Should students choose Texas as their new study destination?

In an interview with the Free Press Journal, Dr. Rajan speaks about his journey from IIT to one of the top universities in Texas, what makes the state a lucrative option for international students, and what SMU has to offer to them

Abhishek NairUpdated: Sunday, May 22, 2022, 11:48 AM IST
Dr. Dinesh Rajan, Department Chair and Professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at South Methodist University (SMU), Texas | FPJ

In a conversation with Dr. Dinesh Rajan, who is the Department Chair and Professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at South Methodist University (SMU), Texas.

An IIT Madras alumni, Mr. Rajan did his Ph.D. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Rice University in Houston from 1997-to 2002

1. How has your journey been from IIT Madras to SMU in Texas?

After I completed my B. Tech in Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1997, I was looking to complete my Ph.D. in the US. During those days it was extremely difficult to connect with universities and find information about them.

Whatever information we had was sparse. We had to talk to our seniors, who maintained handwritten notes about which universities and what opportunities are available to students wishing to study abroad as many of them went to the US for higher studies.

The internet boom was just in its initial stage back in 97, so we actually had to write to multiple universities in the US just for an application form and then they would send us one which used to take up to a month. With the existence of platforms such as FPJ, students can gather information about universities with ease.

I was extremely lucky that I got the opportunity to come to Rice University and complete my Phd. Right after that in 2002, I got the chance to come to SMU, which is one of the oldest institutions in Texas and is situated right in the heart of Dallas. I slowly moved up the ranks from a professor to the department chair, which has been a wonderful experience.

2. Why does the US remain top choice for international students?

I think there are two primary factors and I will expand on both. First is the quality of education and second is the opportunities available post-graduation. When I say the quality of education it doesn’t mean that universities in Australia or the UK lack the same, the US has the highest number of institutions providing quality education.

So depending on the state you are in, stage of your academic career, preparation, and so on, there are a lot more opportunities for you in terms of universities. Second, in terms of the jobs that are available, almost all major multinational and tech corporations have their headquarters in the US, with companies from European countries also having significant action in the country.

Though in India, cities such as Bangalore and Mumbai have hundreds and thousands of multinational companies setting up their base with lucrative jobs which are way better than what it was even 5-10 years ago, there's the allure of working at the headquarters of a company which is still a key factor as to why students still wish to study in the US in large numbers.

3. Student loan debt has always been a worry, right?

Student loan debt is an issue, there’s no doubt about it. But we will have to first separate the student debt that happens in undergrad studies from the student debt that happens in graduate studies.

Many of the issues that happen with debt mostly occur with undergraduate students who are doing a course for four years. Compared with postgraduate studies or Master’s, which last for anywhere between 18 months to 2 years and have many Indian and international students applying for it, the tuition fees are way less.

That’s not to say that people who pursue post-graduation don’t face the issue of loans as people who pursue Law, Medicine can end up accumulating huge loans since they are way more costly compared to Engineering or Business.

It can be difficult for many students since they come from a middle-class background but they end up finding good jobs. Various studies showcase how over one’s entire career if they start with a Bachelor’s degree and have a certain growth and then go on to spend additional time in obtaining a Master’s degree and have a different growth, that differential will help in adding substantial value which will pay for your postgraduate degree many times over. But at the same time, it is important to pick the right university to avail that sort of an opportunity.

4. Why is Texas a good study destination?

The reality is both the East and West coast, which comprises New York and California respectively, have a lot of good universities and job opportunities. But the cost of living in both areas is high. You have companies now moving to Texas from Tesla and AT&T to Toyota.

Texas is famous for multiple telecommunication companies that have been incorporated into the state itself. Companies such as Ericsson, Nokia, and Texas Instruments already have their bases in Texas. These companies have figured out that it's easier to make their employees happy by moving inward and helping them save money.

Texas, unlike many other states in the US, has no state income tax which is another feather in its hat that attracts students and professionals alike. Even when it comes to the weather, students generally don't have to worry about adapting to the conditions, especially if they are coming from India, as Texas is hot yet can give you the experience of different seasons.

We have been seeing a lot of Indian students coming to cities such as Dallas, Austin, Houston, etc, and expect to see more of them in the future.

5. How does SMU play a role in attracting more international students in Texas?

So if I can tell your readers a little bit about SMU. SMU is a private institution in Texas with about 1100 students. In the last few years, we have had graduates with around 2000 bachelor's degrees, some 1800 Master's degrees, and about 350 doctorate degrees with most of them being international students. SMU has different schools, which include Edwin Cox School of Business, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, School of Law, Lyle School of Engineering, and Meadow School of the Arts, with the recent addition being Moody School of Advanced Studies.

Now let me tell you what distinguishes SMU from others. Suppose any Master's programme has 30 credits over 4 semesters, which is usually the case, a student might take up anywhere between 9 to 12 credits for each semester. The student is typically in classes for 10 hours a week depending on the credits. Can your University help you make use of the rest of the time? Because SMU can.

It has fantastic facilities with incredible faculty and labs. We don't just want students to join our Master's programme but also to engage with us in Research. That's why we encourage students to come during the first semester itself as they will have the opportunity to have a 1-on-1 interaction with faculty members and practice in labs for however long they want. If they think a particular area doesn't interest them, students always have the option to try something else. Once they stick to that one area, they can work as a Research Assistant, complete their Thesis on it and get credits.

6. What are some of the programmes that have been initiated to help international students in SMU?

Most of our students find jobs in the market apart from maybe a few blips which concern a graduate’s immigration status. SMU ranks in the top 20 in the US when it comes to mid-career performance of grads and that comes primarily from our soft and leadership skills provided by Lyle School’s engineering leadership department. If you need a mentor, trainer, or any form of guidance on making resumes, attending interviews, or working on student organisations.

We have also initiated two new institutes, one is the Innovation and Entrepreneurship initiative which helps people pitch ideas to the University and work with our engineering and business students who will help in bringing the technical and financial aspects to the table respectively.

Another is Hunt Institute for Engineering and Humanity, which helps individuals connect with students on a day to day issues, for eg:- clean water, housing, and much more. We have also categorised scholarships for students under Research, Teaching assistantships, and Grading positions.

7. What did you observe on your latest trip to India?

I think the situation is a lot better now. With Covid, students were concerned about their health, and rightfully so.

I was not able to visit that many cities in India but I got the feeling that there’s a resurgence in the idea of going abroad to study and it’s back to pre-pandemic levels. SMU during the peak of the pandemic set up isolation centres inside the University and has been very careful in ensuring safety for its students. So Covid, which is something we all have to live with, is no longer an obstacle to students who wish to pursue higher education.

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