The Best of Prof. Yajnik’s AMA

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Prof. Urjit Yajnik, former Dean of Student Affairs (2011-2015) more ubiquitously known as the DoSA, sat down for an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on the popular social networking site Reddit. Addressing subjects ranging from institute-specific issues to those afflicting the society at large, he answered close to 50 questions non-stop in a marathon session spanning 5 hours from 9.30 PM to 2.45 AM IST. Answering questions with to-the-point comprehensive answers, Prof. Yajnik also showed his humorous side with a slew of pop culture references and personal anecdotes.

Here, we have compiled some excerpts from the session. You can check out the full AMA here. Note that we have only edited for typos and not the formatting of Prof. Yajnik’s answers, so as not to change the essence of Proj. Yajnik’s responses.


1) Hey Prof Yajnik. I am a student at another IIT (a new one!). I’ve been there for quite some time.

Although I’m repeatedly assured that we’re doing well and IITs are much better than most other colleges in our country, the complacency and just general lack of passion that I see around here is a total let-down to the pre-IIT me. I’m not sure if the situation is any better in the older IITs.

Yea, there are some people who do well, and break the mould, but mostly, people don’t deliver their promised potential. And of course, a part of the blame lies with the professors. We are talking about students here who used to love physics / math and now they just are apathetic.

Man we don’t do cutting edge shit. We don’t feel cutting edge. I mean, we don’t feel like we are doing anything. By the end of the first year or second year for the optimistic ones, people just realize that they ought to go through the grind and get a job.

I would reiterate that there are people who stay with it, and persevere, but it’s a low percentage. Just like any other college. Thats kinda sad.

So what can we do? How do we change this? IITs anyway don’t have a lot of money. I compare notes with my friends in the US, and (by jove!) they have a different world.

Is there some policy changes that must happen? I just want to say that I have not been able to capture the whole situation in this question, but I suppose you get my drift. So man, what do we do? (via bajrangibaiman)

UAY: Yes, the new IITs may have some challenges, but I would not expect the one about enthu. As we see it, the competence of general students entering the new IITs is not too different from the median at old IITs with large groups.

The apathy factor is somewhat universal at present, but I am sure (it) varies somewhat from one IIT to another. The main reason is that we, as all the IITs, are putting out “product” of far higher quality and in larger numbers than our industry can accept and can offer sufficient number of challenging jobs to. This rubs off further on the system as well, on the kind of teaching that goes on, etc., which then remains more academic -> I hope this is what you meant by how the scene abroad is different.

I think as the industry in India picks up towards coming up with innovative products and fine-tuning them leveraging technology, that is the only scenario in which the larger scene can change. Many other initiatives are possible, but they will be of impact only for what they are aimed for.

2) What do you think about the fact that Kota “IIT Coaches” earn 50-100 times the money that professors at IIT earn? (Source:

Do you think JEE is being gamed by such institutions and the focus is on ‘cracking’ it, rather than studying what you love? (via troll_e_azam)

UAY: It is sad that this is so, not that we get paid much less 🙂 but that the whole “institution” of over-coaching to death should exist. Some coaching is good as guidance and to build up tempo, etc. But not the horror stories we hear.

But we cannot lay the blame squarely only on the coaching class industry. It has avid clients and the clients have very legitimate reasons. This is a question we cannot answer within IIT boundary conditions. It is tied to jobs, innovation by industry as referred to in a previous answer and so on. If there were enough interesting jobs in India, IITs would not become such a fixation, and these classes would not exist in such a distorted mode.

Incidentally, there is a coaching class industry in the US. And when I went to S. Korea, I went to a leading University which is (the) equivalent of our IIT. I was led to a beautiful five stories building devoted entirely to various branches of Theoretical Physics. I was much impressed. Then my host explained with a grin that it was endowed entirely by the coaching classes which send the most number of students in… they wanted to do something for research in addition to coaching UGs.

3) Recently IIT Gandhinagar allowed co-ed hostels. As per your experience of being DoSA, do you think co-ed hostels is a good idea? (via badassindian)

UAY: Hey, that one was started by me!!! There were only eight girls, and if they were sent far away from boys building, they would be completely cut off from their peer group. We had the experiment, though that floor had entry restrictions, and it worked quite well.

