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Updated: June 30, 2013 15:53 IST
BACKPACKER'S GUIDE - LIVING & LEARNING

Heart of the problem

Usha Raman
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Find a way: Make the best of what is available. Photo: K. Murali Kumar
The Hindu
Find a way: Make the best of what is available. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

You need to find ways to understanding a problem. As a student, it is important to learn “how to learn.”

I often hear people say that their job has nothing to do with what they learnt in college, or that they do not really apply their college education in their work.

So, you have a number of graduates doing work that is seemingly quite different from what their degree qualified them for.

For instance, many engineers end up in the financial or banking sector, while science or social science graduates, and even doctors, may get into the Indian Administrative Service and become bureaucrats.

Does this mean that the general education we receive is of no use unless we find a job that uses the exact content of what we have learned?

Do we then say that we have “wasted our time” getting that degree when we could have been doing something different, something that leads “more directly” to that particular job? What is the value that an investment bank gets from hiring someone with a degree in mechanical engineering?

How does an education service provider find value in someone with a degree in journalism? Clearly, there must be something, otherwise these hard headed, pragmatic companies would not be employing young people whose degrees seemingly have no relationship with the work they will be doing.

In recent times, I have seen some bright young people who have been hired by top-of-the-line companies who reflect this seeming “mismatch” — an engineering graduate from a National Institute of Technology was picked up by a Wall Street biggie; the toppers from a communication programme were hired by a creative learning products company at salaries they would never see in media at that level, and so on.

The mechanical engineer had, at the point of hiring, no knowledge or understanding of hedge funds or stock market equations. Mass communication graduates knew nothing about pedagogy or lesson planning.

So , what is it these companies are looking for — that these young people have? In a casual conversation with one such employer, I learned that these young people have two qualities that are becoming more and more valuable in our complex era: the ability to analyse and solve problems, and the capacity to transfer skills across domains.

Problem solving

Problem-solving is not just about getting the right answer to a puzzle. It is, at heart, about breaking a question down to its component parts, looking at it from a variety of different angles, and then coming up with a solution that fits the specific need of the moment.

It’s a skill that we should develop with a good education in any domain, from mathematics to history. The particularities and the specific tools of each domain might differ, but the essential process of taking things apart and putting them together remains the same.

I’ve spoken in earlier columns about the need to take time to understand a question before running to find an answer. This is an absolutely crucial part of problem solving. It’s important to understand a problem from a variety of angles and then hone in on the one approach that best suits the demands of the situation.

This step is more important than we might think, and it can be taken in a variety of ways, all of which are equally valuable in building a solution—though some approaches are more relevant to a particular sector than others.

A young man who took several interesting turns in education and employment and now works for The World Bank group told me that he’s learned that there are at least three ways of understanding a complex problem: Firstly, talk to more experienced people and gain their perspectives about it. Secondly, read up as much as you can about it, from as many kinds of sources as possible.

Thirdly, try to gain first-hand experience about the context of the problem (say, through travel or by using simulation of some kind).

If you take away the specifics of any degree, you will find that all education is supposed to give us the tools to do this, in some way. But we spend too much time on the content rather than the skills and the framework that our courses are designed to give us. This is often the fault of course delivery rather than design, but as students we can get past this if we recognise that this is what we need to get out of the course. These smart investment banking companies know that a mechanical engineer has the mind to take things apart and put them together again in creative ways. The education products company knows that a communications student understands issues such as empathy and expression and how to apply it to building a learning package.

I recently read the results of yet another survey, which noted that only 4.22 per cent of all engineering and computer applications graduates in India are “employable”, and one of the main reasons was a lack of analytical and communication skills. So, it stands to reason that when employers find these skills in a graduate, no matter what the specific degree, they are keen to get them on board.

What is the point of all this? Basically, I want to emphasise that the specific degree does not always matter — what you need to be doing, as a student, is to learn how to learn. Once you’ve done this, then you have what is needed to solve problems — the ability to understand a question. It’s not a big step from there to find the means to answer it.

The writer teaches in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, and is editor of Teacher Plus, www.teacherplus.org.

Email: usha.raman@gmail.com

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