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Monday, April 27, 2015

How do people select engineering colleges?

Recently, I wrote a blog on how to choose an engineering college? I do realize that the methodology that I ask people to adopt is too time consuming, and watching IPL is more important than doing research on colleges where one may be interested in. I also realize that quality of teaching, quality of research, quality of infra-structure, quality of all other parameters regarding your career can be summarized so beautifully by one word: placements. With these things in mind, I actually started looking at quora questions regarding choice of engineering colleges and what answers do people give. There was another reason for checking out quora. I have recently decided to spend the next two years in IIIT Delhi, and wanted to understand what do people who join competing colleges think IIITD is lacking. And may be, I could help the Institute in improving on those issues.

However, I was in for surprise. IIIT Delhi is a Delhi Government institute, and just like all other Delhi Government engineering colleges, it too has an 85% quota for Delhi students. So, obviously, we compete mostly with other Government engineering colleges in Delhi. (Of course, we also compete with engineering colleges outside Delhi, since they too attract students of Delhi.) So a typical question in quora would be to compare various Delhi government engineering colleges.

And a typical answer would be as follows.
I am a student of one of the government engineering college (not IIITD) in Delhi, and I have looked at the website of all colleges, have friends in all colleges, and therefore, I know everything about all colleges. So the credentials are proven. IIIT Delhi faculty is absolutely the best. In fact, in my own college, we get taught by temporary faculty members. None of my faculty members are doing any research. The infrastructure at IIIT Delhi is awesome. Of course, it is because they are new. (The implication being that this great infrastructure will be useful only for the next few batches. Give them 20 years, and they will be as bad as us.) It is easier to get a hostel room in IIIT Delhi than in our college where we have a serious shortage of rooms. And you know what, they get air-conditioning in their rooms in the night. We don't have AC even in our classrooms. Their curriculum is great. They have so much flexibility. They have several courses offered against an elective slot. If we have an elective slot, our department will offer either one or at most two courses. So no real electives.Their Director is truly a visionary guy, and he really thinks about the future of his students. Just look at his blogs. (Of course, we are proud to say that he was also acting Vice Chancellor of our institute for a few months.)

Having written all sorts of things about IIIT Delhi in superlative terms, by now, the student's conscience starts hurting him, and he has to now justify his own decision of joining his college. So he constinues: When their first batch graduated in 2012, the placement was an issue. Our college has a real awesome placement. (The implication being that I joined my college because at that time, there was huge gap between the placements.) But there too, they have been improving every year, and for the 2015 graduating batch, the placement is almost the same, but still not at par with us. (Notice, how placement is really that last straw he is clinging to. Not willing to admit that even placements have become excellent in IIIT Delhi.)

Having read all this, I am like, wow. If the students of our competition are saying that we are so great, then we don't have to worry about anything. People will just come. But not so soon. Then you read the last paragraph.

There is one serious problem though. The faculty members at IIIT Delhi actually give assignments in the courses. In many courses, you have to write a lot of programs. They are even tough on cheating, and do not allow copying. You should be willing to focus on academics a lot more, and work very hard. They will really make you learn a lot of computer science. And some people will thankfully elaborate further. You have worked really really hard to get a good rank in JEE. You must have worked towards it for at least 3-4 years. You should choose a college where you can study less and still get good marks, and good placement. So that you can focus on non-academic pursuits like sports, cultural activities, and so on. That will also help you in placement.

 And then some people will point out that the tuition in IIIT Delhi is higher than other colleges. (Though IIIT Delhi is giving very high value scholarships to top students, which will ensure that these people don't choose one college over the other for financial reasons, besides liberal fee waivers to people with economic difficulties.)

And that brings me to the question. What is the goal of a college. Why are you working so hard for that JEE exam. Why does motivation go down drastically as soon as you enter the portals of a college. It is obvious to me that student life is important. At that age, having fun is important. (Heck, at all ages, having fun is important.) But is having fun so important that you would proudly ask others to join the college where the faculty is mostly ad hoc, does no research, gives no assignment, does not provide feedback if at all an assignment is given, since in such a college you can get good marks without studying. Is it really true that companies don't look at technical knowledge and competence and only worry about soft skills. And, of course, it goes without saying that IIIT Delhi student community is also very active in extra-curriculars.

Anyway, the debate appears to be settling down to: If you want to go into a technical, research or academic careers, then join IIIT Delhi. If you want to go for an MBA, IAS, finance/management jobs, or anything else which is non-technical, then join other colleges. And everyone is happy with this settlement. Other colleges can claim that they get more students in the top 2000 ranks than IIIT Delhi. IIIT Delhi faculty is happy that they get students who actually are interested in CS (or ECE, whatever I am saying from CS perspective, is true for ECE as well) and are motivated to do hard work.

