Tech founder’s college advice: forget engineering branch


Tech founder's college advice: forget branch

Photo: Intellistudies – Fotolia

Navin Kabra is currently a co-founder and CTO at ReliScore.com, a startup focused on allowing job-seekers to showcase their skills. He is also the creator of PuneTech.com, a portal for the tech community in Pune, India. He holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin. The following is his opinion on choosing an engineering college and the branch of study.
If you are interested in getting an Engineering degree, which college, and which branch of Engineering to choose can seem like the most difficult, and at the same time, the most important decision of your life. People have been asking me this question for almost 20 years now. Based on my varied experience, I can distill my advice down to this sentence:

Get into the best college (in a good city) that you can – whatever the branch.

I’ll explain in a little more detail.

Branch is not all that important

Most students and parents seem to be very focused on getting in to the “best” branch (Computer Science, Electronics & Telecommunications, Mechanical, Chemical, Civil, etc.) Everybody wants to get into the “top” branch. Everybody wants to know which branch has the best “scope” in the future.

This is misguided. There are a number of reasons why the branch doesn’t matter all that much:

  • If you study in a good college, all branches have “scope”. There are successful businesses and well-paying jobs in all disciplines, including civil engineering, and chemical engineering. And the vast majority of computer science graduates in the country do not have decent jobs (because there are so many of them!) If you study in a bad college, a good branch is not going to help you. Also, so called “good” branches with lots of “scope” tend to be over-crowded, because everyone is entering that field. And finally, nobody really knows which branch will have the most “scope” 10 years from now. (When I did my Engineering, my friends took Computer Science in VJTI because they couldn’t get into more sought after branches like E&TC and Mechanical!)
  • Changing of field is very common amongst engineers. Just looking at my batchmates, I know metallurgical engineers who are in advertising agencies, mechanical engineers who are into banking and finance, chemical engineers working on Bollywood movies, and computer scientists in the insurance industry doing non-computer stuff. What branch you get your degree in is forgotten within 5 years of graduating.
  • What branch the student is interested in, is irrelevant. This is a big one. 12th standard students tell me, “I am more interested in Computers. I don’t like Mechanical.” Frankly, in 12th standard, you have no clue what any particular field involves. If for a field, hundreds of colleges in the country are giving engineering degrees in that field, then almost by definition, that field has interesting and cool work going on all over the world. If you find that field boring, then, the most likely explanation is that you’ve been taught that subject by a bad teacher. My guess would be this: any subject that you find very interesting was probably taught to you by a good teacher, and for every boring subject, there’s probably a bad teacher of that subject sometime in your past. A good professor in any branch can make the branch come alive for you.

I am not asking you to ignore the branch entirely. All I’m saying is that give it a little less importance than you are currently giving it.

College does matter

The original IITs, and BITs Pilani, are clearly better than other engineering colleges. Most NITs are better than most state engineering colleges (except the top state colleges). Top state colleges (e.g. COEP, VJTI, PICT) are clearly better than the second-tier engineering colleges. And so on. (Unfortunately, I don’t really know how good or bad the new IITs are. You’ll need to make that judgement on your own.)

It’s fashionable to say the college doesn’t matter. And it is very common to trot out examples of students from terrible colleges who have succeeded in life. But that’s flawed logic. Students who succeed inspite of being in a bad college, are probably succeeding in spite of the college, not because of the college. And probably would have done even better if they had been in a better college.

Better colleges have better systems of education, better professors, and better “resume value” (which, whether you like it or not, is a factor for a long, long time.) Also, in better colleges, you have better classmates. This matters in the short term (because better classmates means more influence of friends who are interested in the right things), and the long term (better “network”).

So, here’s my (controversial) advice: if you are getting a not-so-good branch in a very good college, vs. a good branch in a not-so-good college, you should definitely choose the not-so-good branch in the very good college. I would definitely pick Metallurgical Engineering in IIT-Bombay, over Computer Science in MIT. If the colleges are sort-of-comparable, then go for the “better” branch (for whatever definition of “better”). For example, if you have Mechanical Engineering in COEP, and Computer Science in VIT, then go for VIT – because althought COEP is better than VIT, it is not all that much better.

Note: I am not saying that you’re screwed if you get into a bad college. There are enough examples to prove that good, motivated students can shine from anywhere. All I’m saying is that if you have a choice, then choose better college over better branch. If you get into a bad college, then work hard, ignore your professors, and try to get guides/mentors/projects from industry (right away, not just in the last year).

City also matters

To a large extent, success in life is not simply about academic knowledge. It is also about a whole bunch of other factors – what we call “exposure”. This involves all kinds of things – like interactions with industry, various (non-academic) activities that you indulge in in a city, seeing the various interesting and different things that people are doing in the city, opportunities of getting involved in various initiatives, and generally “smartness” (as in “The Bombay exposure has really made him smart.”)

So, doing a degree in Pune or Bombay, is, in my opinion, clearly better than doing it in a college in Amravati.

Also, please get out of your parents’ house. Stay in a hostel, or a rented flat with a bunch of your classmates, or something. That will propel you into the real world, give you some maturity, and the ability to deal with all kinds of issues that you need to deal with, when you are no longer staying under a protective cover provided by your parents. This is an important part of your education at this stage.

This article is an edited version of a post originally published on Pune Tech, where the author provides additional thoughts in the comments.

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