Thursday, February 24, 2011

Indian undergrads' internship request e-mails

They are written poorly. They get the recipient's fields and sub-fields wrong, sometimes horribly wrong. They contain boilerplate in a peculiarly quaint English. They read eerily like the Nigerian scam mails -- except for the promise of a couple of million dollars.

Many professors think they are being spammed -- so they delete these mails without even bothering to read them.

Here's Paul Goldberg:

IIT student seeks internship at your esteemed institute
A question: has anyone taken on one of these prospective interns? (And if so, how was it?) Most of them would clearly be hopeless, but there are some that look like they might be OK. The trouble is, there's some kind of economic principle at work here, that says that in a market that's flooded with bad eggs, the good eggs cannot be sold. In this case, what happens in that we end up deleting all these emails without reading them.

Goldberg also points to an earlier discussion in another professor's blog.

While these posts are about internship requests from IIT students, there's also a large number of non-IIT students who have got into this habit of sending a form e-mail to hundreds of professors.

I am in materials engineering, a field that produces perhaps 1000 Indian graduates a year, and I work right here in India. And I feel I'm getting too many of these requests. I can only imagine the frustration of professors -- especially those in the US or the UK -- in computer science and mechanical engineering where the numbers are quite easily 50 - 200 times larger than in my field.

Thanks to Raghu for the pointer.


  1. Arunn said...

    "I can only imagine the frustration of professors in computer science and mechanical engineering"

    Thanks for the sympathy. I wrote about this a while back and started a big comment thread. Nowadays, I usually send this link -- I am not interested in you -- as my reply; i.e. if I get around to reply.


  2. cipher said...

    Perhaps the IITs and the engineering colleges are more to blame than the naive students in this case. While internship is a requirement with a grade ascribed to it, there was no formal internship support structure for getting an internship, at least during my time at IIT. So the students are left to fend for themselves and most 3rd year undergraduate students don't have the maturity to define their objectives of doing the internship at a particular lab except for explaining it in general terms. Having said that, I underwent the same haphazard process and eventually worked with a professor at IISc for 2.5-3 months and actually did something real for the first time.

    I think internship at IISc or IITs is a very useful experience even for those who remain unclear about their research objectives. I can only request you to be kind to these desperate spammers and perhaps have a template evaluation mail/form for them. Also I would request you to get at least a few students from the non-IITs every year so that they can also get exposed to your research (if you are not doing this already).

  3. LP said...

    Most (80%) of the professors are extremely lazy (ask any grad student for confirmation). They have time for wiring blogs and commenting on other professors research (mostly negative). They should try to (at least scan) every email and delete it if they don't like it. The poor student gets frustrated and starts to spam, because even if he sends 100 genuine emails he gets 1-2 replies, that too with the answer of "sorry no funding".

  4. WebMiner said...

    Some really weird example emails here, plus some signs of the message getting through. And then there are the others.

  5. Shyam said...

    I agree with cipher.. I too had a very similar experience.. however this topic was hotly debated in a forum much earlier..

  6. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    I have gotten requests like these while I was a Ph.D. student.

  7. Abi said...

    @cipher: Thanks for your comment. You said: ... I would request you to get at least a few students from the non-IITs every year so that they can also get exposed to your research (if you are not doing this already).

    Since you asked: I have a follow-up post with some personal observations about summer internships.

  8. Abi said...

    @WebMiner: Thanks for those links; I just realized that your comment went into a moderation queue (probably because of all those links!), which is why it took so long for your comment to appear here.

    @Shyam: Thanks for that link. I was looking for that forum thread yesterday, but couldn't find it in time for this post.

  9. Genghis Khan said...


    1. IIT Bombay undergraduates do not have mandatory summer internship in their curriculum any more.

    2. IIT Bombay has a formal internship programme in place, and is easily locatable (first link on google search for "iit bombay internship", without the quotes). Given this, is it too harsh/lazy/etc to expect lesser internship spam?

  10. Prithwiraj said...

    Very snarky post. Wanting to see the world outside your limited horizons is a very legitimate aspiration, something many people take for granted later in life. And if your "top-tier institution" does not offer that opportunity (unlike even the most mediocre European and American schools), a little bit of enterpreneurship does not hurt.

    P.S I did try that once myself. not with foreign professors, but unsuccessfully with a few professors at an Indian department where I later joined quite legitimately for an ME degree

  11. Abi said...

    @Prithwiraj: I'm sorry to have sounded snarky. I meant this post to be factual: it really is the case that we get hundreds of such e-mails (and in some cases / fields, thousands), and most of them are this bad. As Goldberg said, this is a problem of few agood eggs being buried in a mass of bad ones.

    In the follow-up post, I did suggest a way for a good student to differentiate hirself -- get a teacher to write on hir behalf.

  12. Dr.Katte said...

    @Abi, comment 11:
    If a teacher is capable of writing (a good proposal for internship) on behalf of a good student, do you think the "good student" need to look for internship outside his/her institute?

  13. Abi said...

    @Dr.Katte: I don't see anything wrong in a student's interest to get some research exposure at a different place. I would actually welcome such an interest, and I think it's healthy to desire a broader and wider set of experiences -- especially at a young age.

    See also: Prithwiraj's comment at #10.

  14. Ankur Kulkarni said...

    @Prithwiraj - The cases where with genuine aspirations are understandable, tolerable and importantly, easily distinguishable from the rest. The issue is really with the vacuous spam (e.g. I received a similar "application" for a post-doc position from someone in China even while I was looking for a post-doc myself). However, I think we should be careful about judging this phenomenon as something that is peculiar only to Indian students. Perhaps it started with IITs or India, but the trend may quickly catch on to many other parts of the world.

    In the Indian context, I think the problem would go away if the placement offices also bring internships under their jurisdiction and disallow appointments not mediated by them.

  15. Prithwiraj said...

    If you are twenty, with not much exposure to the outside world and have studied in an English medium school where English is used only in the English class, things like this are bound to happen. Besides, I do remember that such boiler-plate letter formats were encouraged in my own Karnataka SSLC letter-writing questions in exams.

    The only way out of this I feel is to scrap the technical multiple-choice exams like IITJEE/AIEEE/GATE and migrate towards a format like the SAT or GRE, with admission essays later on so that language/logic skills are not ignored.

  16. naan said...

    Can you please not fall victim to the whole "hir" bs? It's jarring to the ears. Everytime I hear that abomination I just want to take a rusted hanger and swirl it through my ear!

  17. Prithwiraj said...

    interesting observation :)
    notice the use of "hir" and not "hem". even political correctness has its innate gender biases :D

  18. Murthy A V N said...

    Dear prof Abi,

    This wonderful article from The Scholars' Avenue April 15, 2008 Issue (pardon the boast, i did not pen this anyway) would make an interesting read: (page 5).