Opinion on Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream

Commentary on the inside the IIT Dream

Netflix's Alma Matters: Will It Even Scratch The Surface Of Sexism In  Engineering Colleges?

Today,  I watched an amazing documentary film named Alma Matters: Inside the IIT Dream on Netflix. It is one of the best documentaries made on IIT and Indian education system so far. I am adding my comments and opinions about this 3 episode series

This documentary is based on the life of students in IIT Kharagpur. This IIT is located in Bengal, and faraway from all the big metro cities in India. The campus is lush green and very remote. The first episode shows how the life of IIT students revolves around departments to residence halls, commuting using bicycles, eating in canteen and living the hostel life. The students who get selected in IIT have worked hard to crack one of India’s toughest exams, JEE and hence, after two years of jail time (Class 11 and 12), as remarked by one of the students, hardly anyone studies seriously after entering the IIT. Because the students get the freedom after their jail time, and hence there is no motivation to study hard again, with few exceptions as always.

Infact, it is shown in the film as conveyed by the students themselves that many of them are confused about their careers. Because first they dont know what they want to do in life, and second they have received admission based on their JEE rank. So, for someone who has a low JEE rank, ends up studying mining or metallurgy, while the JEE top rankers select Computer Science. Hence, many students in spite of their interest in Computer Science cannot study just because they could not perform well on the fateful day of the JEE entrance exam. 

Then, the first episode also shows how gender bias still exists in places like IIT Kharagpur. Many girls studying in IIT experience this bias and sexist behavior of guys in almost everything. That’s why there has never been a single woman president or vice president of the student body in the history of the institution. The primary reason is the huge gender gap ratio, which is almost 1:9 for girls:guys. Hence, the institution is male dominated, in every sphere of life.

Then the second episode ( which is the best out of the three as per my opinion) is based on the job placements in IIT Kharagpur. All the IITs are not only famous in India for selecting the brightest minds, but also for their job placements packages. We often hear engineers from IIT getting Rs.1 Cr package. It is true that some do receive such luxurious packages, but it is not that all studying in IIT get such hefty paying jobs before graduation. Infact, this episode debunks the myth that all IIT engineers end up getting hefty salaries or jobs in Google or Microsoft. Infact as told by many IIT students studying there, very few, maybe 1 or 2 in a placement calendar year, only receive such life changing offers. While others either get good or industry standard packages only.

The episode also nicely shows how tense the students are to get the jobs. Because it is a matter of prestige and status. If IIT engineers, who are known as the best minds in the country, fail to land up a job, then how else can other engineers get the jobs? Hence, the pressure to perform and get placed is very very high. Many students don’t sleep or eat before interviews. They work hard with night outs, taking mock tests and group discussions to clear the interview round. Often the pressure is so high, that many get addicted to constant smoking or even drinking to release the stress. After seeing this episode, I remembered the movie ‘3 Idiots’, where Amir Khan aka ‘Rancho’ tells how the engineering colleges have ceased to be a place of learning, and rather have become a kind of ‘Pressure Cooker’. Indeed, after watching this second episode of this documentary, Rancho was right!

Finally, the third or final episode shows some hidden side of IIT Kharagpur(KGP). The so-called studious 9 pointers, or lazy 6 pointer engineers, participate in art, drama, painting and many other hobbies apart from their studies, video games, movies and smoking. The unique tradition of Illu in KGP to light diyas on a beautiful theme and convey the message shows how the left and right brain, when worked together, can create a beautiful world. The paintings created by the nerdy engineers reflect the hidden artistic talent inside their logical minds.

Then, this episode also shows a dark side of IIT KGP, which is suicide. Each year, 4- 5 students end up committing suicides and this is deeply troubling. The interviews with students throws light on the possible reasons behind the high suicide rate, such as excessive pressure to perform and excel, isolated campus, being away from parents and unable to cope up with the pressure and stress. I remember, one of my good IIT friend, committed suicide and it was deeply depressing. I don’t know why someone who has made it into IIT, unlike millions like me who couldn’t get into IIT in spite of trying hard, and still give up on life like that. I mean even if the academic stress or peer pressure is extremely unbearable in places like IIT, but there is always a way out. Because those 4 or 5 years are just a phase of life, and that phase surely ends someday. If someone fails in that phase of life, it does not mean that he or she will fail in other phases of life as well! I wish my friend would have thought about this, and he would have been alive today!

