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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Why should you (not) do MTech

 The admission to MTech programs to all CFTIs just finished. And, I am wondering if all the excitement of getting admission is really worth it.

Two months ago, I wrote a blog about why some of the Tier 2 institutes should consider closing some of their MTech programs. The argument was that every institute should always review each of its programs for their success, and if a program is not successful, it should be closed and the resources can be invested in either another better, more topical Masters program or increasing seats in other popular programs. And I would like to look at the output of MTech programs in the following ways: How many students publish their research work in decent venues? How many of them go for PhD? How many of them get jobs which are specialized and where BTech would not have been preferred? How many of them get jobs which a BTech can do but with significantly higher compensation? If you are able to attract a large enough group of student (anything less than 40 is very inefficient use of faculty resource) with good GATE score, and a majority (say 60%) of them do well in terms of criteria of research/jobs/PhD stated above, then that program is worth the investments. Otherwise, we must think of something new.

Of course, if we were to insist on this criteria, then a very large number of MTech programs will close in the country, which is probably good because this shows that most of the students and employers do not value Master's degrees, at least not the ones on offer at this time.

While it may not make sense for a college to offer MTech program, does it make sense for a student to take admission in an MTech program. Actually, the two questions are linked. And if it makes sense for a college to offer MTech program, it would make sense for some students to join that program.

Why should someone join an MTech program. Obviously, they should be looking at this as furthering their career in some ways.

Are they interested in research, and are just testing the waters by doing a small thesis and if they like it will go for PhD. Hardly. Not only the number of students going on to do PhD is tiny, even publications in decent venues are too few. In fact, I wonder whether they looked at the research output of the department before applying for admission.

Are they looking for learning new knowledge and skills that somehow they couldn't get in their under-graduate programs. I guess a whole lot of students are hoping for this and think that this additional learning will help them in their careers. And indeed, I have myself talked about this to encourage students to go for higher education in the past. But things have changed in the last 10 years, and Covid is going to strengthen the impact of those changes.

What has changed is the availability of online learning with higher quality than in the past. So much so that often the online learning from the best teachers in the world is better than in-class learning from faculty of our tier 2 institutions. Also, online learning allows you just-in-time learning, that is, learn those things that you know you will need in the next one year or so. You don't have to take off for 2 years. And what is also happening is that today when you switch jobs, they are increasingly putting a value on your experience, performance and knowledge and not whether you have a Master's degree or not. And this trend of valuing knowledge and skills over a formal master's degree will only be strengthened post Covid.

If we look at what is happening in US, Masters programs in technology areas are attracting a lot of foreign students who are doing them for the reason of ease of immigration. If we consider US residents, a large number of them are moving to online programs.

What this means is that if you have got admission to a top quality program, then you may prefer MTech from there, but otherwise, joining a job and learning on the side through online medium, is a much better option for career progression today. It is already starting to happen with lots of students from good institutions who earlier would aspire to do MTech at IITs don't take GATE.

For example, if you think learning about AI/ML would be useful in your career, do a few courses on those topics online (or if someone offers evening/weekend classes in your vicinity, go there). May be just a short-term course organized by your company is going to be good enough. After a couple of year, you may feel that learning about economics will help you in your career. Well, go and take a couple of courses on that, and so on. You will need to have life long learning and doing a master's degree will have limited benefit.

A lot of students believe that the placement improvement that they would have after two years of MTech in a better branded institute would be so substantial that it is worth spending those two year. I frankly, don't see that, at least not when you go to any place other than the top programs. Two years' experience would invariably give you higher increment than an MTech from a good enough college, and remember you are losing two years' salary too while doing an MTech.

My belief is that students who do MTech from Tier 2 institutions do it because they look at the investment at zero. They will get a stipend which is good enough to take care of all costs, including tuition. They don't consider the lost wages for these two years in their cost-benefit analysis. And hence, even a small increase in placement package makes them happy. Obviously, not counting lost wages as cost is erroneous. In fact, if institutions increase the tuition so that the stipend is not good enough to take care of all costs, one would immediately see a significant decline in MTech students, not because parents couldn't afford a small cost compared with the under-graduate cost that they have already borne, not because getting bank loans is more difficult, but because the cost-benefit analysis will now show that it is no longer worth it.

At the end, I would still encourage students to take GATE. I continue to believe that it is not too difficult to get a 600-700 score in GATE which is good enough to get admission in a top quality department in the country. Gaining experience from a top ranked department would be useful beyond learning. But for most people MTech is a poor investment and it makes sense only when you don't put in two year's salary into the cost-benefit equation.


Yogendra Singh Sikarwar said...

Very interesting analysis. I hope this aspect also reaches to students who are going to do MTech. This will help them make better decision

Unknown said...

In my opinion, the article focuses on limited number of issues that support the view being projected; it ignores many other reasons that the MTech aspirant is guided by. For example,
* There are many extremely poor undergraduate programs.The student can makeup for the lack of quality by topping it with a mid-ranked MTech degree.
* The cliques formed at the universities have life-long mutual benefits. These are missing in the online single topic lectures.
* Classroom imposes a discipline, focus and competition that encourages most students to complete the program.
* Mutual support among the students in the class and even from senior students is only available at a university based programs. It is not as strongly available in online courses.
* We must not forget that part-time and evening programs can easily let the students have best of the both option.

Manish Shrikhande said...

On the spot! I too had been thinking about the proliferation of M. Tech. programmes.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Unknown, The college experience is important and hence UG isn't going away any time soon. We can't have all lifelong learning on campus, since it is too expensive. And my point is that the only reason a Tier 3 UG graduate is coming to Tier 2 MTech program is because on one hand, we have hugely subsidized the costs, and on the other hand, he does not still evaluate his/her cost properly. Academic benefit is marginal at best. Therefore, in the blog I am suggesting that a Tier 3 college student should work a bit harder and get into a Tier 1 institute and now the gap is large enough that s/he will actually benefit from that experience.

But everyone will have their own cost-benefit analysis and take their own decisions.

sriram said...

Agree with your views.

Many IIts have started offering in class courses for online mode also. E.g many machine learning courses are offered freely with only 1000rs If you want to face the exam. Standard of these courses are very high compared to many other intl universities where they offer watered down courses when compared to in class courses.
If someone is in india, it is better to take these courses 2-3 subjects / sem while they are working so that in 2-3 years, they will be far superior in their knowledge. Much better way to gain knowledge and not lose monetarily.