The NTU option for undergraduate studies

Every year, mostly around this time of year, I get a lot of friends, relatives and complete strangers asking me about NTU and considering it as an option for further studies. Depending on how pissed off I am at NTU at any given time, my opinion changes but the gist of it still remains the same. It depends on what you’re comparing it against and what you want from it.

This post is basically my thoughts on the choice I made 6 years back and hopefully it’ll help someone or the other in their dilemna. Ever since the day I decided to take the SIA NOL scholarship and come to NTU and study computer engineering instead of aerospace/ chemical engineering at one of the IITs, I’ve spent an unhealthy amount of time justifying to myself and to others why I made a reasonably good decision. When I was at the point of having to choose, one of the things that helped me the most was an alumni’s blog post about how he made the decision to come here. I can’t remember his name right now, but I remember finding out about a year or so back that he’s currently doing his graduate studies at NUS. Anyway, the point is I can’t find his blog now and I hardly find anything written by people who decided to come to NTU instead of going to one of the IITs. So here’s an attempt at helping a lost soul considering his options.

Firstly, some disclaimers. I’ve only studied in NTU and a semester at the University of Waterloo in Canada. I have not really stepped into campus much in any other college (except NUS a few times and IIT-M for some competition when I was in 12th Grade). Secondly, the NTU experience is completely different for different people. I’m guessing this is the case in most universities. But the sheer size of the student population, the variety of extra curricular activities on offer and (when comparing to Indian Universities) the amount of freedom you have ensures that what I say is very likely to be completely different from a lot of other students.

On the positive side, moving to a foreign country is always an eye opening experience and while most of the students are from Asia, there is still an incredible variety in the backgrounds of the different students here. While it’s not necessary and quite common that most of your friends will be from your same country/ background, the international exposure does make quite a difference in your outlook. More importantly, Singapore is, regardless of the criticism that some people put at it, an amazing city. And, there is a lot one can learn from the way things are done here. It’s as safe as a city can be and for those wanting to travel it’s also very well connected to a lot of amazing places.

NTU also has some brilliant facilities for pursuing your different interests. I joined the NTU Tae Kwon Doe team and Red Cross during my first year, attended a few (kinda intimidating) sessions of the competitive programmers club, organised some cool events and some not so cool ones. I even got paid during my second year for doing research in NTU’s initiative to try and encourage research amongst students. Whatever be your interest, there’ll be something or the other for you, especially if you’re willing to take the effort.

Moving on to the more pertinent topic of academics, the aforementioned choices and freedom still applies. While most courses have a few core subjects that you have to take over the years there is an incredible variety of subjects that you can take which are offered by the different schools ranging from Maths and the Basic Sciences, to Arts, Humanities or Business or even things like Physical Education (I recently discovered that there are summer courses on soccer and other sports). You can take minors in most of these fields to go along with your major in Engineering (or the other way around). Pretty soon, NTU’s going to have a medical school too. While these options aren’t really a big deal to someone in NUS/ most major universities abroad, I think it is quite different from most Indian Universities ( I could be wrong of course). Another great thing about NTU is that, NTU has enough money and prestige to attract some of the most brilliant scientists and personalities from all over the world as visiting faculty or for talks that happen regularly on campus.

This brings me to the topic which is generally considered the most important: the quality of the teaching. I’m not sure how good or bad things are in other universities, but compared to my experience at the University of Waterloo and listening to online lectures from various US universities, the quality of the teaching and (more importantly) the learning culture in NTU in general is extremely disappointing. I believe this is a combination of a lot of factors.

I can count on one hand the number of classes I’ve actually enjoyed sitting through at NTU. And there wasn’t a single class that inspired me to want to learn more about computers or computer science or computer engineering. This is not entirely the lecturers fault. For one, the culture of asking questions is entirely absent here. And as a result, even when the lecturers do try desperately to encourage their audience there is absolutely no reaction. Secondly, there are no attendance requirements and all lectures (at least till third year) used to be recorded. So most students think they can make up for it even if they don’t attend classes. So it’s not uncommon to see very empty classrooms. However, what I hated most about NTU was how easy I found it. Most tutorials and assignments were not challenging or open ended or even remotely interesting. After all the awesomely interesting problems that I came across during IIT preps, these tutorials and assignments were very boring and rarely required thinking outside the box. In fact, some of them didn’t even require thinking. The reason why I found my semester at Waterloo to be so interesting (and that semester was the key reason for re igniting my interest in computer science enough to do a PhD) was the assignments which were generally quite difficult.

Many graduates from computer engineering have never used UNIX, had never programmed in anything other than Java, have never done any Computer systems course and have a very very basic knowledge of algorithms.

However, there are three reasons why my rant should be taken with a pinch of salt. Firstly, I think I would have ranted about the quality of teaching in many other colleges too. Secondly, there are a lot of changes coming about and things might already be a lot better. Classrooms are being made smaller, course loads are being reduced with more importance being given to assignments and quizzes and some effort is also being put in training TAs. Lastly, this is the case in the school of computer engineering in the courses I took. I did attend some really good and interesting economics and maths classes. And I’m sure teaching styles and standards can be very different in the other schools.

To end on a more positive note, in a lot of cases, especially for Indian students, what is more important than what you learn in college is your career prospects and stuff. And in this regard, NTU and Singapore in general does not disappoint. The compulsary Industrial Attachment program and the general culture of taking summer internships ensures that you are prepared when you graduate. In spite of the recession causing some difficulties, I think all graduates do find decent jobs after graduating. Even if you don’t end up getting an awesome pay (and there are quite a few who do get good jobs), your quality of living in Singapore will be a lot better than most other parts of the world while the cost of living is actually not so bad. Most students go into the financial sector since that pays best, however there are engineering firms too for those so inclined. For the business minded, the Government and Schools (the minor in entrepreneurship is extremely popular) here do a lot to encourage and support startups. Despite not having their engineering departments in Singapore, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Google and others do come to campus every year and do recruit quite a few students. So, as a stepping stone for a future career and a comfortable life you could definitely do a lot worse than NTU.

There are a lot of other factors that can affect someone’s choice of NTU for undergrad: On the negative side, the bond that is there for students on scholarship is something that needs to be considered very seriously. On the positive side, Singapore’s quite close to India and if you book at the right time you can be to India and back for less than 10000 INR. There are a lot of other personal factors too. In my case, even though there are a lot of things I dislike about NTU, given the circumstances, I still think I made the right decision in coming here.

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