University Review: Imperial College London

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(Image courtesy of Wikipedia… does it actually snow in London?!)

So far on this blog I have reviewed books (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8), musicals (1, 2, 3, 4), movies (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), computer games (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), 3D printers (1), and an airplane (1).

Since it’s pretty clear that my blog is going to be reviews of all things under the sun, and that I don’t want to study for my exams, I am going to try reviewing a university – Imperial College London, where I have been spending the bulk of my time in the past few months.

This post is written from the perspective of a postgrad (MSc Advanced Computing), but because our course (*1) is incredibly small at 12 people, I’m trying to make it non-course-specific.

Campus and Surrounding Area

To be honest, the campus is quite underwhelming.

The campus consists of a few tightly packed mostly-ugly buildings in a rectangular block in the middle of South Kensington, probably the most expensive part of London (London Part II – South Kensington, Imperial College London).

The surrounding consists of museums, art galleries, consulates, and embassies. They probably also contributes to the perceived ugliness of Imperial, but I guess it’s better to be in an ugly building in a beautiful area rather than in the same building in an even uglier area that makes the buildings seem beautiful in comparison.

There is obviously no student parking, but that’s not too big of an issue since London’s full time congestion and good public transit means no one drives anyways.

There is also no subsidized accommodation at all for postgrads, which is more of a problem. We either have to pay an arm and a leg to live in a leaking hole somewhere nearby (among all the diplomats and billionaires), or pay only an arm to live somewhere 40 minutes away by tube. Fortunately my degree is only 1 year. I really feel sorry for people doing their PhD here.

Coming from a campus the size of South Kensington (yay for UBC!), it definitely takes some getting used to.

It’s nice to not have to walk between buildings in the rain, and being 20 minutes from the West End (*2) by tube almost makes up for it, but it’s still nice to have a bit of space.

The lack of space also affects non-academic facilities on campus. For example, food.

There are 3 main food places on campus – JCR, h-bar (restricted to masters and up), and SCR (PhDs and staff). The food is reasonably good and reasonably priced, but selection is very limited, and they are always crowded. We always go to h-bar because JCR food is absolutely terrible. If you are going as an undergrad… be prepared for terrible food (that you have to queue for 20 minutes to get).

There are small cafeterias in a few buildings that all sell the same things (sandwiches mostly).

Academic Facilities

This section is specific to Department of Computing for the most part.

The facilities are amazing. Imperial is a very well funded university, and it really shows in their hardware investments.

We have our very own 13000 cores cluster to play with. How awesome is that?! There is also a 32 core 512 GB RAM system we have SSH access to. It may not sound very important, but they are very convenient if your work requires high computation power. It’s very nice to be able to do a parameter optimization run in a few minutes rather than overnight. Or a large scale Monte Carlo analysis. Or something.

There is also an internal Amazon EC2-type service, for people trying to host servers, etc.

We are also very rarely out of lab machines, unlike at UBC where we have to wait 20 minutes for lab machines at peak times. The lab machines are all very well equipped with minimum 4 cores, crapload of RAM, and some have GTX 780 and Quadro/FirePro for people doing graphics or GPGPU work. All lab machines run Linux, and are all accessible over SSH, and there is a distributed task system that allows us to distribute arbitrary parallel workload to be run on spare cycles in all those machines. That’s about 1000 IvyBridge and Haswell i7 and Xeon cores, across 250 quad core nodes.

There is also a hackspace in electrical engineering building with many 3D printers, a laser cutter, and a bunch of other tools. I haven’t had time to check it out, yet.

No complaints in this department.

Teaching

Imperial is one of the top universities in the world, so we do get a fair share of famous professors. It’s nice to be taught by leaders in their respective fields, but the downside is that they are all incredibly busy, and don’t really have much time to talk to us.

You can tell that they are really making an effort to talk to students, but they just don’t have time for the most part.

Most of them are pretty good at teaching, though I have only taken 4 courses, so there is high sampling error.

Class sizes aren’t usually too bad, but there are a few very big ones (like the intro to machine learning course).

TAs are generally helpful and know what they are talking about.

