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Monday, June 12, 2017

Choosing College or Discipline



A very common question that I get asked is this: I can get admission to Discipline 'A' in College 'X', and Discipline 'B' in College 'Y'. I think that in general, graduates of Discipline 'A' do better in life, but College 'Y' is a higher quality institution in my opinion. What should I choose.

My answer to the question is no different from lots of others who have answered this question on quora or other social media platforms. That is, if you have passion for a discipline, study that discipline. If you are not interested in any particular discipline, choose what you consider to be a better college. One would hope that this is by now a settled matter. After all, you know whether you have a passion for a discipline or not. Most of our school going children do not have enough exposure to develop a passion, and therefore, it really means that you should just go to a college which you yourself feel is better.

But this simple answer is never the end of counseling session.

But what if he starts liking the discipline 'A' and feels sad that he is not studying that. Well, if he can start liking discipline 'A' without ever studying it formally, he can also start hating the discipline 'A' when he actually studies that. If you had chosen 'A' in 'X', what if he started liking College 'Y' and feels sad that he is not studying in that. There is no end to "what if."

What if, he does not know that he has passion for discipline 'A' but he has that. Hmm! One can have secret passions, so secret that they themselves don't know that they have them. (It is like in Hindi movies, the hero keeps thinking that he is "only friend" with heroine till there is a possibility of separation, marriage with someone else, etc., and then suddenly realizes that he did have this secret love for the lady.) Well, I can only advice based on facts on the table, and not based on secrets that may only come out after the admission.

What if colleges 'X' and 'Y' are really not that different, almost same. Well, then choose the discipline which is, in your opinion, somehow superior. But, they are not exactly the same, what if they are different by a small amount. Well, maybe you should visit both colleges and that would clarify things to you. Oh! But travel is so difficult that we prefer to remain confused.

And you can call their bluff very easily. The choice they are seeking is really not between a discipline and an institute, which as many have stated would be trivial to resolve. I always ask these people, what about Discipline 'C' in College 'Z' where it would be undeniable that College 'Z' has far better perception of quality than Colleges 'X' and 'Y' and every single time, the parents would reject that. They really have a secret optimization function which is based on values of both variables.

The reason for all this confusion is that we have never been taught to articulate a problem definition properly. A in X or B in Y, which is better, is an extremely poorly defined problem. It does not state, for example, what does the person mean by "better." (And that is why, in our open house at IIIT-Delhi, our Director, Prof. Pankaj Jalote always asks potential students and parents to think about why they want to go for college education.) Without some sort of understanding of "better" the discussion is completely meaningless. In other words, one can give proper advice only if that secret optimization function is made known to the advisor.

The reason why we don't discuss the meaning of the word "better" is very simple. There is often a divergence of opinion (on why college) between the student and parents, and they don't wish to argue with each other in front of a third party like me. Often, the parents have a simple definition of "better" which is "more money" but they realize that perhaps it is not politically correct to say that. They will keep sprinkling words like "quality," "personality development," and "happiness." It would be so much better if they could first have a discussion within home and figure out what they want out of college education. If money is the only thing that they want, so be it. (I would be the wrong person to advise in that case, but we are a country of astrologers. So should have no difficulty in finding thousands of advisers.)

There really can be several reasons to study in a particular college. Expectation of a good job is a good reason, but frankly that gets satisfied by a large number of programs in large number of colleges/universities. Beyond a good job, one could look for more money, or to satisfy one's interest in learning, or could consider personal growth and many other things.

So the confusion is at two different levels - what should be the optimization function, and second, given an optimization function, what combination is the best. Both are difficult problems, but without an attempt at solving the first problem, the second problem is unsolvable. So please spend some time thinking of the first problem, and your confusion will reduce and you will be able to take a better decision.

8 comments:

sumunthra said...

Dheeraj sir, we are eagerly waiting for your recommendation of non IIT cs/it programs 2017.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@sumunthra, Last two years have been the least amount of travel in my career. And without a personal visit, and seeing things for myself, I refrain from commenting. So I can continue to say that IIIT Hyderabad, IIIT Delhi and BITS Pilani offer great programs, but a longer list would require a lot more effort which I don't have time for.

09NRG said...

Hello Sir,
We need your help.
My son's data as follows:
Jee adv:air-3k+,obc rank-500+
Jee main:air-900+,obc rank-130+
Bits-359
IntllI cs
Available options
1.iiit-h cs
2.IiT indore-cs
3;iit-Kanpur maths&computing
4.I IT. Kharagpur-mnc
5.bits-goa vs
Please do provideinputs

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@09NRG, It has got to be your decision. I can only talk about the CS programs per se, and to that extent I think IIIT Hyderabad and IIIT Delhi would provide excellent CS programs. Please take inputs from all and take your own decision.

Harish Kalra said...

Sir
My son is getting CSE in Thapar university Patiala and an ICT in DAIICT Gandhinagar. Kindly guide which one should be preferred.
Kind regards
Harish

Siddhesh Pawar said...

Dheeraj sir
Should i prefer energy engineering at iit bombay or chemical at kanpur or mechanical at bhu

Heshwanth Munirathinam said...

Dheeraj sir. I am interested in CS. But, with my jee rank I have these following options
1. Ece - Nit trichy
2. Cse - Nit hamirpur, kurukshetra, jalandar, durgapur, jamshedpur, bhopal(unsure)
I can also get Cse at CEG ( Anna University ).
Should I opt for Cse at CEG or Ece at Nitt and then I change my branch to cse ( if I can)
Please suggest me.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

It depends on your ability to take risks. I am risk averse and don't suggest that you depend on branch change. Which means that you should study CS from which ever best place you can get admission to.