Before I answer this question, I would like you to know that I am not from one of the premier institutes in India.
What I say henceforth is largely from a view point of an average Indian pursuing his/her graduate studies in the United States. I will warn you that this is going to be a subjective analysis.
It is exaggerated and generalized.
You see, if we Indians remotely understood the concept of subtlety, I wouldn’t be writing this post today.
The following is more like a session given when tripping on some high quality LSD, things that will not be openly told to you on that ‘incoming students’ group on Facebook.
The usual advice about education and research is towards the end. Skip and help yourself.
The American Way of Life
Folks here are largely individualistic. And I applaud them for being so.
I might have seen only a niche group of Americans here, but I can safely conclude that they are polite, humble and most important of all, have this extreme passion for a godforsaken field that we, status loving, name dropping folks, are largely alien to.
I know of an American teammate who is crazy about collecting motocross statistics and he is pretty serious about it (holy-mother-of-god-crazy
The passion is infectious, it makes me go weak at the knees, to the point of being mistaken as someone experiencing a hot flush. No kidding. There is just no match to the passion these guys have.
Occasionally, I do run into some whack-jobs who are anti-abortion or anti-gay, but that’s a minuscule number and doesn’t represent the whole.
Americans in general are a private lot, love sports and take a great deal of pride in who they are and what they do.
They could be running your local grocery store and they are mighty proud about it.
Unlike us who look down upon anyone not a Computer Science Engineer or a Doctor, they are less pretentious and more open to failures.
A Stanford graduate never talks about his pedigree because he knows what ‘subtle’ is and he knows ideas matter more than a person’s origin. I appreciate this quality a lot and I only, only wish we, as a nation, embraced it.
We all grew up in a place where there is so much noise about all things personal: grades, salary, property details to the precision of the last decimal point.
That way, it is a breather here because conversations with the non-Indian graduate students are about interests, ideas and dry humor (Jon Stewart + political correctness? that kind).
They rarely ask you whether you secured an internship or a job and even if they do, it is probably not with the intention of feeling evil-happy from within that you don’t have one.
They will never ask you your grades and will never question you if you are seen talking to someone from the opposite sex.
Privacy, civility and respect is almost embedded into their culture as is lack of personal space and lack of sense of individuality in ours. I seldom hear them say “Oh well, when I was at Stanford, I got job offers from X , Y and Z!
The Indian Way of American life
The culture shock I experienced was from the Indian Community: There will be a certain ‘Indian Student Association’ in your graduate school.
My two cents on this one. Run like Usain Bolt from them. Run as fast as you can.
Their sole reason for existence is to display their ‘accomplishments’ in the pretext of on-boarding freaked out freshers like us.
I could hear imaginary trumpets blaring when I got introduced to a couple of them. This is where your brainwashing begins and your starry-eyed dream of an international experience begins to fade with the song-dance gala welcome party and samosas.
And god forbid you are from the meek (peaceful, I would say) southern part of India, you will probably receive ‘light-hearted’ racist comments about your ‘Madrasi’ idlis and sambhars.
These are the same folks who extend their sincere support when one Mr.Khan gets questioned by the TSA and cries foul about how racism is rampant in the western world.
These guys cannot differentiate Chennai from Bangalore from Hyderabad and even Orissa. Goodness gracious. I don’t even want to comment on the poor East-Indians.Double standards, not new right?
Soon after, you will mail your Indian senior graduates asking them for suggestions on courses to choose, professors to work with, projects to work on, all with the primary intent of landing a plum job with a very well known firm.
Things are often exaggerated (like the Indian weddings), you will be made to feel something is wrong with you, if you dare go beyond the norm and pick courses that your senior friend brands as ‘very difficult’ by his standards.
He will scare you enough that his ‘I told you so’, will haunt you all through the semester. And worse, you repeat the same cycle, plant this seed into another incoming student’s head and there, you have an entire line of Indians not signing up for a course because, oh well, seniors did not take it.
Indians here are risk averse, not because they are not capable of taking risks (foreign graduate study is a risk in itself) but because they are surrounded by a peer group that psychologically prevents them from taking risks.
I hardly see them trying out something as unpredictable as a start-up or going for that arduous PhD that they dream of.
You were perfectly capable of doing well in that subject till you decided to get that bloated advice from your senior friend.
Trust yourself to make the right call here and pick courses that you are passionate about and capable of, not because your senior friend tells you that it is ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ or worse, that not signing up for that course will not fetch you a job.
By far, the lamest advice I have heard from an Indian senior.
The other side of this affair, the dangerous one, here goes: There are certain ‘easy’ courses in your curriculum.
By easy, it means easy grades or a lenient professor.
Well, before you know it’s easy (takes a month to realize that) your Indian friends and their senior bum-chums would have ragged you on your incompetency for not signing up for an intellectually challenging course like they did.
Here I am, paying nearly all my life savings in tuition for a subject that everybody makes fun of.
How does that feel? It feels bloody miserable that such black and white judgment processes exist in a world-class university and your peers do not let you enjoy what you are studying.
Easy or difficult, it’s the learning that I enjoy.
Of course, you could always show the finger and move on, but it does become a little difficult when the peer group views you as an intellectual misfit.
They are all out to prove their choices, decisions are far superior to yours. Sounds familiar?
The great Indian hype: If you are in the top 5% of your Operating System class and some nosy friend of yours leaked out your grade, you are suddenly the person who wrote the Linux kernel altogether.
You will go hide in your room and probably never come out.
