Why I am what I am…

The Statesman interviews professor Urbi Chatterjee, who is an assistant professor at IIT Kanpur and is a virtuoso in the field of computer science engineering.

Why I am what I am…

Prof Urbi Chatterjee

The Statesman talks to people in different professions about why they chose their particular field and what advice they have for youngsters who want to pursue it as a career. This week, The Statesman interviews professor Urbi Chatterjee, who is an assistant professor at IIT Kanpur and is a virtuoso in the field of computer science engineering.

1.Walk us through your journey towards becoming a professor of computer science and engineering.

 To begin with, I did my schooling at a Bengali-medium school in a very small town, and from there, I joined an engineering college. After completing my graduation, I sat for GATE and then got admission to IIT Dhanbad, from where I did my Master’s and then took a gap of 1.5 years, working at a corporate firm before opting for a PhD and doing my research on hardware security, which is a specific area that falls under cyber security. I then joined as an assistant professor at IIT Kanpur in March 2021.


2. Was becoming a professor a career choice for you from the very beginning, or did the choice evolve over time?

 Even during my Master’s, I knew I wanted to pursue my education further and go for a PhD. I never really was fond of being a part of the corporate industry niche, so while doing my PhD, I came across academicians both on national and international levels, and I would say that played a crucial role in inspiring me to proceed with a career in academics. My mentor, too, had a great influence on me.

3. Being a professor requires a commitment to lifelong learning. What ultimately made you choose to be a professor?

 My father was a school teacher, and throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to meet and interact with great educators. Seeing how they influenced their students to become a better version of themselves, I think that was a huge drive for me towards choosing this profession because I wanted to have a similar impact on my students. I wanted to reach out to people who have had fewer opportunities and be able to share my journey with them and influence them on how one can achieve and overcome any difficulty if one aspires to.

4. What’s your inspiration for choosing the subject you did?

Why did I take computer science during my engineering years? Well, I have always been fascinated with those devices and nothing else. Coming from Kulti, there was not much exposure back then to digital devices; I am talking about, say, 2005–2006. It was during my B.Tech years that I got exposed to a proper computer device. However, usually, during your undergraduate years, you are not really exposed to research work. These are usually the years when you prepare to be exposed to the corporate world. I got exposed to research during my Master’s at IIT Dhanbad, and the cyber security domain was something that interested me a lot.

 5. What’s the best thing about being a professor?

For me, it’s the interaction that I get to indulge in with my students every day. Throughout the years, I have met diverse students. They take admission, go through rigorous studying, and ultimately get placed, and that unadulterated joy that I get to see in their faces makes everything worthwhile. For PhD students, knowing that I am able to help them, guide them, and motivate them while they are giving their best towards making their research a success gives me a lot of satisfaction. I think there is a lot of scope for hardware security to grow in India, and our future students can do a lot to take this domain forward.

6. Do students realise how challenging it can sometimes be to stay sincere and credible in your profession?

 Yes, those who take their PhD seriously and know what is at stake. A PhD is not an easy ride, and students who understand the gravity of it, the sacrifices they must make, and the challenges truly understand the credibility of this profession.

7. What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced in your profession?

The challenge I would be talking about is not only something that I face; rather, it is something that most individuals who are in my domain or work from inside a laboratory setup face. Funds are the biggest constraints when it comes to research work. Limited funds often, at times, result in a limited scope of research. So, I think if the flow of funds becomes more flexible, that could result in more advanced labs and more students taking up these career paths, resulting in a more flourishing Indian academia.

8. Is there a memory that has made becoming a professor worthwhile?

 The joy that I see on my students’ faces when they get their experiments and research right after extreme hard work and when their work gets acknowledged under the different constraints that we worked on makes being a professor rewarding.

9. What is an important skill you have learned while being a professor?

 Patience. A diverse range of students means that patience is one skill that you must have. I always focus on the overall well-being of my students while they are under my supervision, making them understand how every opportunity can be used as a pathway towards growth and learning.

10. What are some of the traits an individual should have if they wish to excel in this role?

To my students, I always say that if you are entering this profession or wish to choose this career path, remember that it is a lifelong commitment. Your progress in the field of academia will never be similar to someone else’s; hence, never give up. If you are working hard, you will be rewarded. Having knowledge about your core subject is an integral factor; being honest with your research work is the second, while the last one would be to practice patience!

11. For students who are at the forefront of pursuing higher education and wish to choose this career as theirs, what would be your advice to them?

Do not lose hope. More so for the female students. When you enter this profession, you will notice gender biases in various parts of academia, but do not lose hope. More than the students, I would request that the families let their children be the best version of themselves, whether it’s entering the corporate world right after graduation or wanting to pursue further education and enter the world of academia. Take the leap of faith and go for what you want.