And it is not just IIIT Delhi. I hear similar statements about IIT Kanpur (it is too academic, of course, for IITK there are several other issues as well). I hear the same about IISc and IISERs. (Don't go there unless you are willing to work hard.) Why would a student who has really worked hard to get admission, now plann to go to a place where he wouldn't have to work hard.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Selection of Academic Leaders

I had written about the selection of IIT Directors last month. Since then MHRD has been able to complete the selection process, and the names of the three selected Directors have been announced. In the meanwhile, my blog resulted in some discussion both in public as well as in private.

One of the justification for the current process which kept coming up was that an academic leader would be a good Director or Vice Chancellor of any institute/university.  There are no skills specific to one institution. Second, anyone who has had an excellent research record would be a good academic leader, as his record will inspire everyone in the organization to perform. Three, all those great souls who are part of the selection committee are generally aware of great research being done by people in different fields. And, therefore, it is possible for those great souls to pick a Director within 10 minutes (or earlier 30 minutes).

I disagree with all three assumptions. I have seen enough people functioning well in one environment, and not working well enough in another environment. Leader of a new institution requires very different skills compared to an old institution. In some situations knowledge of the local language is almost a requirement, while in some other institutions, knowing English would be just fine. Attracting better students is a very different ball game compared with attracting alumni funds which is completely different from attracting top class faculty. But the selection committees won't agree since they really don't want to spend their time in understanding each institute. After all, they have no stake in the institute. Their only interest in being a member of the selection committee is to feel important, and hope to get some benefit out of proximity to other powerful people (like an extended term as a Chairman of the Board).

About a great researcher being great Director or VC, often I hear a question. Aren't US university Presidents (of top universities at least) very accomplished in their respective fields. Don't we too deserve highly accomplished Directors and Vice Chancellors. Of course, we do. However, I would ask these selection committee members to take a closer look at US university presidents. They have demonstrated research excellence AND demonstrated great leadership in previous administrative jobs before they were considered for the President's job. We have a rather small pool of people who have demonstrated research excellence and great leadership. These people should, of course, be given important roles. But unfortunately, not only such people are in short supply, many of them are reluctant to take up administrative roles. So we get to have a choice between research excellence and leadership, and that is why the comparison with US model breaks down. We just don't have those kinds of people. And frankly, it is not clear to me that people with research excellence (purely in terms of awards) and weak leadership skills will always be better academic leaders than those who have less number of papers but have displayed strong leadership in every job they have held.

Selection committees talk about CV, awards, research excellence, because that is easy to measure. Someone has already looked at the CV and decided to give Bhatnagar award or some fellowship and so on. Leadership can not be judged by the CV, nor can it be checked in 30 minutes. The CV will only say that I was a Dean. It will not say, how good or bad a Dean I was. To judge leadership, they will have to spend a lot more time with each candidate (which any search-cum-selection committee for leadership in private sector would do). But why should our selection committee members spend that much time for an institute, in which they have no stake. And where they can perpetuate the dogma of their own greatness. Remember, they too grew in the same fashion. They are today in the position of power because they had great research excellence and poor leadership.

And of course, whether they can judge someone's research excellence is not even relevant. The process does not allow them to judge someone's leadership potential, even if one of them wanted it.

Those who disagree and continue to claim that all those three assumptions hold. Well, then why have an interview at all. Look at the CVs and make the offer. It will speed up the process so much. We won't have a situation where there is no Vice Chancellor for a year or more.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How to Choose An Engineering College (2015)

This is my second blog article on admissions related issues. I wrote one with exactly the same title long time ago in 2009. I then expanded upon it and wrote an improved version, but did not share it as a blog article. Instead it remained on my website. So it didn't reach as many people, since I notice that a lot of people still access my 2009 article. So here is the expanded version, largely same as what you would find on my website.

The reason I wrote this in 2009 and again in 2011 is rather simple. I get lots of emails on my views on different engineering colleges, and request to compare this with that. I am not in the habit of comparing things based on what I have read on social media or what I have heard on the corridors. And hence in most cases, I have to decline any comments. And I thought instead of just saying that I have no opinion, I could give them an algorithm to make some progress in coming to a decision. And hence this article.

First of all, which is a good college. Yes, I know. The highest package. Sorry, if you think so, and you are convinced about it, this article is a waste of time for you. Please stop reading. Go to any of the infinite sites where you can ask questions about packages and you will get answers that you can completely trust.

