I am doing what I love and I was once a three point “nobody”!

CPI is really not as important as people make it out to be.

My CPI at one point was around 5. I even got two F’s. There was one semester in which I got a CPI of 3.6. The “nobody” in the title is in quotes for a specific reason. The reason is even if you have a CPI of only 3, you really are not a “nobody”. There is a bright future ahead of you. Read on.

I didn’t get a 3.6 that semester because I was genuinely struggling as a student. Very few people who get into IIT genuinely struggle with subject material because they aren’t up to the task. Very few people get F’s in spite of making efforts to attend classes, study regularly, do homework assignments on time, etc. They get F’s as a result of the choices that they make. I made the choice to focus on my rock band and music. I even wanted to leave IITK after my third semester to focus on music. Our band, Access Denied, won the runner-up spot in IITB’s premier rock competition, Livewire, in 2005. We were pretty serious about it! Midway somewhere, I got interested in linguistics. I then also met my future wife, and I had to get serious now about planning for a stable future. So I started going to classes, ended up graduating in 2009 with a 7.2 CPI. I got into a very good PhD program in Cognitive Psychology. I also got offers from top linguistics departments based on the work that I did with the linguistics professor in IITK.

People do get low grades when they aren’t interested in the subjects being taught. Sometimes poor and uninspired teaching can turn away students from the classroom. I once had this thermodynamics class where the professor said in one of the first classes about how he wrote Pythagoras’ theorem 50 times on 3 sheets of paper to memorize it because he knew it would be important later in life. That approach to learning made me sick in my stomach. I was so disgusted that I made a conscious decision never to step back into his class again. I did not want to subject my brain to such nonsense. What is key though is to realize that such a decision is your own responsibility. Once you make that decision not to go to classes and not to attend quizzes/exams (I’ve done that), you need to realize that an F grade is impending and that in some ways, you made that choice for yourself. What I’m hoping you’ll get from my story are ways in which you can help yourself make the right choices that will help you graduate and be on your way to doing something that YOU love.

What low CPI?

Grades don’t matter to a lot of people contrary to what students are made to believe in IITK. When my applications were evaluated by grad schools, they only looked at my grades in the subjects I said I was interested in, namely linguistics, nonlinear dynamics, etc. I had good grades in those subjects. I had research projects to show that my interest in those areas was genuine. So the important thing is to develop interest in some thing or the other while you’re at IITK and do some kind of work to develop those interests and have something to show for it by the time you leave. These things that you do might be in complete contradiction with the requirements to get a high CPI. A high CPI does not matter really (of course, it might matter if you want to do a PhD in physics but you end up getting D’s in all your physics courses but I’m assuming that anybody who has a strong wish to do a PhD in physics will go to his/her physics classes and be diligent about it. The grades follow automatically).

I knew a professor at IITK who treated students based on their CPI’s. He would ask us about our CPI anytime we met outside, for example at the shopping center. Once he happened to ask me that question after my third semester (the worst one). I replied “3.6″. He never bothered me since and I considered it good riddance! So it worked out quite well. So you see, there are certain advantages to having a low CPI too. I’m only half joking here because I will speak more about some pros later.

Another example of the relatively low importance of CPI came during the time of placements.. At that time, I hadn’t decided yet if I wanted to do a PhD in psychology/linguistics and so I had decided to see if I could get a job through the placement cell at IITK. What I found was that I could pass most initial phase written tests, and I could get through to the final rounds of quite a few companies. Nobody expressed a concern about my CPI once I got to those final rounds. It only depends on how good your answers are in those interviews. They don’t ask you about Schrodinger’s equations in a Deustche Bank interview, they ask you about banking. If you know anything about that, and if that is what you’re interested in doing, then it isn’t very hard to get those jobs. Most of these companies just want bright people who have good mathematical skills. This is a requirement that they know everybody has passed when they come to interview people in an IIT. So just make sure you graduate somehow, and you really do have a bright future ahead of you, no matter what people on campus tell you about how you are doomed because of a low CPI. It is a blatant lie when people tell you that, don’t believe it for a second.

