Arun Singh graduated with a B.Tech degree in Chemical Engineering in the year 2011. He then went on to work with Reliance Industries Limited and The Abdul Lateef Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL) before heading to MIT for his Masters in Technology and Policy program. After IITR asked him about his experience at IITR and at his jobs, his decision for graduate studies, and his future plans.
What expectations and ambitions you had when you entered the institute as a freshman?
Like many of us, I came to know about IIT and JEE in 11th standard, and my initial perception of IITs was based more on hearsay than on actual facts. This is not to say that the hearsay is exaggerated, but just that it shifts the onus of a freshman turning into a notable alumnus from the student to the institute. Many of us thus walk into the institute thinking that the institute will somehow magically turn us into one of ‘those’ alumni that the IITs are known to produce, no matter what we do while we are there. I must accept that I, too, was under this misconception and such were my expectations. My ambitions were, thus, shaped by these expectations, in the sense that I wanted to achieve a lot but was uncertain about what should I do (or not do) to achieve. I was frankly not even very certain of what I wanted to achieve. What I was certain about was my excitement to be among the top brains of the country. Here a word of caution is necessary: It is very important to note that IITians are a subset of the top brains of the country and notexclusively the top brains of the country — as many students ignorantly and rather smugly believe, some of them even several years after graduating.
What were the options you were looking at in your senior year?
In my junior year (third year) itself, I had made up my mind that I wanted to go for a core job. I liked Chemical Engineering, but not sufficiently enough to pursue higher studies, thus GRE was out of question (this was to change a few years later). MBA had never allured me for some reason (this, too, was to change a few years later) so I didn’t prepare for CAT at all. I am also somewhat of a loyalist to the purpose of IITs, which further added to my decision of going for a core job.
Among core jobs, I was of course fascinated by the glamour of Schlumberger and Rio Tinto, but I couldn’t make it beyond their last round interviews. I was also interested in oil refining as I had found it very fascinating during my 3rd year intern. Thus Reliance didn’t appear to be a terrible option, although I had heard about the high attrition there.
Overall, I was fairly certain that I didn’t want to take a non core job, thus I didn’t take the processes of top non-core recruiters (mainly Deloitte and Oracle in our time, but also ZS and Verity) seriously.
I think that during placements, it’s very important to be certain of what you want to do immediately after graduation, and wade through the placement process accordingly. What you go on to do later in your life is a different matter, but taking jobs you don’t want to do leads to couple of years of frustration and this frustration then leads to further ill-thought exits from these jobs. Thus you should try not to mindlessly sit for any random company that’s offering a job. This should be your recourse only if you are absolutely uncertain about what you want to do and just want some job. And of course this can be your recourse if you are unable to get one of your preferred jobs a few months down the placement season. Placements are stressful, but don’t let the stress shroud your judgement. As it has been emphasised in the famed Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t Panic! 🙂
How and Why did you move to J-PAL?
I was somewhat interested in the broader Energy and Environment domain from the later years of college. After moving to Reliance, I started getting interested specifically in Energy and Environment Policy as I read and understood more about the massive need of reforming these policies and the work going on mainly in the developed world on such reforms. I wanted to be a part of this transformation and thus started looking for jobs where I would be able to get a better sense of how environmental policies are formed and implemented. I was in touch with Anunaya (2012 batch) who informed me about the project he was working on in JPAL — Emissions Trading Scheme for Particulate Matter — and that the project was in close collaboration with MoEF and Pollution Control Boards of India. As they had vacancies, I applied and eventually got the job after a couple of interviews.
A few words about JPAL (Jameel Poverty Action Lab): It is a “global network of researchers who use randomized evaluations to answer critical policy questions in the fight against poverty.” The global headquarter is at the Economics Department of MIT and projects in India are mainly carried out under the South Asia Office, of which I was an employee.
How was your experience in J-PAL?
My experience in J-PAL was amazing for the most part. I think three major reasons that made it amazing were:
(i) The project I was working on was very interesting and novel in the context of Indian pollution regulation. Besides, as most of the things were being worked out from scratch, there was a feeling of working for a startup where you have to figure out a lot of things instead of following set methods.
(ii) The researchers affiliated with J-PAL are of course among the best in their fields. Our project was lead by one professor from MIT (Economics) and one from Harvard (Harvard Kennedy School), who have stellar reputations in the field of Energy/Environment Economics and Policy Research respectively. Besides, the colleagues at J-PAL are a brilliant and super fun group of people.
(iii) Government bodies were direct partners on our project, thus I got to get a close look at policymaking and implementation.
Why did you decide to go to college again? What made you apply to TPP at MIT? And did you apply to any other program?
