On taking a drop, coaching institutes, and calculating square roots

Following is an interview with Chitresh Bhushan, who did a B.Tech from IIT KGP in the Electronics and Electrical Communications Engineering Dept, after which he moved on to do a PhD from University of Southern California in Los Angeles. During his PhD, he worked on improving the state of the art of brain imaging. His work led to the publication of many important papers in respected journals in the field of medicine. More details about his work can be found at his webpage: http://www-scf.usc.edu/~cbhushan/index.html

On what to do after high school

EL: What do you think is the most immediate area of improvement in the way high school students in India study and work and live their lives in general?

CB: I think one big problem is lack of information about available options. Most students and their parents believe there’s medical school and there’s engineering school and that’s it.

EL: Why do you think that is?

CB: Mostly because of social conformity. No one wants to do something that’s looked down upon even if it makes money and is useful for society. Unfortunately, most things outside of medical and engineering school are looked down upon to a certain degree.

EL: Yes, there’s certainly a varying degree. What do you think is the least looked down upon career path outside of engineering and medicine?

CB: Off the top of my head, paramedics is very useful for the society and makes a lot of money too. But it’s not as respected as being a doctor or an engineer.

EL: Is that really true? What if you are an owner of a paramedics company? Won’t you have more respect than a mediocre doctor?

CB: Not everywhere. In the conservative parts of the country, running a business is not considered valuable. I think people tend to value stability a lot and running a business comes with its own risks, which turns them off.

EL: Ok, let’s say someone wants to start a business. What age should they start preparing for it? Or in other words, should they go to university first?

CB: Oh yeah, I think university is very important.

On whether you should take a drop

EL: Ok then, coming to the topic of university, remind me whether you took a drop for IIT JEE?

CB: Yes, I did.

EL: And where were you when you took the drop?

CB: I just stayed at home and prepared.

EL: How was your performance the first time you took the exam?

CB: Oh it was horrible. I didn’t even get through the screening. It’s actually a funny story. About five months before the exam I sat down and looked at my situation and concluded that I was not going to get through. So I decided to just start preparing for the one next year, i.e., 2005, and completely ignored the one in 2004. I did take the exam while I was preparing for JEE 2005. It didn’t go very well. In retrospect though, I should have just prepared for 2004 because my screening score was only a few points below the cutoff. So perhaps if I had studied for 2004 instead of 2005, I might have qualified and saved a year.

EL: How do you think that one year gap has affected your career?

CB: I don’t think it has significantly. Specially if you go to grad school like I did, no one cares about your age so much. Moreover, you can just finish your PhD faster and compensate for the delay. It does matter to people who want to try administrative services like IAS. But others are all fine.

EL: That’s good to know. One of the most common questions we receive here is whether one should take a drop or not. What are your views on that?

CB: That’s a very subjective decision and depends on the exact circumstances, but, I can say this: if you don’t know yet what you want to do in life, and the main reason you want to go to IIT is to get a nice job afterward, it won’t make a lot of difference whether you go to IIT or one of the top 10-15 NIT’s. So if you don’t get into IIT but get into one of the top 15 NIT’s, then go for it.

EL: That makes sense, but there’s another argument to be made, that if you don’t know what you want then it’s good to collect a lot of generic currencies, brand name being one of them. And since IIT’s have a great brand name you should try again next year.

CB: Yes, that’s a good argument as well. It depends on how confident you are that you will qualify next year. If you are extremely confident, then you should take a drop. As I said, it’s a complex decision depending on various factors.

EL: Two of which we have just identified: what are your long-term goals in life, and how confident you are that you will qualify next year.

CB: Exactly.

On the attitude to have during your preparation

EL: How good a student were you in school? How well did you do in your pre-high school exams?

CB: Oh I was horrible at my school exams.

EL: A lot of students get worried when they don’t do very well in school. They feel that if they can’t do well in a school exam how will they qualify in the JEE. What do you think of that?

CB: It depends. Why aren’t you doing well at school? In my case, not doing well was part of the plan. I didn’t want to devote my time working hard to achieve something without knowing why I wanted to achieve it. So I asked my parents why it was important to get a good score in your school exams. I was in fifth grade back then, and my parents said it was important to get a good score in your class 10th board exams. And I thought there was no need to start preparing for it five years in advance!

