To be an engineer or not ?

By virtue of a combination of having two engineering degrees and also having a large (by any standards) circle of family and friends, I am often asked if it is worth pursuing an engineering education. This blog is an attempt to amalgamate my thoughts on this topic as well as to drive any future queries to this post, hence conserving my time and energy also ! Disclaimer: This is a subjective blog and I do not intend to fill it up with any amount of accurate and precise data.Also, the cost-benefit analysis will not be mathematical and more heuristic as an effort towards the latter is probably worthy of research at a doctoral level

My primary advise for a pursuit of any career is to first and foremost understand whether the student her(him)self is interested in that area. This is something which parents should also be acutely cognizant of, for often there is significant pressure from their front. Remember, the student is the one who will toil towards a degree and subsequently in a career relevant to the study area for typically more than 3 decades and it is very difficult to sustain focus and success if the interest levels are low. I am aware of examples of extremely bright students being forced to study engineering, who have either given up on their course or have rebelled violently (an extreme case is Saketh Rajan, a dreaded and now deceased naxal leader who was incidently my mother’s classmate in school).

Engineering is also considered to be a safe choice for many students, who are typically advised to first study engineering and then do anything they wish later on, as they are hence provided with a safety net if their other pursuits don’t succeed or they lose interest in their original choice of study. I think this is a bad idea for two reasons:

  1. Engineering is no longer a safety net as seen by the dual problem of a high percentage of unemployed engineers going out of college.
  2. A large percentage of engineers who eventually get jobs often end up in lower paid jobs. For example, starting salaries for engineers in major Indian IT firms like Infosys, TCS and so on have been stagnant for the past decade.

Also, as opposed to other degrees in science, arts and commerce, engineers have to spend 4 years studying. If a student is really passionate about another field, it makes more sense to finish studying one year earlier !

Another persistent debate is about the perceived values of different streams of engineering. Some branches like electronics and telecommunication or computer science are supposedly better than others, with justifications ranging from the difficulty level of these branches as well as chances in the job market. Again, I believe that it is really upto the interest of the student to decide which stream best suits his/ her interests. The best way to understand this is to talk to  a variety of people in the same stream at different points in their career timeline; immediate seniors, fresh graduates, mid career professionals as well as retired veterans. This diversity provides a wider perspective which will help in decision making. I studied mechanical engineering and felt that I could have benefited more by interacting with a wider pool of such mechanical engineers.

On a blanket basis, what I have seen as the most relevant traits which an engineering aspirant should possess are curiosity, creativity, an eye for details, problem solving ability and persistence. In that sense, my engineering hero is Sir M Visvesvaraya, whose birthday (15th September) is incidentally celebrated as Engineer’s Day in our country.

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