Finally, the episode ends with the camaraderie among students and friends who have bonded with each other for the past 4 or 5 years. At the end, almost everyone gets a job before graduating from IIT, and many of them end up going to IIM, crack UPSC or fly to USA for their M.S or Ph.D. Later in life they become like the Sundar Pichai’s or even Chetan bhagat in life. The episode ends with a very simple yet profound message from one of the students, who is not so good at academics in IIT, being a 6 pointer, and yet successfully landing a job, shares the secret to the viewers that “The most important thing in life is to never give up!”

I have had many IIT friends during my M.S in the USA, and one of them is a very good friend, almost like a brother. He comes from a small non-english speaking background, got into IIT KGP with his sheer determination, then completed his masters in IISc, and now is doing his Phd in the USA successfully. He is one of the best examples of perseverance, hard work and never give up attitude in life.

I used to believe that maybe these bunch of IITians are really smart and intelligent, and hence they become so rich and famous in their life. Yes, they are smart, but it is not their smartness, or how fast they can solve problems, rather it is their attitude which is the secret of their success. Those four years together mould them to become tough, and develop the attitude to never give up in front of any problems. They learn to handle pressure, and they burn the midnight oil to get the work done, or meet deadlines often. This ability to perform under pressure, take quick decisions, survive in tough environments ( with the ragging included) and to face the problems with confidence is what makes them so valuable to the corporate and tech companies. Because today’s corporate culture is very competitive, and only those who are able to work and handle enormous pressure can excel. So, it’s not really what the IIT graduates study, but their attitude, their 4 year exposure to the competition and academic pressure is what matters to these companies!

Ofcourse, many other engineers in India who are not from IIT are also equally intelligent and have similar attitude, but somehow the IIT tag, their bonding for life, which often means helping each other out in times of need, networking as IIT alumni, helps them to make the IIT brand one of the best in the world. I find this similar to Army life or NDA where similar kind of camaraderie or brotherhood exists. This team work and the belief that they can achieve anything in life is what makes them successful. Infosys is a wonderful example of how a bunch of IITians started the IT revolution in India. Even many of the Silicon valley CEOs are IITians( Sundar Pichai, Vinod Khosla, Arvind Krishna etc) and it’s no surprise why so many of them have achieved it!

Finally, I would like to end this blog post with some food for the mind after seeing this documentary. On one side we see that IITians continue to rise up the ladder of success in whatever field they work, be it in India or USA. They have become the CEO’s in Silicon Valley or investment bankers on Wall Street. But the primary purpose of establishing the IIT by Pandit Nehru was to create engineers and technocrats who would build the nation. Even the IIT Kharagpur building reminds us of being ‘dedicated to the service of the nation’. 

Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur Fellowships in India 2020-2021

But we see the highly subsidized IIT education has been benefiting the Silicon valley and Wall street with the ‘Brain-Drain’ which has been going on for the past several decades. Though not all emigrate to the USA, but at the end, India has been losing some of its finest minds who could have built several Infosys in India until now.

Then, the education system in IIT as shown in the documentary reflects there is some systemic problem. Because students either cannot study what they like just because of their low JEE rank, or they do not get the opportunity to work for core companies, as very few core companies visit the IIT campus. Hence, the students from any engineering background, have to learn coding to get into software companies, or they end up doing consulting on Wall Street. This is a failure of the system which cannot provide the best minds to study what they want and neither any good opportunities to work in India in the core sector. Then it is not surprising why they shouldn’t apply the ‘escape velocity’ to settle abroad?

And the fact that if the brightest minds in IIT’s themselves are confused about which field to work on or do not have the motivation to do research ( due to other more lucrative coding/consulting opportunities abroad), then no wonder India does not have much both, innovation and entrepreneurship until now. Because we see the guys who could innovate for India end up doing coding in Silicon Valley, while the folks who could build startups end up in consulting jobs on Wall Street! Maybe this answers why India hasn’t produced any Nobel Prize winners in core Sciences after independence, when ironically, we produced more Science Nobel laureates before 1947 when we neither had the freedom nor the institutions.

