Choosing a professional career based on one's interests and on what one is inspired and motivated by holds a central place in my worldview. Of course there can be exceptions. There may be instances, for example, when one may need to take up a career path because of financial considerations at the personal and family level. But I think we need to think of these as exceptions and not the norm. Otherwise we run the risk of students losing interest and getting demotivated - which is a big loss, not just for them but for the society at large as well since a large amount of talent, inspiration, energy and enthusiasm can just get dissipated instead of being tapped for the overall good.
When I use the term "professional career" above, I do not just mean a medical or engineering career. I mean any career path.
So my very first advice to students: Think deeply about what you want to do with your life, which subjects interest you, what you wish to learn formally and what as an extra-curricular pursuit, what it means (in reality with an understanding of the effort required and the possible challenges you may have to face and not just fancy notions you may have picked up from the TV) to be an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer or a musician or a mathematician or a theatre artist or a poet or a scientist or an architect or a writer or a historian or a journalist or an archaeologist or a political leader or a police officer or to be with the country's army, navy or air force etc etc. Think, explore, talk to people in different professions and figure out what interests you, what inspires you, what is it that you want to do with your life. Then make your choice and put in the effort required to achieve your dream.
Two concerns that may arise are:
1. Social respectability and the supposed "prestige" associated with certain careers over others. I suspect this concern arises more in parents than the students themselves and my request to them would be to not make this a constraining factor in their wards' choice. Most such notions of "prestige" are generally based on widespread ignorance, at least in Indian society, and are nowhere nearly as important as your ward's happiness in the long run. I'll try and dismantle some of these myths below.
2. Certain careers and professions being more economically viable than others. Well, this is certainly true. There is higher likelihood to be "richer" while pursuing certain careers than others. However, my submission is that monetary richness need not be the only factor while making a career choice. If this were the case, we wouldn't have some of the bravest men and women choose a career in our armed forces for example. So passion is a consideration too! (Although I do think that our government needs to do far more than what it does today for our soldiers, hawaldars and people in other "essential services" such as school teachers and nurses - I'll make an appeal on this and present my views on the matter later in this post). So is interest in a particular subject. Just imagine if Albert Einstein or Marie Curie or Ramanujan or Laplace or Fourier or Stephen Hawking or C.V. Raman, for example, had chosen an IT career instead of becoming scientists and mathematicians. Or Ernest Hemingway or Ustad Bismillah Khan for that matter. What a complete waste that would have been!
This is not to say, of course, that a certain amount of financial well being and security is not important. I am no admirer of poverty and hope to see the end of this curse on our planet within my lifetime. But I believe there are strategies one can adopt to work around financial constraints, at least to some extent. I'll discuss my thoughts on these momentarily.
But first, to discuss respectability of professions:
I referred to Ernest Hemingway, a famous author, above. Some other well known classical writers and poets in the English language that most of us would probably be familiar with are Charles Dickens, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Shakespeare (of course!), Emily Dickinson, John Keats and many more... My mother tongue is Hindi. So I'll mention a few names in that language too: Munshi Premchand, Harivanshrai Bachchan, Maithili Sharan Gupt. Many of you may know many more names associated with literature and poetry in several languages. If not, I recommend doing a simple google/wikipedia search and familiarizing yourself with literary greats at least in your native language.
The point I am trying to make is, in my view, it is no less prestigious to aspire towards having a literary career than say a career in engineering or medicine. Just imagine, for example, a perfect engineering world with classy apartments for everyone, flying cars, daily space shuttles to Venus and Mars and computer screens that we can make appear in front of us with a snap of our fingers, but with no beautiful poetry or profound (or for that matter, funny) prose. That would be a very poor and shallow world as far as I am concerned.
So if you have dreamt of becoming a writer or a poet, my advice would be to take your dream seriously and try and figure out an academic program that is best aligned with your literary interests. Educate yourself deeply in languages of your choice (I know, getting a Masters in English or Hindi or Telugu or any other language probably does not guarantee that one becomes a great writer or poet in that language; but at least you get to read and study what you love!), develop yourself and try to achieve literary greatness. The only condition as far as I am concerned is: Whatever your choice, be serious about it. Life is short. Don't fritter it away. Be serious about your goals and try your best to achieve them.
