Interview: Bherjas Muhammad (Civil – 2018)
Brief us about the Engineering Services Examination.
The Engineering Services Examination (ESE) to join the Indian Engineering Services (IES) is an extremely competitive set of examinations, amongst all the engineering examinations around the country. Upon passing the three rounds, one will be posted directly as a clerk or an officer. This exam focuses on students of four departments – Civil Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Electronics and Communications Engineering (ECE). Each year, around 500 seats are open for the four departments, with Civil taking up 170-180 positions and Mechanical 120, usually. This time around, Civil had more seats than usual, around 250. Within each engineering department, there are 8-10 separate ministries/divisions. Take Civil for example; which has Roads, Railways, CPWD, Defense, Surveys, Borders, etc. Based on one’s rank, preference, and vacancy, his/her department will be allotted. The results usually come out in November. There is usually a gap of 6 months before our careers start (i.e. April or May). The training period lasts for 1-1.5 years, depending on the department assigned, after which one will be posted as an officer.
Would you brief us on what got you engaged/motivated to take the exam?
I got to know about such a test only in my third year. It had since stuck in my mind. In my fourth year, placements had started, and most of the companies that came were non-tech [non-core] related, especially for Civil. I sat for one or two companies and decided that I didn’t want to do something that wasn’t related to my branch of studies, Civil. So, the best option I had was the ESE. I decided to take a year of coaching to prepare for the test with the utmost dedication after my B.Tech. This is one of the very few career options where your work is based on what you studied, and it also offers various opportunities and challenges.
Could you share any interesting strategies that helped you excel in the examination?
The examination has three stages – a preliminary, main, and interview stage. The preliminary stage is of objective type and consists of two papers. The first one is non-tech. It is basically a general studies and aptitude paper, which has ten subjects, including current affairs, economics, management and environment. The second paper is engineering (Civil engineering for me) which was also objective. Studying for the second paper was more “exam-oriented” because prioritizing is very important for objective type questions. One has to solve 150 questions in 3 hours; calculators are not allowed even though numerical problems with a lot of calculations are present. Thus prioritizing was an important strategy during the test. Solve the easy questions first. Since all questions carry the same marks, there aren’t any additional marks for the harder questions. Thus, choosing the more straightforward questions means you can cover the bulk, hence more marks, faster. Accuracy, especially in numericals, is essential. It comes only with practice. The main stage was slightly simpler because one has already built a foundation for the preliminary stages and completed 90-95% of the portions. The main stage is of subjective type questions, so one just has to practice for it. Once again, previous years’ question papers are beneficial. When it comes to the interview stage, it’s a different thing altogether. Technical and non-technical questions are involved. The questions asked range from current affairs to your college; just about anything that comes to their mind. Preparing for the interview takes 1-1.5 months. It involves googling and reading up on a lot of things. My interview had a lot of questions on my B.Tech project. Most of the candidates applying for the IES come after working for some time; their interview would most probably involve questions on their jobs and field of working. Since I attempted immediately after my B.Tech, my questions were mostly on my project.
Given how our schedules are as tedious as they are, how did you align your preparation with your academic schedule?
I decided to write the test while I was in my final year. I started preparing around November-December. I studied for around three months up until January, but this wasn’t proper preparation. I knew I needed to do more in order to perform well. In college, you really don’t study properly; you study the night before the test and attempt the exams. That wouldn’t suffice for this test; you need to study the entire syllabus deeply, questions can be from anywhere. I knew I needed some guidance and a better source; so I decided to go to a coaching institute. When college got over, I went directly to Delhi that May. I was in the coaching institute for six months, from May till December. It was rigorous; it involved classes from morning till the evening, coming back to our rooms and continued study.
What time do you think is ideal to start preparing for the exam?
One can write the exam in their final year too. If that is the plan, then ideally, one has to start preparing from their third year. Ideally, a year of preparation is needed. If one is planning on writing it after completion of his/her B.Tech, then one can start preparing immediately after their final year. It depends on the capability of the student as well. If the student is highly capable, not as much time is required. For a normal student, preparation can be started during one’s 4th year. Then there are people who work for a few years and then they decide to write the test. They usually take a year’s break to prepare.
There’s a preconceived notion that only the students from the top-ranked colleges and institutes obtain higher ranks in the exam. How far does it hold true?
This time, just like last year, the first ranker was a student of IIT-Kanpur. One can’t deny the fact that there’s some truth to the statement. Last time, if I’m not wrong, the first ranker was from IIT-BHU. However, when I was in coaching, there were many students from private universities; who also made it to the rank-list. In the top-10 too, I think there were a few the last couple of years who were from private colleges. There are many who come from private universities, give their best, and get selected. If you do your best, regardless of where you studied, you have all the chances of getting selected.
Did any part of the exposure you received in college help you with the interviews?
Before the interview, you have to fill out a detailed form, giving your entire bio-data, your interests, hobbies, etc. I had mentioned playing football and visiting places as my hobbies in the form. So when the UPC board chairman went through my form, he saw “visiting places” and asked me about the places I have visited. In my college days, I went on many trips with my friends. So I spoke about that in the interview. I was a part of the Pragyan Organizing Committee, during my third and fourth year, NITTFest, and also a part of the football team of the Civil Engineering. Some interviewers do ask about such things, it depends on the board. Extra-curriculars will definitely help you. What is expected of us are skills such as leadership, communication, team-coordination, etc. Also, 90% of the questions were on my B.Tech project.