So eventually, your CPI really doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. It only acts as a cutoff in some instances but you cannot do anything about it. If you don’t want to toil away for 4 years doing something that you absolutely hate and something that is contradictory to your principles of life, then don’t! Follow and ACT on your interests while you are there, as you will not get the time in the future to do that. By interests, I don’t necessarily mean academic interests. A band mate of mine, for instance had a CPI similar to mine. He was always playing music, thinking about film making, etc. He is now a film director doing exactly what he loves at his own pace and schedule, not something that all 10 pointers can claim today. Plenty of other examples exist. In fact, a lot of success stories that stand out as unique belong to people who graduated with low CPIs. I don’t have statistics to provide for it, it is just my perception based on my experiences and based on the personal anecdotes people have related to me. Thinking slightly more objectively, I believe there is virtually no difference in success rates based on CPIs. When applying for PhD programs, I never imagined that I would get so many offers. University College London offered me a position at a neuroscience center. All they wanted me for was because I studied at an IIT and I had studied physics and they believed that my knowledge would come to be of use in imaging the brain at their center. They offered to pay my expenses if I wanted to visit them first before I made a decision. This was really surprising to me at that time. I had no clue at that time why they would be do something like that. They didn’t care about how I did in my relativity course for instance. So CPI is really not as important as people make it out to be in the IITs. Of course it helps to have a decent CPI but the point is, even if you don’t, there is absolutely no reason to despair. You see hundreds of examples if you care to look, of how people with extremely low CPIs ended up tremendously successful and MORE IMPORTANTLY, successful doing jobs that they like!! I’m not very sure that the same can be said of many people with high CPIs, the McKinsey consultants for instance. I have trouble believing that they grew up wanting to be McKinsey consultants or even that they believed while in college that their life’s calling was to be a consultant! 

A low CPI can free you to pursue your dream

A high CPI can open many doors for you. A high CPI is desirable if you can achieve it without putting your mind and body through torture. However, if you are one of those people who don’t enjoy working towards a high CPI and have alternative interests, let me tell you about the cons of a high CPI that many people don’t necessarily talk about. I’ve decided not to talk about the pros of a high CPI because everybody does it all the time. Nobody disputes that a good CPI does not hurt. However, a high CPI may be a constraining factor in some ways. People expect you to behave in certain ways when you have an extremely high CPI. If I had a CPI of 10 when I graduated with an Integrated MSc in physics, people would have tried to dissuade me from moving away from the field even if that is what I wanted. I had a friend who was brilliant in physics, had a decent CPI and people pestered him when he decided to opt for a job in the industry and not a PhD program in physics at the end of his five years there. So somehow, having a low CPI frees you from other people’s influences in many ways because you lower other people’s expectations. So there are pros and cons to having either a low or high CPI. However, none of these things matter eventually. You only have to look in the right place and think out of the box to end up with satisfying jobs and careers. Just make sure you graduate, that is all you need to do. I am currently at the top of most of my graduate level classes. I’m doing good interesting research and my professors are happy with me so far. The reason is, I’m doing something I’m genuinely interested in! I had the mathematical background to contribute to this field (I do mathematical modeling of human memory), and I took the time while I was in IIT to do the things that interested me: linguistics, psychology, philosophy, nonlinear dynamics and chaos, music, chess, etc. That is what really put me on a path to success.

What about parental and other pressures?

