Archana Rath: A multifaceted explorer
After graduating from NIT Rourkela in 2018 with a B.Tech in Biomedical Engineering, Archana Rath worked full time at ZS as an Associate Consultant. After wanting a change, she applied for The Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University. She is among the 200 students from the entire country to get this esteemed fellowship and thus become a part of a multi-disciplinary post-graduate program. This article will try to decipher the idea behind taking such an Unconventional Career Path and know more about this multi-talented individual.
Team Monday Morning had the opportunity to interact with this creative and jubilant all-rounder to know more about her journey and what lies ahead.
Life at NITR
Monday Morning (MM): Why did you choose Biomedical Engineering as your branch?
Archana Rath (AR): Going back a few years down memory lane, I did not perform well in the JEE and the board exams. Also, that particular year, a significant weightage for deciding the JEE rank was determined based on the performance in board exams; as a result, my final rank dropped a bit. I didn’t know about various engineering branches; coding was also not my cup of tea. As I had studied biology in 12th, I decided to go for Biomedical engineering. This seemed like a middle ground for me because I could also grasp higher biology and become an engineer.
MM: You were an undergrad student researcher. Could you tell us a bit about your research?
AR: I loved all of the subjects that were there as part of my curriculum. A few of my favourite subjects were biomechanics, immunology, and biomaterials. I used to spend a lot of time in the Gait Analysis Lab. My first project was at the end of my first year.
I spent my first-year summer gap at Rourkela. One of the first projects that I did was on a Tamarind Gel-based Hydrogel, where we used Tamarind Gel and some other chemicals to come up with the Hydrogel. We ended up creating a very good biomaterial with improved properties of mechanical strength, conductivity, and cell adhesion. All of these properties were better than what any other standard hydrogel could have given us. There were a lot of technicalities involved in making these biomaterials as my first project.
My professor Prof. Kunal Pal published a paper on the project we worked upon. Even though I contributed a considerably small part, it was a proud moment for me. I had a keen interest in researching the deadly disease tuberculosis during my initial days. I also tried to understand how the testing of the sample is done and the RTPCR as well. During my final year, I worked with Prof. A Thirugnanam, our faculty at NITR in the Biomedical Department. In that lab, I worked on a titanium bioimplant with a coating of a protein called Alkanitin. We studied how that particular biomaterial with that special coating could benefit diabetic people with a prolonged healing rate.
MM: You have participated in several sporting events, representing NIT Rourkela at the Inter-NIT Basketball tournament or leading the Women’s Kho-Kho Team at NITR. What role do you think sports play in making one self-disciplined?
AR: I have been an active sports person since my school days. I had also participated in a few national tournaments. In the institute, I wasn’t actively looking out for any opportunities in sports as I was already a part of the Synergy club. But still, the love for sports pushed me to participate in various sporting events, and I learned a lot through it. I got to be a part of several teams, I spent some time with the Tracks team and the Athletics team of NITR, and I think that the time I spent in DTS with these teams are some of the best learnings that I got.
So it starts with teamwork, then there is coordination, and there is this mutual trust that you have in each other. There’s also a sense of individuality that you still maintain when you are in a team, as you have a specific role that you are playing while being part of a team. During various sporting events that I took part in, I met a lot of people. Hence, there was a lot of networking. So there are a lot of soft skills lessons in the field too. In this pandemic, when working remotely and dealing with many people online, you are still working in a team, so soft skills are essential to keep things going.
VENTURING INTO THE CORPORATE WORLD
MM: How did you transition from Biomedical engineering graduate to working full time at ZS as an associate? What aspect of your engineering major do you think helped you in making the transition?
AR: One of the most important things that helped me with the transition was my background in biology. In the interview rounds, when the interviewer looked at my CV and found out that I was a biomedical engineer, he started asking me about the basic concepts in biology. Because of the subjects like Biostatistics that we had in our course, I had clarity on the basic concepts of statistics. By the end of the final year, I was pretty comfortable with coding since I was doing MATLAB, so I was good to go for the interview. I was sincere in my CV and didn’t mention stuff that I had no clue about.
