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I Was Often Asked By Americans, “Why Do So Many Indians Pursue Engineering?”

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When I was in America, I was often asked by Americans why so many Indians pursue Engineering? In fact, such is the perception of Indians in America, that whenever I took an Uber, the driver often asked if I worked in IT or Tech? This made me wonder what the reasons were for such a high number of Indians pursuing Engineering.

To begin with, I am an Engineer (proud?). After my bachelor’s in Engineering in India, I dreamt of boarding a flight to America (just as many Indians do) to complete my MS in the U.S. As soon as I came to the U.S., I could see hundreds of Indians in my university. In fact, in some of our classes, Indians comprised 70–80% of the student population, while the rest consisted of Chinese, Bangladeshis or Americans.

Representative Image. (Source: pixabay)

Indians are famously known to study either MS in Computer Science, Electrical Engineering or Information Technology. Of course, 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 enrols in these three fields of engineering.

Why? The simple answer is the high demand for graduate engineers required in these domains.

Silicon valley (FAANG) companies often prefer masters students who are graduates in these fields, and the high salary package, coupled with the elevated status to work. Living in Silicon Valley comes with many perks, such as good prospects to get married to a rich guy/girl and the presence of many Indians in the San Francisco Bay area.

It isn’t a 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 the U.S. 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 U.S. and bachelor’s in India?

For U.S., the reason is related to monetary returns and social status. For an engineer in India, it is worth coming to the U.S. (even by taking a considerable amount of student loans) and pursuing a Masters in engineering, as the U.S. 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 residents (though it needs nerve-wracking patience to get a Green Card). However, as a word of caution, the number of work opportunities for international students have reduced since Trump came into power in 2016.

Most Indians are concerned about 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 pay off the student loans. But once they graduate, and start working in an MNC, the strength of the Dollar makes it easy to pay off the loans quickly and then earn, save and invest.

Hence, as compared to India, an Engineer in the U.S. earns quite a lot for the same work often.

Besides, the status of living in the U.S. 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 their masters, and settled in an MNC job in Silicon Valley, their value in the game of marriage increases severalfold? Not to mention the dowry business.

Anyways, it is worth noting that all Indians who come to the U.S. for masters and then work in large numbers in IT and tech companies have already gained their bachelor’s in Engineering in India. Though there are some rich Indians who do pursue their bachelor’s in engineering in the U.S., their number is low compared to the Americans (including Indian-Americans) pursuing bachelor’s in engineering.

Why Do So Many Indians Study Engineering?

Representative Image.

This question was very humorously touched by the movie 3 Idiots. I would say almost every Indian (especially an engineer or those wanting to study to be one) has watched this movie several times. It reflected the dark reality of an education system where only marks are valued. The engineer’s quality is assessed by their performance in exams and the salary package they acquire at the placement rounds.

Adding to that, many social aspects pressure students to pursue engineering more in India. First, this comes from family. A few decades ago, when India had just become independent, there was a large need for Engineers to construct dams, roads, bridges, electrify cities, build 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 a 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 the world (especially Silicon Valley and Wall Street) 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 4 years, due to which these institutions produced the smartest and most hard-working engineers. Later, most of them came to the U.S. to either pursue their MS/PhD or MBA and ended up working in Silicon Valley or Wall Street, respectively.

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They were not only praised for their talent, but today, we see most famous CEO’s and business people in the U.S. are IIT graduates. Some of the famous ones are Sundar Pichai (CEO of Google, IIT Kharagpur batch 1989–1993), Raghuram Rajan (Former RBI Governor and 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 the U.S. to achieve the American dream. Due to this, many Indian students dream of getting into IIT and then the U.S. and, hence, decide to become engineers to attain this.

But the seats in IIT’s are limited and, hence, everyone could not get into an IIT. Also, the demand for engineers did not get fulfilled by IIT’s either, as most of the IIT graduates usually go to the U.S., and this brain drain deprives India of good, talented engineers.

