesis aren't linked, if the department went to these lengths. While I know that hard copies of thesis are kept in the department libraries, I wonder if e-copies are stored somewhere safe.
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On to the Dept. of Physics at IIT Kharagpur. Well, that's the link that I first came across when I searched for the Dept. of Physics at IIT Kharagpur. Eventually, I came across this correct link, that points to a more complete website.

(1). The department does, or rather did, maintain a list of publications, from 2004-2014.

(2). The department does maintain a list of faculty and I accidentally discovered that clicking on the names of the faculty leads to their respective faculty pages, pages that are surprisingly up-to-date, including publications in 2015! The department also maintains a list of research areas, most of which lead to nothing upon clicking them though.

(3). The department does maintain a list of graduate students, which was last updated in 2014, but the list is lacking in even the most basic information such as contact, research area and supervisor name.

(4). I couldn't find anything that looked like a list of alumni on their webpage. If I didn't dig deep enough or if i'm just blind, do correct me and point me to the relevant content.
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Now we come to the Dept. of Physics at IIT Kanpur.

(1). The department does maintain a list of publications, with papers from 2014, 2015. The cherry on the cake is that all papers are hyperlinked so students can visit the journal and read the abstract! I expect most of the papers to be behind a paywall but still, this is a great leap!

(2). The department devotes individual pages for each faculty, mentioning their respective areas of interest, some of which even contain recent publications. A few faculty members even have their own personal webpage. The good thing, that took me a little time to find, was the fact that Research Group pages contain a list of faculty who work in the field.

(3). The department maintains a rudimentary list of PhD students, providing information on what year the student started their PhD, which can be gleamed from the roll numbers, email address and abbreviated supervisor name(s). Seriously? Abbreviated supervisor names? Without hyperlinks to the faculty's page?

(4). And last but not the least, the only alumni page page is a list of distinguished alumni so of course it doesn't contain information on all PhD students that graduated from the department.
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Like I mentioned earlier, I am not going to dig into the Dept. of Physics at IIT Madras because I roamed their hallways for half-a-decade and i'm probably biased.
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Moving on, we have the Dept. of Physics at IIT Guwahati.

(1). I got excited when I saw a link on the front page to Publications in the last 5 years (2009-2013) but sadly, none of the links in that page work. This isn't exactly a great start.

(2). The department maintains a list of faculty, with links to personal pages for each faculty and to my surprise, almost all of the faculty have their own personal pages! Some of them do the intelligent thing and link to Google Scholar or InspireHEP for an up-to-date list of publications and links to papers. There is also a list of research areas but only the Theoretical Physics and High Energy Physics research groups link to a page containing their information.

(3). I like the department's list of graduate students because not only does it contain information on the students' email address and year of joining, it also provides the supervisor name and research topic. I guess that pretty much ticks all of the boxes!

(4). And the biggest surprise of them all, the department seems to maintain a list of alumni and their whereabouts, which is, for loss of a better word, AWESOME!!!
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And finally, the Dept. of Physics at IIT Roorkee.

(1). The website contains a list of publications that isn't up-to-date.

(2). The department maintains a list of faculty and individual faculty have their own pages, which interestingly have a Resume button. Some faculty pages contain information on student projects guided and academic year during which projects were pursued. Some faculty mention publications in the pages and others mention the publications in the resume. There is no coherence in the information being presented. I'm seriously beginning to wonder if it's this hard to maintain a standard.

(3). Like some of the other IITs, this department simply maintains a list of PhD students with name and email address. And nothing else.

(4). Finally, there is an alumni page but it doesn't distinguish between undergraduates and graduate students. There's no way to know if it was a PhD student. There is just a name and an email address. Actually scratch that, some don't even have an email address.
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I'm going to stop now. I had plans of going through the newer IITs as well but I'm too tired and frustrated at the sheer lack of standards. Now that we've reached the end of this discussion, I'm not going to make any big, bold conclusions. Instead, I'm just going to let you draw them on your own. I think there's enough to make one if you've read the whole article. I don't want to make comparisons to western universities because that's not exactly useful. Even on an absolute scale, I feel that the (4) points I mentioned at the beginning of this post isn't too much to ask for.

And, unlike what happens usually, I'm not just going to complain without providing a solution. Just to be clear, there are two problems here. The first is the fact that the someone at a department should take up the responsibility of periodically asking faculty for updates to their profiles. The second is the fact that faculty might not be interested in creating and maintaining their own websites.

A solution to the first problem is to use git (or any other version control). This way, if a professor wishes to update their page, they can branch, add changes and ask for the changes to be merged back to the master/main branch. This way, each faculty (or their students) can be put in-charge of the maintenance of their respective individual and lab/group pages.

The second problem is more of a choice. In my opinion, presentation of the science is just as important as the science itself. And this is why I think it is important for a faculty to maintain a webpage, even if it's just a single page. Now, if a faculty wants to have a webpage and doesn't want to learn html, ping me. Seriously. I'll try help you out. I might take some time. I'll probably set you up with a github-hosted webpage, if that's okay with you.
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I think I'm going to stop with that for now. In the future, I would like to look at how the newer IITs and how some of the other central government institutions are faring, such as the IISERs. With that, I'll end. And like always, any and every comment you have is welcome and appreciated.

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