How should you choose a place to pursue undergraduate studies?

Undergraduate studies is a time for opening your mind, exposing yourself to a variety of professional and scholarly pursuits, actively exploring your interests and potential careers while also building soft and hard skills for the future. It is not about becoming skilled labour (as is often bandied about by politicians and bureaucrats as the greatest need of the country under the umbrella of skills development).

With this goal, clearly Universities with a wide array of offerings which students can sample and explore are desirable. It is important that education is not limited to professional courses but also includes subjects (like history, philosophy, sports, etc) that will widen one’s thinking, help shape good judgement, learn to build organised activities etc. It is important that students have opportunities to debate and champion their causes.  It is important to have some flexibility for students to change their courses as they learn more about themselves.  It is important for students to meet potential role models and learn to excel.  It is important for students to be in the company of a peer group that inspires excellence.

So, within what is available to you, seek out the best places of learning and excellence rather than looking for job placement records of Universities!

Seeking a job vs seeking excellence

It is my thesis that if you seek excellence, jobs will seek you out. If you seek jobs without seeking excellence, you will often be one among many and also struggle to find something satisfying.

So my suggestion to young people is to find something that you are passionate about and seek excellence in that.  Chances are that you will not even have to search and hunt for jobs.

I have also been using this thought in finding appropriate people who can be part of my team. Instead of looking for “appropriately”  qualified people (often people who have gone on to pick up qualifications and pad their resumes to meet job requirements), I often look for indications of passion and efforts to excel. For example, for a position managing a library, I think a person with a passion for books/ reading/ learning/ sharing may be more useful than a person with a B.Lib degree but no interest in books.  A person who has excelled in something –say, sports, music, dance etc — is more likely to have the basic values necessary to excel such as discipline, persistence, attention to detail etc.  Such a person may be able to actually deliver in certain roles where specialised training is not required.

I also find that this maxim works well when I am interviewing students who have expressed interest in pursuing an internship or project with me. It is so much more fun and satisfying training students who approach their assignment with passion, interest for learning and achieving. It is very easy to spot those willing to strive for excellence — look for indications of willingness to struggle, make sacrifices, and build patiently and systematically. The perfect test is a hardship test!

How do US universities decide on who to admit for PhD programs and offer scholarships?

This is a question I hear often from young undergraduates preparing to study abroad. I do not claim to be the expert but here is my take on the topic.

In the absence of any outstanding factor tilting the selection process, here is my list:

First level of screening:

  1. Bare minimum (note: not cutoff) scores in TOEFL and GRE

Second level of shortlisting (in that rough order)

  1. Reputation of undergraduate school/college/ university at the university (often based on good or bad experience with previous students they have taken or reputation or renown etc; can also depend on personal experiences of members of the admissions committee may think; note: admissions committee can include Indians) — this is the reason IITians may do better than others.
  2. Class rank and performance (and so toppers may get preference here)
  3. Reference letters and SOPs  (SOPs with clarity of purpose, and alignment of goals and program chosen may score high; references that are aligned to SOP may work better)

Third level:

  1. If everything else is similar, then they are likely to use test scores. (Note: The test scores universities quote may be what people who got in scored but it may not be that they used a cut-off to screen candidates.)

But there can be outstanding aspects that may give somebody an edge. These outstanding aspects keep changing with the times and are often specific to universities. Some examples:

  1. A reference letter from somebody who is known to and respected by the admissions committee.
  2. Outstanding initiatives, experiences and achievements aligned to the SOP. (Ex: International awards, outstanding research work and indication of leadership potential)
  3. A very strong reason to be at that university and strong reason for the university to bring you in to strengthen their important program.
  4. A reference by somebody respectable from the department itself.

Needless to say, something done extremely poorly can also change the process and tilt it to the wrong side — for example, extremely poor test scores, poor english skills etc.

No absolutes

One of the central tenets of Indian philosophy is that there are “no absolutes”. This is actually quite unique to India.

A good example that illustrates this is the position taken by Indian religions on right and wrong. Indian culture has taught right and wrongs to generations of Indians only through stories and epics, and most of these have shades of grey with no real black and white answers. Even gods had shades of grey. Ram and Krishna had their own failings. India probably never had an equivalent of the “ten commandments”. In fact, the Buddha in fact advocated good judgement but seemed to reluctantly prescribe some rules for simplicity. Even in Hinduism, my understanding is that most of the things which were perceived to be “transient” or changing with the times (like mores) were kept in the secondary texts and not part of the main spiritual texts.

