Hi, My name is Nikhil Kumar and I am an alum of the Metallurgy Department (Class of 2019). I am currently pursuing an MA in Economic Policy at Boston University, as well as working as a Research Assistant for a professor.
By the end of my first year at IITB, I had realised that I was neither particularly good at the core coursework nor did I find it very interesting. In H15, there used to be a variety of newspapers scattered around the mess, and I used to keep reading them long after I would finish my food. I would come across all kinds of issues, politics, economy, science, etc. and gradually developed an interest in social issues. I started watching news shows, lectures, debates on these issues on Youtube (free internet!!), understanding only partially what was being said.
The second year introductory course in Economics was a revelation. Although at an elementary level, that was the first time I came across simple models that could partially explain complex socio-economic issues (I had never studied Econ in school). I started reading non-academic books by economists and policymakers to get an idea of what the subject was about. I was amazed to find out how mathematical techniques could be used innovatively to understand and address social issues.
So, I took an HSS/SoM course every semester thereafter to get exposed to the different fields even as I read books and articles. I also completed a few EdX courses to expand my coursework. Meanwhile, I did an internship in policy research and pursued course projects related to economics and public policy. I also ensured that I attended the many lectures organised around the year on a whole host of issues by the CPS or HSS department which exposed me to many ideas in social sciences. Around the end of my fourth year, I decided to apply for a Masters program in Economics.
- What were the various options available to you while choosing a career path and why this only?
I think my options were: a job as an analyst, research work for think-tanks, or a masters in a policy-related field. I had already accepted a job offer as a Data Analyst in a leading global company as a safe option because I wasn’t very optimistic about my chances in any Masters program, given that I was changing fields. However, when I got a few admits, I decided against the job.
- How did you decide to pursue the unique economic policy profile?
I applied to multiple universities, all of which had different kinds of programs. I wanted to get some exposure to academic research as well as public policy in order to decide what I would pursue in the future. I got two rejections (from Columbia Univ. and George Washington Univ.) and got accepted at (Boston Univ. and Univ. of Southern California). USC wasn’t offering scholarships and had a short program while BU offered me a partial scholarship, had a longer academic program and offered a mix of academic and policy-related courses as well a competitive RA-mentorship program. So, I decided to go with BU.
- What was the application process?
The application process was similar to any that is there for US universities: GRE, ToEFL, Statement of Purpose (SoP) and three Letters of Recommendation (LoR).
I found the GRE Quant to be quite straightforward – it is just a game of patience and focus for those who are comfortable with JEE level mathematics. My suggestion would be to regularly practice (even though it gets boring after a point). GRE Verbal was tricky because of the thousands of words that I needed to memorize. Flashcards and use of sentences worked for me. Again, practice was the key as it is easy to get out of touch with using the newly acquired vocabulary (which can be annoyingly temporary).
If you ask for a suggestion, I would suggest you first understand the exam pattern and then try a few standard sources to see what style works. How do you know what works – if it helps you identify what you are good at relatively quickly and improve on the shortcomings, that may be it! If you score well in GRE Verbal, ToEFL should be straightforward unless you have issues with speaking English fluently (which I did). I tried to record answers and listen to myself just to get over the consciousness. Many of us forget about the GRE APA section. It is not simple but quite straightforward once you understand what they are looking for.
SoPs and LoRs are much more important in my opinion as they are what distinguish you from other students. In writing my statement, I had the help of a very helpful professor from the HSS department who was with me every step of the application process. Suggestions: Think about why you are going for the program, what interests you about the field, what are your ideas; frame them in an interesting way; connect with the goals of the program and let the committee know why you are a suitable fit.
Reference letters from professors can add considerable weight to you application especially if your referee understands your motivations in applying, knows your work ethic and can convey it eloquently, understands the application program so that they can highlight why you might be good fit for the school and can provide a comparative assessment of your academic/research aptitude in relation to your peers. Suggestions: talk to your potential referee early and more often so that they know you better and can be more nuanced when writing about you.
- What made you choose this role as a Research Assistant at Boston University?
BU offers a competitive RA mentorship program that offers students a place within the research community of the Economic department. It is awarded mostly based on our academic performance. This exposure to research is what drew me to apply for the position, apart from the nominal stipend that somewhat eases my finances. One of the potential career options I was leaning towards was research in Economics and this role has given me a small peek into that world, which is something I find incredibly valuable.
- What exactly constitutes your job as a Research Assistant at Boston University? Also what hard/soft skills are needed, to be good at it?
We are assigned to work either with senior PhD students or professors and get a first hand experience of the nuances of academic research. As an RA with a professor, my work so far has been to assist him in data collection, data cleaning and data analysis. Apart from that, I have helped in replicating results that have already been published in research papers as well as in verifying results for a paper in the process of publication.
I did not know a lot about any of this before coming to BU. While here, I learnt statistical and econometric tools that are required to do research. Most economics research uses the softwares Stata or R and I learnt them here during my coursework. Apart from that, I have learnt GIS (Geographical Information Software) and Python on my own (using Coursera) which have helped me in my role as a research assistant. I have come to appreciate the vast application of programming and data analysis while in this role for the past 6 months. This role has offered me new skills that I can use in my future research.
- Some general advice to the readers:
I suppose if you kept reading this far, I have not bored you with generalizations and platitudes. IIT Bombay is more than an engineering institution. It allows you to explore many fields despite the inflexible nature of the undergraduate programs. Take advantage of that. There are courses that you’ll not know about unless you browse through all the myriad offerings. There are events you will never hear about unless you keep an eye out for that unpolished, simplistic poster behind the flashy ones.
If you find something that motivates you, learn more and try becoming good at doing it. That is obviously the ideal. Many of us, however, are not sure of what we want to do in life even on the day of convocation. That is okay. What I think is not okay is not to have at least eliminated some of the many options through experience, so that you have a narrower set of options to choose from. That can be an incredible relief to have.
And for economics students who have no senior to talk to, do not hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook. I will be happy to have a chat and help in any way I possibly can.