How did I handle parental pressure to pursue my own dreams? My parents were not the typical Indian parents. I’ve always made all my decisions for myself starting with expressing a desire to learn the piano at the age of 5. In the 10th standard, I was extremely interested in genetics. So what I did during those days was go around town meeting up with the local geneticists. When I went to the 11th and 12th, my interest shifted to physics. My mother is a chemistry lecturer and she likes physics too. So when I told her that I wanted to do physics, she had no objections whatsoever. Recently when deciding to go for higher studies, my mother wanted me to go on to do a PhD in physics but I told her that I wasn’t going to do that because I planned to do a PhD in cognitive psychology instead because I wanted to study the brain. That came out of the blue for her. She eventually understood. It helps to have supportive parents of course but if you don’t have supportive parents, you should learn to make your own roads and should learn to demonstrate that you are an individual who can think and act on your own. That brings me to my next point:

Here is where I have another piece of advice for students. Try to do an internship or two during the summers, save some money. Some parents that I know like to tell their kids “As long as I’m paying for your education and for your applications, you better take into consideration my dreams for you”. In such situations, just say “thanks for all your help so far but this is a decision I must make for myself, I have some money that I’ll use to pay for the rest of my education and for my applications”. I had saved up about Rs 1 lakh from an internship in Europe. I used that to pay for the rest of my education at IITK and for my grad school applications. The reason was my father and mother were going through a divorce, and my father decided to tell me one fine day that he didn’t want to pay anymore for my IITK fees (because we didn’t get along so well). Fortunately, I could look him in the eyes and tell him that it was absolutely fine. IITK also gave me an extra-curricular scholarship called the Indradhanush Scholarship, which helped too. So what I want to tell the kids out there is that you cannot decide what kind of people you get as parents. They may be great people and may be extremely supportive of your interests and ideas, and sometimes they may not be. You shouldn’t have to depend on them forever to pay your fees, etc. So saving up your own money is extremely important!

Get a girlfriend/boyfriend or at the very least mingle with the opposite sex!

During my initial years at IITK, I started listening to Pink Floyd, and at the same time, my best friend who was in IITB at that time also developed an interest in that genre of music. We then decided to do a Pink Floyd tribute concert in our hometown. We publicized the event well, gave TV interviews about it (anything that an IITian does draws attention, it’s almost like people don’t expect IITians to be capable of anything but studies). The show was a huge success. We went on to form a band and we competed at LiveWire, IITB’s premier rock competition and came second overall just behind a professional rock band “Bhayanak Maut”. We beat them in the preliminary round, and the performance of our band had become a local news item.

This initial success made us want to leave IIT and go pursue music full time. My mother did make a feeble attempt at convincing me to stay but she also sensed that I was depressed and unhappy in IITK at that time. Those days, I was exhibiting signs of depression. I had been sleeping during the day, awake at night watching movies, never stepping into class. So she said to me “pack your bags and come home”. I told her to wait until I was sure. I gave it serious thought. I ended up staying. In hindsight, that was a decision that I’m extremely glad I made! Since it was a decision I made for myself without anybody else’s input, I started attending classes and I slowly started rising to the top of some of my classes and my CPI steadily improved from there. I also took interesting elective courses in linguistics and philosophy which also boosted my grades. I did it out of interest though and not to boost my CPI. I did quite well and the linguistics professor took note and let me take a graduate level class with her along with her graduate student. So I got to read research papers in linguistics and realized that it was great fun.

I met my future wife (we are now happily married) at the same tribute concert by the way. She is a singer. She was the other reason I went to my classes because I knew I had to be in a good position in order to be able to marry her after graduating. So another trick to being successful is: go out and mingle with the opposite sex.. find a friend, a girlfriend, a boyfriend! This is the time of your life when you can do that, not when you’re 70. I know Kanpur isn’t always the best place for that, but at least, go out and get involved in the various clubs and activities on campus where you might meet somebody. When you go back home, meet up with old friends. Do not shy away from mingling with the opposite sex *! I know it is easier said than done. The first step is to actually step out of your hostel room. Drag yourself to the SAC and go into the clubs and volunteer to help out.

