Thoughts on Grad School

Its been a year since I finished my MS program. Couple of things did not work out for me while in grad school. Here are a few thoughts on grad school in general.

Reasons for ditching phd –

  1. Finance
  2. Not a good fit with the lab and the topic I was involved in – The lab’s main focus was planning and scheduling. There was also work on the side about databases/information retrieval/social media analysis etc… I was involved in social media analysis/topic modeling, and very soon lost interest in it. I was interested in graphical models(non-parametrics) and online learning in ML. I thought I could make a bargain and settle for planning/scheduling etc… but I could not see how I could meaningfully change tracks to planning, so I bailed out.

Nonetheless, there are a lot of interesting things I take away from my MS experience. Here are a few non-technical ones –

  1. Do a Masters thesis only if you are seriously considering doing a PhD. A MS thesis will give you a ringside view of what a PhD will be like. An MS thesis for any other reason does not make sense.( I already knew this getting into the program, but the number of people who did not know it was staggering, hence mentioning it here)
  2. Get your finances sorted out within the first semester of your MS program( Half a semester or One Semester fee is what people can usually pay without taking any sort of loan). Try to get fully funded. Now it is unfair to expect your professor to fund your research while you are still an MS student because it does not work out well for them. But there are usually a lot of web development and other software development work that gets offered on campus which will give you full assistantship. Try to get those. You cannot do good research if you have an education loan hanging on your head.
  3. I saw many people opting for PhD because it will give them more time to look for more lucrative jobs in Silicon Valley. Such people are going into a PhD program, confident that they will not finish the program and will quit in the middle. This is probably the lamest thing you can do.
  4. Also there are many people who went into a PhD program not knowing what exactly it entails. Their goal with a PhD program is to end up with a job in a top company like Google/Facebook etc… Now, Google is a brilliant company, and many brilliant PhD students find fulfilling work in Google, post their PhD studies. But getting into a PhD program with the aim of getting a particular job in a particular company is a very painful way of doing things.
  5. The motivation for a PhD should be learning as much as possible about a subject, getting excited about publishing your ideas, and building a network and making a name for yourself. PhD is not about taking an extra load of courses, and finding a high paying job.
  6. Try to align your research topic with the main focus of your research lab and your advisor. This will make your experience more fulfilling. Going off on a tangent can get you lost.
  7. If you follow up on your interests even after grad school, you can end up with an applied research position in some of the industry labs 4~5 years down the road even without a PhD. ( if that is your aim )
  8. Having a good rapport with your advisor or other senior PhD student/post-doc you are working with is most important. Without this everything else futile.

Few other points about choosing schools and professors –

  1. Choose school over professors. Better schools invariably have a good supply of sufficiently good profs, might not be a top prof but still it will give a lot of options if you want to switch specialization/prof etc..
  2. Also the top profs in mediocre schools are grumpy and unhappy. They are hard to work with  which makes it all the more difficult for you. This happened a lot in the lab I was working in.
  3. I usually tend to work better when the environment is competitive( in a healthy way) and the subject is challenging and deep. If the task is easy  I tend to slack off and perform worse. I did not feel excited at the prospect of working in the lab I was involved in.

Other references related to grad education –

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Two Reading Lists

I started reading and following Indian Politics extensively in my third year of engineering. I read from a lot of sources and followed the writings of a lot of people. One of the most influential people was Rajesh Jain, a Pune based businessman, and his blog Emergic was very good. Over the past year I have reduced significantly the amount of news and op-eds that I read, and hence this blog has also been more or less dead. But recently I came across this four part series from Rajesh Jain and Jaykrishnan Nair( Varnam), about the future of Economic prosperity in India and about Rewriting Indian history by the above two people respectively. As they are two people whose opinions I value a lot, I thought I should archive those articles somewhere for future reference-

Rajesh Jain’s-


Varnam’s –

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What is the difference between an M.Tech from an IIT and an M.S. from a top 50 US university for computer science?