So I decided to not care about my exam scores as long as I wasn’t failing. But this doesn’t mean I didn’t study. I liked math and science and I also understood their importance, so I became better and better at them. I used to spend time thinking about things that mattered. For example, when we were told how to calculate square roots of numbers, I remember sitting down and trying to understand why that method worked. Not many people did that. School exams encouraged you to memorize the technique without any understanding. So in a sense, even though I wasn’t doing well in the exams, I was probably doing better than most people in things that mattered. And that’s essential. If you ignore your school exams, and don’t even try to understand math and science, you won’t have a good chance of getting into IIT.

EL: What motivated you to think about why the method taught for calculating square roots worked? I imagine most of your friends didn’t care about it. So why did you like being different from everyone around you and take the extra effort?

CB: It was my nature. I have always been curious. Moreover, I hate memorizing stuff. And if I understand something, I don’t have to memorize it. So in a sense, it was saving me effort.

EL: How important do you think it is to keep this attitude for qualifying an exam like IIT JEE?

CB: I think it’s very important. If you don’t have this attitude, you are probably not going to get in. Perhaps you can if you join a coaching institute that teaches you thousands of templates that questions can fit in. But it’s really rare to see someone get in without having a true understanding of most of the syllabus.

On coaching institutes

EL: When you dropped a year after your 12th class exam, did you join a coaching institute for IIT JEE?

CB: No, I prepared on my own. I had a special arrangement though, where some professors had agreed to meet me for a few hours a week and answer any questions that I had. That, plus, I had joined some test series. These two worked out very well for me.

Most things are easy to realize on your own, and you don’t need a coaching institute to explain them. In fact, often coaching institutes might prefer obfuscation just in order to impress their students. For example, first thing I’d realized was that the two most important resources needed for getting into IIT are: 1) IIT JEE syllabus, and 2) IIT JEE questions from last 10-20 years. What’s the most direct way to learn as much about the exam as possible? Obviously the two points mentioned above. A lot of people don’t realize this and rely on the coaching institutes to guide them.

Another thing I’d realized a few months before the exam was that it wasn’t enough to just solve IIT JEE questions, you needed to solve them during the exam, which was not the same thing. That’s why I liked the test series because they helped me practise solving IIT JEE questions in an exam-like environment.

EL: How many hours on average do you think you spent studying per day.

CB: Around 6 hours.

EL: Sounds like you were quite disciplined.

CB: Well I had taken a drop, so I had nothing else to do. Plus, I got plenty of support from my parents. So it wasn’t too hard to stick to a routine.

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016. Written by admin. No comments.

Stop procrastinating by creating certainty

We are going to start doing interviews with people with backgrounds that are interesting to the readers of this blog, and this article is the first in the series. Our first guest is Sayandeep Purkayasth who is currently finishing up a PhD from Trinity College, Dublin and exploring the world of entrepreneurship. He holds a B.Tech and an M.Tech in Electronics and Electrical Communication Engineering from IIT Kharagpur.

EL: Remind me what your PhD was about.

SP: It was about designing computer algorithms for analyzing art and helping art historians. I developed a general framework using image processing techniques to analyze art objectively for various applications.

EL: OK, let’s talk about some of the non-technical challenges you faced during your PhD. For example, procrastination. Any long-term project goes through these phases when you feel that you should work more but you don’t. This makes you feel guilty and makes you even less productive. Did that happen during your PhD and if yes, what did you do about it?

SP: Yes, absolutely. Happened all the time. In my case, I think the main cause of procrastination was lack of planning. Often there were times when I had a thousand things to do but I didn’t know which ones were the most important. As a result, I’d reach this phase of limbo where I would just sit there trying to decide what to do and at the same time not doing anything at all. So at one point I started maintaining a kind of a to-do list which I revisited regularly. Even now I have a list that I try to update once every morning. I figure out what should be bumped up to the top and decide what are the main priorities for the day and then throughout the day focus on those top priorities.

EL: You update the list everyday? That sounds like a lot of hard work.

SP: It’s not set in stone, but approximately everyday, yes. For example, I won’t do it during holidays.

EL: So did you notice any difference once you started using this list?

SP: Yes, in my first two years or so I was really disorganized. But once I started maintaining this list, I had a kind of certainty in my head about what I was supposed to do at any given time. Keep in mind though, that there are certain disadvantages of maintaining such a list too. For example, many creative tasks are not amenable to such list-keeping, as a result maintaining such a list might lead to reduced creativity. So try to not let the list consume your life. Not every single thing you do in life should be a part of the list.

EL: One issue commonly encountered with maintaining to-do lists is that it becomes crucial to set your priorities correctly. Otherwise there is a tendency to keep doing the easiest task on the list so that you get the pleasure of striking out another item. So what do you do to decide priorities?