Does this mean everyone who aspires to can or will become as great or famous as some of the personalities I have named above? Perhaps not. But that need not stop us from following our hearts and pursuing our dreams. To draw an analogy with physics, there are so many physicists in the world but only a few get the Nobel prize. Does that mean all the other physicists have been unsuccessful? Certainly not. The entire scientific community communicates its findings with each other continuously. And when a breakthrough happens, its actually a moment of success for everyone involved in the field as I see it. Sure some minds reveal themselves to be more brilliant or insightful than others. But everyone's effort counts. And I suppose those physicists who are in the profession out of a genuine interest in the subject, are deeply curious and find joy in the process of discovery would enjoy being physicists regardless of whether awards come their way or not.
Similarly, every well written book or play and every verse of beautiful poetry adds to the literary richness of this world. So with fine art: every beautiful painting makes this world a more beautiful place to live in although only a few artists may achieve fame. Then it may not be always the case that a great artist receives recognition within his or her lifetime, or for that matter that fame and recognition always come to those who are good. At the end of the day its about being true to yourself and trying to be the best you can be in my view of things.
So if literature happens to be your passion, plan to pursue a career in it by all means. Just remember to work hard and give it your very best. As I said above, I'll discuss some possible strategies of trying to get around financial constraints that some may face shortly.
Another field that is tremendously important in my view is History. And I believe it is neither taught well enough today nor is it valued enough as a subject - which is exactly the opposite of how it should be in my opinion! A knowledge of how different civilizations evolved over the millenia, a knowledge of how our own civilization has evolved and transformed, the challenges we have faced and our successes and failures, these are topics of great importance in my opinion and I feel any education is incomplete otherwise. So if History fascinates you and you aspire to be a Historian yourself, know that you would be taking up a career that is no less important than any other.
Same with music: Think of Ustad Zakir Hussain (Tabla), Pandit Hariparasad Chaurasia (Flute), Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma (Santoor), Ustad Bismillah Khan (Shehnai), Pandit Ritwik Sanyal (a disciple of Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Zia Fariduddin Dagar and presently a Professor in the Faculty of Performing Arts at Banaras Hindu University) (Dhrupad), The Dagar Brothers (Dhrupad) and many more... I have listed some maestros in Hindustani classical music here. In case you are interested, just do a simple google/wikipedia search for musicians in the Carnatic style or other forms such as western classical or jazz.
Can you imagine a world without music? Should a career in music be considered any less important or "prestigious" than any other career? Again, the only thing I emphasize is: If you choose to pursue a career in music, be serious about it. Go through the required training (for example: http://internet.bhu.ac.in/performing_arts/), put in your best effort and try your very best to be a great musician. Again, every beautiful song or composition counts and adds to the beauty of this world. Some musicians become famous, some don't. Plus, as I said above, fame need not always imply greatness. So its not about that - its about following your heart and being the best you can be. Just don't shortchange yourself in the effort you put in. If you do so, only you stand to lose in the end.
Or Dance: If I am not mistaken, dance was considered to be a divine art in India at one time (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_classical_dance). It is our great misfortune in my opinion that we have reduced it to the level of "item numbers" today. I, for one, have great respect for Indian classical dance forms as well as other serious forms of this art such as the ballet and would encourage anyone seriously interested in pursuing a career in dance to go for it.
In fact one of the best practices I have seen is music and dance being part of children's education at home in many Indian families. I believe this is more prominent in eastern and southern parts of the country but it would be good to see this culture spread. Every morning, children singing for a while - often just practicing the seven basic notes (Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa). I think there is a value to this even if one doesn't eventually pursue music or dance as a career. From my own rather limited experience I feel that practicing vocal music in the Indian classical style has a calming and consolidating effect on the mind. I have started late but wish I had received this education as a child. In addition to children learning music and dance at home while growing up it might also be worthwhile to introduce Indian classical music and dance as optional electives at the primary and secondary school levels.This will generate much needed employment for musicians and dancers as well as help sustain these art forms. I'll come back to this point in a bit.