Let me suggest an alternative. It prepares you to achieve your goals. And, of course, your goal could be to be rich. But you don't become rich by having large paycheck in the first month. You become rich by having a long paying career. The first job is no guarantee of a successful career. And placement statistics anyway are most unreliable. So may be you should be looking at how alumni are doing 5-10 year hence rather than how final year students are doing. But then that statistics is even harder to get.

So let us look at factors that are most likely going to lead to a successful career. These factors are:
  • Your passion and interest in the area you are working in (that is why it is important that you don't choose CS or ECE just because everyone else is doing so, but think of what excites you)
  • Your preparedness as far as knowledge and skills are concerned (this is why the quality of education is so important)
  • Your ability to keep learning lifelong (this is why good faculty is absolutely important - to not just teach you some technical stuff, but tell you how to learn yourself)
  • Your soft skills, attitude, ethics, etc. (this is best learnt at school, but a good college would improve upon this, particularly a residential campus where you learn many things from hostel activities)
  • Your network of friends (this is where a good college which attracts more good students will help), and
  • A huge amount of luck.
This article is not about choosing a branch, though I would like to add that if you do not have a particular interest in a discipline (and most 12th class students don't - it is ok), then prefer a good college over a popular discipline.

And this article is not about luck. I can just wish you all a huge amount of luck.

So let us focus on the other four factors.

The most important factor is the quality of faculty. It not only helps you in learning how to learn lifelong, but also ensures that you pick up adequate knowledge and skills from the program. How do we know which college has a better faculty than the other. Well, visit their website, and look for the following information:
  • Number of full-time faculty members. Please make sure that you read the details, and find out who is a full-time faculty member, and who is a part-time or adjunct faculty member. The important parameter is faculty to student ratio.
  • Their qualifications. How many are PhDs. Where did they do their PhDs. Similarly, how many faculty members are having MTech qualification. Where did they do their MTech.
  • If a significant portion of faculty received their highest degree (whether PhD, MTech, or BTech) from the same college, then that should raise some alarms. On the other hand, faculty members having a lower degree from the same college, implies that they value the place enough that they returned back to the same place after getting a higher degree from elsewhere.
  • If the highest qualification for any faculty member is BTech or MCA, then be alarmed. Top places will only higher PhDs. Good places may have some MTechs. But if colleges are hiring BTechs and MCAs for teaching courses, it means that they are not able to attract enough good faculty, and that should be a cause for concern.
  • What are faculty doing. Are they teaching three courses a semester or two. Are they doing at least some bit of research publications.
Of course, people will argue how important it is to be a PhD to be a good teacher. And I have no doubt that there are some excellent teachers who are not PhDs, and there are some lousy teachers who are PhDs. However,  there is no doubt that places which have a lot of non-PhD teachers have them because they failed to attract PhD faculty, not because they just hired great teachers, and it so happened that many of them were MTechs. And if you look at the background of those MTechs, it is quite unlikely that you will find many of those MTechs from IITs, IISc, and other top institutions. And, in general, PhD from a good university would have a higher chance of being a good teacher than an MTech from a tier two college.

