India’s Engineering Colleges: A Four-Year Career Camp for Undecided Youth

POV

India’s Engineering Colleges: A Four-Year Career Camp for Undecided Youth

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Iwas at a metal gig recently with a friend, and our conversation veered toward how much of India’s rock “scene” (musicians and audiences both) was fostered in engineering colleges across the country. “They have contributed more to Indian rock and metal than they probably realise,” he sagaciously signed off, before we got back to spraining our necks.

While said in jest and using the micro-example of heavy music, there was a hint of universal truth in that statement. If I take my own batch (2002-2006, at  a pretty decent engineering college in Kerala) as a sample, I can think of people doing all sorts of things, from management to music, from content writing (hi!) to software start-ups. Many of those do not have much to do with what we were taught in those four years. There is a common joke that engineering colleges are just a four-year career camp. The more I thought about it, the less it seemed like satire and more like an idea that should be celebrated.

Since childhood, the triumvirate of parents, society, and log (of “kya kahenge?” fame) have made decisions for children. This results in conservative choices — a recent study shows 93 per cent of Indian kids are aware of just seven career options, at a time when there are over 250. This scenario is likely to be worse in smaller towns. Sure, you could say we have more information now. But keep in mind, the madness around board exams (and, well, IIT) keeps increasing each year, leaving students less time to spend thinking about what they want to do with their lives. Indeed, the four years of engineering college are probably the first time since puberty that many students have actually had just the time to give this a serious thought. 

But more importantly, students have independence. Away from the constant scrutiny of parents, society, and log, their independent ideas start flowering. It helps that one is constantly surrounded by people who are non-judgemental and give nary a fuck. Groups are formed based on interests and ideologies rather than by accident of birth or location. Maturity kicks in at around this point — you’re likely to interact with people across geographies, socio-economic classes, and interest groups for the first time in your life. You’re likely to make decisions on your own for the first time. You genuinely get to choose the company you keep. You decide how many unregulated intoxicants you will intake. And so on.

By the third year, most people in an engineering college learn what their skills are — those that can make the CV, and those that can’t.

By the third year, most people in an engineering college learn what their skills are — those that can make the CV, and those that can’t. They have a reasonable sense of what they are good at, what they like, and how they think they can make money; hopefully, at least two of the three would be the same. All this put together determines what they want to do in life, way more than post-grad ever will (which, after all, is just a formalization of what you decide to do while in college). Chances are, lathe machines and Clark’s tables won’t feature. I’ve been on interview panels for B-Schools, and it was quite palpable that for most engineers there, the four years of college was just to figure out what they wanted to do in life and work toward it (along with some meaningless phrases like “developed analytical skills”).

All this is exacerbated by a pedagogy that places a premium on rote learning over application. It’s one thing having to mug-up state capitals for board exams when you’re 13, but another to try and learn mechanical engineering without having a solid use-case when you’re 22. I have seen spirited-minded would-be engineers get disillusioned by the overemphasis on theory and outdated application examples. Some of the best real-life engineers I interacted with were not academically very good. In my hostel of “toppers”, the only guy who could fix a fuse was a guy who had more supplementary exams than Kohli has centuries. Another batchmate, who went on to start his own software company, failed the aptitude software entrance exams. A friend once joked that the most innovative thing to ever come out of an engineering college were rejected student dissertation ideas. 

For colleges too (especially private ones), the emphasis has turned to placements rather than actual education. And if you get into an IT company, you will be given a month-long “induction” which gives you the actual knowledge you need at your new job, rendering your four years of education pretty useless. 

Given all these factors, it should hardly come as a surprise that ambitious young kids start taking matters into their own hands and decide what they want to do. Group discussion workshops are held, not because they are fundamental to becoming a good engineer, but because they increase chances of clearing CAT, a management school exam. More enterprising kids go out of their way to side-hustle in gigs that they know will be more useful to them in the future than knowing the Hell-Volhard-Zelinsky Reaction.

So why is this trend so prevalent in engineering colleges? Good question, and it’s something I have only conjecture for, not a solid answer.

A friend once joked that the most innovative thing to ever come out of an engineering college were rejected student dissertation ideas.

To begin, someone entering the other “Big Three” professional courses — medicine and law — is likely to be specifically motivated to pursue those courses, and less likely to deviate. Then there’s B.Com, CA, and management courses, which have specific career paths, and their higher study options seem like a natural extension, whereas a chemical engineer choosing a finance management degree seems like a heck of a pivot. As for media students, well, they have an explosion of roles they can end up in, organically. Going from a mass communications course to advertising seems natural, and even BMM to a role in a comedy company seems reasonable. As more of these companies and roles become formalised (Comicstaan’s Twitter bio once read “We’re a show that convinces parents that comedy is a legit career.”), media students by default could jump into an erstwhile “weird role” right out of college.

All this is not to disparage engineering colleges; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s to acknowledge their role in the professional and personal enlightenment of millions of Indians — just not in the way the brochure writers envisaged. With the lack of proper career counselling, an open-minded society, and time, engineering colleges become oases where India’s future decides what to do with their, well, future.

Picking up some heavy metal along the way sure doesn’t hurt.

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