* Sexual orientation by the way is another source of stress for people with alternative orientations. India unfortunately is backward in that area and it is difficult to be open about it in India. I’ve seen it from close quarters and I’m very sensitive to this issue. So if anybody wants to converse with me about it, I welcome you to do so. I guarantee confidentiality.

Advice to Students/Parents?

My best friend (who is an alumnus of IITB and who was the drummer in my band) is currently a jazz performance and composition major at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Boston. He has almost graduated now, he is planning to do a PhD in composition and his focus is on highly experimental music (with a lot of use of computers, and synthesizers, etc). He is also interested in cognitive science like me and intends to collaborate with such people in his composition endeavors. We also have examples of people like Gyanesh Pandey, an IITK alumnus Class of 2002, who has acted in Prakash Jha Productions Aarakshan (as a lawyer) and as a news anchor in Raajneeti. So people exist who follow really unique career paths after IIT.

I think students need to know about the different tracks that people can take after their time at IIT. I just don’t think students and parents realize the immense variety of possibilities that exist if you just graduate from an IIT. Even if you drop out of there, there are plenty of success stories, but that’s another topic. With this write up, I want to encourage people to spend their time productively. “Productive” doesn’t necessarily mean getting a CPI > 9. A professor here, one of the world’s foremost experts on emotion, tells me that he shouldn’t hear from me that I work all day. The reason he quotes is that he sees too many grad students who say they are busy all day. They do work all day. However, that doesn’t mean they are intellectually productive. To be intellectually productive, he told me to realize the importance of leisure and the importance of thinking using that time. So just because somebody sits in front of a book from 9am to 9pm does not mean he is productive.

In my opinion, some parents contribute a lot to students’ stress in addition to the academic pressures. In some cases of suicides, it was apparent that parents were not very supportive. So sessions must be organized that parents must compulsorily attend right when they come in for IIT-JEE counseling (as that’s the only time we can get all the parents and guardians in the same room at the same time). They need to be educated on the fact that they needn’t work any longer about their child’s future even if it turns out that they struggle with academics. So that should be the first level of attack.

The next level should be in campuses where these sessions need to be held with student audiences. Alumni can directly make presentations at both these levels of interaction.

Finally, I believe professors in IITs need to be educated on the fact that not everybody comes there with the idea of doing a PhD in that particular subject that they opted for. With the rank based choice of departments, it is more probable than not that people get streams that they do not like very much. In the US, undergraduate students make that choice of major only after a while of testing the waters. That option isn’t available in the IITs. Of course branch changes are possible but they are available only to people with the highest CPI’s. That is in a way contradictory to the goal! The idea is to help people who aren’t enjoying their subjects to shift focus. However, if they are getting high CPI’s, it must mean that boredom isn’t getting in their way of getting good grades. So a branch change does not take care of the core of that issue. In the absence of a process that addresses this issue, professors must realize that the students need to be treated equally regardless of whether or not they perform well in their subjects because students come in with a multitude of interests. Many principles of fair treatment of the students and ethics that are followed in US universities should be implemented in IITs.

So to summarize, I believe education about this matter needs to be done at three levels: 1) parents 2) students 3) professors. Too often, professors and parents forget what it was like to be a student. Too often, even if they do remember, times have changed far too much to be able to draw reasonable comparisons. They need to be made aware of that. To the students reading this post, I hope I have convinced you that a low CPI is not the end of the world. In fact, it is very likely that there are very exciting things in store for you if you have the faith and if you believe us alumni when we tell you about our experiences as low CPI students who have made it reasonably well in the world.

There should be an active forum for students to connect with alumni who are engaged in off-track careers. I hope this blog can serve as one such forum.

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We encourage you to communicate with the alumnus featured in this story, please post your comments or write to him at [email protected]. Vishnu Sreekumar is currently a graduate student in the Dept of Psychology at the Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, USA

This article was originally published on the Alumni Connect blog. Here is the link

I am doing what I love and I was once a three point “nobody”!