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So You Think An Engineering Degree Sets You Up For Life? Wake Up

27/03/2016 8:59 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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An Indian student reading a book.

Every now and then, a story breaks in the papers. An engineering student has committed suicide. A week or two of the media crying foul follows, then there are strikes and admissions of fear of retribution from anonymous students. Then silence.

This pattern is familiar to me. I studied engineering in Chennai. So I've spent close to half a decade seeing stories like this happen and reading even more in the papers. But no one incident stands out for me now. Horribly, like everyone else, I've become desensitized to the brutal reality of it.

The unnecessary, tragic death of young men and women in engineering colleges is only symptomatic of a bigger problem we face. And the topmost layer of that problem is the insecurity of parents and its exploitation.

I can only describe [engineering colleges] as entities that commoditize young adults, discourage intellectual growth and enforce an atmosphere of authority and fear...

It's easy to spot them. The woman on the train who complains mournfully about her son who was doing so well before his tenth board exams, but now doesn't seem interested in studying chemistry at all and hangs out with his useless friends. The parents who compare notes about college courses while the kids stand beside them, looking a little bored. The dad who compliments his teenager's friend on being a credit to his parents because he scored a 100% in the math exam.

But let me back up a bit before this starts to sound like a rant against Indian parents. It's not.

There is a level of competition involved in trying to get to a better, more financially secure place in life. And parents believe, with rather good intentions, that by securing a relatively easy career that pays well, they're giving their child an advantage.

I'm approaching my late 20s-- a time when I'm beginning to understand that parents aren't wiser than everyone else. They just have more responsibilities, and are trying to get by, one day at a time.

Which is why I believe that simply telling them not to put their children in engineering colleges (which I can only describe as entities that commoditize young adults, discourage intellectual growth and enforce an atmosphere of authority and fear) is not going to work.

Parents know all of that, but practically, at the end of four years the kid will be placed in a big company and will start earning. They sympathize, but life's full of hard knocks, you know? And it's only four years -- a period of time that no longer looks as vast to them as it does to their 18 year old.

Their insecurities are also fuelled by rumours and stories of failure.

Fewer and fewer companies want to hire engineering freshers now... you can't expect predictable outcomes from doing the same things you did five or 10 years ago.

For instance, when your child doesn't seem particularly gifted, you panic. Your kids don't know what to do (and if they say they do, they only think they know what to do) so quick, you must decide for them!

At worst, you don't want them to be financially dependent on you. At best, they're your retirement plan. That sounds unflattering, but I don't mean it in a bad way. You want your children to be able to care for you when you can no longer take care of yourself. That's not a terrible thing in itself.

And as a result of this internal reasoning, sprawling engineering colleges will still have people lining up outside for admissions, they will still have exorbitant fees and 'donations', they'll strike deals with large and small companies to recruit from the ranks of their third and fourth year students and they will still bamboozle students and parents out of a real education.

But these jobs are dying out. Engineering colleges are no longer smart or safe bets for well-paying careers.

Fewer and fewer companies want to hire engineering freshers now. These are times when you can't expect predictable outcomes from doing the same things you did five or 10 years ago. There are jobs to go around. They're just more diverse.

I'm sorry.

Because the entire system of engineering colleges, which thrives on so-called discipline, control, gender segregation and humiliation (for you and your child), is one huge, elaborate lie. And no one wants to tell you that.

To Parents


Focus on understanding this human you've given birth to. Kahlil Gibran said:

"Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you."

Let go. The education system is fucked up. We all know that. Can you change it? You probably have bigger problems on your plate right now than fighting the system. That's fine.

Groom [your children] to live a life away from you. Build the foundation, don't try to plan the whole building.

Encourage discipline in your kids. Expect hard work. Tell them that life is uncertain. They may never know what their calling is, but they have to try to find out. Tell them money is important to do the things they really want to do -- that is reality. If they want to do art, they might have to spend eight hours doing something else to support that interest until it can support them.

Groom them to live a life away from you. Build the foundation, don't try to plan the whole building.

But above all, don't let a broken system pressure your children into feeling that they are failures because they fail in class.

How broken is it? Apart from slut-shaming (which happens on a regular basis for both men and women), mark-shaming is also a big part of their agenda. This is something that's ingrained in the so-called strict-engineering-college DNA.

I've been sarcastically asked by regressive female professors if I was trying to attract men. Other women in my class were accused of/taunted with worse inside the college premises. I've sat in classes where students who aren't good at mugging up textbooks were pulled up individually in front their peers and humiliated. I could go on, but I won't. This is ugly, but not the point I'm trying to make.

I've been sarcastically asked by regressive female professors if I was trying to attract men.

The point is, this is not the school of tough love that you were led to believe it is. This is much more demeaning. No person should be treated this way, especially our young, especially in an educational institution.

I stopped deluding myself that I was an engineer a year after I started working as one. I wasn't cut out for it. Since then, I've had a satisfying career as a writer in tech for four years. This is not an unconventional career choice in India anymore.

And the most interesting, stable, well-balanced people I've met and worked with are the ones who are happy doing what they do. For some, it's coding. For others, it's drawing or writing or making videos or networking online.

Times are changing. Careers are different. Now, it only matters if the work you do is really fucking good. That's the competition your kids are up against.

Are strict engineering colleges the way to prepare them? Hardly.

Times are changing. Careers are different. Now, it only matters if the work you do is really fucking good. That's the competition your kids are up against.

Putting them in one only gives them a false sense of security that after four years they won't have to worry about being unemployed (which is no longer true) -- that after the years of mental, verbal and even physical abuse, their reward is to coast by on a job they're not interested in anyway.

To Students


I understand what it feels like to be confused. I'm still confused a lot, although not as much as I was when I was 17 or 18.

This. Is. Normal.

Just know that if you cultivate good taste, you're kind and thoughtful to people and you keep doing what you want to do every day, you'll understand what you need to do in a few years.

Till then, hold tight. Be stubborn. And above all, don't let anyone tell you not to talk to the opposite gender, not to wear 'indecent' clothes or control you with scary cardboard masks labelled 'morality' and 'culture'. This is not acceptable behaviour and the people who consistently push this on you are either pretty shitty to begin with, or they're controlled by it themselves.

It's okay to not attend the 'right' college when you don't know what to do. You'll understand how overrated that is when you start looking for good jobs that need actual skill.

It's okay to not attend the 'right' college... You'll understand how overrated that is when you start looking for good jobs that need actual skill.

If you want career advice, read. Be curious. Go to the internet and learn how to search. Like sunscreen, using the right keywords and names and terms in your field of interest is important.

Even if what you're interested in seems small and silly right now or too much like a pipe dream, it's probably not. And if you never try to find out more about it, you'll always think that it's too small or too big for you, and you would have missed an opportunity to do what you love for a living.

If you don't know the right words or don't learn to use them, you won't find what you're looking for. Or like me, you'll spend a great deal of time and money on other things before you do. For example, content marketing wasn't very popular when I was in school. But now, almost every digital business needs it. And I only found out after I stumbled on blogs like Copyblogger and Jon Morrow.

Be patient with your parents. Sometimes, they're just as confused as you.

Be patient with your parents. Sometimes, they're just as confused as you. That's normal too. I chose engineering because of a lack of knowledge about what was available to me. It wasn't just my parents' decision because I had a choice. I just didn't think I did. Not a good excuse when I look back on it, but it felt pretty compelling at the time.

And that's something worth remembering. You always have a choice. Choose to live, and live well.

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