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Spring term over and it’s blog time!! This is also the time when admissions to Indian colleges happen and this year I know several people who are finishing high school and entering college.

With this as the starting point of the article, I realize that I can talk about so many things vis a vis, is it right to ask a student to choose his/her major even before entering college, why is engineering so much in demand, the gradual migration to finance/CS/IT over the 4-5 years of undergrad education and more. Each of these issues is important enough to demand a separate blog entry. In this post, I want to put down my thoughts on a different issue – the conundrum of taking up basic sciences.

By the time students finish their high school in India, a sizeable number of students realize their interest in and flair for basic sciences. Yet, a high percentage of these students end up in engineering streams and somewhere down the line realize their error in judgment. While some students have an opportunity to amend their mistakes, others don’t. Within the broad category of basic sciences, biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics suffer from losing students to engineering due to some common factors, there are also other factors specific to each of these sciences that cause this problem.

One big misconception is that pursuing basic sciences means one would have no other career option other than academia – teaching and research. “I won’t get jobs”—is the biggest fear. While it may be true that a natural path in basic sciences is to do a Ph.D, job opportunities are available in the industry in plenty (at least outside India and a decent number within India as well) for those who finish their PhDs in basic sciences – industrial R&D is preferred career choice for a lot of people in basic sciences. Industrial research is more product driven and with a focused end goal as opposed to research in academia that can be driven largely by scientific curiosity. PhDs allow time to develop a lot of skills such as data analysis, computation, and design of experiments that have a tremendous demand in the job market. Bottomline: There’s always an “applied” component to basic sciences and as long as you have some contribution to make to the growth and development of this “applied” concept (which is pretty much everyone), you’ll find people that are willing to hire you – academia and otherwise.

There’s another bug that affects the disciplines of chemistry and biology. Among the four basic science disciplines, these are considered the “less logical” disciplines. My estimates would be that more than 60% of the students who are “coached” for competitive entrance exams have this belief (Ashamed as I am to admit it, I also belonged in this category of people for a very brief period). This could be due to several reasons – The curriculum of chemistry and biology in high school leads them to this conclusion. After all, biology in 11th and 12th is pretty much medical biology with a lot of rote learning and memorization and chemistry is all about weird reaction mechanisms that have more exceptions than rules. This is a rather unfortunate scenario. There is more, way more to chemistry and biology than these misplaced ideas. Biophysics and soft matter physics, computational biology, genetics, nanobiotechnology, neuroscience, spectroscopy and quantum chemistry, chemistry and growth of materials, nanofabrication and characterization — these are a few of the different fields that are related to biology and chemistry that are as logically driven as any other discipline and sub-field and most students are blissfully unaware of these areas. In fact, open the web page of Nature or Science journals and you’ll see that more than 50% of the articles fall under the broad category of biology and chemistry-based journals are some of the most cited and inter-disciplinary journals. The amount of funding that’s flowing into these areas is huge and that is driven by the fact that we need to make a huge progress in our understanding. Another reason why students have this opinion is because they are constantly told that by their teachers. I can speak for myself here, but I am pretty sure there are others with experience like mine. I have seen physics and math teachers that keep rubbishing chemistry and biology. Just because you are told by your chemistry teacher to memorize the fact that 4n+2 aromatic rings are generally stable, it doesn’t mean that there is no sound reason for it. Your teacher has never stressed in class that there is a quantum mechanical reason as to why a 4n+2 aromatic ring is stable, and you never bothered to delve deep and understand the reason for it. But who do we blame this on? The student or the teacher or the curriculum and the education system? I don’t know the answer and perhaps all the parties are culprits here. But that doesn’t help the cause.

There are probably ways to overcome this. The first would be to stop rubbishing other disciplines and instead focus on letting people know what they might end up doing after graduating with a major. Talk about the possibilities and scope that every discipline has. What is currently happening in the field might not be the case 5-10 years down the line. Take for instance the CMOS technology. We are currently at the 7 nm node and maybe at the 4/5 nm node in the next couple of years. But what after that? In all likelihood, we might be moving towards different architectures, newer materials for the interconnects, advanced packaging techniques and possibly even different platforms like photonics and spintronics. None of the undergraduate courses that we currently take in EE stress on any of this. In fact, most people that do these sorts of things today come from a materials science, physics background. So, if someone is deciding that they want to do EE (thinking about the awesome Silicon industries) by looking at course curriculum that consists of DC motors and BJTs, then clearly there’s a gap that needs to be bridged.

Second, students should be made to realize that every individual has a flair for a certain area/subject. Peer pressure and statements from people we look up to (like teachers) may force a certain student good at chemistry to take up Electrical engineering or computer science just because someone told them chemistry is “not logical” or “you won’t get jobs”.

Steve Woznick’s statement “Success means having a job in India. There is no creativity” may have caused an uproar among Indians. But there’s a great deal of truth in it. To a student from financially weaker sections of society, getting a job may be of foremost importance. However, today there are several students who do not carry the financial burdens of their families and for them, the Apple CEO’s statements are applicable.

I really hope that as we all graduate and see and understand how science and technology around us are progressing at a rapid pace, we will make an effort to communicate and help people in making decisions. I do believe that despite the problems in the curriculum and the education system, we might be able to help students entering college take better decisions.