Ever since I graduated, I wanted to go back to college for further studies. It was a question of WHAT I wanted to study that kept me waiting. This was, however, sorted with my increased interest in Energy and Environment Policy. I started looking for programs that focussed on Energy and Environment, but from a policy perspective. At this stage, I also kept discussing with my friends pursuing MBA and realized that an MBA focused on Energy/Environment can also be a good medium in preparing me for what I wanted to do, albeit for a somewhat different role (corporate policy versus government policy). I thus eventually applied for a mix of programs: MIT (Techcnology and Policy Program – TPP), Princeton (Masters in Public Administration – MPA), Duke (MBA with focus on Energy/Environment), and Yale (MBA, which has strong ties with Yale Forestry and Environment School). MIT-TPP was my top choice among these for 3 main reasons — one, it was a tech based policy program, two, it was fully funded as everyone in the program works on research during the 2 years, and three, well, it’s MIT! 🙂
Fortunately, I made it through all the programs, but eventually chose MIT-TPP for the reasons mentioned above, and also because MIT is really strong in Energy/Environment research.
What do you plan to do once you graduate from MIT?
I plan to work in the US for a few years. I am open to mainly two career paths – consulting or multilaterals (World Bank etc). I don’t have a strong preference for one over the other as of now, but priorities might change while I continue studies here. In both career paths, however, I want to focus on energy, and if possible, expansion of clean energy. I eventually want to work in the clean energy space in India, but I am not certain about any particular role yet.
Now that you have seen the real world for as long as you were in the institute, do you think you would have done anything differently in the institute during your stay than what you actually did?
My favorite question! 🙂
The most important thing I have realized during these years out of college is that as undergrad students, we have absolutely enormous amount of time in college, and it’s terrible that so many of us end up making no worthy use of most of it. I am not saying that one should stop having fun at college — far from it! Undergrad is the best time of one’s life and one should have as much fun as possible, BUT at the same time one should also understand that the 4 years of undergrad are very important in shaping one’s life. Sure there are stories of successful college dropouts, of students who graduated with terrible grades but were eventually massively successful in their lives, and of students with great grades who eventually lead pretty normal lives, but these stories are very harmful if used as excuses for not making proper use of one’s time in undergrad. In fact, any excuse used to justify worthless wastage of time is a horrible excuse.
I thoroughly enjoyed my undergrad, made great friends, travelled, developed an interest in music and movies, and I would do all of these again if I were to go back. But what I didn’t do was to give my best in sincerely figuring out what I wanted to do, and using my time in college to work towards that. Call it lack of focus, if you may. And one doesn’t have to go far to see how devoted students are in trying to figure out what they are interested in — just take a look at our sister IITs (the older ones, mainly) to get an idea. I realized this when I met with students from different IITs and heard about what they used to do in their undergrad, apart from the usual fun that everyone has. One can say that in spite of not utilizing time properly, I eventually made it to MIT, but that doesn’t negate the fact that I underutilized a lot of time in undergrad, time that I could have put to much better use, perhaps by learning skills or perhaps by reading more.
In a nutshell, Robert Plant did sing that “in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on”, but it doesn’t compensate for the lost time in travelling the wrong road, and one can’t naively blame ignorance for the lost time as it is one’s own responsibility to not be naive.
What advice would you like to give to the students regarding career, placements, graduate studies, jobs, academics and life?
One universal advice to start with: Learn coding! It could be on any platform or any tool (MATLAB, R, Python etc), but you must learn coding as most of the things you do after graduation, be it further studies or jobs, will require you to have some knowledge of coding. And it’s best to learn when you have plenty of time at your disposal.
A more general advice follows from my previous answer, as most advice inevitably result from one’s own experiences. Make good use of your time at college by trying to learn as much as you can. If it’s focussed learning in one particular field, that’s great. If you are not sure about which field should you focus on, keep trying different things until you end up with one that you like. I am using ‘field’ as a general term that can be applied to academic as well as non-academic disciplines. So for example if you like to play an instrument, give plenty of time to it to become good at it. If you are in Chemical Engineering but prefer computer science, give as much time to it as possible — maybe you will go on to do a Master’s in Computer Science and end up working for Google in Silicon Valley (true story of my batchmate). Bottom line: give time to learning skills.
Another advice I would give is don’t mess up with your grades, ESPECIALLY in the first year. Yes, grades might not matter in the really long term but most of the things you do immediately and a few years after college have a preference for students with good grades, and you wouldn’t want to miss a good start. This is all the more important because maintaining decent grades (say above 7.5) is really not that difficult and plenty of people I knew were able to do that, in spite of being heavily involved in extra currics. Your only excuse for not maintaining good grades could be your super interest in some non academic activity which you can make a living out of eventually.
And last but absolutely not the least: explore beautiful Uttarakhand as much as you can. Take one HEC trek for sure during the 4 years. It will be a memorable experience and you will make long lasting friendships 🙂
All the best for everything.
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