Monday, January 8, 2007

IIT ? Duh ! - What to do after getting through JEE

How can it be that 2 IITians blog and the first post they write about does not include IIT ! 

Well to answer all those prayers - here's a post about our experience at IIT. 

Before I begin shooting some stuff from the top of my head - I would capture verbatim the wordings of Professor Dheeraj from IIT Kanpur (just in case he takes his page down

Professor Dheeray writes -

What to do after getting through JEE

Here I attempt to answer a few frequently asked questions by people who have passed JEE. Please note that these are purely my personal views, and based on my discussions with several of my friends and colleagues, I can confidently say that these are not even unofficial views of IITK.

Official view of IITK, to put it simply, is that all IITs are equal, all programs are equal, and all students are equal.

If you were to believe in the official views of the IIT, you have got only two options.

First, you got to delve deep into your heart, and see if you have any innate preference for any program. (And by the way, in my humble opinion, you should follow your heart and not your mind in these matters.) But if you are an average JEE qualifier who has spent the last two years in a coaching center in Kota, Delhi, Hyderabad, or Kanpur, and who didn't have time to develop and explore one's own interests, the result of this exercise is likely to be one of the two possibilities:

  1. I don't know enough about any program. (You are being honest.) Well, if you have to follow IITK official words of wisdom, go for Step 2.

  2. I love computers. My first toy as a baby was a computer. I am great at playing computer games, and this would make me a perfact computer scientist. Well, as I said, follow your heart. Fill up all CS and IT related programs as your first few options, and get ready for a shocking realization that Computer Science is not about ability to use google, or creating a wonderful powerpoint presentation, or playing games. But it will be too late by then. (But thankfully, less than 10 percent of JEE qualifiers are allowed this option.)

So what is Step 2. Since all programs and all IITs are equal, and you do not have any specific interest (except compooters, which you can't get based on your rank), the best way to choose is to draw lots. Write down codes for each program on a separate piece of paper. Put all such small pieces in a box. Take one slip out at a time, and write down the code in that slip on your preference sheet.

But unfortunately for us in IIT, JEE qualifiers do not trust our official wisdom. So they ask us all sorts of questions. In most cases, they know the answers, and we don't. But we pretend to provide answers, and they pretend to listen to those answers (which is good, one should respect one's potential teachers).

So here are some Frequently Asked Questions and their unofficial answers. (And another disclaimer: I know more about IIT Kanpur than any other IIT. I did my BTech in CSE from here, and now I am teaching here for more than a decade. Don't expect me to be fair and impartial.)

1. Should I be selecting an IIT or a Program

Depends mostly on whether your inner voice has an opinion on this. If you are passionate about a particular career (because, for example, your role model in family or neighbourhood is in that career), then give the program a higher preference over an IIT. If you are not passionate about any program, then perhaps selecting an IIT is alright.

Most programs in most IITs are good. I am already deviating from the official line. But frankly, I don't see how a four year undergraduate program in one IIT be run as effectively by a core faculty of five as is run in another IIT by a core faculty of ten or more. A much larger faculty does not mean a much better program, but a faculty size in single digits should ring an alarm bell.

So your first home work after qualifying JEE. Go to the website of each IIT. Visit the websites of the departments that you are considering, and find the faculty strength. If it is less than 10 for a program, then try to get more information. (Like it may be a new program, and faculty is being hired now.) If in doubt, drop the priority of this particular IIT-program pair.

2. Which IIT should I chose

I can't say which IIT to chose, but what I can suggest is that you shouldn't be afraid or ashamed of chossing an IIT for non-academic reasons.

Some of you may select an IIT because it is closer to home (and you want to be able to meet family every weekend). Some of you may select an IIT because you want to go far off from your home so that your parents can't visit you frequently, and certainly not without a warning. Both are valid ways of selecting an IIT. And I recommend former for those whose hometown is Kanpur, Lucknow, Allahabad, Jhansi, etc., and latter for everyone else :-)

By the way, metro IITs (Bombay, Delhi, Madras) are slowly becoming regional IITs. There are so many selections from their respective zones that most persons studying there would come from their own respective zones. But non-metro IITs have fewer selections in their resepctive zones, hence they attract students from all over the country. As a result you find more cosmopolitan environment in IITs in smaller cities, and more regional environment in IITs in bigger cities.

If you love city life don't even think of IIT Kanpur. (Though one always wonders whether any IIT in a metro city would leave you with enough time to explore that city.) If you choose IIT Kanpur, you will love the campus so much that you will start hating the city life. In fact, you will become a misfit in the society, and will have difficult time when you go back home in vacation. The only career option for you will then be to be the leader and bring about change (or meekly accept a job in IIT Kanpur, as I have done).

And if you are still confused about which IIT to chose, then chose the one which is closest to Ganges :-) You will be able to at least wash your sins frequently.

3. I have decided on IIT-K. How do I rank its various programs.

A more direct question that I get asked every year is what are the job prospects of various programs. And it is a sad question to answer, because it reflects complete lack of self-confidence even amongst people who have qualified in one of the toughest exams in the world. If they won't have jobs, then who else will.

