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Monday, November 14, 2022

Importance of Placement Data in Choosing College

Placement is one thing that I have written a lot about over the last 10-15 years. Most of the time, I have pointed out that it is impossible to get trustworthy information about placement from universities and hence this should not be a criteria for selection of college.

Why parents love to hear about placement. Two things. One, it is seen as a proxy for quality of education. Two, every parent assume that their ward will get the highest package when s/he comes to final year.

First, the proxy for quality thing. Everyone would agree that they want high quality of education (in whichever way they define quality - whether narrow or broad, for example). The problem is that they don't know how to evaluate faculty quality, the quality of curriculum, the importance of flexibility and so on. But everyone understands money, and hence higher the money, the better must have been the quality of the institute.

Let us compare two colleges. In both colleges, there are 100 students, same discipline, etc. In one college, everyone gets a job of Rs. 6 lakhs, while in the other college, two students get a package of Rs. 1 crore each, and the other 98 students get a job of Rs. 4.5 lakhs each. Which one is more likely to provide a higher quality of education. Notice that the first college has a median and average of Rs. 6 lakhs. The second college has a median of Rs. 4.5 lakhs and an average of 6.41 lakhs. If you consider the highest or the average, the second college has better numbers, but one should think if they just got lucky with those two students. If the quality of education was really good, shouldn't they have a greater number of students with higher packages.

In my opinion, if  you want to consider placement as a proxy for quality, you should look at the median package. And, of course, that is difficult to get. Most colleges do not reveal that since average is almost always higher than median in placement data. Most colleges may not even understand what is median and may tell you average when you ask for median. But if it is possible to get median, take that as a more valuable information than any other placement stats.

The second thing was about the assumption that every parent has that their ward will get the highest package. Can we really say that if you work very hard for four years, you will get the highest package. One can easily say that students working hard to acquire knowledge and skills in the college will get a good job. But getting the highest job requires a bit of luck during the interview process and it also depends on what knowledge/skills are in the highest demand that year, which you may not be able to predict when you were in first or second year. And in any case, if you really care for money, you should care for money that you will earn in your career and not just the money you will earn in the first month.

The last point about placement is that the correct data is not easily available and what is interesting is that often even the students who have gone through this exercise do not have any clue about the data of their batch. I have many stories about colleges perceived among the best but have poor placements (I happened to have seen data), but if you ask anyone on the campus - student or faculty - they have the perception that their placements are great. Now, if the students who are going through the placements do not know about their own batch, how can you hope to get realistic data from anywhere. This perception of good placement happens because in a typical college, students who get good jobs host a dinner or a treat for their batchmates and hence everyone knows about them, and those who get poor jobs don't talk about it as much. So if we keep hearing good stories, we will assume that everyone is getting those good jobs.

If you have junk data and you take decisions based on this junk data, you are playing into a model which is based on Garbage In Garbage Out (GIGO).

A very large number of engineering colleges today are dependent upon software services industry (TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL and so on) for placing their students, and most of these companies pay a salary of around Rs. 3.5 lakhs, and hence a large number of colleges (including some of the very reputed ones) have a median job offer of Rs. 3.5 lakhs. Of course, they will always talk about the average which could be substantially higher. But remember, median is the closest proxy to quality.

At JKLU, the B.Tech. batch that graduated in 2022 had a median of Rs. 7.0 lakhs (double of a typical engineering college), and the initial indication about the 2023 graduating batch is that their median will also be Rs. 7.0 lakhs despite economy not doing too well, and many companies not recruiting or even letting employees go. (But still, I advise people to consider JKLU as their higher education destination only if they are convinced of the quality of its faculty, flexibility in curriculum, ability to spend a semester in an IIT or IIIT, and many other such things, and not focus on placements.)

Parents will now ask how they should decide for their wards, if they can't ask or depend on placement data. They don't feel comfortable taking a call based on other parameters like faculty, curriculum, pedagogy, etc. And my advice for the last couple of decades has been to visit the potential colleges. This is one of the most important career decision. They must invest some time and effort in understanding their options and no better way to do that than to visit the campuses that you are considering. If you talk to random students and faculty on the campus (and not just the admissions office folks), you will get a good insight into the college and that would help you decide.


Sunday, November 13, 2022

What does Industry Readiness Mean for a College Student?

Educational institutions are not what they used to be. They no longer produce graduates that are "industry ready." This is something all of us in academia have heard often. But what is meant by "industry readiness?"

We are often told that we must update our curriculum regularly, to include technologies that the industry is currently working on. Since our faculty may not be able to update themselves so quickly, we should invite working professionals in our classrooms. Students should be encouraged to work on "live projects" (whatever that means). All this is supposed to ensure that the graduate when joins some company would hit the ground running. Currently, there is a lot of cost that companies incur on training and if that cost can be saved, our industry would be able to compete better in the global market.

