Taking a fruitful break from academics

Taking a fruitful break from academics

 Taking off from academics is beneficial for those who know themselves and are confident of returning to academics, writes Ali Khwaja

It came as a surprise even to a seasoned career counsellor like me – Shireesh, a topper in Computer Science Engineering from a reputed college, did not even want to attend Campus Recruitment interviews.  In fact Shireesh told me matter-of-factly that he did not wish to take up a job at all, and was not interested in higher studies either.Intrigued by this youngster walking on a path hardly ever trodden (this was more than ten years ago, by the way), I spent long hours discussing his future plans with him.  Shireesh had been asked to take Science after his tenth “to keep all options open.”  He did not want to do medicine as he could not visualize himself studying hours and hours every day for many years.  

The next option, everyone told him, was engineering.  Those were the days when Computer Science Engineering was extensively in demand, and with a very high rank in the Entrance exam, Shireesh managed to get a seat in a reputed college.  Though he could not connect much with the subjects and academics, he managed to keep his grades in the distinction category throughout.  And now when he was passing out somewhere near the top of his class, he just wanted to take a break, and …… do nothing!

I know what is going on in your mind, reader.  You want to know what eventually became of Shireesh.  Of course, we all do.  As long as we are not leading risky lives, or our children are not venturing into uncharted territory, we would love to read about other adventurous types and celebrate their success, or pity their foolhardiness. You will perhaps pity Shireesh and say “he deserves it since he threw away a promising career”.  For Shireesh is not a high-flying executive.  He does not earn a fat salary or drive a luxury car – in fact he does not have a car or bike at all.  He spends his time in jungles and villages, balances his role as a wildlife photographer, a columnist on tribal affairs, an activist for the oppressed, and a crusader for reform in primary education for rural students. He does earn big money in spurts, but refuses to earn more than his needs.

Over the years I have met many young boys and girls who branched away from the beaten track, like Shireesh.  A few have become rich.  Some have made a name and reputation in their chosen offbeat fields.  Many have had their thrill, and have come back to the corporate world. I salute them all. They are very refreshing in this world of “herd mentality” where every second child wants to (or is made to want to, by his parents) “become” an IIT !

While competition has increased significantly, opportunities have increased even more.  If one is open to exploring the sunrise careers, the ones that are likely to grow in future, and if one can match interest + aptitude before choosing, the sky is not the limit for twenty first century citizens of India. The dilemma is how to choose.  At 15 years or even 17 years when a student completes 10th or 12th standard, is he capable of taking the right choice?  Are his parents competent to guide him suitably, when they live in the old world of their generation? Obviously very few can do so. Hence many land up in the most popular courses, whether they have the aptitude and interest or not.
Not for timid

Taking a year off and deciding what career to pursue can have its dangers too.  The student may develop lethargy and go away from the routine and habit of studies, he may get further confused, he may even lose his self-esteem when he sees his batch-mates moving ahead while he is still stuck.  Hence taking off is not for the feeble-hearted.  It is beneficial for those who know themselves well enough to be confident that they will definitely get back to academics, and will in fact put in more efforts because they will be studying something they are now confident of succeeding in, and enjoying.

The trend of taking an off from studies started with graduate students who wanted to get into management.  Many graduates felt that exposure and experience to the world of work will not only make them more focused, but will also make their higher management studies more meaningful.  Hence today we have a clear trend where the best B-Schools give preference to those who have a few years of work experience, in contrast to fresh graduates who may be excellent in academics, but do not know much about the outside world.

This trend is slowly shifting to include those who have worked for a few years after professional courses, made some money and had a “feel” of the corporate world, and are taking time off to introspect what they would like to do in the long term.  They become volunteers (www.youthforseva.org is one classic example), school teachers (Teach for India being one avenue), or taking up non-academic learning programs in offbeat institutions like Indian Institute for Human Settlements (www.iihs.co.in). Some are even trying out their hand at Entrepreneurship using their savings, or funding from Angel Investors (see www.investmentnetwork.in)

What about those who have not finished their graduation?  Can they afford to take a break, and find out what is good for them?  There is no single solution that fits all.  I come across students who have struggled through 10th standard with great difficulty.  They are capable in practical fields, applied technology, people-related work, or even creativity, but find it extremely difficult to go through mainstream academics.  It will help if such students take up vocational courses, and enroll privately for PUC or NIOS 12th (www.nios.ac.in, where one can choose any combination of subjects and appear even one or two exams at a time).  By the time they clear their 12th they would have seen enough of the outside world to take a mature decision about their future.

Those who do clear 10th standard, sometimes with fairly high marks, and find themselves going down significantly in grades at +2 level, need to introspect whether they have chosen the right Optional subjects.  The craze for Science “to keep all options open” is counter-productive for the typically “right-brained” students who would have done much better in non-science fields.

 Failing in one or two science subjects at +2 level takes away their confidence and self-esteem, and they lose motivation to study further.  Even such student will benefit if they move away from the pressure of academics or attending college, and occupy themselves fruitfully doing vocational part-time courses, taking up entry level jobs, and/or becoming interns in an industry they are interested in. This process helps many families who otherwise lose huge sums of money in fees that goes down the drain and only serves to make the child feel guilty about how he is letting down his parents when they have invested so much in him.

Having started from the West, the concept of taking time off from academics is catching on in India, but it needs to be done with great caution and with clarity on both issues i.e. how fruitfully will the off-time be utilized in terms of real-life learning, and whether the candidate is confident of getting back to studies so that he is not left without higher education, which will block his progress and promotions later in life. 

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