Students

There is a saying that if you are not the worst programmer in an office, you are in the wrong office. It’s something I always strive for – to work with people more capable than I am, and I think I’ve found just the right place for that.

This is perhaps the biggest advantage of going to a competitive university – there are no stupid people (sorry :P).

At UBC, if you are randomly put in a group of 6, chances are there will be 2 people who have no interest at all in the subject matter and are only doing the degree because they heard it pays well (or their parents told them to), 1 person really struggling with the course and requires explaining everything 5 times, 1 person who is failing anyways and doesn’t care, and 1 other useful member of the group.

At Imperial, that just doesn’t happen. Everyone is competent enough to get into this university (though even I managed to get in, so maybe the standard is not very high after all), and most importantly, passionate about the subject matter. It’s nice to work with smart people (like our machine learning group, which is pure amazingness), where when you explain ideas to each other, you never really have to say anything twice, and everyone will actually get it. We can all brainstorm at a very fast pace, and don’t need to spend the bulk of the time keeping everyone on the same page.

Imperial has the reputation that it’s full of nerdy people. While that may be true to some extent, Imperial is also known to have very active and well funded student societies.

I am part of 6 different societies, and I find that the distinguishing quality of Imperial people is dedication. Not just dedication to academic work, but also other things in life.

People in the SCUBA diving club are dedicated to diving (they are amazing – volunteer instructors to spend hours with us in the pool, when they have their studies/research to worry about as well); people in the gliding club are dedicated to gliding – the captain wakes up at 6 on both Saturday and Sunday every weekend to take people to the airfield, and spend the whole day there; people in the archery club are dedicated to archery, and go to competitions all the time, in addition to teaching all us newbies.

No one does anything half-heartedly, and it’s mutually infectious. This is probably what I love the most about Imperial.

People definitely don’t go clubbing and such as much. I don’t care. I have never and will probably never go anyways. We usually have better things to spend our time on.

Demographics-wise, Imperial has a reputation of being full of Chinese students. Well, whoever said that have obviously never been to Vancouver.

The student population is probably about 10% Chinese, and the rest is a pretty even mix of all European countries. There seem to be quite a few people from Germany and Spain, but there are some British as well, Singaporeans, and eastern European/Russian. North America is definitely under-represented. But that’s fine, I know way too many North Americans already on the other side of the pond :). It just seems like North Americans don’t generally come to Europe for university, and British people don’t generally go to North America. North Americans are so under-represented here that we actually have a North American society.

Other Asian countries also seem to be under-represented. I haven’t met anyone from Japan or Korea, and I’ve met people from probably 15+ countries already.

It’s a much more culturally-diverse mix compared to even Vancouver, and it’s awesome! All the cool stories!

Reputation

Imperial does have a high reputation (at least outside of the US), and I’m not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse.

It has been ranked anywhere from 2nd in the world to 20th in the world, depending on who you ask, and curiously, some people are quite caught up on that.

Did you know that people prefer to read magazines that rank their universities higher? Is it really surprising that British magazines all rank British universities higher, and American magazines all rank American universities higher?

They provide a few different measures, and add them together using weights drawn out of thin air, tweak them so the scores of the top universities come very close, and compare universities to second decimal places. You can tweak those things to say anything you want.

There is often an air of snobbery. People feel they are somehow superior just because they go to a university some magazine editor decides is better than another. It’s pretty annoying, but I suppose it’s unavoidable at any good university.

That’s much more prevalent among undergrads (at least the ones I talked to at society meetings and events).

I still remember one of my very first engineering lectures at UBC (that’s almost 7 years ago!). I don’t remember what course it was or which professor it was, but he said something to the effect of –

Be proud of what you do, because engineers are doing something valuable for mankind and making the world a better place… but not with the arrogance of those in the medical profession.

It’s easy to become arrogant when success seems almost too easy, and I’m sure I am arrogant at times, but it’s something I’m working to fix.

We must not fall victim to that. The day we start becoming arrogant is the day we stop learning, and engineering requires life-long learning.


*1: For my North American friends – in the UK, they use the term “course” also to refer to a degree program(me)

*2: One of the 2 biggest centres of performing arts in the world, the other being Broadway in New York. Dream for musical-goers!