I believe they no longer have that as a sufficient number of girls exists and there are hostels for them 🙂

4) Complete the joke. “A DoSA walks into a bar…” (via kablunk)

UAY: .. he asks for milk and in response to quizzical looks, he turns to his pet and says “He is not a dog, he is a wolf” ( ref. Phantom comics). OK if you don’t know Phantom I’ll complete it this way …

after one look, he basically walks out because he knows all his evening will go in saying hi to all his students …

5) What is your opinion on reservation based on Caste? I’m not asking about the good and bad. I am asking about the practicality of it. For example, a person “A” got into IIT because of his category. Now, this person faces a lot of problems during his stay in the campus and academics as he won’t receive any reservation there. And at the end, he won’t even receive any reservation during placements. He has to compete with everyone else who are more skilled and deserving at a fair game now unlike JEE. So, isn’t it unfair even to them as well as the people who have better merit but no category? Why have such a form of reservation? (via harshankur)

UAY: I think I can only make a quick reply here. IITs have a mandate to abide by the constitutional provisions and by the democratic voice coming through elected representatives. And indeed there are historical reasons, and then there are ample cases where it shows very good results. And all the IITs wholeheartedly participate in this major social experiment. Any practical implementation of any ideal may have its flaws, and I am sure those charged with the job will be looking into fixing them.

6) Quite often you read about the skewed gender ratio in IITs, and sometimes things become rather difficult for women to proceed to have a normal life in campus (source: Palash Sen incident, and a cousin who studies in your college). In the wake of the recent case at St. Stephens, what sort of institutional safeguards are present to avoid such incidents in IIT Mumbai?

Secondly: we hear of suicides very often from the IITs, and you have already seen few cases in your tenure. What do you have to say about it? Are there, again, practices in place to help people from mental illnesses, and would you attribute these to the academics or to other forces in the students’ lives? (via truthforpeople)

UAY: Suicide(s) : I was fortunate to not have any episode for long, though one accidental death happened. Then within the last year there have been two episodes. What we learnt was that each one was unique and had its own reasons. We have substantially enhanced our outreach to students, increased the staff and introduced mandatory counselling exposure sessions for fresh students. However, suicide is a rather extreme event. I believe such events are not unique to IIT or unique to the pressures here.

Counselling is a a very delicate issue especially in a college setting where students arrive with a sense of challenge. It is difficult to make a healthy person read doctor’s advice column … and intervening to force the attention can be also counter-productive.

(About student suicides) The best IIT can do is make sufficient channels available including mentors, faculty advisors and upward towards medical care, and demonstrate that it works and is effective.

So, the best IIT can do is make sufficient channels available including mentors, faculty advisors and upward towards medical care, and demonstrate that it works and is effective.

Of late, we have also started a social media presence, and we have a special space in the side wing of third floor of MB far from the hustle and bustle of MB, called Counselling Care Center. Do make everyone aware of this availability.

As I said, suicide is extreme, but even the trauma of performance, of future anxiety, anxieties of relationships, including those with one’s own parents, all of these weigh on students.

Our counselors are also now preparing outreach sessions for parents, in terms of nurturing and monitoring the students mental health.

7) What are your thoughts on dismal research output from Indian universities and institutes like IITs?

What can we or the government do to stop the immense brain drain to developed countries? Even those who pursue a career in research opt to do it in US and Europe rather than India. Is it solely because of lack of infra and funding or has it got something more to it?

Lastly, even among Indian institutes, why do IITs take a back seat when it comes to research in theoretical physics compared to TIFR or IISc? (via adarsh_chootiya)

UAY: Our science culture as a whole is operating far below critical. Just check the number of trained scientists in a typical lab or institute in the developed world. Even the number of labs in a given city there like Munich or Paris or Boston. The presence of the atmosphere and the infrastructure is half the success as we know because foreigners going there also shine.

Is it solely because of lack of infra and funding or has it got something more to it?
Both of the above, but more deeply the lack of a scientific culture. Europe has had a 500 years’ history since the renaissance, where generations within a family pursued scientific inquiry. Society had enough surplus and enough interest to not only spare quite a few bright individuals full-time for exploring scientific questions, but enough money to fund them and their investigations. Such funding in India has been very rare, though with notable exceptions.

The IITs were set up as UG teaching institutions though for the more talented engineering student. Research emerged as their mandate much later, only in the 1990s. And in sciences there, research began by default than by any planning. TIFR was founded by a theoretical physicist with a clear mandate to do research with in-house funding and full-time for research. IISc had only PG teaching until recently and a lot of funding. In IITs, only about 50% time is permitted for research. Finally, experimental research in India suffers due to a large number of reasons, even at the research institutes compared to the rest of the world. And theory cannot happen in isolation for long.

Finally before you write off Indian effort as “dismal”, you should know that you only hear the pinnacles of success from the West. It is a huge pyramid with a large number of “dismal” efforts, but which, in small measures, keep contributing to the top layer. Considering science is global, you can say we are somewhere in that pyramid — our results also get incorporated in larger efforts there — and yes, we are consistently trying to rise up within it.

