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

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