Hence, this documentary #AlmaMatters is an eye opener for India. It is especially important for the younger generation, who are still in high school and their parents, to watch, because I have personally experienced how madly obsessed my generation was to get into IIT. Now, after 11 years, I find that obsession to be overrated, driven by peer pressure and motivated by the myth that ‘Once we get into IIT, Life toh set hain boss..! . I wish today’s younger generation and upcoming ones do not get obsessed with the IIT tag. I mean it is okay to get into IIT, but that is not the only way for a successful life. Infact, as the documentary shows, the life of IITians is not very different from the other non-IITians. This myth that all IITians excel in life needs to be debunked, because we see many IITians committing suicides as well. How can that be explained?

And even more important is that just like this documentary reveals the other side of IIT, so is the need to debunk the hyper inflated life of IIM graduates, those pursuing M.S in USA or even UPSC aspirants. Because millions of youngsters in India waste their precious youth years desperately trying to crack the JEE, CAT, UPSC and even with the dream to settle in the USA. Just because few people could crack these exams or win the USA lottery, doesn’t mean everyone should do it.

India needs real factories, startups and innovation labs, and not the ‘Kota factory’ or ‘Rajendra Nagar, Delhi’ factory!

It’s high time to channel the world’s largest youth population( which India has currently) in the right direction, not only for India but also for making a better world!

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India and Engineering..

This post is about the question which is usually asked by Americans is why are so many Indians into engineering, as compared to the low ratio of Americans in this field? Yes, Indians are largely represented in the field of engineering ( along with Chinese as well) There are many reasons for why and how this happened.

To begin with, I am too an engineering graduate ( and Indian!). After my bachelors in engineering in India, I hoped on to board a flight to America ( just as many Indians do.) to complete my M.S in U.S. As soon as I came in US, I could see hundreds of Indians in my university ( Infact, in some of our classes, Indians comprised of 70-80% of student population, while the rest consisted of Chinese, Bangladeshis or Americans) Indians are famously known to study their MS in Computer Science, Electrical Engineering or Information Technology. Ofcourse, there are other streams of engineering such as Mechanical, Civil or Biomedical, which many Indians do pursue. But a major chunk of the student population usually enrolls in these three field of engineering. Why? The simple answer is the high demand of graduate engineers required in these domains. Silicon valley companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon prefer masters students who are graduate in these fields, and the high salary package, coupled with the elevated status to work and live in Silicon valley comes with a lots of perks such as good prospects to get married to a rich guy/girl, and presence of lots of Indians since the last few decades in the San Francisco Bay area. It isn’t wonder that due to the huge influx of Indians in IT and Tech companies in silicon valley for the last few decades, today we have Indian-American CEO’s of Google, Microsoft and IBM.

Hence, we see that Indians come to pursue their masters in US in large numbers, and most of them end up in silicon valley. But the real question is why do Indians study engineering in huge numbers, for MS in US and for Bachelor’s in India? For US, the reason is related to monetary returns and social status. For an engineer in India, it is quite worth to come to US ( even by taking considerable student loans) and pursue a Masters in engineering, as US provides excellent opportunities to work under the Optional Practical Training (OPT) and work visa (H1-B) programme. Many Indians have taken advantage of this programme and have successfully worked and even become resident ( though it needs nerve wracking patience to get a Green Card!).

Most Indians are very concerned of the currency conversion rate between Dollar(USD) to Indian Rupee(INR). While pursuing MS, it is natural for students to feel the pressure to reduce the costs and payoff the students loans. But once he/she graduates, and starts working in a MNC, the strength of the Dollar makes is easy to payoff the loans quickly and then earn, save and invest as much as they can. Hence, as compared to India, an Engineer in US earns quite a lot for the same work often!