If you look at those students who are in the top 75% of their class, there is no problems at all in terms of finding a job. Most graduates in the lowest 25% will also find jobs, but there could be cases, who could not manage a job through the campus placement, but had to apply on one's own.

Frankly speaking, there can only be two reasons to prefer one program over the other: One, your own personal inclination and aptitude. If you knew that then obviously there is no problem in ranking the programs. The second reason is placement. But if placement is close to 100% for all programs, then what does one do. (And on top of that, most IITians end up doing things completely different from what they studied at IITK anyway, 10 years after their graduation. So why worry about placement.)

Since placement is no different, and one does not have special personal preference for a particular program, the only ranking that makes sense for most people is based on last years' closing rank. But what this means is that a new and exciting program will be missed by a large number of bright students. Do pay a close attention to programs that have been started in the last couple of years, and are being started this year. Most people will go by last years' closing ranks, and you may have an easy time getting admission into that program, even if you do not have a rank in 3 digits or less.

Since most people end up using last years' closing rank as a guide to fill up their preferences this year, it puts a lot of pressure on others who may actually have a personal preference for something else. The old illogic continues. For example, why don't people select Civil Engineering. Many people still believe that the only job that a civil engineer can have is that of supervising in hot summer afternoon the road construction work in the hinterland. Nothing could be far from truth. While one should not demean the job of constructing a highway, there are so many exciting things happening in civil engineering, but people continue to join civil only if they don't get any other engineering program. They are disinclined towards civil engineering from day one, and they fail to notice the excitement in it.

Same thing happens in other programs. In Chemistry, for example, IIT Kanpur has such a strong faculty, that few departments even come close. There are Bhatnagar awardees, Silver Jubilee awardees, Fellows of various societies, and so on. It would be a wonderful experience to study Chemistry from such an illustrious faculty. But sadly, people follow last years' closing ranks for filling up this years' choices, and there is no way Chemistry can break this vicious cycle and start attracting a lot more good students.

The Bio-science and Bio-engineering program is another example, where the future is very bright. Four years from now, it is expected that Bio-related industries will be better placed in the market than even IT. But most people only look at what is considered hot today (which no doubt is IT and Electronics), and not think about what may be hot 4-5 years hence.

The five year MSc program in Economics is another wonderful program (though faculty size is an issue, which IITK is working on). I wish it was there in 1982, when I passed JEE. A combination of engineering basics and economics is just too exciting for me. In fact, if you want to decide your future by looking at placement figures for the previous year (soemthing that I do not recommend, but I am sure many of you want to do this), then Economics should be very high up there on your list. The largest salaries this year were for jobs in financial sector, investment banks, and so on. And these were not even Economists. Just think of a combination of Engineering (analytical skills is what they are looking for) and Economics. It will be really potent. I hope some of you will opt for this program.

By the way, IIT Madras also has a program in Economics, but they conduct a separate entrance exam called, HSEE. They wish to open the program to everyone who has completed 12th class, not just those who have a science background. I think the Engineering based Economics program of Kanpur and Kharagpur are better, than a pure humanities based Economics program, but of course, you have to clear JEE for that. Anyway, since IIT Madras program is outside the JEE system, I do not wish to write too much about it here.

One program which excites me a lot is the dual-degree program in IIT Kharagpur, where you get a BTech and an MBA in five years. This program started last year. Of course, the selection for MBA is not now. Right now, you just choose BTech program, and if you perform well in their aptitude test, groupd discussion and personal interview, you might be given admission to this dual-degree program at the end of 1st year. If you are thinking of doing an MBA anyway, and you are confident of doing well in their admission process, this program may be a reason to prefer Kharagpur over other IITs.

4. Should I prefer a Dual-degree or a BTech program

Well the answer depends on whether you are talking about the two programs in the same department, or different departments. Let us take the two possibilities seperately.

If you are comparing Dual and BTech in the same department, say Dual (CSE) versus BTech (CSE), then the answer is very simple. Go for BTech. I think the dual-degree programs are fantastic, but the way IIT Kanpur policies have been designed, it is much easier to change one's program from BTech to Dual, and it is much more difficult to change the program from Dual to BTech. So why should one decide on Dual now. Take up BTech program now, and if you get excited about the Dual degree program after you join IIT, you can try to move to Dual-degree at that time.

What I am suggesting above may not hold for other IITs. Another view I have on dual-degree program is that it is little too early to decide what your specialization should be in the MTech program. Hence I personally prefer only those dual-degree program where MTech is in a broad discipline (allowing you to choose your specialisation in the fourth year typically), and not like those dual-degree programs where you have to decide now a narrow area of specialization, for which you know even less at this time.

Now coming to the more interesting question. I have a JEE rank of 200. I want to follow last years' closing ranks for choosing major departments, and hence I prefer CSE over EE. But I am not likely to get admission in BTech (CSE). Should I prefer Dual (CSE) or BTech (EE).

