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With the Apping Season under way, InsIghT brings to you ‘Career Series’ which will capture the experiences of alumni who had been in your shoes. In the sixth article of the series, Anant Kekre speaks to Pritish Chakravarty. Following are excerpts from the interview.
Masters Student at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)
B.Tech (Hons.), Chemical Engineering, Class of 2012, IIT Bombay
Why did you opt for higher studies instead of placements?
Like many at IITB, I was quite clueless about career options in general, so I began to look at some popular trends to guide me. Since I had done an internship at ITC, I looked at what the former interns had chosen as their careers. Just as all roads lead to Rome, nearly all the interns had chosen the path of consulting. This, along with the really interesting pre-placement talks given by all the consulting firms, led me to become quite excited about the prospect of doing intellectually stimulating and original projects at a reputed consulting firm. Given the constraints of a CPI below the magical figure of 8.00 and a less-than-ideal placement preparation, I finally managed to get a consulting job at Ernst and Young at the end of Day 2.
[pullquote]Given the constraints of a CPI below the magical figure of 8.00 and a less-than-ideal placement preparation, I finally managed to get a consulting job at Ernst and Young at the end of Day 2.[/pullquote]
When the job actually started and I got to know what it was really about, I was quite disappointed by not only the concept of consulting in general, but also what a typical job profile for IITians is like. I was quite surprised to find that the actual job had almost nothing to do with what is said in the pre-placement talks. My work involved scouring the Web for specific facts and figures, drawing some largely straight-forward conclusions and trends from this data, and then presenting it in the form of well-organized Excel sheets and aesthetically pleasing PowerPoint presentations. Sometimes the overall project seemed interesting, but more often than not, it was repetitive, especially given the fact that the nature of my work remained much the same regardless of the kind of project.
Thus, the first two months at office did much to dissipate the halo around the word ‘consulting’ that I so revered while I was inside the institute. Further, it was even more surprising to realize that my disappointment was not just company-specific. Indeed, friends in other traditionally better and bigger consulting firms were doing similar work, albeit on different projects. Hoping that things would become better and that perhaps the first 2 years was just necessary ‘ghodagiri’ that one had to do to learn the trade, I then analyzed the work-profile of people who were more senior in the firm – somewhere I would probably be in 5-7 years’ time if I kept working. But even that did not seem appealing. Also, the mutual exclusivity between my studies at IITB and the work I was doing at the firm jarred me every day. As I had mentioned once before on an InsIghT article, I genuinely had the feeling that, ability-wise, a smart student in Class 10 could do this job really well, and that a 4-5 year IIT degree was completely unnecessary for this task.
Finally, I came to the conclusion that it was personally unacceptable for me to spend most of my time Googling for facts and figures and putting stuff down on pretty Excel sheets and PowerPoint presentations. The craving for a basic level of intellectual stimulation refused to be silenced by a monthly influx of money. It was a prolonged and painful realization that it is always better to think independently and deeply about such decisions, rather than ‘follow the herd’ blindly, since each person has a unique response to everything.
[pullquote]The craving for a basic level of intellectual stimulation refused to be silenced by a monthly influx of money.[/pullquote]
That is why, after weeks of introspection and soul-searching, I decided that this basic level of intellectual satisfaction was much more important to me, and that we had been sub-consciously always receiving it in an academic environment. In a job environment, it had become conspicuous by its absence. Thus, I quit the job in three months and decided to opt for higher studies.
How did you get an admission at EPFL?
As you can probably guess from what is written above, my resume contained nothing even remotely academic. A seven-point-something without any research work is a Graduate Committee’s dream come true, since they can reject the applicant without further deliberation. It was clear that I needed to drastically improve my academic profile in order to be accepted into a good program at a good university. I could obviously not change my CPI after graduating, but at least I could do some research. So, like a clingy, determined ex, I came back to IITB as a Research Assistant (RA).
I started working with Prof. Amit Agrawal in the Mechanical Engineering department, along with a PhD student on an interdisciplinary project at the interface of fluid dynamics, biology and image processing. Fortunately, this turned out to be a very fruitful and satisfying endeavor, and I loved what I was working on. It was also very heartening to see that professors actually really look forward to working with motivated B.Tech/Dual students since they believe them to be capable of good work (despite how much we do to convince them otherwise).
