Prof. Sarit K Das
Unlike the west, where engineering is one of the many options such as Basic Science, Literature, Business, Law, Medicine, Economics, Sociology and so on. In India, engineering seems to be the option for a vast majority of the students aspiring for a successful career. One could have given a simple answer to this trend by saying that the job prospects of an engineering graduate are much more compared to those in other disciplines in India. However, the answer in reality is not so simple. In fact, the number of factors contributing to this is large, such as the steep rate of economic growth in India, advent of Information Technology, success of Indian Professionals abroad etc. etc.
In recent times, the additional factors that have added to this are the increased pace of research culture in Indian industry and academia, the sudden emphasis on entrepreneurship and start-ups and advent of futuristic technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Virtual Realities and so on.
In this backdrop, let us examine the current opportunities of an Indian student in the arena of Higher Technical Education.
ARE THE OLD STREAMS OBSOLETE?
For ages, the traditional fields of engineering education such as mechanical, electrical, civil and chemical engineering had been the choice of technology students. In recent times it has been heavily tilted towards computer engineering where we find students are willing to give up a seat in a coveted institute to take admission in a lesser known institute in computer engineering.
Does this mean that the traditional fields are heading towards a dead end? The answer is an emphatic, NO.
There is no denying that a big chunk of jobs today are from IT industry. But those jobs go to everyone from mechanical to chemical and even from biotechnology to metallurgical engineering (we should not forget that Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Google is a metallurgical engineer). For any engineer, computer savvyness, coding skills and framing algorithms is important and advanced technological Institutes do provide such trainings, hence the logic of looking at computer science for IT jobs does not stand strong. In fact, a vast majority work of computer science engineers in our country do not work in core computer science areas such as computer architecture, Operating Systems, and Networking etc.
Hence, the madness of getting a computer science seat is a misplaced and uninformed hysteria without any technical basis. What we largely do is application of computer technology in various applications for which in some cases the engineers from fields other than computer science are more appropriate.
On the other hand, India does need a large number of engineers to build the industrial, social and civic infrastructure such as roads, dams, bridges, factories, healthcare systems, educational institutions, water technologies, for which a large number of qualified ‘traditional’ engineers are required. As an example, one may see a tremendous shortage of senior lever quality civil engineers in the industry due to slump of civil engineering education two to three decades back. Hence, if one doesn’t look at just the first job but to the career spanning decades, he/she may stick to the traditional basic engineering stream which enables absorption of any emerging technologies due to its broad based undergraduate education.
UPCOMING AREAS SUCH AS INDUSTRY 4.0
After the three industrial revolutions of a stream, electricity and computers we are the doorsteps of the 4th revolution that is termed as, Industry 4.0, which is in broader terms known as integrated CPS (Cyber Physical Systems).
In this system, computers, sensors and communication systems are connected to the business and industrial processes such as Manufacturing, Chemical Processing industry, Pharmaceuticals, Banking, Finance and Healthcare Systems. Use of Big Data and Machine Learning will make Cyber Physical Systems more efficient and intelligent. Hence, it is obvious only computer engineers cannot accomplish this. One needs mechanical, electrical, computer science, biological or materials science professionals to work together to get a product or solution. Let’s take for example, healthcare systems; In future the hospitals need to handle diagnostic systems which are AI based, with computer and with medical professionals analysing medical images such as MRI, CT Scan, X-Ray and then take up therapeutic steps such as Nanoparticle mediated targeted drug delivery or robotic surgery.
This may look too heavy and futuristic but this is what a hospital will have in 5 to 10 years. Hence, think of the different types of professions which you will get engaged in such an interconnected world.
The same is true for any industry or public delivery system like transportation, communication etc. My intention to mention all these is to indicate that no single engineering stream is going to emerge as superior in this interplay of disciplines. As an engineer, while students need to know his/her discipline, he or she will be more valuable if he/she acquires interdisciplinary skills. More appreciated attributes will be adaptability and self learning ability.
WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS THEN?
The above discussion lays down a background canvas on which has to paint your career. Before laying out the way to move forward for choice of streams/Institutions etc, let’s first list out the don’ts to make a choice.
