The Road Less Talked About
The author, Akhil Kulkarni (B.Tech/ME/2010), worked with Credit Suisse for about one and a half years before pursuing his MS in mechanical engineering at UT-Austin. During his time at IITM, he led the contingent to Robocon 2008 and was Events Core, Shaastra 2009.
There are a few things I wish I had heard from my seniors who had spent a couple of years out there after graduation. Useful information, which would have helped clear some of the misconceptions I had as a student.
What do you look for in a first job? For most of you, the pay package would be the top consideration. Whatever the field you choose, your salary at your first job is probably worth peanuts compared to what you will earn a few years down the line. So don’t fret over it. What you should be looking for is constant value addition. The first job should provide a high learning curve and serve as a launchpad for you to set your career in motion. If you earn more than what the market values you at, you become less attractive to other companies and switching jobs might prove difficult. On the other hand, having a slightly lesser pay but higher value addition makes you undervalued and hence a good choice for other employers. However, when in IITM, there is not much you can do about your choice of placement due to the slotting system, but it’s definitely good to know what you are getting into.
Take any senior’s opinion with a pinch of salt, because there is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. Every company, good or bad, would have people who have done exceptionally well, but does not necessarily mean that it’s the norm. It is good to know where most of the people in the company end up after two years and how easy or difficult it is to look for jobs after a 2-3 year experience with that company.
I worked with Credit Suisse, in their investment banking division in Mumbai as an analyst in the Technology, Media and Telecoms team. I worked on leveraged buyouts, M&A deals, IPOs and debt issuances. I prepared pitch-books and worked on transaction models. My work required understanding the fundamentals of accounting and corporate finance, for which we were trained by a renowned professor from NYU’s Stern School of Business. We also mastered Excel skills, which were taught to us by an NY-based training firm. People have joined IIMs, Harvard and Booth after spending some time at Credit Suisse. Some have been placed permanently in New York, San Francisco, London and Hong Kong. Sounds cool? These were the outliers. The ground reality was quite different. There was no clear career progression path within the company. Most of the people struggled to find jobs with other employers. Some have quit in frustration, and other are still “stuck” with the company as there is no way out. A typical day started at 10.30AM and ended close to midnight. It was spent preparing Powerpoint slides showing information about a specific company (after hounding their website and other market research documents for information) or keying in numbers from financial documents into a pre-built Excel model. Quite a few times, weeks’ worth of effort was trashed because of a change in strategy at the higher level or for a multitude of other reasons. After about six months, I felt that the learning curve dropped sharply, and the job became mechanical. It was time to move on.
For lack of better other job opportunities, for my love of the subject, or for the plain ease of getting an ‘app’, I decided to get back to engineering. I applied for an MS abroad in mechanical engineering, starting in the spring semester. Many students tend to believe that time spent in a non-academic, non-engineering setting would be detrimental to their application. However, I feel it doesn’t really make a difference. I got a funded MS admit to The University of Texas at Austin (UT). My former professors from IITM were very encouraging and readily agreed to give me recommendation letters.
I’d like to add a little about spring admits, as far as my experience goes. The funding does not really depend on the semester you are applying in. Also, the chances of getting in remain fairly the same, since both applicants and admits are lesser in spring. However, the course structure is mostly designed from the perspective of a student starting in the fall semester, which makes things a little inconvenient for spring applicants. Also, one cannot do an internship in the US on an F-1 visa unless one completes nine months of stay in the country. So an internship outside of the university during the first summer is not possible, if that’s what one is looking for.
A majority of my class here consists of students who have two or more years of work experience, and for some of them, in fields different from the ones they are pursuing their MS in. Most of my friends from other departments too have work experience, some up to four years. For students coming here with work experience in related fields, getting internships has been a cakewalk – not always the case for the rest. Also, most students believed that they would not be able to get back to studying after a gap of couple of years or that they would have forgotten most of their basics from their undergraduate degree. From personal experience, I can say that our brain does a much better job than we think it can do.
I have seen some of my friends enjoy graduate school, some of them getting frustrated, and I myself have been through extremes of both phases. Students tend to worry too much about whether to stop at an MS or continue for a PhD. I would say that the answer would come over time. What’s central to enjoying graduate school is knowing your goal and working in line with it. The Statement of “Purpose” is not merely an essay which helps you get an admission, but it is also an important factor to sail you through grad school. It is a means to reflect on your ambitions and why you wanted to go to grad school in the first place. Hence it is something that should be done with careful attention. The goal to come to graduate school can be different for every individual. For some it might be to get a good job, for some it would be the number of publications. For some, graduate school can be a means to do research leading to a startup in that field while for others, it may be pure enjoyment. Some might want to complete it in the shortest time possible by doing the minimum work required to graduate or some might want to take it easy over a longer duration while experiencing all that grad school has to offer. The best part of US universities is their freedom and one should make use of that to the fullest.
I still remember writing an essay for Purdue (whom I did get an admit from, and I rejected) on “What do you intend to accomplish in graduate school?” That essay has been my guiding factor so far. I came to graduate school with plan to do research leading to a startup. Over the course of a year, I did not see myself progressing in that direction so I shifted to a Plan B, which has worked out well so far. In less than a year of starting graduate school, I have a job offer from a good firm.
My key learnings from grad school have been patience, handling uncertainties, and the scientific method of thinking. It’s not so much about developing subject expertise as it is about developing the attitude. I may not be pursuing a PhD, but I can understand why the degree certificate mentions “Doctorate of Philosophy” without a mention of the department in which you obtained it.
For me, my first job now feels like a long internship after fourth year of school.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Fifth Estate or IIT Madras. For specific queries and feedback, leave a message or mail us at t5e.iitm[at]gmail.com.