I see from StatCounter that there are few ppl coming to my blog, with 'ncbs' as a search string. I presume its all in the entrance exam preparation fever. I do not want them to go back disappointed. Also, i have also been receiving orkut scraps and emails from my juniors and other ppl asking abt the entrances. So, i thought it would be nice to write a post on it and direct everyone here. I am writing this in a FAQ style (more or less because i can directly flick from some of my mails ;)
Note: All these have been written based on my (and my co-interview-mates') experience of the Integrated PhD selection of the 2006 batch (there could have been changes since then). I faced all the rounds, but did not clear the final round interview. I am currently a Junior Research Fellow at NCBS in Prof. VijayRaghavan's lab, working on developmental neuroscience. Exact project: "Organisation and asssembly of the neuronal network required for walking in Drosophila". Sorry if that sounds neither like greek nor latin
Does ncbs have scope for anything apart from biology? (modified version of the question ppl usually ask me: "I thought u r a physics guy. How come u r in a biology place?") ncbs is a bio institute alright, but biology these days has become interdisciplinary (like almost every other subject). There are interesting fields like Biophysics which need math, computation, physics (of course, the name has it) etc. And stuff like cancer research, cell signalling mechanisms, biological nanotechnology etc require chemistry, biotech and physics knowledge. Neuroscience requires physics and computation. Synthetic systems biology requires biotech, and cell biology knowledge. Population genetics and ecology require biotech, genetics, computation, old style botany-zoology and so on.
So, to put it short...... ncbs is looking for all kinds of ppl from different backgrounds - mathematics, theoretical physics, experimental physicis, biotech, botany, zoology, engineering, computers, chemistry, pharmacy etc. For ppl interested in wildlife conservation, there is a separate entrance for MSc in wildlife. It is an amazing course with field trips to amazing forests throughout India. Almost all students of the last batch won awards in international conferences last year)
What are the different stages in the selection process?
1. Entrance test (usually on the first or second sunday of dec)
2. Write-up submission (jan-feb)
3. First round interview(may-june)
4. Final round interview(usually within 1 or 2 days after first round interview)
Note:Until the final interview, the stages are common for both NCBS and DBS, TIFR. The final interview is held such that the DBS and NCBS interviews dont clash. So u can attempt two institutes in one go.
Entrance test: The test paper has four parts carrying 20 marks: 1)General math/aptitude 2)Physics 3)Chemistry 4)Biology. You do not need to be good at ALL the fields. U can easily clear it even if u r rorrible at one field, average at another and reasonably good in other two. (For eg. I was good in general math and Phy, not so good in bio, and horrible in chemistry (i answered only 1 out of 15 questions in chem).
Each part has 10 one mark questions and 5 two-mark questions. All are objective type questions with negative marking(-1/2 and -1 respectively.) (Obviously, the two mark ones are more tricky and hard)
Write-up round: Once u clear the entrance, u will recieve a letter and form from ncbs, which u'll have to fill and send back in about a month or two. Apart from boring details like ur score in exams and other similar crap, there is a section which asks you why u want to join ncbs. This part bears quite some weightage in ur selection. So write it wisely. Dont try to show off too much. Be modest, keep it simple. Dont use too much complicated jargon.
The most important bit they ask u to do is to write a short essay within 300-400 words abt any unanswered question or research topic of ur choice, in biology (It can be stuff thats not done in ncbs too. Or even a whacky field u invent on the spot). U have to describe the question, give some background, and state ur approach to solve it. It can be quite hard to tuck everything in 400 words. Also cite references to strengthen ur points if applicable. Note that u don need to get down to excruciating details. Keep it simple, neat and elegant. Remember that this bit is what carries most importance in this round.
Along with this you will have to get 2 recommendation letters. (General hint: If u have a choice between a renowned person who will give u a below-average reco and a not-renowned person(say, a good lecturer) who's known u for a long while, and will give u a good reco, go for the second option)
First round interview: In the first round interview, students are divided into different batches, who will face different interview panels (probably at random). Each interview panel has three interviewer, usually from different backgrounds. During the interview, they first ask u what is the area which u r comfortable with. This could be Physics, biotech, engg, math.... anything. Make sure that u r really strong in the field that u mention (even if it is not ur favorite). They'll bombard u with questions, and try screwin u up in ur own field of choice. The interviewers will be helpful whenever u r stuck somewhere. Its not whether u answer it that counts, its how u answer it...... ur approach. For anything and everything, keep using the board... write down formulae, draw diagrams to explain, even if they dont prompt u to..... And they'll ask u stuff related to ur write-up, to test ur knowledge in that field. So, it is best if the idea is entirely urs. They can easily figure it out if u r fakin it or if u've flicked it from someone. The results are usually announced on the same day as the interview
Final round interview: You will face a 15 member panel now. This is pretty unnerving initially. With different ppl firing different questions from all sides. Make sure that u say that u dont know something, when u are not strong in that particular field. (I screwed up royallly on this aspect. I said, i was ok with genetics and tried attempting a genetics question thrown at me. I had no clue wat to do. I screwed up). And make sure u keep pushing the questions towards wat u r reallly strong at.
How hard are the entrance and interviews?
I felt the entrance to be simple, moderatrely easy and pretty interesting. There were some simple looking tricky ones, some simple straight forward ones and some difficult looking moderate ones.
The first round was fairly easy for me. So was the final one. But dont get stuck in a field which u r not comfy with. Make sure u r perfect in the field u state to be ur strength.(I also screwed up some phy questions, which i shud've answered).
What should i read to prepare for the exam?
Nothing. Last moment preparation does almost no good in such exams. Just strengthen ur basics in whatever u already know. Its ur overall smartness that will help u clear all rounds, more than just plain knowledge.
What are the different topics people are doing research on at ncbs?
Check out the ncbs website's page on it: http://www.ncbs.res.in/researchncbs/groups.htm
As ppl ask me more, i'll add more here too. And if you have any queries, please drop it in the comments page. I'll answer them as and when i can
Suggestions from others (Thanks to Umesh Mohan): In chemistry, strengthen ur reaction kinetics basics