Since I was the sports secretary in my final year, I was given a budget to take care of, buy sports equipment, and ensure it was enough for the girls in the hostel. Once you have done such projects, you are often aware of your mistakes, and you are comfortable with numbers and approximations, which are very important in case studies and guesstimates. Strategic thinking is making a plan with all the reasoning, so you have to be comfortable with all these skills, which can not be taught.
So my entire four-year journey helped me in bits and pieces in getting through the interview process of ZS. Although I did not go into pure biomedical research, I have been in touch with subjects like drugs and diseases, tumour progressions, and diabetes. I had worked for two years on diabetes, as the client I was working for at ZS Associates had their leading market in the diabetic portfolio, and that unit was one of their biggest. I was dealing with drugs related to diabetes, I was in charge of the sales of these drugs, and I was also observing diabetes patients’ journeys. So, some of the things that I had learned during my B.Tech careers were put to use.
MM: What was your experience working as a Business Operations Associate at ZS? How did it help you in shaping your career?
AR: I think that was one of the roles where I learned a lot and gained confidence. I was very comfortable talking to clients who were working in different time zones. I succeeded in making sense to them regarding the problems in an industry that doesn’t even function similarly in India. ZS also helped me a lot in knowing about documentation and client portfolios. ZS is known for very steep career growth. There are not many hierarchies. You get a client-facing role very soon into the job, which isn’t possible in big firms unless you are an MBA graduate. So ZS helped me gain many experiences by dealing with clients and converting their proposals or ideas about a problem into data-driven solutions.
I also got to learn a lot of technical skills. When I entered ZS, I didn’t enjoy coding. But within three years, I had pretty good proficiency in Excel, SQL, SAS, and Python. I also dealt with the patient-level data, the most granular data you can have in the pharma industry.
E.g., If you are dealing with a patient data who has cancer, you will be able to identify his journey from his first visit to the doctor to the CT Scan he had or the Chemo he took, which might not have worked out. Then the subsequent therapy that he had switched to and even the date of his death. So you can crack an entire patient’s journey end to end. Just imagine the kind of data analytics that you can perform on that. So I was able to switch roles quickly at ZS, and that is how I changed my competency from business operations to decision analytics.
MM: You had a coveted job at ZS. What made you switch to liberal studies? What is your story behind applying for the Young India Fellowship?
AR: When I joined ZS, I enjoyed the work culture and the people around me since everybody had a science background. So the next obvious thing for me was to appear for CAT, go for an MBA, and then get a higher package salary in a similar consultancy firm. Although the work-life balance was terrible, I was enjoying the work as it was pretty challenging. But I just thought that I should be compensated if I put in so many hours.
However, towards the end of 2020, I came across consultancy firms as Samagra, Dasara through LinkedIn. In these firms, most of the associates and the consultants receive a government pay scale. They work with several ministries in India, and they solve problems that help you develop a policy. I checked the profiles of these people, and I found that YIF was mentioned in many of their profiles. So the word fellowship was stuck in my mind, which was one year long; I thought to myself, let’s check this out. So I just googled and checked out their program, and then I just stopped thinking about those consultancy firms altogether.
The entire curriculum is so beautifully and carefully curated. The faculty is excellent, most of them are visiting professors teaching in Oxford, UPenn, and some of the Ivy Leagues, then there are authors and founders too. The pedagogy is excellent, the way they teach; there are no midterm and end-term examination dates. Instead, you have graded assignments and two-way discussions in class. Apart from that, the diversity and inclusion that this program has is just incredible. So these features about the fellowship attracted me, and hence even though I got through a company called Eli Lilly, which had better pay than ZS, I decided to join the fellowship after working for a week.
EXPLORING MULTI-DISCIPLINARY EDUCATION
MM: What is the Young India Fellowship? What is the selection procedure for the Young India fellowship? How did you prepare for the application?
AR: Most people confuse Liberal studies with Liberal Arts, and even I did that initially. When you say Liberal studies, it is the interdisciplinary study of all the subjects, i.e., Science and Humanities and Arts. YIF is a year-long fellowship. It is a Postgraduate Diploma in Liberal studies. Also, it is a need-based scholarship and not a merit-based one. So I even received a 50% waiver on my tuition fee. The selection procedure for YIF includes three rounds.