So to summarize: Whatever be your particular interest (it could be to become a theater artist or to pursue a career in the fine arts for example), immerse yourself in the field, understand what it is to be really good in it, identify a program of study that is best suited to proceed towards your goal and work hard.
The worry of course is then being able to make a decent living in such professions, that are perhaps today not "mainstream".
The central strategy I propose to address this concern is that more people consider taking up teaching positions at the school, college or university level. And alongside one's teaching responsibilities at different levels one can continue to pursue knowledge and work towards higher degrees (more on this below).
I think we as a society have lost sight of the fact that teaching is an extremely honourable profession. Perhaps the highest there is as Knowledge sustains everything else. We need to correct course on this front and have the very best in every field take up teaching positions. There is a dire need for good teachers in our country today in my opinion. So I propose this strategy both from the viewpoint of aspirants in different fields earning a decent salary while pursuing their own individual goals as well as to address the need for good teachers.
If there is a need to start earning money right after your bachelors degree, my recommendation would be to take up a teaching position at the school level. If you are unable to get a good teaching position right away, offer tuitions for a while. But be sure to pursue a Masters degree alongside. Don't stop studying yourself! That's the key. Don't lose sight of your long term goals. I know that salaries at the school level may be a concern. As I mentioned above, I'll make an appeal to the government regarding this later in this post along with presenting my views on the matter. But till such a time that the overall situation changes for the better, we still need to keep moving forward while negotiating any financial difficulties that may arise as best we can. There is absolutely nothing wrong with supporting yourself and your family using such a strategy as you work towards your goal. In fact teaching school children is such a great service!
But as I said above, be sure to pursue a masters degree alongside. Keep studying!
After you obtain your masters degree, try and obtain a better teaching position at the school level, or if possible, a lectureship at the college level where you can teach bachelors students.
Again, don't stop studying yourself :)! Enroll yourself in a PhD program alongside and work hard towards writing a good thesis.
Once you have a PhD, you can either obtain a more senior position at a college, or better still, try to become a faculty member at a University or an Institute where you can also be involved with post-graduate education..
This is how it usually works out in my field too. Pure research positions in science and technology are rare to find and by and large those of us who are interested in research take up academic positions in an institute where one has teaching commitments to fulfill. That's what pays the bill and alongside one gets complete academic freedom to study and research whichever area one wishes to.
So teach, and alongside, keep working towards your goal of becoming an author or a poet or a musician or a mathematician or a scientist or a painter. If you are lucky the roles will flip eventually. You will become a mathematician who also teaches. Or an accomplished Sitar player or Odissi dancer who also teaches others. And who knows maybe one day you will (if you want to of course) become a full time painter or musician or author or scientist who earns enough directly from his or her profession and won't need to teach anymore from a financial point of view. The thing to realize is that there is a whole range of possibilities that can help you stay in the field and keep moving forward.
In extreme situations if the financial conditions are very difficult at some stage in life it may be necessary to take a break for a while and return to pursuing your subject after some time. That's fine. Just don't lose your inner focus and commitment. Or you can pursue your subjects through distance education or correspondence courses (example: http://www.ignou.ac.in/ , look for other avenues too) while being on a job. No problem. The important thing is to gain as much knowledge as you can.
In fact this reminds me of something I wish to share. I met a young man working as a server in a Barista cafe recently (his name is Harjot if I remember correctly, but I'll double check the next time I go there). For some reason I asked him if he was also studying alongside his job at the cafe. He answered in the positive and told me that he was pursuing a BA degree through correspondence. I was so impressed to hear this. I believe we need to encourage this mindset. Yes, work early in life if your situation demands it - but find a way to keep studying alongside as well.
This is something fairly common in the west. Most students work part time even during their under graduate programs to ease the financial burden on their families. It may not be necessary for everyone here in India and many may not prefer to if the family is in a good enough financial condition to support their wards' educational program but we need to respect this approach as well whenever the situation demands it. To give a personal example, I worked at a McDonlads during my masters program in the US for a few months till I got a teaching assistantship. I used to stand at the sales counter for a few hours in the day and help clean up in the evenings. To this day I feel proud of myself for having done that. And my fellow workers were mostly students going to the same university, including one girl who was pursuing her PhD in western classical music!