Besides, the status of living in US is an additional bonus for Indians who are in the business of arranged marriage. Isn’t it strange that for a person who is just staying abroad, after having earned his masters, and settled in a MNC job in silicon valley, his value in the game of marriage increases several fold, not to mention about the dowry business…

Anyways, but it is worth noting that all Indians who come to US for masters, and then work in large numbers in IT and tech companies have already gained their Bachelor’s in Engineering in India, itself. Though there are some rich Indians who do pursue their Bachelor’s in engineering in US, but their population is very less as compared to the Americans (including Indian-Americans) pursuing Bachelor’s in engineering. So, the question is why do Indians study Engineering in India so much?

Aamir Khan's 3 Idiots last film played at Japan theatre ...

This question was very humorously touched by the movie “3 Idiots”. I would say all most every Indian ( especially who is an engineer or wants to study engineering) must have watched this movie, several times. This movie reflected the dark reality of an education system where only marks are valued, and the engineer’s quality is assessed by his performance in exams, and how much salary package does he/she acquires at the placement rounds.

Adding to that, there are many social aspects which pressures students to pursue engineering more in India. First, this comes from family. Few decades before, when India had just become independent, there was a large need of Engineers to construct dams, roads, bridges, to electrify cities, power stations etc. The country was poor and needed quality engineers in large numbers for the industrial development of the country. But there were only few engineering institutions ( which the British had started ). Hence, PM Nehru started seven IIT’s (Indian Institute of Technology) to bridge the gap between demand and supply. This turned out to be an excellent and visionary decision for India and also for the world (especially silicon valley and Wall street!) This is because the engineers who were selected in these institutions to study engineering, had to crack one of the world’s toughest entrance exams. And even after having enrolled in the engineering programme, they had to work hard for four years and due to which, the smartest and most hard working engineers were produced by these institutions. Later, most of them came to US to either pursue their MS/Ph.D or MBA, and ended up working in Silicon Valley or Wall Street respectively. They were not only praised for their talent, but also today, as we see most of the famous CEO’s and businessmen in US are IIT graduates. Some of the famous ones are Sundar Pichai (CEO of Google, IIT Kharagpur batch 1989-1993), Raghuram Rajan ( Former RBI Governor & Distinguished Prof of Finance, Chicago Booth school of Business, IIT Delhi batch 1981-1985), Arvind Krishna (CEO of IBM, IIT Kanpur batch 1981-1985) and many more.

The success stories of the above IITian’s ( engineering graduates of IIT) stand as an inspiration for the many Indian parents who also wish their sons/daughters to study engineering and then move to USA to achieve the American dream. Due to this, many Indian students dream of getting into IIT and then USA, and hence decide to become engineer to attain this. But the seats in IIT’s are limited, and hence, everyone could not get into IIT. Also, the demand for engineers did not get fulfilled by IIT’s either, as most of the IIT graduates usually go to USA, and this brain-drain berefts India of good, talented engineers. However, this does not mean that the decision of IIT graduates to settle in USA and not work for India (inspite of gaining their prestigious IIT degree) is wrong or cynical. There are many reasons for IIT graduates to choose to go to USA over work in India such as high salary package, excellent work opportunity, advanced education, good life, lack of corruption & reservation etc.

Hence, to again bridge the requirement gap of engineers, and to cater the increasing needs of the students desire to study engineering who could not secure an admission in IIT, the politicians in India decided to allow private institutions to start engineering colleges on a large scale. Thus, what happened is as the number of engineering colleges increased, so did the number of students who wanted to pursue engineering. Due to which, more and more students started studying engineering, with a hope that they will fulfill their parents wish to become an engineer, and also some day might land in USA, just like the IIT graduates did.

At the same time, the IT wave hit India, along with Indian economy got opened after 1991.This resulted in huge demand of IT and computer engineers in India and abroad as well. Many Indian IT companies like Infosys, Wipro, TCS etc started hiring IT professionals and later sent them onsite (to USA). Thus, began a trend of Indian engineers, who were not IIT graduates, to get a chance to work in USA and pursue their american dream. This motivated even more parents and families all over India to push their sons/daughters to study engineering, and this is how the number of Indians in engineering skyrocketed! Today, we see that in big cities like Mumbai, Pune or Bangalore, every family or home has either their son/daughter or some distant relative settled/working in IT in USA.