To elaborate further and exemplify: One could say that to state a lie is wrong. That would be an “absolute”. But what if the lie will save a life (say for example, a lie that could save a jew from a nazi during world war two) ? Would/ should you lie? Perhaps you would.

These simple ideas have large implications for young people: 1) Read stories, epics, fables etc; read those with shades of grey; value the stories that your mom and grand mom told you; 2) be comfortable in shades of grey; do not seek absolutes; 3) learn to be tolerant of people with other very different ways of thinking; do not seek homogeneity; 4) do not mortify yourself and your conscience with notions of right and wrong, learn to exercise good judgement with ample consideration.

Fire in the belly

“Fire in the belly” — that is my latest fancy! I have been looking around to meet young people with “fire in the belly”.

Recently, I had a chance to listen to a talk by Dr Devi Shetty, the famed and visionary heart surgeon and social entrepreneur from Bangalore. In his talk he mentioned about his new initiative to catch young people from deprived backgrounds in West Bengal and train them to be medical doctors. His thesis — these young people will have the fire in the belly to work long hours as medical doctors in the service of the people (which he implicitly suggested that young people from well off backgrounds lack).

While I do not know if there is a rigorous correlation between “fire in the belly” and deprived backgrounds, I see his point and share his thinking. People who pursue goals with great vigour and obsession often need to be highly motivated and have a “hunger” for achievements. They cannot be seeking comfort and luxury. They cannot also have a philosophical view of “nothing really matters”. (Classic case being the case of ancient India which after years of global leadership, turned complacent in end of the first millennium to only be ravaged by “barbarians”  who did not hesitate burning our places of learning and centres of philosophy.) They need to be driven.

While one cannot say it is true for everybody, on average it does seem to hold that societies go from deprived and driven to complacent and content, and as this happens they go from growth to decline.  One can also see that refugees/ immigrants  seem to be excelling in most countries (while future generations of migrants do not seem to be very different from the natives). Even within India, one can see complacency setting in on well off states with the labour force not willing to take up certain jobs and the same jobs being taken up by migrants. One can see young people within one’s own families placing a greater premium on comfort, luxury and entertainment as India grows and becomes affluent.

It is in this context, that I would like to recommend to young people to be wary of complacency setting in. Seek the “fire in the belly”. The only way to create the “fire in the belly”  is to set the most challenging goals for your self and seek role models who have “fire in their bellies” —- basically identify the Mount Everest you wish to climb and be “hungry” to climb that and seek the Edmund Hillary to inspire you.

The curse of versatility

This blog posting is an opinion piece for young friends who find themselves versatile and good at many things but often find that the world seems to favour those who are specialised narrowly. Say, you are good at studies, sports, music and organising teams but everybody seems to only talk about the geeky topper in your class or the dumb sports star in your class.

One of my strengths is versatility — and I have always enjoyed it. I like learning/ doing many different things and combining them creatively in my work. For example, I can combine understanding of science, technology, business, finance, law, and philosophy in my work and use it creatively in the practice of technology management and entrepreneurship. But I can tell you that it is hard to build on your versatility (except in roles where you are in the driving seat and building/shaping the organisation’s agenda).

Most large organisations and societies like specialists.  They like people who conform to the ideal of that organisation/ society. For example, I work for a research organisation and the ideal is of a conventional scientist pursuing his/her narrow area of specialty over a career of 30 years with a solitary focus on peer recognition. In such large organisations,  versatile people are mavericks. And often such organisations are puzzled on how to deal with these mavericks.

Leaders of such organisations often worry how to recognise and reward versatile people and pen up opportunities for them. I was once advised by one of my mentors that I run the risk of “falling between stools”. What he meant was that my organisation had a “scientist”  career track and an “administrator/manager” career track and it would be suicidal for me to try to do both. He had a point! But then should I have chosen one “stool”  to stand on or follow my heart?

Based on my experience, I have the following recommendation for versatile people — if you wish to follow your heart and continue enjoying/leveraging your versatility, then build your own organisations (or work in small organisations)!  You have to be leaders who set the agenda so as to thrive as versatile people. Or else chances are that you will have to sell your soul to the specialists and conformists, and end up as a mediocre specialist!