· Do not choose a stream just looking at market prospects. You always have got prospects if you are good in whatever stream you are. On the other hand a poor student of the best stream is not going to make a much of headway to a good career.
· Do not choose a stream where you dislike the skills which are basic need of the stream, e.g. Do not opt for biotechnology if you don’t like biology and don’t take computer science if mathematics is not your favorite subject. Don’t take mechanical engineering if you don’t like mechanics chapter in physics or do not take electrical engineering if you don’t like electricity and magnetism at the Plus II level.
· Don’t choose an institution looking at its placement data alone. Although, not always, quite often this data is not reliable. Look at the overall standard of the institute. The National Ranking (NIRF) is a good indication of a stature of an institute. International Rankings such as Times Higher Education (THE) and QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) are the other good reference levels to consider.
· Don’t attach any importance to the location of the institute. Some of the best institutes are located in remote rural setups and worst of the institutes in mega cities and vice versa.
· Don’t go by hearsay and gossip, including the gossip on the internet in the form of Educational blogs/Social media. Quite often these are ill intended and ill motivated.
· Don’t make complete sacrifice with respect to either stream or standard of the institute. Sacrifice of either of these may lead to disastrous results. However, if it comes to a little compromise in my opinion, the stream should be given preference over the institute.
Naturally, there are some Do’s as well and they can be listed as:
· Please visit the websites of the institutes carefully. These days NIRF forces all institutes to put their data on various aspects such as Teaching and Learning, Research, Placements etc. This data is more reliable and a glance on it will give a good idea about the standard of the institute.
· Various institutes arrange live web programmes for clearing dilemmas or physical open house for JEE aspirants. Try to attend as many as possible without any bias. They are good to attend as they answer to questions particularly those which you may not get from NIRF data.
· The most important resource of institution is its faculty members. So, do scan the profiles of faculty members of the particular department you are seeking admission.
· Do also scan through the curriculum and the various opportunities such as Minors, Projects and Industry internships etc.
· Look at opportunities for entrepreneurship and start-ups. You may not be interested in these at this point of time but in course of your study there may be a spark to take it up.
A particular word of caution is against big scale news paper advertisement and anonymous blogs. They carry very little truth. For example; I see many complaints against 2nd generation IITs whereas the reality is, these institutes are galloping in terms of academics, placement, research opportunities, making infrastructure and reputation. One needs to have an accurate picture about such information.
A WORD OF ADVICE
There are three things push a candidate to wrong decision in choosing engineering career and they are:
1. Peer pressure
2. Pressure from parents
3. Tension about consequences
Let’s start with the third one which is in my opinion is the most important one.
Be relaxed, I keep on saying that life is not a 100 meter sprint, it is a marathon. In a 100 meter sprint, the start is important, if you are late to start it is difficult to make up but in a marathon the start has no significance as it is the stamina which is the most important feature in winning the race. In life also if you make a wrong choice there is nothing to be worried about. You will get ample number of opportunities to reposition yourself.
Coming to the first one, your peers may have some information, but please understand their source of information is very specific which you cannot generalise. That means what your friend’s uncle, who is a big guy, said may not be relevant to you at all with respect to your choice. Believe in yourself and be guided by both heart and brain, but may be little more by heart.
Coming to the question of parental pressure, I would urge the parents to be less intuitive. Firstly, because the world has changed. The new wave of research- based technology, entrepreneurship and innovativeness should be allowed to decide the careers in the days to come. This is much different from the way your parents built their careers. Hence, their experience is of little relevance not only to the aspiration of the student but also the aspirations of the country in coming days. Even if the parents are well informed, every new generation has got new paradigms such as attitude towards society, towards life, enjoyments and accomplishments, and hence trying to dictate the path towards a satisfying career is a futile exercise.
Last but not the least, is an advice to the students that even if you cannot choose the stream or institute close to your heart, don’t feel sad. Life might have kept the best for you at later time. Accept whatever comes your way and make the best out of it, you will be in the victory stand at the end.
— The writer is Director, IIT, Ropar