You could replace EE and CSE with any two departments, and the answer will be same. It depends on how strongly you prefer one department over the other (CSE over EE in this example). And to test how strongly you prefer one department over the other, I will ask a theoretical question. Be honest in answering it.

Your BTech (EE) program will finish in May 2010. Suppose I were to offer you admission in BTech (CSE) on the condition that your program will be delayed by three months, and you will actually graduate in August 2010. Would you then prefer BTech (CSE) or would you still prefer BTech (EE).

Basically, if you prefer EE in this hypothetical scenario, then it is clear that your preference for CSE is very minor, and you are not willing to pay even a small cost of three extra months to undertake a CSE program. Then you should prefer BTech (EE) over Dual (CSE).

But if you preferred CSE in this hypothetical situation, then we can continue this game a bit further. Now, I further suggest that you invest 9 more months in the discipline for which you have indicated a reasonably strong preference. In these nine months, we will most probably give you Rs. 60,000 in cash, we will give you a degree that normally takes two years to complete, and a degree that opens a lot more doors for you in industry. At least in CSE, several multinationals have setup advanced R&D labs in India, and they hire MTechs and PhDs only, giving a very good work environment as well as an excellent financial package. I am sure there are such labs in other disciplines as well.

To me the decision is a no-brainer (though your mileage may vary). The future certainly belongs to more specialisation, and having an MTech degree will be an asset for everyone. Spending a few extra months now in the same environment where you have spent four years is the easiest way to get an MTech degree. (Again talking about CSE, for getting a BTech degree, you will need to do 40 courses and a project. For Dual-degree the requirement is only 42 courses and a thesis. So it is really very small incremental work that gives you an additional degree.)

The financial assistance in the final year is based on your good performance in the first four years, and is based on current Institute assistantship rates. These may be enhanced in the next four years. You could also be working on sponsored projects for your thesis, and get much higher assistanship. (For example, MTech students working with me next semester will be getting Rs. 10,000 per month.)

And, if you are one of those who always want to look at placement figures before taking a decision, well, the first batch of dual-degree students in IIT Kanpur graduated this year. And the salary package offered to them was much better than the corresponding package offered to the BTech students in the same branch, by the same company. So you do get compensation for that one extra year (besides, as I said, opening more doors in research labs, and other such places, where BTechs are not even considered).

5. If Dual-degree programs are so good, why is it that many people are not opting for it.

Nothing is perfact in life, and there are shortcomings with Dual-degree programs as well. But more importantly it does not fit into the career plans of many students.

First, many students think that they might like to get a US degree after IIT. (This used to be the only ticket to US a decade or more ago. Most people who go to US today, go with business visa, but still old thinking die hard.) And the easiest US degree to get is a Masters degree. People feel shy of joining another master's degree after completing one.

I can only say to such students that the number of people going to US for MS degree is reducing rapidly as other avenues to go abroad have opened, and also opportunities within India have become enormous. So the chances are that you won't find yourself in a situation where you would have to do another Master's degree after a Master's degree from IITs.

Second, if the student has already decided that one is not going to be in the area of undergraduate discipline. For example, one may be interested in MBA after BTech. Then spending an extra year is wasteful.

My response is that unless you are absolutely sure of your career plans, a few extra months in an IIT are not going to hurt you too much, and in all likelihood it will help your career significantly.

A clear shortcoming of Dual-degree program is the way it is implemented at IITK. (Other IITs may or may not have this problem. Or they may have other problems.) If you happen to be a weak student, who has failed a couple of courses, and is getting D grades in some more, then there are problems in dual-degree. If you are a BTech student, then a few failures may mean that you spend an extra semester to graduate. But if you are a dual-degree student, and cannot cope up with even the marginally higher requirements of an MTech degree, you will get a BTech degree after two extra semesters (a total of 5 years or 10 semesters). And if you are a weak student, you may not get financial assistanship.

My response is to think positive, and not consider a situation where you will be failing courses. If you get into those situations, then you will have a lot more to think about than spending an extra semester.

6. I have got a 2500+ rank in JEE, but a better rank in AIEEE, Should I prefer a science program in IITs or an engineering program in another college.

If you have personal preference/aptitude/inclination towards a particular discipline, and you are getting admission into a decent quality college for that discipline, then go for it. But in most cases, I would prefer an IIT.

As I have said above, everyone in an IIT will get a job, and most persons would not be in their discipline a decade after their graduation. So in a sense the discipline does not matter. What IITs give you is not just learning in a particular discipline, but train you for life-long learning. As we proudly say, we don't train you for your first job, we train you for your last job. The kind of learning environment you will find in IITs is difficult to replicate elsewhere.

You will progress in your career primarily based on your capabilities, but you will require help from others at times. IITs have a HUGE brand equity, and anywhere you go, doors will open for you on the basis of this brand-equity. There is a very concious program running in US (and to a smaller extent in India) to promote IIT as a common brand of all IITs. And the old boys' network of IITs is very strong, and has a lot of attachment for other fellow IITians. These things help a lot in career.

7. Can you name a few good colleges, in case I don't get admission to any program in an IIT

Author - Sharad


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