SP: Usually it’s based on some amount of intuition and some heuristics. For example, I prefer doing the most difficult tasks first if they are essential for a project that I consider important. Also, if something is more urgent, for example, if it has a deadline, I will assign it a higher priority.

EL: OK, great. So this was about your PhD. You must have faced similar challenges during your JEE preparation.

SP: Interestingly, this didn’t happen during JEE, mainly because my mom used to help me a lot with planning. She used to have a proper time table for me to study and I used to simply follow it. That gave me a similar sense of certainty about what I was supposed to do at any given time.

EL: Nice, so you essentially “outsourced” your planning to your mom.

SP: Yes, exactly. Actually, I had outsourced it to more than one sources. I don’t know if you know this, but I’d spent a few weeks at a coaching institute in Kota. In six weeks I realized it wasn’t for me, so I came back home. However, I did get all their study material, which provided me with another source of certainty regarding what I was supposed to do for my preparation since their study material gave me a good idea about what was expected of me in JEE.

EL: Interesting. Let’s talk more about Kota. What exactly did you not like about the place?

SP: They encouraged superficial and rote learning based approaches. I found this did not sit well with my value system or my inclination towards developing a deeper understanding of the syllabus.

EL: Hm, there has to be an explanation for why the JEE cutoff hasn’t change much despite such widespread existence of coaching institutes. Anyway, so far it seems that the cure to procrastination is certainty. You created certainty during JEE preparation by outsourcing your planning to Kota’s study material and your mother’s excellent planning skills and you created certainty during your PhD by maintaining a to-do list. Did you join any coaching institutes after coming back from Kota?

SP: There was a coaching class tied up with our school to help prepare us for AIEEE/JEE. I went to those classes, but wouldn’t consider that part of my essential preparation. Apart from that nothing.

EL: Of course you wouldn’t remember this exactly, but on average, how long did you used to study during JEE preparation?

SP: I think it was about 4-5 hours per day after school.

EL: That’s interesting. A lot of people worry about studying 10-12 hours per day. If you browse through some of the questions on Quora about IIT JEE preparation, most of them are talking about some insane number of hours.

SP: 10-12 hours is not possible. You can’t possibly be attentive and study for so many hours per day. Your quality of work will be significantly compromised if you try to work so much.

EL: Did you cover the entire syllabus or did you ignore some of the topics?

SP: I did cover everything actually. I’d covered the basics of everything first from NCERT. That was the entire syllabus. For the more advanced material, I learned them based on interest. So in the end I wasn’t an expert of everything. I knew the basics of everything and had a good grasp of the parts of the syllabus I found particularly interesting.

EL: So what kinds of topics were you mainly interested in?

SP: I think I liked most of physics and math, and in chemistry I liked organic chemistry a lot. I was also interested in biotechnology, which was taught in my school but unfortunately was not a part of JEE syllabus.

EL: And from what I remember, you also went to the astronomy olympiad, right?

SP: Yes, I am surprised that you remember.

EL: Tell me more about it.

SP: I think I’d qualified in the first two levels and gone to the national level olympiad. It had some interesting questions. I remember there was a question about decoding the number system used by some alien civilization based on some evidence presented in the question.

EL: It’s very interesting when one remembers a specific question from an exam you took more than ten years ago.

SP: Actually I also remember some of the horrible questions. There were questions about specific locations of specific stars that were based on your memorization skills more than anything. Obviously I didn’t know how to answer them.

EL: How about your psychological state during JEE preparation? Were you stressed? Were you relaxed? Did you enjoy those years, or did you hate them?

SP: Looking back, I’d say I definitely enjoyed the preparation very much, especially since I loved reading the slightly advanced material (aside: which I now realize was actually first year college level).

EL: Interesting. Give an example of advanced material?

SP: There was this book for Organic Chemistry by Morrison and Boyd. That was one of the best books I have ever read. I’d ended up reading the book cover to cover and solving all their questions. The problems were so interesting and also very relatable.

EL: Yes, absolutely, that book is a classic and always highly recommended. How about the exam time? Were you nervous?

SP: There was a normal amount of nervousness, nothing noteworthy. I think I was more nervous during my 12th boards.

EL: Really? That’s interesting. Why were you nervous during your boards?

SP: I’m not sure. May be because it was the first major exam of my lifetime.

EL: What’s one advice you would give to a high school student who is trying to be successful?

