Higher Studies

Talk by Viswanathan Mahalingam to PSG Tech students in July 2020. The talk’s intended audience was students @ PSG Tech, India. But the content more or less applies to a wider audience.

Higher Studies:

Slides: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1-vb2kc9ZaRfVnuli-HZWGUAaN-JFovudahXMbI2HN00/edit?usp=sharing


I studied in 5 different schools, as my father got transfers every 3-4 years. I did my 10th std at Ramakrishna Vidyaalaya Matriculation HSS (RVM), Villupuram and did my 12th std from MSP Solai Nadar MHSS, Dindigul. RVM is an english medium matriculation school, while MSP is primarily a tamil medium government aided school under private management with few english medium sections. During my 12th std (2001), we had entrance exams for engineering and medical courses in Tamil Nadu. 300 was the total cutoff marks with TNPCEE exams accounting for 100 and 12th board exams accounting for 200 marks. The school fees at RVM is 5X more than MSP and the student quality is more or less same in both the schools and I used to get around 5th or 6th rank in both of them. Dindigul is twice as populous and wealthier than Villupuram. As most of them in Tamil Nadu know that PSG Tech is one of the top Engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu, let me ask a question: How many students joined PSG Tech from each of these schools in 2001?

0 out of 200 students from RVM joined PSG Tech.

8 out of 300 students, from MSP including me, joined PSG Tech.

The numbers get even more skewed towards MSP, when you consider all the top engineering colleges & medical colleges in Tamil Nadu. What explains this puzzle ? A more expensive school with similar student quality could not send any student to colleges like PSG Tech. The numbers cuts across caste and class. The answer lies in the single word called ‘Ecosystem’.

The teachers in MSP school knew how to crack TNPCEE. They had the last 10 year question papers of TNPCEE. As soon as our 11th grade exams were over, MSP teachers conducted private tuitions, where they started to coach students for TNPCEE. RVM students prepared for TNPCEE only after their 12th grade public exams. So, MSP students had a head start of 1 year over RVM students’ 1 month prep time. MSP teachers also had a feedback loop of how well their coaching is working, as year after year, more MSP students went to good colleges [1]. While MSP sent students to top engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu, no one went to IITs, as there was no exposure or coaching on how to crack IIT JEEs.

A relative asked my “Why do we need to study abroad ? What do we not have in India?”. Many of my PSG batch mates are well settled in their life without doing any higher studies (in India & Abroad). Also, compared to 15 years ago, now a lot of well paying product companies and startups jobs are available in Indian cities – Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune, etc. So, you do not need to do higher studies for better job prospects, go abroad or earn wealth. Then why should one study abroad ? The only reason I would say is the “ecosystem” the top universities provide for research opportunities and starting your startups.

Let us quickly look at the operational expense (Staff salaries, maintenance of hostel, library, cost of conducting Conference, workshops) etc for the year 2018-19:

PSG Tech: ~$11M [One of the top engineering college in Tamil Nadu.]

IIT Madras: ~$110 M [Ranked 1 in all of India]

Georgia Institute of Technology: ~$1.6B

I am just listing these numbers to highlight the difference in scale in terms of money and not on student quality. One of the primary reason for scale of Gatech is the research funding the institute and its faculty receive from the US Government agencies like NSF, etc. In India, research funding is primarily given to CSIR, HAL, DRDO, BARC and other central government research institutions. Few drops trickle down to Indian universities and colleges, which evaporate like morning mist. Another point is in top US universities, a professor will get a permanent job (‘tenure’) only if they attract certain amount of funds to the institutes. Professor’s salary are highly competitive as well – if not the FAANG salary levels, they are on-par with the industry. Well funded professors help top notch talented students to start their own companies. Prof.Steve Dickerson of Gatech gave the initial seed funding to Gatech grad students Aarjav Trivedi & Arun Elangovan, which helped them to found Ridecell, where I currently work for the past eight years. Another company is Pindrop, founded by Vijay Balasubramaniam, PhD graduate student at Gatech (who was my mentor at Gatech) and Prof.Mustaque Ahamad, who funded my graduate studies at Gatech. One can hope that the ‘Center of Eminence’ initiatives, potential “defense corridor” projects change the equation in India and send the research funds towards the colleges.

My personal advice to any one who want to study abroad is to work for few years in India, figure out what you want to do, stay in touch with your classmates, even those who you ‘think’ are not your friends, because you can learn from the success and failures of everyone in your network. Some of my not-so-close friends in college, helped me shortlist my university applications, review statement of purpose, gave good guidance with respect to choosing the best university, helped in placement preps later and eventually became my best friends. From my side, all I have to do is to let go off my ego, acknowledge their smartness and ask for help.


Thanks to Jacque Camie, Chief of Staff, Ridecell and Arun Gomathinayagam, Engineering Manager, NYTimes (and classmate at PSG Tech) on reviewing the content and listening through a dry run.

For further reading on thoughts of improving Indian Universities, I recommend – ‘Institutions of Sand’ chapter in ‘Imagining India‘ by Nandan Nilekani. One of his ideas was to allow foreign universities to open up in India. Around 2010, Indian government relaxed regulations to allow foreign universities to setup shop in India. Georgia Tech had a plan to open a remote campus in Hyderabad, but postponed the idea when they learnt that they cannot transfer the money earned out of India back to US. I am not sure of the present state and I still think the top tech universities of the world (MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, Gatech) should be allowed to setup remote campuses in India, the benefits far outweigh the monetary loss. Opening up of Indian economy in 1990’s did not wipe out Indian Industry as feared by titans of the industry then, but made them resilient and compete with the global corporations, improving the quality of product far better.

As a counterpoint to the above arguments, the future of learning could turn out to be completely outside formal educational systems and become online / skill based learnings – ex: https://www.zohoschools.com/ or https://lambdaschool.com/ or https://byjus.com/us/ (of-course Zohoschools differ from others as the motives are different). ‘Universities are dead’ has been a favorite argument and the pandemic is fundamentally changing many of our assumptions and accelerating new ideas.

I am currently working with quite a few smart folks, who are college dropouts and its been an humbling experience for me to learn from them that college degrees do not matter and changed my value systems forever – I hired 6+ college dropouts for my teams in SF & Pune and some of them turned out to be the best and in-turn are leading teams now in SF and Pune. (I will cover in separate topic).

While, I welcome the new online learning institutes/newer systems with whole heart, many questions remain as how will the new systems scale, how do we find teachers in scale, provide best pedigree to the top students so they invent new things, incentivize faculty to start their own companies while teaching in parallel – provide market based pay, provide enough opportunities to everyone so we as a society are inclusive. My father studied in Tamil medium in school, scored 98 out of 100 in Math from his SSLC (11th grade) but he barely knew english, struggled in college (academically & financially) and literally scrapped through the college degree with minimum marks. Many in my extended family benefited from the reservation (affirmative actions) programs of Tamil Nadu government, but me and my brother are well off and didn’t need affirmative actions. I do understand the fear of “commercializing” education, importance of affirmative actions, competitive space for everyone to thrive. My point here is, if the new online education systems scale, then many of the existing problems will resurface in a different way — much like centuries old plague, Spanish flu and other epidemics re-surfacing after a hundred years in the new scientifically advanced world. So, I do think its important that we improve the existing formal education sector (universities / colleges) and the old & the new are not mutually exclusive. There are other important benefits like how students learn from one another much faster when they are under one roof, re-use the vast infrastructure we already have, etc.. More personal stories and my other thoughts in a later post.

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