This post was very good and relevant to many things I have to say about the Indian education system, so I thought I would cross post it onto my blog –

Answer by Shubham Mukherjee:

Recently came across an update from Inside IIT Facebook page ( Inside IIT ) :

This short story is the perfect fit here and for so many other questions here on Quora. I am sure many of us can relate ..

Consider two students. One, Raj, is a financially well-off kid of above average smartness, and the other, Hari is your typical genius. Hari toils it out to get into the IIT, and by virtue of his intelligence does some outstanding preparation. Raj frankly doesn’t have the same academic caliber. He does well in his board examinations, but knows he’s not on the same level as Hari. He does the best thing he can – he decides to apply abroad, to the US. Hari, frankly, thinks Raj is taking the easy way out, and because he can’t afford to go abroad, continues focusing on the IIT. Come exam season, it turns out that Hari comes 7th in the IIT. He is ecstatic. Like every other single digit ranker, he decides to do Computer Science at IIT Delhi. Meanwhile, Raj is also ecstatic that he made it to Carnegie Mellon in the US, to do Computer Science. He knows he didn’t really have to work really hard, but he is very pleased.

Fast forward 4 years in the future.
Hari has a great 9.6/10 CGPA at IIT, and is at the top of his class. Raj, on the other hand, has a not-too-shabby 3.52/4.0 at CMU. Both of them are getting all ready to make career choices. In terms of options, Raj has an array of great choices ranging from Facebook, Google, and a whole list of Silicon Valley tech companies, known both for their great compensation and work life balance. He is relaxed about his future and starts thanking the decision he made 4 years ago. Meanwhile Hari, despite being at the top of his class, hates the fact that he has to go through a huge random process to get an offer even comparable to Raj. Very few people from the IIT will end up with that great offer from abroad and most land decent-ish jobs in India. He starts realizing his CGPA hardly matters if he doesn’t do well on his “written tests”. He does not look forward to it. Eventually though, he works extra extra hard and ends up working at the same place as Raj.

What happened? There are two theories:

1. The Indian Mindset: If you’re from India, this story is probably not new to you. You think Raj ‘paid his way to success’ while Hari really ‘struggled it out’. You are of the belief that Hari is infinitely smarter and better than Raj, and that Raj ‘got lucky’ because American companies are bound to recruit him because he’s from an American college. Raj is an undeserving rich kid and Hari is a genius. If you had to brag about one of them, you’d easily choose Hari anyday.

2. What I think is the Truth: Hari was smarter, yes. But college equalized those differences. While Hari took not-so-challenging and quite outdated IIT Computer Science classes, Raj took extremely hard and challenging CS classes, specialized in Systems, learnt from some of the greatest Computer Scientists in the world, researched with them too, interned at a bunch of great companies as well, met some of the most influential people in the Valley, and had a academically rough but extremely educational 4 years. He’s developed web apps, android apps, and is fluent in Javascript, Java, C, C++, Django, Ruby and a whole array of languages and frameworks. College has not only prepared him for the job he set out to do, but has taught him things you can’t learn in IIT even if you wanted to. He has made friends from all over the world, and he has a great social life. He’s improved his communication skills beyond measure and has a truly wonderful experience.

Moral of the Story

As I said, we’ve all heard of this story in some form. Now, getting to the point of the question, what are academic shortcomings of the IIT?

Everything I just said, really. If you could put intelligence on a scale of 0 to 100, IIT made Hari go from a 70 to a 80, but CMU made Raj go from a 45 to an 85. CMU would’ve probably made Hari go to a 90 and more, had he gone. The point is, with respect to Computer Science at least, the focus is wrong. The IITs don’t really teach their students much. There is a high correlation between being in IIT and being smart but this isn’t the causation. They took already smart people and claimed them as under the “IIT” brand. I feel like this misconception drives most of the IIT hype. You don’t have world class research at the IITs, you don’t have broad course offerings, you don’t have an internet based education system, you don’t have practical based courses, you don’t have exposure to the industry, you don’t have exposure to the most influential people in your field, so frankly, you don’t have much.