SP: I think it’s important to be precise about your goals, whatever you are trying to achieve. This is something people often ignore. You should do some introspection and figure out what it is that you want to achieve. Once the goal is clearly defined you will start thinking of ways to achieve it. Not to say that actually achieving it is easy, but if I had to give one piece of advice, that would be to define your goals.

EL: Do you have a favorite book that you think everyone should read?

SP: The Little Book of Contentment by Leo Babauta. Just like the title says, it teaches you how to be content. And it’s really little, so it can be finished in a day or two.

EL: In retrospect, do you think going to IIT was a good idea, and if yes, what interesting things happened with you in your post-IIT days because of going to an IIT?

SP: Interacting with so many smart people definitely broadens your mind. The kinds of projects that I find interesting or that I got the opportunity to get involved in couldn’t have happened in a different environment.

Tuesday, June 30th, 2015. Written by admin. No comments.

Useful websites and books

Here is another round of useful links and books. The previous one can be found here.

Science-based advice on pretty much everything: Bakedesuyo

Science-based advice on choosing your career: 80000 hours

Book of tricks to make yourself motivated about things you want to be motivated about: The Motivation Hacker.

Book about achieving results with least effort by doing things smarter: Smartcuts.


Thursday, May 28th, 2015. Written by admin. No comments.

On meditation

At a very abstract level, two factors determine your success in life: 1) how well you perform when you perform at your peak, and 2) how often do you perform at your peak. Meditation helps with #2. Or to be more specific, it helps you perform at your peak even in situations that are stressful. Thus it is a relevant topic for any blog (such as ours) devoted to understanding the patterns that lead to extraordinary success.

Unfortunately, understanding and practicing meditation is hard because of all the junk information available out there. But we have filtered out two resources that are much better than others. They are:

Waking Up, by Sam Harris

Sam Harris is a neuroscientist and a big proponent of rational thinking. His organization, Project Reason, is devoted to promoting scientific knowledge in society. Thus it was refreshing to read a book on meditation written by him. I think the quickest way of summarizing his main message is this:

Imagine the transition from being asleep in the night to waking up in the morning. When you are asleep, you are not aware that you are asleep. You have all these dreams and you think of them as representing reality. Once you wake up, you become aware of the fact that you were an entity that was dreaming those dreams.

Now when we are awake, we are thinking these thoughts and we think of them as representing reality. We are hardly ever aware that we are an entity that is thinking these thoughts. According to the book, meditation helps us reach a mental state where we are constantly aware of being an entity thinking these thoughts. Thus it helps us achieve a second level of waking up (hence the title of the book, I think).

How does this help one perform at peak in stressful situations? A situation is stressful only because of the thoughts it induces. If you could somehow prevent yourself from having stressful thoughts, no situation would be stressful. Meditation helps you realize that you are not your thoughts, that you are a separate entity that is merely thinking these thoughts.

Anyway, here is a link to the book in case you want to buy it.


This was all theory. What do you once you are convinced that meditation is cool and want to give it a try? The best way to do it is to find a proper teacher you can interact with one-on-one, but short of that, the next best thing is this app called Headspace. It has some very nice instructional videos and 10 guided meditation sessions for free.

Friday, May 22nd, 2015. Written by admin. No comments.

Things to do a week before JEE

Your performance in JEE is determined by three factors: your skills, your knowledge, and your attitude.

By skills I mean your ability to think fast and solve difficult problems. This is not going to change much in the last few days. So there’s no point working on it either.

In principle it’s possible to change your knowledge more than your skills in a few days. But as we know, JEE does not test you on your knowledge as much as it tests your understanding. So just cramming in a few more chapters is also not going to be of much use.

The most volatile factor during the last few days is your attitude. This can swing wildly based on various factors including the amount of sleep you had and the kinds of people you talk to. So we suggest that during the last week you forget completely about your skills and your knowledge and focus on ensuring that you have the right attitude during the exam.

So what is the right attitude to have during the exam? You need to make sure that you are able to perform at your peak for six hours in one day. During those six hours you should be pumped up about showing to the world what you are made of. You should go in believing that you will completely destroy the question paper. And you should be able to focus on the questions in front of you.

How does one get into such a mental state? The best way is to practice by recreating the same situation at home 2-3 times in the week preceding JEE. So there you have it. The best way to spend the week before JEE is to do about 2-3 mock tests that try to create almost exactly the same situation as you will face during the real exam. Nothing more, nothing less.

Thursday, May 21st, 2015. Written by admin. No comments.

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