Besides, another thing I noticed from Americans is that American students in high school are especially scared of maths and engineering. And this is one of the reasons why they don’t study engineering. Ofcourse, Americans are fortunate to have a lot of freedom and options to choose their desired field of study, besides engineering. Usually, American girls are less motivated to pursue engineering (they prefer writing, arts or nursing more as told to me by several Americans), and even American guys often think of studying business, law or medical more than engineering/STEM. The public school system in US is not at its best, and is often derided by several Americans. Hence, the basics of maths are not taught well enough in school to motivate the students. Also, students are well aware of the other options like business or law, which are not only more lucrative but also relatively easy as compared to Engineering.

Also, the large influx of international students in the STEM/engineering has been reflected in the mindset of Americans in someway. The usual assumption that Asians are good at math or Indians are good at programming makes american kids less interested in engineering. Also, as the international crowd usually does not study law or business or arts in USA (atleast not in large numbers), this makes these fields less competitive and hence, more preferred. Another reason which does affect is the relatively less family/societal pressure among Americans to study engineering. American kids have more freedom, and the parents rarely pressure their kids to pursue any particular field of study. As most of the American families are either well-off and educated, the motivation to pursue American dream of good and luxurious life only after engineering/working in IT does not hold true. Americans can pursue any career, and still maintain their high standard of living as the other fields like business, law, sports or even writing yield rich dividends( depending on the level of education and experience they attain in those fields). But the point is that due to availability of multiple lucrative career options ( apart from engineering), it is natural for many Americans to take the less difficult path.

For Indians, however, this is not the scenario. First of all, even though math is feared by Indians as well, but the fear of being deprived of a good life in America is more dreaded than the fear of maths. In simple words, it is “Do or Die” situation. Indian kids simply have to bite the bullet, under the family/societal pressure to study difficult subjects like maths and engineering, even though they might not like them. Also, unlike Americans, there are not many other career options available which are as lucrative as Engineering ( except few like medicine or cricket or bollywood, but the chances to succeed in them is very very less). Better not to mention about arts or writing or law as a career, which is not only looked down upon, but might also turn out to be a financial disaster, unless the pursuer is wealthy enough.

Hence, due to all these conditions, it is imperative for Indians to go for engineering over other careers. But it is worth noting that, not all Engineers in India end up doing engineering. Many decide to pursue MBA, some aspire to become a civil servant while few brave ones venture out in the field of bollywood, cricket or even writing. Funny as it may sound, but India might be one of those few countries where bachelor’s in engineering is considered as a “basic degree”, and several movie actors/actresses and sportsmen are engineering graduates. To name a few movie stars who are engineers such as R Madhavan, Vicky Kaushal, Kartik Aryan, Ritesh Deshmukh, Kriti Sanon, Tapasee Pannu. There are even few cricketers like Anil Kumble, K Srikanth, R Ashwin, Javagal Srinath who are engineers (All are South Indians, and no wonder, South India has more engineering colleges). This happens only in India!

Finally, on a similar note as conveyed by the movie 3 Idiots, it is of increasing concern that this trend of Indians studying more and more engineering only is no good in the long run. This is because the other fields like arts, design or basic sciences(physics, biology or astronomy) gets deprived of the talent which is instead sucked by the engineering colleges. As everyone does not like engineering, and so it is an injustice to push someone to pursue engineering ( on an assumption that it might reap rich benefits in future) if he/she does not like it or does not have an aptitude for it. If compelled to study engineering against his/her wish, then they would make no good quality engineers, and due to which the skillset level of the entire field would come down. Today, it is unfortunate to see that many engineers are not skilled as expected by the industry. Though this might be accounted for the lack of good colleges or resources provided, but it does relate to the few students lack of interest as well, which definitely should be given a priority. Besides, the brain-drain happening since 1960’s to USA is no good for India, and in order to restore the balance in all the fields of study, it would be beneficial to work for the country, and develop all fields of work lucratively which will motivate the next coming generations to study as per their aptitudes and talents.

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