To what extent did the technical knowledge you procured in college help?
Till my final year, I was just like any other normal student; studying at the eleventh hour, and forgetting it the next day. It was only during the November of my final year that I myself started preparing properly. However, since I had prior knowledge of these things by word of mouth during my classes, it wasn’t very difficult to understand or capture things. I’m sure that if you pay attention and hear things in class, things become much easier to capture in the future.
You mentioned that you started preparing for your exam in your final year. What steps did you take for your preparation, like coaching classes, study materials, etc.?
Coaching classes were very important to me. They were excellent; I was taught everything from scratch, in a detailed manner. After classes, I made for myself a tight schedule of revision and problem solving from books and previous year papers.
After classes, coming back to the room, I revised my notes and did a lot of problems, be it from books or previous years’ papers. The coaching institute gave a workbook too. The coaching institute will also conduct many series of tests, which will help you greatly in time management and in self-evaluation and correction. That is how you improve by eliminating or reducing the number of mistakes that you commit. That is as important as accuracy in the preliminary stage. Reducing mistakes and time management are two important things you get only from the test series.
As far as interdisciplinary education goes, like we have courses from other departments too, etc., do you feel they are an advantageous prospect in exams like ESE?
The preliminary paper, Paper-1, has many subjects; it has current affairs, economics, product management, quality, material sciences, energy and environmental science. For instance, material sciences are from the Mechanical Engineering department/division; Civil engineers don’t study it. Likewise, product management is from Management Studies, quality and control is again from Mechanical, energy and environment is from Civil. Thus Paper-1 is a mixed bag; it tests your general skills, skills in other fields of engineering, in current affairs and more. Such an education will definitely help you in Paper-1. As for the subsequent stages, it may prove useful in the interviews, as a few questions on the basics of other fields are a possibility.
For students who are unable to clear the exam, what opportunities are there in the public sector itself? Would you brief on that?
The GATE exam is one way to get into IITs and other PSUs. There are a lot of companies like IOPL, ONGC, PIL, which provide opportunities. The IES exam comes first in January, which is followed by GATE in February. After the IES, if you haven’t done well, you have a month to prepare for GATE, where you can put full effort and try to get maximum marks. There are a lot of other state exams as well, like Kerala PSE, Tamil Nadu PSE, etc that offer engineering posts.
Please describe your posting.
I have given my first preference as railways i.e. the Indian Railway Services. In Civil, Railways is the most sought after division. Then we have CPWD, Defense. In railways, there are 18 zones in India and several divisions in each zone. Within each division there exist (usually) 3-4 subdivisions. Your first post will be as an Assistant Divisional Engineer, ADEN, in one of the sub-divisions. So the full control of that particular sub-division will be under you. You will have a lot of engineers and contractors working under you, maybe around 500-600 people working under you. The control of that full sub-division will be yours. You will hold a lot of power and responsibility, and will thus be under some pressure. After three years, you will be promoted to a Divisional Engineer, DEN, when one full division will come under you. Then as you go higher, a lot of other posts will become available.
Could you explain the process that followed the announcement of the results, like how the appointment proceeded?
The preliminary exams were in January, the mains exam was in June, the interviews went on in September, and the results came in November. Towards the end of November, we had a medical test. In the coming April/May, we’ll have our appointment. They’ll put out an allotment list after going through our preferences that we have already given, after which an offer letter will be sent. There will then be a foundation course for around 8 weeks. After that, we’ll have our proper training. The training is split into stages 1 and 2. Every department has its own institute in different places, and for Civil engineers, in railways, the training institute is in Pune. Some part of the training will happen at the institute, while the rest happens elsewhere. You also get to visit every department and spend some time there. They take you on study trips around India and also take on trips like trekking.
During your time in college, were you in any managerial position in any club or fest? Do you think they’ll provide a basis for your career?
I was a manager in the Pragyan Organizing Committee in my third year. As an officer, you have many responsibilities, and you have many people working under you. So definitely, that exposure will be of some help in your career. When you are in your second year, you’re the one doing the work and reporting to the seniors. That is where one learns how to work. When you come to your third year, you become responsible for making the juniors do the work. The responsibility and leadership that you learn here will definitely help you in your career, not only in Engineering Services.
Is there anything you’d like to say or add to the interview?
We know many who would like to work for private companies like L&T or go abroad. If that’s what one wants, they’re great opportunities too. However, I know many, who were placed in companies like L&T, worked for a year, quit and started studying for the ESE. I always feel bad for those who didn’t get placed in our batch when this happens. One should think about it before placements itself, instead of working for three months to a whole year only to drop out. If your target is this exam, then start preparing early, you’ll get it. In my opinion, it is better to set your goals and start preparing early. Any average student, if he/she puts in a reasonable effort, can crack the exam. After any exam, there will always be regret over what went wrong. You must give your full effort, and you must be satisfied with it. Because that way, even if you fail to clear, you’ll have no regrets.