However, this does not mean that the decision of IIT graduates to settle in the U.S. and not work for India (despite gaining their prestigious IIT degree) is wrong or cynical. There are many reasons for IIT graduates to choose to go to the U.S. over work in India, such as high salary package, excellent work opportunity, advanced education, good life, lack of corruption and reservation, etc.

Hence, to bridge the requirement gap of engineers and cater to the increasing needs of the students who desire to study engineering who could not secure admission in IIT, the politicians in India decided to allow private institutions to start engineering colleges on a large scale.

Thus, as the number of engineering colleges increased, so did the number of students who wanted to pursue engineering. Due to this, more and more students started studying engineering, hoping that they would fulfil their parents’ wish to become an engineer and someday might land in the U.S., just like the IIT graduates did.

At the same time, the IT wave hit India, along with the Indian economy opening after 1991. This resulted in huge demand for IT and computer engineers in India and abroad as well. Many Indian IT companies like Infosys, Wipro, TCS started hiring IT professionals and later sent them onsite (U.S.).

Representative Image. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Thus, began a trend of Indian engineers, many of whom were not IIT graduates, to finally get a chance to work in the U.S. 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 engineering graduates in India 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 the U.S.

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. Of course, 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 medical more as told to me by several Americans), and guys often think of studying business, law or medical more than engineering/STEM. In addition, the public school system in the U.S. is not the 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 more lucrative and relatively easy compared to Engineering.

The large influx of international students in STEM/engineering has been reflected in the mindset of Americans in some way. The usual assumption that Asians are good at math or Indians are good at programming makes many American kids less interested in engineering.

Also, as the international crowd usually does not study law or business or arts in the U.S. (atleast not in large numbers), these fields are less competitive and, hence, more preferred.

The Pressure To Become An Engineer

Another reason which does affect is the relatively less family/societal pressure among Americans to study engineering. American kids have more freedom and parents rarely pressure their kids to pursue any particular field of study. As most American families are either well-off and educated, the motivation to pursue the 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 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 the availability of multiple lucrative career options (apart from engineering), it is natural for many Americans to take the less difficult path.

Representative Image. (Source: pxfuel)

For Indians, however, this is not the scenario. First of all, even though Indians fear maths, the fear of being deprived of a good life in America is more dreaded than the fear of maths. In simple words, it is a “Do or Die” situation. Indian kids simply have to bite the bullet, under the family/societal pressure to study difficult subjects like maths and physics, even though they might not like them.

Also, unlike Americans, there are not many other career options available that are as lucrative as Engineering (except a few like medicine or cricket or Bollywood, but the chances to succeed in them is low, even if nepotism is kept aside). It’s better not to mention 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 engineering students in India end up becoming engineers. 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 a bachelor’s in engineering is considered a “basic degree”, and several movie actors/actresses and sportsmen are engineering graduates. To name a few movie stars, R Madhavan, Vicky Kaushal, Kartik Aryan, Ritesh Deshmukh, Kriti Sanon, Tapasee Pannu all pursued engineering.

Even a few cricketers like Anil Kumble, K Srikanth, R Ashwin, Javagal Srinath studied engineering (all mentioned Cricketers are South Indians, and no wonder, South India has more engineering colleges than other parts of India).

Finally, on a similar note, as conveyed by 3 Idiots, it is of increasing concern that this trend of Indians studying only engineering is no good in the long run. Other fields like arts, design or basic sciences (physics, biology or astronomy) get deprived of the talent which is instead fetched by engineering colleges.

As everyone does not like engineering, it is an injustice to push someone to pursue engineering (on the assumption that it might reap rich benefits in future) if they do not like it or do not have an aptitude for it. If compelled to study engineering against their wish, they wouldn’t make good quality engineers, due to which the skill 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 by the lack of good colleges or resources provided, it does relate to the lack of interest as well.

Besides, the brain-drain happening since the 1960s to the U.S. 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 and, thus, stop the tsunami of engineering graduates currently seen in India.

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