The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is a highly prestigious organization within India’s civil service, responsible for tasks such as creating and implementing policy, managing governmental funds, and aiding in other government functions at federal and state levels.
There are lots of great things about becoming an IAS officer. For starters, you’ll be able to improve the lives of the many people affected by your decisions. In addition, IAS officers are also compensated well and receive a significant amount of prestige.
However, there are some other considerations that IAS aspirants should be aware of, especially before they commit to studying for the competitive UPSC Civil Services Examinations.
One of the considerations we’ll cover is how much positive impact you might be able to have as an IAS officer. At Probably Good, we think your career is one of the best resources you have to make a positive difference – we want to help you find a career that’s good for you and good for the world, and it’s possible that becoming an IAS officer might be a promising way to achieve this.
The questions we’ll answer in this article include:
- How do you become an IAS officer?
- How hard is it to succeed in the Civil Services Exams?
- What is the salary of an IAS officer?
- How much positive impact can you have as an IAS officer?
In addition to answering these questions, we’ll cover other important information to think about as you decide whether you want to try and become an IAS officer.
1. You’ll need to study hard to become an IAS officer
In order to become an IAS officer, you’ll need to undertake a very difficult set of exams – the UPSC’s Civil Services Examinations (CSE). These exams are notoriously difficult and require extensive preparation from those who take them.
The examination process consists of three main components:
- Preliminary Examination – The Preliminary Examination consists of two multiple-choice papers, and is taken in June every year. The first paper tests the candidate’s knowledge of a variety of topics, such as current events, governance, and climate change. The second paper – the Civil Services Aptitude Test – assesses broader competencies such as the candidate’s reading comprehension, decision-making, and interpersonal skills.
- Mains Examinations – For candidates who pass the Prelims, the Mains consist of nine written papers on a wide variety of subjects, two of which are optional subjects to be selected by the candidate. Two of these papers test the candidate on languages, with one focusing on English, and the other on an Indian language. The Mains are held in October each year.
- Personality Test – Those that score highly enough on the Mains exams will be selected for the Personality Test, held the following March, which is an interview that assesses the social characteristics of a candidate and their ability to communicate clearly.
As we can see, the CSE involves a long process, taking nearly a year to complete the 32 hours of total examination. And, because the standards for success are so high, it can take a lot of studying and revision to stand a good chance of clearing the exams. In fact, many Indian civil service aspirants report spending upwards of eight hours a day studying for the exams, over the course of months and often years.
The youngest IAS officer in India’s history, Ansar Shaikh, studied for at least 10-12 hours a day for two years for the CSE. He entered the IAS at the age of 21, which is substantially lower than the average age of civil service entry which stands at around 25 years of age. Presumably, his hard work played a significant role in his success.
The reason behind this average age is that the majority of successful civil service aspirants succeed after multiple attempts, most often after three or four tries, meaning that for most civil service officers it takes significantly longer than the two years it took Ansar Shaikh to clear the exams.
Alongside the amount of time spent studying, it’s also important to choose the right optional subjects if you manage to get through to the Mains. There’s a wide variety of optional subjects you can choose from, including agriculture, sociology, history, philosophy, and many others.
Some optional subjects have higher success rates than others, so you might want to strategize over which subject might give you the best chance of success. For example, one website reports that aspirants in 2019 were twice as likely to succeed in sociology as they were in geography. Management, animal husbandry, agriculture, medical science, civil engineering, commerce, and economics were other subjects with some of the highest acceptance rates.
Because of this, studying adequately for the CSE comes at a significant opportunity cost – the time you spend preparing for these exams could be spent advancing in a different career path where you’re more likely to succeed, or furthering your education.
It’s also worth noting that IAS aspirants are required to have a bachelor’s degree, which can be in any subject, from a university recognized by the UPSC. You’ll also need to fall within the permitted age limits of between 21 and 32 years of age, though this upper age limit is increased to 35 for those from an OBC caste.
Want to know more about the full CSE syllabus? Check out this full guide from ClearIAS.
2. Becoming an IAS Officer is a highly competitive process
In the 2022 UPSC exams, only 2,529 cleared the Mains exam out of more than 11 lakhs of total applicants, and they filled a total of 1,011 civil service vacancies. That means that for every successful civil services aspirant, there are over one thousand who don’t get in.
What’s more, just 180 of these vacancies are for IAS officers, so overall only a tiny fraction of people who apply for the CSE become IAS officers.
The competitiveness of the CSE is also increasing over time. In 2006, there were 3.84 lakhs civil service aspirants. This increased steadily to approximately three times the number of applicants in the 2022 exams.
Because of the very high chance of not getting into the IAS, it’s a great idea to think of other careers you might consider if you don’t manage to clear the CSE. As we say in our career guide, it’s always a good idea to have multiple options in mind when it comes to choosing a career path.
3. There are other routes to enter the IAS (but they’re rare)
Though the CSE is the most common route to become an IAS officer, it’s worth talking about two other, less common ways to enter the IAS:
Lateral entry: Recently, the Indian government has started accepting lateral entries into certain positions in the IAS. Generally, lateral entry candidates tend to be placed into specialized roles within the IAS, rather than more general administrative positions.
As such, these lateral entries tend to be offered to people who have developed expertise in specific areas within the private or public sector. Only 31 lateral entries into the IAS were made in 2021 – so it’s still only a small minority of IAS officers who enter this way. This shouldn’t be considered a reliable backup option for those who fail to clear the CSE, but it’s an option to consider for those who go on to develop expertise in a different career path.
Promotion from state-level civil service: Under Rule 8 of the IAS’s policies, it is stipulated that the IAS can recruit particularly promising civil servants working at the state level – though no more than one-third of IAS officers are permitted to enter the IAS this way.