But I still don't understand what will make students "industry ready."

In various industry forums, I ask a simple question. Will top 50 companies who generally hire graduates of the same discipline (say, Computer Science or Information Technology) come together and tell academia what programming language they want the graduates to know, and promise that 4 years later when these students graduate knowing that programming language, they will recruit them and assign them projects where they are required to work on programs in that particular language. (And programming language is just the most basic skill. We can ask the question about other knowledge elements and skills.)

I don't think any company can promise today that four years from now they will need only these technologies and not others. In such a situation, does it make sense to chase the dream of graduate being ready to contribute to a project on the day of joining.

When I pose such questions, some experienced industry veterans would point out that the industry readiness is not about removing the training requirement completely, but is about reducing the training requirement substantially. Can the graduate learn on the job, picking up a new skill or a new technology in a couple of weeks. Industry readiness, as per these experts is about having the skills to learn oneself.

This revised definition makes sense to me. And thankfully, it is possible to train students to be industry ready as per this definition. But, the folks visiting colleges for campus placements and those who attend these industry-academia workshops don't seem to be articulating this definition and therefore, there is utter confusion in academia.

The usual reply to this is that we ask for the graduate to be ready on day 1 in the hope that academia would provide graduates who are ready within a month of joining. So the day 1 thing is a negotiating position and they are willing to settle for day 31.

And herein lies the problem of lack of understanding of academia by industry. If an academic institution has to make its graduate ready for day 1, the curriculum and pedagogy will be very different than if the academic institution has to make its graduate ready for quick learning. So it is not a matter of negotiation since the two situations are very far apart. To make a student ready for day 1, an academic institution will have to select a few roles that it wants to prepare students for and have a curriculum that includes all technologies and skills needed for that role. But to make students ready for quick learning, an academic institution will have to have a deeper focus on basics, they will have to ensure that the student can apply knowledge from multiple courses (so do large projects), that the student can learn somethings on its own (through online or whatever) and after this, one can be reasonably sure that the student is ready for self-learning and will pick up any new knowledge/skills in 30 days.

So day 1 readiness means a narrower focus of education which is not good for either industry or for the career of the student. If industry really needs people who can learn things quickly, why not articulate that need clearly.

I am seeing some changes in industry already. For the last few years, it has become common for the job interviewers to ask what have students learn outside the curriculum. This is to see whether students have tried to do self-learning which is an indication of whether they will be able to pick up new knowledge/skills quickly.

If a company really wants the academic institution to prepare their graduates with specific skills and knowledge, they should recruit students very early on (say after 2 years or even earlier), start paying that student a salary (treat them as employees), ask them to take specific electives, do projects and internships as desired by the employer (since the student is now an employee), even ask them to take a semester off from academics and work and then come back and complete the degree, and if some student is willing to sign up for it, that would be fine. But demanding that all academic institutions teach a specific technology to all its students is not in the long term interest of students or even industry.

Of course, all this discussion is only about 20 percent of academic institutions. Eighty percent of academic institutions would not be able to prepare its graduates for day 1 or day 31 or day 101 irrespective of what definition of industry readiness is used.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

How to Choose an Engineering College (2022)

This is an updated blog article on engineering admissions to colleges other than the top few like IITs. I wrote one with exactly the same title  in 2015 and another one in 2009. This one has a large overlap with the article I wrote in 2015. After all what parameters indicate a college to be providing quality education hasn't changed all these years. But my learning and experience in the last one decade, particularly working with IIIT Delhi, PEC Chandigarh and now at JKLU Jaipur has given me insights into what are the typical questions students and parents have at the time of admission.
The reason I wrote this in 2009 and again in 2015 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 in 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, I disagree.

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. (But don't worry, I will talk about how placement statistics can give you limited insights regarding quality little later in the article.)

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
  • 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 as most things a college will teach you will be outdated over the next 5-10-20 years and your career is 50 years (this is why good faculty is absolutely important - to not just teach you some technical stuff, but mentor you to learn 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 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. Try to see the full time equivalent (FTE) like two part-time faculty teaching one course in every semester together will be one FTE. Also check the number of students. The important parameter is faculty to student ratio.
  • Their qualifications. How many are PhDs.
  • Where did the faculty members study. If they did one of their degrees from IITs/BITS and other fine institutions in India or abroad, they are more likely to have achieved academic excellence early in their lives, and at the very least, they have been exposed to quality systems and education and they will more likely pass on that quality experience to their students.
  • 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 but a higher degree from a different institution, 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. 