Another factor that gives an indication of the quality of faculty is the research output of the institution. I believe that there are good researchers who are not good teachers, and similarly, there are good teachers who are not good researcher. However, in general, faculty members who are actively pursuing some research interests would be current on the subject and would have a deeper understanding of the topics. But more importantly, research flourishes when there is an institutional support for it. If faculty members are doing research, then it shows that the college management is serious about the quality of education. Research can be measured by the following parameters. (You may need help from someone in the academic community to really understand these parameters. Go ahead and ask whoever you know.)
  • Publication by faculty members. Higher preference should be given to peer-reviewed journals and conferences of high quality and reputation. Then one should also look at local conferences. At least someone is putting some effort in the right direction.Unfortunately, there are enough journals today where one can publish by paying. There are also online sites where anyone can upload a paper. So it has become extremely difficult for anyone but a researcher in that area to figure out the quality of research by looking at the webpage.
  • Sponsored research projects by various funding agencies like Department of Science and Technology (DST), AICTE, Dept of Information Technology, etc. Normally, research projects are peer reviewed and thus presence of such projects indicate that peers think highly of them.
  • Any industry interaction in terms of research projects or consultancy. Working with industry requires confidence in one's abilities. Industry isn't in the business of charity. Also, industry interaction often would lead to good internships and employment opportunities for students.
  • Do they invite several researchers to give seminars. Do they organize workshops and conferences. This shows that the place is active and has energy. 
 Now, let us look at the second factor for a successful career. That is, level of preparedness or the knowledge and skills learned. This will, of course, depend on quality of faculty, which we have already discussed. But it requires a couple of other parameters as well. Most important of them is the curriculum. Some of the things to look for in the curriculum are:
  • How many courses do they teach. Unlike the conventional wisdom in India, I believe that the college that teaches you less is a better college. It means that they do less spoon feeding, and give you more space to grow and learn. There are surely exceptions to this general trend, but by and large colleges will try to teach you more, if they know that they are doing a poor job of teaching, and hope that if they try teaching you lots, then perhaps in some courses they will be able to teach you something.A good college may have 40-45 courses in the curriculum, while a poor quality college may have more than 50 courses.
  • How many electives are there in the curriculum, giving flexibility to the students to learn what they are interested in. Many colleges may have slots for electives, but they treat that slot as their choice to offer a course. So they won't offer three courses, and ask students to chose one. But instead they will offer one course of their own choice (basically for whatever course they can find a faculty). Also, in most colleges, the curriculum will only contain professional electives, but no open electives.
  • Do they have enough number of humanities and social science courses (at least 10 percent courses). One cannot be a complete engineer without understanding economics, sociology, psychology, etc.
A lot of learning happens outside the classroom, and hence a residential institute should be preferred over a place where all are day scholars. If there is a mixed system (that is, some live in hostel, and some are day scholars), it is still better than fully day scholar since even if there are some students on campus 24x7, it would have facilities that even day scholars can use when necessary. You won't have all labs close at 5 or 6pm. The library is likely to be open late. Indeed, one of the parameters to look at while understanding the quality of an institute is whether they allow access to their facilities for long hours, or are they only from 9 to 5 on weekdays.

Another important criteria is the autonomy of the institute. Can they decide their own curriculum. Typically, universities (including deemed-to-be-universities) can decide their own curriculum, and in general I would strongly recommend universities over affiliated colleges. Teaching someone else's curriculum is demotivating for teachers. If they do not have much stake in the curriculum, it would also invariably mean that exams are also conducted by someone else (by the universities, except for some "autonomous" colleges), and that means students don't care for the classes and teachers. This can not be conducive for lifelong learning, not even for immediate learning. But, of course, a vast majority of engineering education happens in such affiliated colleges, and most of it is poor quality. Of course, this is generalization, and certainly there are some affiliated colleges which are doing a decent job.

Fancy infrastructure is not something that impresses me, but yes, they should have all the necessary labs, good Internet bandwith, WiFi access so that you can use your own laptops and other devices anywhere, a good library with lots of reading spaces, lecture rooms without a projector is like living in dark ages, adequate sports facilities, etc. (Caution: Some of the engineering colleges would have all of this and more, but would not have faculty. Look at infrastructure only after you are convinced about the faculty and curriculum, etc.)

To ensure that your peer group is strong (since so much of learning will happen outside the class room, and your career will be helped by a good peer group), one may look at the closing ranks of the admission test (like JEE). The other possibilities are various rankings that you see in the media. Well, I would just ignore all the rankings. I have seen such stupidities in these rankings that I would not want them to influence your decision at all. But then there is a problem. How do you compare two institutes who take admission through two different criteria. Well, my advice, don't use this criteria in such cases. Of course, this criteria will also discriminate against some new institutes who may have suddenly become very good (like IIIT Delhi in comparison with other Delhi institutes), so take this with a pinch of salt.

Other things that you might want to look at:

  • Quality of the website. Do they give you all the information that you need to evaluate them. If they don't give some data, assume the worst. In this age, if they are not serious about even this level of publicity, how serious will they be about your education. How will they attract industry for placement and internships.
  • What fraction of graduates go for higher studies? This shows that they are not sick of their education. And also, the higher education is becoming increasingly important for success. So the chances are that a greater fraction of their graduates will be successful in future.
And things that you should not look at:
  •  Placement data (it is completely unreliable and has no prediction value)
  • MoUs with foreign universities
Then there are things which do not really matter in terms of quality, but could be important for you. Feel free to factor them in, and indeed they are important. One is Geographical location. Many people have preference to stay close to home or away from home, in a similar cultural environment or in a similar weather condition, etc. This is fine. The other is finances. If the two places you are considering have very different costs, then one has to look at whether those differences are worth the extra cost. And it is never going to be easy to take a call on that.

I will perhaps keep editing it as I think of more issues.