Life has an interesting way of taking you where you least expect it to go – but for that to happen, you need to take the road less traveled. Years ago, that’s what I did. Although I was able to gain admission to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IIT Madras), I had a very low Grade Point Average (GPA). A low GPA brought with it a whole lot of baggage: low self-esteem, poor self-image, and low respect from peers. It’s almost as though you had to wear your low GPA as a number around your neck as you are led through the streets. Needless to say, I wanted more and knew that I deserved more. I knew that I was more than just a GPA, and a number could not define my identity. In spite of my best efforts, my belief in my own academic abilities was slowly starting to fade…a bad thing if one wants to succeed. The academic system didn’t help much either because it was set up to reward the top achievers. Among my classmates, I could see the top achievers running away with the well-paying jobs while those with average grades had to settle for jobs with Indian outsourcing companies like Infosys, Wipro, etc.
Have you seen the movie, 3 Idiots? It is one of the finest Hindi movies ever made and I believe it resonates well with Indian students in particular and students around the world in general. I was like Raju Rastogi from the movie. I used to be petrified by professors, assignments, surprise-quizzes, and final exams. I lived in a world of cold sweats. As a result, I hung by a thread when it came to passing most courses. Needless to say, I prayed like a pious grandmother on the day of the exam and even crazier on the day results came out. I spent the best years of my life rote-learning to death, with my only dream being to get that seven figure salary at the end of my graduation. Surprisingly, I had a wake-up call in my second year when professors from my own college refused to give me work during the summer vacation citing my low GPA as the primary reason for denial. I came to a conclusion: Don’t get mad, get even!
I am sure that if I had followed the course frame set by my college, I would have ended up with a soul-sucking job at Infosys, Wipro, Satyam or any other such software outsourcing company taking home a INR twenty five thousand a month salary (USD $400), with the only aim being to please my bosses and get a foreign placement. That is what most of my friends, seniors and in many cases, what most students in colleges in India end up getting. Every year, thousands and thousands of students graduate from the myriad engineering, arts, commerce and management colleges around the country – some get placed while others don’t – but almost all end up getting stuck in routine mind numbing jobs that hardly seem to take them anywhere.
It was under such a scenario that, sometime during my fifth semester, a conversation with a senior at college changed my perspective. I won’t be lying if I said that the chat actually changed my life. Shankar, my senior, had just returned from Imperial College in London after a four-month internship. Now here is why Shankar’s internship caught my attention. Firstly, he was an average student with a GPA of 6.5 out of 10. Secondly, he didn’t have any impressive credentials such as extra-curricular activities, exceptional projects or out-of-school work experience. Finally, for sure he did not have the charisma to slip in with his good looks or family connections. Under those circumstances, Shankar’s interning in England was as improbable as my dating Jennifer Aniston. By the way, she still hasn’t returned any of my calls. That was when I decided to talk to him and figure out how he did it. It took an expensive dinner and drinks to get him talking. I picked his brains and found out how he got the internship in the first place.
The conversation with Shankar that night changed my life. I cannot forget those words. The words that showed me the way and pointed me towards the road less travelled. This is what he told me:
“ If you keep doing what everyone else does, you will keep getting what everyone else gets. If you do the same assignments, the same coursework, same examinations and get the same grades as the rest of your batch mates, it will only get you the same soul-sucking job as they get. It will get you on the same hamster wheel as the rest of the students around you – going round in the same rut. If you want something bigger for yourself, you need to do things differently. By different, I mean do something that gives you the edge over others. And an internship is where you can get that edge to break away from the crowd. Trust me.
Have you heard of Shahrukh Khan doing TV serials, MS Dhoni working as a Train Ticket Collector, Harrison Ford spending 15 years as a carpenter, Brad Pitt working as a chicken dancer in chicken suit at an “El Pollo Loco” restaurant, or Barack Obama working in an ice cream store? Just as every celebrity needs a big break to propel his career, a singer needs that hit single on the charts and every cricketer needs to hit that century in a game to make his fame, for most students, an internship at an awesome place is that big break they need to drive their career. Toppers already have the red carpet laid out for them in terms of a great future, however, the rest of us, the majority, have to work doubly hard to ensure that we get out of the rut and build a great future for ourselves. Few students understand the importance of an internship, but those who do, strike gold and go on to have a brilliant future.
Two more things. First, remember that it’s an overly connected world these days. Don’t fall into the trap of broadcasting to the world every move you make. If you are going to work towards that life-changing-dream-internship, then it’s better do it solo. There is no point in telling all your friends and colleagues about it because, for one, you will be ridiculed for dreaming too high – very few of us have the thick skin to handle ridicule from others. And second, you don’t want to crowd the field and attract more competition to yourself. Become an SA…a Stealth Applicant.”
While I was listening to all this in rapt attention, an idea struck me and got me thinking. Can I do what Shankar did? Can I intern in a foreign country? Can I date Jennifer Aniston? Well, not the last bit surely, but the rest seemed absolutely doable following the conversation with Shankar. As Rabindranath Tagore said, “Reach high, for stars lie hidden in you. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.” Consequently, I spent the next couple of months finding programs and foreign professors under whom I could intern. Recalling our conversation, I followed Shankar’s advice of going at it solo and not making the mistake of broadcasting my motives to the entire college. I kept emailing professors and company human resource contacts. I kept applying to job portals, university internship programmes and outreach offices diligently.
After almost three months of no-responses, rejections, and partial acceptances, I was almost ready to give up. At the time I felt like a dictionary salesman who was knocking on doors to sell his dictionaries but no one was interested. Despite those moments of weakness, I kept going on because the golden pot at the end of the rainbow was definitely a big prize worth fighting for. I still remember how some of my batchmates, ones with the high GPAs, made fun of me during this time. Well they saw that I was spending so much time in the Computer Center(yes back in 2004 we didn’t have internet in the hostel rooms) but they didn’t know that I was applying for these foreign internships. One of them sarcastically made a remark that my grades won’t improve despite all these extra hours in the computer center. I wanted to reply back to them but I am glad I didn’t . Because they were anyways going to get their reply in a few months.
And then one fine day, I got that email that I was waiting for. I still remember the feeling of euphoria when that magical email popped into my Inbox. Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket! I finally got my dream internship offers from not one but two different professors – one in Switzerland and another in England – within a span of a week. It was better than Jennifer Aniston returning my call. Believe it or not, to add to my good fortune, both professors agreed to pay for my airfare, accommodation, and other living expenses in return for me doing some cutting edge research work for them. I chose to intern under the first professor in England during my Bachelor’s course, and next year, I interned under the second professor in Switzerland. Shankar’s advice paid off! In the hindsight, getting the internship doesn’t seem to be the difficult part. But believing in myself during those three months , when I was getting rejections and partial acceptances, was the difficult part.