Entering the state-level civil service isn’t easy, either. Entrants must succeed in a separate set of exams, the State PSC exams which also have very low success rates – for instance, less than one percent of aspirants cleared Maharashtra’s PSC exams in 2019. So, this could be another route into the IAS for those who do not succeed in the UPSC exams – but it shouldn’t be considered an easy route to become an IAS officer.
4. IAS officer salary and benefits
Here is the salary of an IAS officer at different levels of seniority:
|Monthly Salary (INR)
|Years of experience
|10 (starting level for IAS)
According to a report from the Institute for Competitiveness (from 2022), earning a salary of over Rs 25,000 a month would put you in the top 10% of earners in India. The most basic IAS salary is more than double this. So, IAS salaries are quite comfortable.
On top of this, IAS officers receive very generous benefits. These include a government-provided residence, vehicles, and other transportation, household staff such as cleaners and security, subsidized bills, as well as the opportunity to take time off to undertake further education.
However, even with these benefits, the IAS salary might not be quite as high as some other jobs available to the talented, qualified aspirants who enter the IAS – particularly if you’re able to work in a technical profession – so this is worth bearing in mind if a very high salary is important to you. Regardless, the IAS offers a very respectable amount of compensation.
5. IAS officers can have a great positive impact
Many IAS aspirants want to enter the IAS to make a positive difference for the people they serve and for India more broadly. This is one of the most exciting parts of a career in the IAS – your ability to help lots of people.
This is because IAS officers, particularly in more senior positions, can have quite a lot of influence and authority that can help them improve the functioning of government in multiple ways. One of these ways comes from the fact that IAS officers often have a say in the allocation of resources, such as where money is spent. IAS officers can therefore have a positive impact by directing resources toward more effective programs.
Another route to positive impact for IAS officers is to implement better processes and management practices, making sure that the government’s policies and programs are executed effectively. For example, during our research we learned of an IAS officer who saved the government over ₹500 crore through reforming the payment system used for a social program. He advocated for these changes after reading rigorous research the best practices of conducting similar programs. This is a huge amount of money to be saved, potentially allowing for governmental budgets to be increased elsewhere.
IAS officers can also have a big impact through crafting and shaping policy – in fact, we think one of the best ways to have an impact is to be a champion for evidence-based policies that can help solve high-priority problems. By using the best data and evidence available, such as the policy insights produced by cutting-edge policy research organizations like Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), or Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA), you’ll be able to make better decisions about how to solve some of the most important problems facing India, such as widespread poverty and poor health outcomes.
In general, we’d expect that the best opportunities for large-scale positive impact in the IAS will come in roles at the national level, where your decisions may affect far more people. However, lots of good can also be achieved at the state level, particularly in the more populous states.
Want to know more about how civil servants can have a huge positive impact? Read our full career profile on the civil service within low- and middle-income countries.
6. You might not get much choice in where you’re posted
The different roles that an IAS officer might be placed in are wide-ranging and diverse. IAS officers are placed in almost all areas of government at both state and national levels, including governmental departments, state bodies, banks, and even in international organizations such as the World Bank or the United Nations.
However, during research we’ve previously conducted on careers in the Indian civil service, we found that those within India’s civil service often have little control over the departments or regions in which they work. Though IAS officers can indicate their preferred zones, they don’t have much choice in their specific postings, which are typically given at the discretion of those ranked above them, such as departmental ministers.
On top of this, transfers between postings in the IAS are very frequent. This report on the IAS claims that IAS officers face a 53% chance of being transferred to a new post in any given year, and that the average posting length lasts just 16 months.
The short tenures in each posting mean it may be hard to develop sufficient expertise within each posting to be able to deliver meaningful change.
The report also claims that many postings and transfers within the IAS are allocated politically, which could make it difficult to focus on the areas, problems, or policies you’d like to focus on if you are politically misaligned with the relevant minister or other high-ranking official.
So, if you want to join the IAS because you’re passionate about working to help solve a specific problem, or improve a particular area of the country, you might find it difficult to get yourself in a position to do so.
This is unfortunate, because, as we said in the last section, one of the most important things you can do to increase the amount of good you do is choose the right problem to solve, as some can let you do much more good than others. If you receive little choice about which problems you get to work on as an IAS officer, this will likely limit your ability to improve many lives in the country.
Additionally, if you were to ever leave the IAS, the network you’ll have developed will likely consist primarily of other civil servants and government officials, potentially adding some complications in obtaining a good role in a different profession or industry (though some IAS officers have found success in political careers). We recommend thinking about this a little more before you decide to commit to pursuing a role in the IAS – what might you do were you to decide to leave?
7. It’s a good idea to think about backup career options
As we’ve seen, there are lots of considerations to think about when deciding whether to try and become an IAS officer. IAS officers can do a lot of good, command much respect, and receive good salaries and benefits.
However, it’s very difficult to enter the Indian civil service, and if you don’t succeed you’ll have spent a lot of time preparing for UPSC exams that you might have better spent on something else.
Fortunately, there are many other career paths that offer similar advantages to becoming an IAS officer, such as the ability to have an impact on the lives of many people, or potentially even non-human animals. If you decide you don’t want to try and become an IAS officer, or if you try but ultimately don’t succeed, it’s a very good idea to think about whether there are any other career paths you might be interested in.
For example, people with a quantitative skillset who might be a good fit to be a development economist, or a monitoring and evaluation specialist, both of which use data-driven methods to help improve people’s lives at a large scale.
We’ve researched many other career paths that can allow people to have a positive impact on other people, and the world in general, using their jobs. Take a look – some of them might be a great fit for you!