This note is based on my experience and interaction with MTech students in the three institutes I have worked: IITK, IITD, and IIIT-Delhi.
In India now, the number of students appearing in GATE is over 10 Lac – not too far from the no of students who take JEE Mains. Based on my interaction with students, It is clear that most students are doing MTech primarily to strengthen their knowledge and skills, as the UG education did not provide these sufficiently. That is the main reason why they try to get into Institutions that have good faculty which can provide higher quality education, like the IITs, NITs, IIITs, etc.
As the basic goal of MTech students is to strengthen their background, knowledge, and skills, so they can improve their career opportunities, it is absolutely essential they view their MTech program differently than they did their UG program – otherwise they risk ending up with the outcome of their UG program – getting a degree with little value. Towards this goal, here are some suggestions:
- Choice of courses. Many students, when they come to Institutes like IITs/IIITs, where almost all courses are electives, often chose the “easy” courses, largely due to the desire to get better and easy grades. This is exactly the opposite of what they should do. Given the limitations of their UG degrees, in their MTech they should go after the courses that will teach them new subject/area, that will make them work hard to develop new skills, that will test them hard and push them. It is these courses where learning will happen. A course in which there is overlap from previous courses, may be easier, but is of little value to an MTech student in terms of strengthening knowledge or skills.
- Develop problem solving capability. Most programs in engineering colleges teach concepts at a shallow level, as they often don’t have the faculty or capability to do the quality teaching needed to develop the critical skills for applying them for problems solving. Consequently, while students may have learnt (or, more likely, memorized) enough theory to do well in GATE and other exams, the translation skills of applying the knowledge for problem solving are generally highly inadequate. Therefore, to strengthen the problem solving skills, MTech students should do many exciting projects (as part of courses or otherwise), participate in programming contests / hackathons, academic/engineering clubs, engineering or research competitions/challenges, etc.
- Strengthen the background. MTech programs are supposed to be composed of advanced courses. Even if there are one or two courses which Institutes may include to strengthen the background, courses in MTech will generally focus on special or advanced topics. However, the background of incoming MTech students is weak. Rather than ignoring the background weakness and just somehow continue with the advanced courses they do, it is better to take some actions to improve the background – more so since when it comes to placement, companies frequently ask about basic concepts and foundations. These two approaches can be used for strengthening the background: (i) every time some concept is covered in an advanced course that uses an earlier concept which you don’t understand, rather than ignoring it and somehow manage to proceed, make the extra effort t to go read up on the earlier concepts and understand it. This extra effort will be well worth it – since course load in MTech is lower than in UG, it can also be managed. (ii) MTech students are often TAs for UG courses. A common comment from students as well as faculty is that the MTech students are not prepared and do not have sufficient background to guide the UGs well. TA work is an excellent opportunity to “catch up” and strengthen some aspects of the background. For this, do the TA work with more diligence – attend the lectures and understand the material for the course you are TA for, do the assignments you need to grade yourself, explain the material to UGs to help them – the process of explaining will help you understand the concepts better…..
- Develop Research Capability. The above will help build skills that often a good UG program will develop in good Institutions. Building research capability can provide MTech students an edge over UGs. Many top companies also look for research capabilities, besides the engineering capabilities. For developing the research capabilities, some approaches are: (i) Do the projects in advanced courses, which often require some researching, sincerely and seriously – read more papers and reports than needed, spend time and effort understanding them, write a good report following good scientific writing practices (there is a lot of help available on writing style, copyright, …), make a great presentation using sound principles of presentation,…. (ii) Do a strong thesis – again many students look for “easy credits” – how to do the thesis easily with minimal effort. Instead go after thesis and professors that will require you to work hard, will challenge you, will make you acutely aware of your lack of skills and knowledge, will require you to read a lot, apply a lot, engineer a lot,… Then write a good thesis – aim to publish it by writing good paper(s) from it. A strong thesis can not only improve the training and skills, it can provide expertise in some area, which is always valued. It can provide a good launching pad, provide self confidence, and a lot more. A strong thesis is the best thing an Mtech student can do in his/her program.
- Hard work. Most student will admit that their UG program did not challenge them – small amount of effort, often around exams, sufficed. There is no short cut to learning and building skills – one must study deeply and hard to understand the concepts and must challenge the understanding by trying various problems and assignments, and one must do various projects to apply the knowledge to solve problems and build solutions. Both take time – learning deeply will require deep reading, discussing the subtleties, doing assignments, etc – all these take time. And applying the knowledge through projects, assignments, and the like takes even more time. My advice is: ensure that you are putting at least 10 hours per day for 6 days a week. Without this level of work none of the above is possible.
Though many incoming MTech students struggle in the start – a pattern I have seen in IITK, IITD, and IIIT-D – most of them generally manage very well in the end as they are bright, ambitious, and put in a lot of effort to make the most of the MTech opportunity. Most end up significantly improving their placement opportunities due to their training in MTech. But a few, largely those who treat the MTech like they handled their BTech, end up with only limited value from the degree. I hope the advice given in this note will help all Mtech students to derive the benefit of the rigorous MTech programs that places like IITs/NITs/IIITs have.