Since I had just started working as an RA in the beginning of November and it was much too soon to get any tangible results in the project, I had to skip all the deadlines for applying to universities in the US, since they are mostly in December. By the end of April, after working quite hard for 6 months, for the first time in 5 years, I stopped finding my resume funny. It was this unbelievably positive feeling that enabled me to apply to the handful of good universities whose deadlines were still available. I applied to a grand total of 3 universities, and received acceptance letters from two of them, one of them being EPFL.
[pullquote]I applied to a grand total of 3 universities, and received acceptance letters from two of them, one of them being EPFL.[/pullquote]
What did you expect of this kind of higher education? Were your expectations met at EPFL?
The program I had applied to at EPFL was in-line with the work I had done during the 8-month project mentioned above. Hence, at EPFL, I expected to do interesting courses which would help me increase my domain-specific knowledge and help me specialize in the field of my choice, which is Bioengineering. My expectations were more than exceeded, since EPFL has world-class, enthusiastic professors in this field, very thoroughly-conducted and well-structured courses, and a very good level of research and funding in the department I am in.
Can you tell us something about how your typical day looks like?
Converting the number of credits to the IIT system, I am doing 92 credits in my first semester. That is at least three times as much as I did in a single semester at IIT. As you can imagine, it is quite a hectic schedule. Typically, I go to the university at about 8 in the morning, complete about 6 – 9 hours of lectures and/or exercises (tutorials/labs) and then come back home and work on the multitude of assignments, reports and presentations that are always due! It is a really intensive schedule and I finally feel satisfied with the amount and quality of work I am putting in.
[pullquote]It is a really intensive schedule and I finally feel satisfied with the amount and quality of work I am putting in.[/pullquote]
What do you plan to do in the future?
I plan to do a PhD after I graduate.
If you are given a chance to go back to your placement time, would you choose to go for higher studies instead?
The main point I would like to make based upon my own story is that decisions can be changed and reworked with some hard work. Graduation is not a make-or-break point in life that we should be completely obsessed over. It is great if one is able to choose his/her best path at the end of 7 semesters, but it is also completely fine if one is not able to. One’s inherent interests and motivations, if strong enough, eventually guide one towards better decisions and the means to achieve the goals of those decisions.
That being said, if it were possible to go back in time, I would pay the time-machine dude some extra money so that I am transported back 3 more years to my freshie year, so that I could start studying earlier on and do some useful work by the end of the first three years, rather than spending all my time playing sports and an instrument, and on DC. We often do not realize the magnitude of what we squander away by not focusing on academics at IITB.
[pullquote]That being said, if it were possible to go back in time, I would pay the time-machine dude some extra money so that I am transported back 3 more years to my freshie year, so that I could start studying earlier on and do some useful work by the end of the first three years, rather than spending all my time playing sports and an instrument, and on DC.[/pullquote]
How did your life change before and after graduating from IIT?
Simply put, I began to think more carefully and originally about decisions concerning my own life. It’s quite strange that even though every person has a nearly unique reaction to each situation, we always tend to do what others are doing. After graduating, the ‘herd’ disintegrates automatically, so you are forced to make your own decisions.
How are the cultural, geographical and topological factors of Switzerland affecting you?
French is the language spoken in this part of Switzerland, and I am having a great time learning it. This winter was the first time I saw snowfall and snow in my life, so it was incredible to experience solid precipitation engulfing the entire town in an exquisite blanket of serenity. Like insti, the city has a lot of slopes – so one has to get used to climbing over long distances. The difference in elevation between the university and the house I live in is 400m.
Can you tell us one thing that you love the most about your higher studies and EPFL?
I love the kind of skills the courses focus on. The courses are knowledge-, mechanism- and application-based, as opposed to the focus on analytical skills at IIT. Thus, the skills learnt at IIT (during the few hours I was actually paying attention) complement the courses here very well. Given the interdisciplinary nature of the field I am in, the set of courses I have taken is quite diverse yet coherent – and there is always something new to be learnt and applied.
Also, all the Masters students I have had the opportunity to interact with here are extremely self-motivated and responsible for their own studies. Attendance is not compulsory anywhere, yet the classes are always full. There is so much work always due, but everyone does each assignment on their own.
Can you tell us one thing that you hate the most about your higher studies and EPFL?
There is almost nothing I can think of. Perhaps the curriculum could do away with the three mandatory HSS courses.
Thanks a lot for the interview. InsIghT wishes you all the very best for your future.