Another cue we need to take from the west in my opinion is how the willingness of people to pay for experiencing art forms such as music helps keep these art forms alive. I am not just referring to concerts and performances by famous artists here. Pretty much every weekend you will find music performances happening at different venues where often local upcoming artists perform and one can go and see these performances for a nominal price. Of course the performances have to be of a certain minimum standard otherwise the concerned musicians don't succeed. So they have to continuously work hard and keep improving themselves. But the point I am making is that this culture enables artists to support themselves and stay focused on developing themselves and their art further which in turn enables art itself to progress further.
I think we need to move in this direction a bit. From what I have seen most of us who are fairly well off financially would easily spend a few thousand rupees on food in an upscale restaurant but would hesitate to buy a ticket for even a few hundred rupees to go for a concert or dance recital where say a local upcoming Sarangi player or Kuchipudi dancer were to give a performance. Or for that matter an art exhibition featuring paintings by a local upcoming artist. We could perhaps occasionally forego an outing to watch a bollywood flick and spend perhaps half the money to watch a theatre performance featuring local artists in a regional language. If we can bring this shift in our mindset, we may suddenly be able to create avenues for our artists to express themselves and our society would be culturally far richer that it is today.
Coming back to the teaching profession: I promised above that I will make an appeal to the government regarding salaries for school teachers and personnel in other professions such those who enroll themselves to become soldiers or hawaldars or hospital nurses. So here goes:
I refer to the professions I have just listed as "essential services". People in these professions are fundamentally important to society. Our children need to be taught by the most loving and knowledgeable teachers we can find. Our patients and the elderly need to be cared for by the most caring and competent nurses we can find. The security of our villages and towns and our borders depends on the bravest, fittest and most committed people taking up careers in police and army services. And all these people and their families have needs to fulfill and aspirations for a decent life for themselves and their families. We must ensure that we pay them well enough so that these concerns are addressed and financial constraints do not become a factor that blocks people from taking up these professions. At the very least, complete medical care for the personnel in these professions and any dependents, education for their children, salaries that ensures a basic living standard at the level of food, clothing and shelter and a provident fund type option that ensures a basic level of financial saving and security for the future must be guaranteed. If we do any less than this we are doing a great disservice to not just the personnel themselves but to ourselves as well.
Here's an example to emphasize the appeal I am making:
I once took a cab from Delhi airport. Now I am in the habbit of striking up conversations with cab and auto drivers occasionally. It makes the time pass and I get to understand a bit about them. So I asked this can driver how much money he makes per month. I still remember him telling me (this was about 4-5 years ago) that business used to be much better but he now manages to make about Rs. 30,000/- to Rs. 35,000/- per month. I'm not completely knowledgeable about salaries in the professions I have appealed for above but in case we have allowed a state affairs to set in wherein it is more lucrative to be a taxi driver (with due respect to their profession and an acknowledgement of their hard work as well as the fact that they too have their needs and aspirations and a right to earn enough to fulfill them) than to be a nurse or a school teacher or a soldier or a hawaldar, then it only reflects our immense lack of maturity and foresight.
It is my earnest appeal to the state as well as central governments to put thought in this direction and ensure that all "essential services" related professions deserve the respect and monetary compensation they deserve.
To end this post: I believe that for quite a while professions of medicine and engineering have been emphasized the most, at least in our country, and a sense of these professions being more "prestigious" than others may have set in. I hope I have been able to convince you that if this is indeed the case it is based on nothing but ignorance. Choose to pursue these professions, just like any other, only if you are really interested, motivated and inspired to be a doctor or an engineer. Otherwise, do not choose to be one. Be who you want to be and do what you want to do with your life. Just remember to work hard and move towards your goal without hurting or disadvantaging anyone else in the process.
[The only exception I would make to this advice is if your family has been struggling financially and choosing such a career path would liberate them from this as well as a social respectability bondage in your opinion. Even then, if possible, my advice would be to try and choose a path towards economic liberation for your family that is best aligned with your interests and aspirations. Hopefully some of the suggestions I have made above will be of some help.]
Best of luck!