The annual ritual of placements is about to kick off in the Indian Institutes of Technology and Rohan Gupta is glad he is not a part of it. The final year student of exploration geophysics, a five-year programme at IIT Kharagpur, West Bengal, was “given an out” by a pre-placement offer – he was offered a job by an oil-field services company where he interned in the summer.

“It is really important you convert your internship into a PPO,” Gupta said. His will allow him to sit out the ritual of companies arriving on campus to recruit from the graduating batch of IIT Kharagpur. Placements begin on December 1 in all older the IITs – Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Kharagpur and Kanpur. Older engineering colleges that were later converted into IITs – IIT Roorkee and IIT Banaras Hindu University – follow the same schedule.

For all the noise generated by this exercise and the large “compensation packages” that go with it, placement-season is a punishing experience for students. Candidates, placement coordinators, teachers and even alumni describe it as extremely stressful.

For students, the first phase of placements spanning the first half of December is the culmination of months of planning, workshops, consulting teachers and alumni, mock-interviews and tests. For the few who land jobs in the first few days, the pressure lifts early; for the rest, things get worse. “One student gets a job on the first day, his roommate goes into depression,” a dean at IIT Delhi remarked. For this reason, and to get parents to back off, placement cells of several IITs insist on keeping offers secret until the exercise is over.

Seeking guarantee

Many students enter the IITs weighed down by expectations. “Parents want to know about employment prospects at the time of counselling [conducted after admission to help the student decide which programme to join],” said the IIT Delhi dean, who, not authorised to speak to the press, asked not to be named. Manu Santhanam, placement advisor at IIT Madras, added, “Parents have asked my colleagues during counselling how their child can get placed in Google.”

Anishya Madan, liaison officer at IIT Delhi’s placement cell, has handled such queries, too. A few years ago, she was accosted by the parents of a second-year biochemical engineering student in her office. They wanted to know if their son could change his stream even though he had not done well enough. In the IITs, students from all branches of engineering study the same curriculum in the first year and only those who do really well are allowed to change streams in the second. “His mother thought he would not get the best jobs without changing streams,” said Madan. “She told me she wanted a ‘crore-plus’ [more than Rs 1 crore per year] salary for him, and if he was not allowed to change, she would make him withdraw and write the Joint Entrance Examination [for admission to the IITs] again.” Permission was not granted and Madan does not know what became of that student.

The hype over placements and packages does not help. “Just a few days ago a student forwarded an article from a Hindi paper saying that from 2012 to 2017, 342 students got offers with salaries over Rs 35 lakh,” said Madan. “The student who showed it to me does not plan to start working but wants to go for higher education. His father had sent him the article, possibly wondering why these figures had not been shared with him before. Parents, going by news reports, want to know why another student from the same institution will be paid much more than their child.”

The “crore-plus” offers are quite rare and every placement season there are many who do not find offers they can accept and do not join the second phase of placements in January. Santhanam said the median salary is in the Rs 9-10 lakh region.

Planning ahead

Yet, students plan for placements for months, even years. Minor subjects – courses studied in addition to the main discipline from second year – are selected with an eye on improving placement prospects. For instance, those angling for positions in the finance sector, Gupta explained, may opt for financial engineering as a minor. Gupta himself studied coding and data science and his new job will require both.

Preparation begins in earnest in the summer of the fourth year, the final year for many streams. “It is always there in the back of your mind but when you go home during the summer, you weigh your options and decide,” said a final year student of electrical engineering at IIT Delhi. Since he is participating in placements this year, he requested not to be named. “You consult your family and seniors and decide if you want to go for higher studies, civil services, study management or get a job.”

September onwards, as companies commit to recruiting from campus, the application process begins. Interviews take place after placements officially begin in December but the shortlisting starts well before. “Practically every weekend, you will find me writing tests,” said the IIT Delhi student. “We have regular course work during the week too and these weekend tests can go on till 11 pm. Then, if you have applied to 50 companies, about 20 of them will hold presentations. Attendance is compulsory.”

Day one

This frantic activity peaks on the first day of the placements. Recruiters get time slots to conduct interviews and most vie to get a slot on the first day. “They feel they will not get the whole pool to pick from if they are not here on day one,” Madan explained.

The scramble for day one creates logistical problems, especially in the older IITs with large graduating classes. “In IIT Kharagpur, 1,500-2,000 students register for placements each year,” said Akash Tulsani, who graduated in civil engineering from the IIT last year and was recruited by a sales and marketing consulting firm based in Gurgaon. “Because the numbers are huge, competition and stress are very high.”

Gupta said the students may have to appear for interviews through the day from 4 am and write tests at 9 pm or 10 pm. That is because placement cells squeeze in as many recruiters as possible on day one despite fearing “it may not be healthy”, as Santhanam put it, because “IITs also compete with each other”. No IIT would risk a major recruiter dropping out because they don’t like the time slot assigned, Gupta pointed out.

“But once you get a job,” Gupta added, “the process stops for you.”

It gets harder for those still in the field. “After three-four days, students look like they are losing their minds,” recalled an IIT Kanpur alumnus, who asked not to be named.

Gupta said two of his friends at IIT Kharagpur have not been selected for final interviews. “They were expecting to be selected and are disappointed,” he said. “But it is important to not break down. I have seen students grow tense if they did not get placed in the first few days. Classmates with equally good marks and profiles do not get offers. A few even cry.” The IIT Delhi student agreed that students fret about getting offers on day one. “They care about which day, which slot and what salary,” he said.

Peer support

As the student staggers through days of interviews and tests, their peer group becomes simultaneously a cause for stress and their main support. Tulsani was placed on the third day, after appearing for four-five interviews and being rejected. “Everyone else in my circle was placed by then,” he recalled. “The pressure you feel from peers is high but they also guide and support you.”

Referring to gloating social media posts about job offers, an IIT Delhi student, Kumar Sambhava, wryly asked in an article last year: “Are we really sure that we deserved our jobs more than everyone out there?” He proceeded to advise restraint.

Tulsani too is aware of the effect thoughtless expressions of triumph have on colleagues. “A close friend was not able to get a job in the first phase,” he said. “He had taken a loan and was desperate. He withdrew, stopped talking or engaging on social media.” But at the same time, he said, it is the peer group that can be relied upon to bolster sagging spirits, help revise course material for tests and practise for interviews.

Outside campus

Tulsani’s friend chose not to risk waiting till the January round and started looking beyond campus placements. “This is common for students not placed in phase one,” said Madan. “Some also decide to not accept offers under than a certain amount and do not show up for interviews scheduled towards the end of phase one.”

Tulsani’s friend “started talking to professors and collecting as many references, alumni contacts and HR [human resource] contacts as possible”. Santhanam of IIT Madras said there is “a whole range of contacts” between faculty and companies, and professors are generally able to help.

Alumni networks too are tapped for references, said Gupta, a member of IIT Kharagpur’s alumni cell. Alumni networks can also be relied upon to help secure internships.

Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of the story had included IIT Roorkee and IIT-Banaras Hindu University in the list of older IITs. The engineering colleges at Roorkee and BHU were both established before Independence but were converted into IITs after 2000.