Planning your career after a bad JEE rank

JEE results are out today. 1% of all those who tried got a rank. 0.2% will probably get into a good IIT.

This is for the others, who did not. Remember these things:

  • A bad rank does not reflect on your capabilities or intellect. The system is screwed up. There is too much luck. Do not adjust your self-worth downwards just because you did not get into a top IIT
  • IIT isn’t the only path to success. The reason IITs have such a strong brand is because in the 70s/80s/90s, there were very limited options for smart-but-not-rich people in India. Today, the situation is different – we have other colleges that are also good; we have better jobs/roles/salaries in Indian industry; and it is now much easier to go abroad (for higher studies, or work) without an IIT-tag. Dheeraj Sanghi, who is arguably one of the most articulate experts on the state of IITs and engineering education in India, points out this list of alternatives to IITs.
  • Engineering isn’t the only way. Increasingly for students in India, non-engineering options are looking more and more interesting. Dheeraj Sanghi (same guy from the previous bullet point), has said that if he were to choose today, and had the choice of any college in India, including all the top IITs, he would choose to do liberal arts in Ashoka University. (Pune also has a couple of good liberal arts schools – FLAME and Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts.) See also this article of mine about “quitting engineering”.

Most importantly: Do not give up.

  • You worked hard for the last few years, and that hasn’t yielded the desired result. But don’t give up. Not succeeding in an entrance exam is just one play in a much, much larger game. Over the long-term (10+ years) continuous learning, continuous self-improvement, and hard work will beat ranking, college brand, and raw intellect¹ every time. Over the 25+ years in my career (in India and US; large companies and small; tech and non-tech) I have seen a number of IIT-ians go into mediocrity due to over-confidence and laziness, and a number of people from tier2/tier3 educational backgrounds succeed phenomenally (sometimes, this is in spite of not having the same raw intellect¹).

I also encourage 12th standard students to take a gap year, and consider going to the US for undergraduate studies (if you’re rich).


¹ Note when I say “raw intellect” here, I mean the specific kind of intellect that the JEE selects for – ability to quickly solve difficult math problems & puzzles, or speed of grasping complex math/engineering issues. There are of course many other types of intelligence, and even more types of capabilities that the JEE does not filter for; so I am definitely not implying that only people who clear the JEE are intelligent.

Quitting Engineering

I recently heard of a friend’s son who quit engineering (COEP) after 1 year, to pursue design (DSK). This comes on the heels of someone else I know who quit engineering (PICT) to go for Liberal Arts (SSLA) and is much happier there.

So, note to 12th std students and parents: please do not box yourself into a corner and assume that there is no alternative to engineering. You might regret it an year or two from now.

Thankfully, the situation (in terms of educational options) for this generation is far better than for our generation. If you’re unsure of what to do, then a Liberal Arts program (which gives you flexibility of deciding on what degree you want after 1 or 2 years of study) might be worth considering. See FLAME or Ashoka or even SSLA.

I posted this on my Facebook page and got a bunch of insightful comments, some of which I’ve reproduced here:

Joel Xavier gave some more examples:

More examples from my personal experience. In a BBA class at Symbi where I taught marketing, I had someone who had dropped out after two years of studying dentistry, someone who had chucked engineering studies after 3 years of grappling with it and someone with a diploma in computer engineering who didnt want to continue down that path.

I’m glad its happening.

Ravindra Jaju pointed out that:

Regretting in a year or two much better than regretting much later in life.

Which is true. Just because you’ve sunk an year and some fees in engineering, doesn’t mean that you have to stick to it for another 3 years.

To this, Makarand Sahasrabudhe (talking from personal experience) responded that you can “quit engineering” even after completing it:

Just because you have sunk 4 years , does not also mean that you have to stick to it for life

Another important point. Just looking at my batchmates, I know metallurgical engineers who are in advertising agencies, mechanical engineers who are into banking and finance, chemical engineers working on Bollywood movies, and computer scientists in the insurance industry doing non-computer stuff. Your degree in is forgotten within 5 years of graduating.

Makarand also pointed out that engineering is only ONE of the things you learn in university (if you have the right temperament, that is). I’d say that actual classroom education counts for less than 20% of our real education in college. Most of your education is happening in group projects, and the extracurricular groups you join, and other activities you participate in. Relevant quote:

“Everything I needed to know about politics, I learnt as a Mess Co-ordinator of my hostel in IIT-Bombay”

  • Manohar Parrikar, CM of Goa.

Does this mean that it is OK for students to quit after an year or two of engineering? Most parents will rebel at the idea of allowing this. And with good reason. As Sanjay Sarkar said:

Having a passion and following that is most welcome but fear of a tough road ahead and taking thr first escape route is losing the battle before starting. We as parents have 2 help our children try overcome that fear.

And this is a tricky problem to solve. On the one hand, I feel that many kids of this generation have the problem of giving up too easily; of taking up interests and ditching at the first signs of difficulties. On the other hand, I’ve also seen parents pushing too hard and spoiling a significant chunk of the kid’s life. So as parents, we need to play a difficult balancing act of pushing, but not too much.

There are many more comments, so read the full discussion if this is an area of interest for you.

In short, I don’t know what is the correct answer, but at least I hope that if you find yourself in a situation like this, some of this discussion will help you think it through carefully, rather than having a knee-jerk reaction.