8) I am someone who smokes marijuana on an almost regular basis in campus. The question is why. It is not because of health.

My reason: because of marijuana, I can have a social life here. I can talk to people easily without parallel thoughts. I can discuss my feelings.

Lets accept it, almost all UGs are fucked up in IIT in one way or another. I know some guys personally, who would have probably committed suicide, if not for weed and friends he made, due to it.

I would have gone mad without this. There are serious mental issues prevailing in the institute. Punishing someone is not going to help it.

A brilliant example: I hated my room-mate for 3 years we were together. In the final year, we both started smoking weed together, and (you) know, I think he is my best and only best friend. He knows more about me than the whole world combined. He helps me. (via guiltessence)

UAY: OK. Drugs, alcohol and all that …

The first point is addiction is usually tied to escape or release, and generally not a good idea to get into while you are under a lot of stress. If you get into it so early, it can stay with you very long and is very often of serious harm. But then you say, most students are adults and make their own choice. But as the teacher or mentor group in a residential campus, we have certain responsibilities – to you, as well as to some extent, your parents and families.

Now, that said, what is important in a residential campus like ours is that we want it to be known that “this is not the way of life we accept”.

(About substance abuse) What is important in a residential campus like ours is that we want it to be known that “this is not the way of life we accept”.

Even if someone makes a rational choice, or takes to it rarely, it should not receive open endorsement. Heck, the whole world says “Say no to drugs” and we are no exception.

I do know several students who started smoking or drinking as they approached the fourth semester because they were told, that will be a part of corporate job social life. We agree … but not in our campus, where there are also first yearites … a fourth yearite is a “dada” or “didi”, and we cannot let the new students form the impression that this is indeed the way of life.

I hope you will agree that what is required for socializing later in life need not impact the very young. Further, the condition of the few who descend into heavy dependence becomes pathetic. The family is also aghast to hear that they picked up the habit in IIT. We have to do our best to prevent this.

9) I am a lot late already but I had this one question to ask. Sir, I had joined IITB 2 years back. When I came here, it was all so new to me\. I was amazed that all the things like painting, music, games can co-exist so beautifully in a single academic building. I had been interested in doing more than just studies. I wanted to see the way the world works, because as a student who tops his class, I was always considered as someone who can only study and can be easily cheated or made fun of. I joined a lot of groups and worked hard in every responsibility I picked. I loved the experience. I loved every time I negotiated with people and made people happy. But soon, the acads part started to overload me; when I entered this institute, I, in a way, pledged that I will not be crazy behind marks anymore, but will be a complete man when I get out of this college. Now, I could not keep my promise as in my very first sem, I had a backlog. I did not tell my parents initially. But when I did, they told me not to tell it to anyone else as the stories like someone could not digest his success are spread very fast. Now, I have cleared all of backlogs but my CPI is way low. I feel a lot more mature socially now. I do write, and am currently into writing a book. Do you think that IIT has some care for guys like me passing out with low CPI and in a way misutilizing the opportunity given to them? (via navosh)

UAY: This is a very nice question close to my heart. First let me tell you a one point statistic : my own classmate who was in H8 was too close to the tennis courts for his own good. His JEE rank was <200, his final CPI in EE was 5.5. Well, he still got a school to do a PhD and went into robotics and has changed CEO jobs with a few companies as he is in demand. You can’t extrapolate one data point; but I can tell you there are lots of stories like this. In fact, quite a few of the very active and successful alumni I have met were in a similar situation. I strongly advise everyone to keep a very careful eye on the CPI, never let it slide below the number you think you can manage in this crowd. However, within that, certainly follow your passion. Now if you fail to balance the two and slip on the CPI side, worry not. An IIT degree and all the additional cultivation you acquired at the cost of CPI will see you through life quite well. This is an advice after the fact. Best situation is : Do not go there! But if you are there, as it says in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, DO NOT PANIC and keep holding the towel. 10) Many students have been fined / punished for breaking the rules during your tenure by the DoSA office (maybe they had it coming :P). In hindsight, can you think of any colourful/funny incident, where you broke rules during your time as a student at IIT Bombay? (that perhaps you should have been punished for?) (via gururajmail)

UAY: The most adventurous thing I did was to climb to the top of the roof of the pump cabin of MB, the highest point of the Main Building, during a mild drizzle, on a slippery ladder, with 20 girls 😛 who had come for Physics Summer School, and only two of us boys. We sang songs so finally security came up. Seeing so many girls they just let us go!

Sorry nothing terribly macabre. I was a goody goody boy (if 20 girls trusted the two of us …).