Support us and let’s change this system

Reference Source : Inside IIT – #212 Consider two students. One, Raj, is a…

Edit :
As pointed out to me in one of the comments :
Original Source of the story was  Debarghya Das’ answer to What are the shortcomings in academics at IIT’s?

What is the difference between an M.Tech from an IIT and an M.S. from a top 50 US university for computer science?

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Absurdity of Opposing Dynasty Politics.

I recently came across this blog post about how opposing dynastic politics is not a very sound argument against any political leader.

I completely agree with the article and for the record, here are my comments for that post:

Dynastic politics is not an issue, ineptitude is. Dynastic politics often becomes a problem in scenarios where ‘bad products’ get promoted in the name of ‘good brand name’.

Think about Sachin Pilot or Milind Deora, no one complains so much. They might just mention it, but that can never be the main argument against them. Rahul Gandhi on the other hand has demonstrated tremendous ineptitude and reluctance to be involved in politics. It feels as though he is being retained to en-cash on the ‘brand name’ than for any personal worth he may have.

I agree being against dynastic politics is silly and not possible, but being against ineptitude is not. Making an equivalence with lawyers and doctors is very silly( it is about public and private costs and risks).

I will give you another example. Jayant Sinha son of ex-FM Yashwant Sinha, went to IIT-Delhi, got admitted into the Ivy league colleges on his merit( his father had not acquired public office by that time), had a successful career in business and consulting and now he is contesting elections on his father’s ticket. Yes, he got a ticket because because he is Yashwant Sinha’s son, but his prior achievements are not because of his father. I have no objection to such candidates, and I am sure the majority would not either.

Now compare this with Rahul Gandhi’s case, the difference and the absurdity of clubbing all such people under the umbrella of dynastic politics will become apparent.

Conclusion – Dynasty is never the problem, ineptitude is. Dynasty is probably the reason for the ineptitude. The people, in general, get pissed off when inept people occupy high office only because of who they were born to rather than what they are capable of.

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What are some good exercises in decision making?

Playing a sport. Even better if it happens from a younger age.

View Answer on Quora

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Why should someone blog?

It helps in clearing and organizing your own thoughts better, this was the main reason I wrote.

Writing also helps you think better. Usually writing about a specific field involves a greater commitment to that particular field, so you end up learning a lot more than what you would have if you were just reading about it.

And usually people change their views and opinions, it would be good to go back and check the trail/record of your thoughts.

View Answer on Quora

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Absentee Ballot in India

I was doing some research to see if India has any system of postal ballot in place so that people can cast their vote without physically being present at the polling booth. But looks like it has no such system in place, and the only people who can cast their vote in absentia are the ones on polling duty or members from the armed forces. It is a pity really, and I hope the situation changes soon, so that people on move are also able to do their bit during election times.

By the way this is the Wikipedia excerpt from an article( Absentee ballot) about the same –

As of now, India does not have an absentee ballot system for all citizens. In a restricted sense, The Representation of the People Act-1950[8] (RPA) section 20(8) allows people such as people on polling duty and serving in armed forces to vote in absentia through postal means.
Section 20 of the RPA-1950 disqualifies a non-resident Indian (NRI) from getting his/her name registered in the electoral rolls. Consequently, it also prevents an NRI from casting his/her vote in elections to the Parliament and to the State Legislatures. In August 2010, Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill-2010 which allows voting rights to NRI’s was passed in both Lok Sabha with subsequent gazette notifications on Nov 24, 2010.[9] With this NRI’s will now be able to vote in Indian elections but have to be physically presentat the time of voting. Recently several civic society organizations have urged the government to amend the RPA act to allow NRI’s and people on the move to cast their vote through absentee ballot system.

Cross posted from here –

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