The problem in checking research output is that it is very difficult for a layman to even get an idea. It is very difficult to know which journals and conferences are good and which are paid ones. In any case, most of the Tier 3 and Tier 2 institutions aren't doing great on this parameter. But if you have a friend in academia, a faculty member, they may be able to advise you on this parameter.

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 choose one. But instead they will offer one course of their own choice (basically for whatever course they can find a faculty). Elective slots are important since a student will develop interest in some topics more than the others and may want to build his/her career in that sub-field.
  • Also, the electives should not just be in the discipline area but there should also be open electives. If someone wants to study maths or design or business studies along with Computer Science, it should be possible to do so. The more diverse your courses are, easier it will be for you in the future to keep learning new things and remember, you have to keep learning for at least 50 years.
  • 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. These courses also develop important skills like Critical Thinking. And come to think of it. No college can teach you anything which will not become obsolete in the next 10 years. But if they can give you skills like Critical Thinking, you will go far in your career.
  • Overall, curriculum should be multi-disciplinary whether through some compulsory core or through a large set of electives. Most problems that you will face in your life will require inputs from multiple domains. So if you are doing BTech in Computer Science and the college teaches you 20-25 courses in CS, they are not doing justice to your future growth. It ought to be much less with a lot of components from other fields.

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. 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 want to look at data such as what was the median performance of the admitted students in 10th board, 12th board, competitive exams like JEE, CUET, etc. Of course, it is extremely difficult to get this data and even more difficult to verify this data. An indication could be available through the minimum eligibility announced by the university. For example, if I am allowed to do some marketing for JKLU, we have announced a minimum eligibility of 70% in 10th and 70% in 12th (counting only 5 subjects in 10th and PCME in 12th, so your additional subjects with 98-100 marks are not counted) for BTech/CSE program. I am not aware of any other private institution that has such high eligibility requirement. As a result, our median 12th class marks are more than 85%, one of the highest in our peer group. But, if you can't get this data from other colleges, you may ignore this parameter.

Now, let me come back to the all important question of placement. Why do I say that one should not look at placement data.

Well, if you want to look at placement data from the perspective of return-on-investment, then you should be looking at the incomes over at least 10-15 years, if not 50 years. The first month salary has no correlation with long term success in career. Second, you have no idea about the placement statistics. Most of the time, even the students who are going through the placement in a college and talking to all their friends on a regular basis about where they have got placed usually have no clue about aggregate statistics. (Very surprising, I know, but I can give you many examples and explain why this happens later.) The colleges exaggerate. Are you sure you will be the one to get that highest package. No one can predict what will happen 4 years from now.

On the other hand, if you are looking at placement as a proxy for quality and saying that if top companies are coming here, they must have done a survey and decided that this college is good, then what should be the parameter to look at. Let me give you two examples to compare. Both colleges have 100 graduating students in the same discipline. First college, two students get a package of Rs 1 crore, and 98 students get a package of Rs 3 lakhs each. In the other college, everyone gets a package of Rs 5 lakhs. Which one is better. In my opinion, the second one is better quality. If the first one was good, how much that goodness reflected in just 2 jobs. Most probably, those two worked hard on their own despite college and not because of college. And hence quality is reflected not in highest package but in median package, which is the package that the middle or average student got. Most colleges will only talk about highest and average (since few getting high packages will lift the average). No one talks about median since that is usually the lower number. So, if you can find median number reliably (very difficult), you may think of using that as a proxy for quality. Otherwise, ignore the placement data.

What else you should not look at. Well MoUs can be signed a dime a dozen with foreign universities, with companies and so on. Please look at how many of them are effectively being worked on. Rankings are usually gamed. There is no verification process.

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.

The last point I will make is that this is one of the most important decision of your life. Invest your time, effort, and even money into this decision making. Don't be lazy and just look at last year's closing ranks, or just looking at some lists on some sites. Do primary research. First visit the website and note down as much relevant information as possible. Then talk to people who may give you insider's information. Make a shortlist of colleges you are interested in. Then plan a visit even if the college is not in your city. This is very important and this is what I meant when I said above invest your money in decision making.

When you visit a place, you will know many things about the place which are difficult to judge otherwise. Many institutions have some special things which may appeal to you or may not be in line with what you desire. Talk to random students and faculty on the campus to get the real picture and not just the admissions team. For example, and again, marketing alert for JKLU, here the way we do Project based learning is completely different from everyone else in the country, our semester away program in IITs, IIITs, and fine institutions abroad, our Center for Communication and Critical Thinking, our Design thinking courses, and many more things are so unique but you won't be able to really understand their import just by looking at the website.

Best wishes for a great career ahead.