After yet another great PhD admit season for MSQE students, I’ve found myself wondering what enables ISI to keep placing its students so well. We’ve seen top 15 admits for three students, and two more have received top 30 offers; while this is quite normal for ISI, others, like DSE, manage such numbers in total over several years despite having 5-10 times as many students per batch.
Of those that I’ve broached this topic with, many seem to be of the opinion that it is not ISI that does well – it is the students themselves that do well. However, I happen to be at a unique position to disqualify this hypothesis using a surprisingly perfect experiment. Along with applying to Master’s programs (such as at ISI in India and at BGSE abroad), I had also applied to a few PhD programs, mostly low ranked (top 150). I got rejected from all the PhD programs I applied to. Two years later, I’ve received offers from all except one of the top 10 programs I applied to, and the only substantive change in my life has been ISI.
There are many factors of differentiation between ISI and other colleges in India that the average economics student is fairly familiar with and that contribute to its ability to place well. It attracts almost all the students that it admits – which means barely any cross-admit aspirant with colleges like DSE, MSE, Ashoka etc chooses them over ISI – and hence there is certainly the advantage of input quality. This is also reinforced by its famously small class size of 20 per year, which keeps median quality quite high; DSE produces as many Master’s students each year as ISI produces in 10. The small class size also feeds into its incredible student to faculty ratio of around 2:1.
However, I’ve come to realize that the MSQE advantage goes far beyond these factors. I’ve neatly bucketed the reasons I find most compelling (old habits die hard – once a consultant, always a consultant) into two categories – teaching and research.
Most of the compulsory classes at ISI have the same structure – they are rigorous and meticulously planned out, but without placing excessive burden outside of class hours. The fundamental concepts are fleshed out in detail, which means the breadth of topics covered is smaller, but in a Master’s program one should anyway be more interested in ensuring that the fundamentals are solid. The grading system is not unnecessarily harsh, and the exam papers are set up so that it is possible to get great grades and send signals of high academic potential if one understands the concepts properly. Moreover, there are no sources of undue stress such as weekly tests, which ensures that the focus is always on understanding the subject and thinking deeply about the problems it tries to analyze. This bleeds into the classroom as well – students engage in discussions with the Professor and each other primarily to grasp ideas better. We were left with a lot of free time, which I found incredibly helpful to focus on engaging comprehensively with research (this can also be detrimental if one cannot find the motivation).
ISI’s USP probably is its research opportunity. The faculty take it very seriously, and the seminars and reading groups are great initiators. More importantly, they also take advising very seriously, and given the student-faculty ratio, it was not at all hard to get as much face time with Professors as I wanted. The senior faculty is also well connected with the academic world abroad, which ensures they know contemporary research well and can invite really good speakers for the seminars. A fairly well-known corollary of their name recognition is that their letters carry quite some weight for admission committees, but what is not as well recognized is that the letters can only be as good as the research output one produces and submits as writing samples – and this output can be high because of the research environment and tranquil academic system at ISI.