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Last year when most of his batchmates were making a beeline for campus interviews at the National Institute of Technology, Durgapur, Rajdip Nayek sat quietly in his dorm, leafing through a textbook on geotechnical engineering. Unlike his peers, this would-be civil engineer was not interested in bagging a job and settling down to a ‘good life’. “I was determined to crack the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (Gate) and secure a place at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore,” says Nayek. “A mere BTech is not enough these days; you need a postgraduate degree. Most tech and engineering graduates get lured by campus jobs but within years they feel bored as they stagnate in some software company.”

Gate is an all-India test — held every January — conducted jointly by the IISc and seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) for postgraduate courses in these institutes. Gate-qualified candidates are eligible for several government scholarships.

Nayek’s wish came true last February. Not only did he feature in the toppers’ list (rank 2) in Gate 2012, he was able to join IISc to study for his master's degree in engineering (ME). “The atmosphere at IISc is so stimulating. I wish to take up earthquake engineering — one of the most mind-boggling fields of research,” he says. Incidentally, nearly 40 per cent of Nayek’s classmates are from Bengal. In fact, eight out of the top 10 in Gate 2012 are from Bengal. Says Abhijit Chaudhari, director of Gateforum, a Secunderabad-based institute that specialises in Gate coaching, “The last few years has seen quite a few toppers from West Bengal, especially Jadavpur University (JU).”

A look at Gate toppers for the last six years reveals that students from JU’s faculty of engineering and technology have been grabbing most of the top spots consistently. What makes JU a nursery for future postgraduates who take up careers in research and development (R&D)? Replies Amitava Gupta, a senior professor of power engineering at JU, “Our students feel that a graduate degree can land you a job but won’t help build a career. Besides, most students here belong to the top one per cent of talent in Bengal. They don’t find a BTech enough of a challenge; they get a kick out of cracking Gate.” Students who join JU rank within 500 in the statewide engineering entrance exam.

Says Arun Bhattacharya, former head of mechanical engineering at JU, “Our students are conceptually strong in technical subjects and are inherently endowed with superior aptitude. They are good in engineering maths too. Naturally, Gate is a cakewalk for them.” The new format of Gate (see Get your concepts right) that is to be introduced in January 2013, will pose no challenge to their graduates, say both professors.

The number of people sitting for Gate has risen exponentially in the past few years — not just in Bengal but around the country. The reason is not far to seek: since 2010, public sector undertakings (PSUs) such as Indian Oil Corporation (IOC), Power Grid and National Thermal Power Corporation have started hiring through Gate.

The only reason Shibir Basak, a graduate of Techno India College in Calcutta, took the exam (and ranked 158) last year was his wish to join a highly rated PSU. “Gate has become indispensable, whether you want to do postgrad or join a PSU. These companies will recruit in large numbers in the coming years,” says this MTech student of IIT-Kanpur.

“After an section on aptitude was introduced in 2010, Gate became similar to the recruitment tests for engineers in PSUs. So these companies started asking prospective employees for Gate scores instead. This gives companies a much larger talent pool,” says Prudhvi Reddy, director (Gate), Time4education, a Gate coaching centre. Adds Ketan Gohil, chief technology officer, Gate Academy, “It’s not possible for PSUs to conduct multiple tests at different locations across India. This is why Gate has become a perfect benchmark.” As the quality of engineering graduates deteriorates, other companies may also follow suit.

Interestingly, the tuition fees for master’s degree courses are surprisingly low — around Rs 48,000 for the two-year course, all expenses included. Also, master’s degree students at IISc and the IITs get a stipend of Rs 8, 000. And if you take up research, you get around Rs 23,000 a month, which is nearly the same as the starting salary offered to campus recruits in the software industry.

Apart from PSUs, a postgraduate degree opens up other options too. “I would like to teach at a good technology or engineering college,” says Nayek. That is a good decision according to Gupta. “Both teaching and R&D are quite lucrative in the long run. Teachers at reputed tech schools don’t just draw good salaries but can serve as part-time consultants to renowned companies.”

Those who do a doctorate can join the burgeoning R&D industry in India. Says Chaudhari, “Global industry has recognised India’s talent pool and a number of companies — Nokia, Siemens, General Motors, Volvo, Google, Yahoo — are setting up their R&D hubs here.”

So fresh engineering graduates must realise that one degree is not enough. And it’s time to look beyond the software service industry.

Why GATE

The master’s degree in engineering / technology / science at the Indian Institute of Science or the 7 top Indian Institutes of Technology will give you:

Advanced engineering concepts through world class faculty

Opportunity to work in R&D

A gateway to extensive practical exercises, various case studies, simulation and modelling of real life problems, individual and group projects, research publications, presentations in conferences etc.

A highly competitive environment (you’ll study with the best), which will develop

and broaden your intellect

A higher and more satisfying job profile and a higher salary than that earned by those with a BE or BTech degree

Financial scholarships (a minimum of Rs 8,000 per month)

The eligibility to apply for faculty or research positions in educational and R&D centres

Additional inputs by Avijit Chatterjee