If you happen to have worked for the biggies back home, you are a superstar here.
Your friends hype your work, that you couldn’t care much about . But then suddenly everyone thinks you are a smart kid, and nasty comments like ‘Well, you are the smart one, you will obviously crack this, it’s a joke for you’ will be spewed.
And if you fail to crack it, the same group immediately writes you off, leaving you wondering what is going on.
I did not create the hype, I did not publicize my work, but here I am being made fun for failing something I did not even claim I could solve!
And some frustrated fellow Indian, obviously a victim of peer-pressure, will then make a comment like this: ‘how did he/she get that internship, he/she does not deserve this!’.
It creates an endless caustic cycle of competition that can be emotionally draining.
Minor annoyance (read entertainment), the Facebook feed of your party-kid Indian friend: There is also this certain group of Indians who are one of those misinformed college kids clicking endless pictures and doing endless check-ins at every happening and non-happening place in the city.
They are another reason for you to cringe. Having never seen the US or been here once or twice on a family trip, they are these uber-excited , hyperactive social beings who make us all look like party kids, desperate for attention.
There is a flood of photos of your wannabe Indian friend with an American/Ukrainian/German/French guy/girl (Who cares! they are all a bunch of good looking white folks anyway!) every 10 minutes on your news feed.
Go back to studying, kid. Don’t you whine later when your CS friends end up getting that coveted job in that dream company of yours and you go around trivializing by calling a developer job as a mere ‘support’ job.
The next time you brag about the new iPad you bought from the Apple Store on Facebook, I will remind you of all the ‘support’ work we did.
The disappointment and feeling of loneliness: You, if you are one of those pitiable Indian students with a hefty loan and with the sole purpose of learning, with dreams and ambitions beyond a job, inclined to know more about the American way of life, the history, the politics, the culture, the people, will be left wondering if you accidentally landed in India.
Worse, they will look at you with contempt if you make the slightest indication that you are not inclined to their way of life, you are different, and you want to be a part of a broader culture that emphasizes on individualism rather than the collective thinking we have been brought up to accept.
If you follow the election primaries/ presidential elections, my suggestion is to keep it a secret and pretend you enjoy Bollywood songs when you are with your group.
Helps to bond and make them feel at home.You will be surrounded by plenty of Indian friends, but you are unable to connect to them in a meaningful way.
Your friends are nosy.
They want to know who you hang out with, your grades, who you stay with, if things are okay with your roommates, the white ‘chick’ you find hot, whether you managed to get an internship, if not, some unsolicited advice on how I should be prepared for an unpaid internship, your salary and your plans of securing a job after Master’s and more unsolicited advice.
The rat race repeats all over again, the very same reason why you left India.
Life is not as easy-peasy as those Facebook photos depict.
It is a lot of work, actually. More like a correction facility for all the tardiness back in our undergraduate classes.
You will be forced to wake up early, forced to sleep late, forced to use your rusted brains for every assignment.You will be forced to become more disciplined in life.
This is why I wrote in the beginning that I am not from one of the premier Indian institutes, because those guys are probably familiar with such load.
If you are an average student like me, you will wonder where you are going wrong, in spite of being one of the top students in your class back home. It was rote learning back there, it is not that way here.
Not a day passed in the first couple of months where I did not wish that I had studied in the US since the very beginning.
But, of course, there is an easy way out of this, something you must know by now, given how things work in India.
You can always get your answers on the internet or by discussing them with your Indian friends beyond the permitted levels and break the academic honesty rules.
Rules are meant to be broken, right? That’s how things are back home! And with the omnipresent ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude, we look down on those unfortunate folks caught for academic dishonesty, but pretty much do it ourselves.
Any guesses why the Indians score well and way above average? Here it is.
This also leads to a major moral dilemma. What should I do? Endless nights of work and my neurons seem to be giving up on me and I am looking at a bad grade or an easy way out, which everyone seems to be taking?
You will do great if you are sincere with your work, if you have a desire to learn, if you are curious (in learning) and if you don’t let the above affect you much.
As another post here highlights, professors are approachable, resources are aplenty and school will keep you busy enough to forget a lot of peer pressure I mentioned above.
You can select courses from technical/non-technical departments alike, while you are majoring in say Computer Vision.
It need not always be coherent, because a lot of us are here to explore.You are not expected to become a subject matter expert and specialize in something. It is recommended, not mandatory.
I know of a professor who majored in Music in his undergraduate studies and went on to get his PhD in Computer Science. That is the flexibility this system offers. Awesome, isn’t it?
If you are in one of the research schools, I recommend you to get a hang of research that goes on and think about how you could contribute your tiny little idea to the academia, no matter how nebulous it is.
That said, there is nothing wrong in looking for a job (I too want to make my living) but do not let it become a priority, because you are here for graduate studies and jobs/internships are more or less a by-product of what you do.
Education is something very close to my heart and it does bother me personally when the whole purpose is diluted with unnecessary add-ons like what I mentioned above.
About socializing, yes, not all is lost and you will find a few laid-back Indian friends in this mud-pool.
You can spend a night drinking with them and moaning about how you flunked your OS mid-terms without worrying about how you will be judged.
These are gems. Hold on to them.
What bonds us together is healthy criticism, a sense of respect for each other’s work, a sense of ‘Hey, it’s his choice, dude’.
You see that? The last sentence there? ‘It’s his choice’. You don’t need to be an American to respect individual choices and freedom.
Based on an experience shared by some student
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