In the first round, you have to fill up the form, and then they would scrutinize it. It was a significant elimination round, containing questions like your background, family background, academic professional, and co-curricular. You have to write an essay similar to what you write when you apply to graduate schools abroad. It was a very crucial factor for getting selected for the fellowships.
The second round was an online writing test, which was not an elimination round. So whoever got through the first round was given two questions, one of them was a paragraph in which you have to read and critically think about it and write it down in your own words, and the second question was situational. There was a time slot of thirty minutes to answer the two questions, so you can take your time and attempt the questions. Although it was not an elimination round, it had specific markings added to the final evaluation.
The final round was a personal interview, which happened online this year. I had a panel of two professors from Ashoka University. But it was not like a job interview where they usually quiz you and ask you questions, and it is primarily a one-way process. But this interview was a two-way process and was more of a discussion. So in the discussion, I realized that they don’t want you to be technically empowered. They don’t see whether you have a solid educational background, but instead, they want to ensure that you have a curious mindset and a good story to tell.
I couldn’t get in touch with people who have been through the interview rounds for these fellowships. So I relied on the good old Quora, as it did provide me with some of the answers that people have given. Apart from that, I also focussed on knowing at least some pointers about all the books I had mentioned in my application. I also made sure that I had some new perspectives about each book. Mostly they look for your individuality among the batch of 200 people.
MM: What do you think the interviewers at YIF look for while reviewing one’s profile? What, according to you, is the most crucial aspect of one’s profile? How to build such an intriguing profile?
AR: Having a story is the most critical part. I told my interviewers the tale about the Academic Excellence Award, the minimum requirement of 8 CGPA for internships. The interviewers aren’t just looking at your qualifications; they’re analyzing your personality; they want diversity in their program.
Be honest about why you want to get in. Co-curricular also really help, but you’ll be questioned about the experiences you have mentioned. Doing things that you love helps; you have to have a strong story when talking to someone or showcasing your profile. Your motivation behind every step that you take is very important. Try to understand why you’re doing and what you’re doing. When you have a gut feeling about something, just do it, don’t overthink and complicate things. You cannot just put numbers, pros and cons, lists on everything, you need to have a story, and you need motivation.
Throughout college, I just did what I enjoyed. I have tried out so many things, but I wasn’t particularly great at any of them. After college, I got a decent job, and now I’m doing a multidisciplinary program instead of going for an MBA. An MBA wouldn’t have benefitted me because I would’ve tried to do many other things along with it. I’m glad I realized I didn’t want to do an MBA because it wasn’t made for me. I’m doing something that’s far more suited for me.
MM: What was it about liberal studies at Ashoka University that got your attention? What do you expect from this course?
AR: When I first learned about this course on liberal education, I was unfamiliar with this concept of liberal studies or the entire methodology. What attracted me most about the system is that you get into a very interdisciplinary program. Suppose you know Psychology and International Relations, so you can mix these subjects and create something out of that. This concept seemed unique to me. I felt like this program was something that suits me as a person. From my school days, I have been a decent student. I was decent in academics, played many sports, learned dancing, and tried so many other things, but I was never focused on any one thing and had multiple interests. Academically, I didn’t have the freedom to read so many different things at a time.
When I saw a program, something like that where you have subjects like design thinking, statistics, economics, history, and leadership, it suddenly occurred that this course resonates with me so much. I felt somehow that this course had been curated for me. When I researched more about the classes and the college, I found that they have a shooting range and even a dance studio inside the campus. So I just felt that this is where I should be. I knew that I would lose one year, but people take a sabbatical for this amount of time. So I thought, when else could I explore now since I am already on the wrong side of my twenties, so I cannot further delay this exploration process.
I just had to do this. As far as expectations are concerned, I am not expecting anything tangible out of it. Although I would sit for placements, I am not expecting a job out of it, so it’s okay if I get a job. But instead, I am relying on it to make me a better speaker, a better thinker, or help me be a part of any conversation or discussions around me. I want to get a broader perspective of different things, and improve my critical thinking ability. So in a way, I am also counting on this program to understand myself better.
MM: Students from diverse academic profiles can apply for the YIF fellowship. What, according to you, is the goal of having such a multidisciplinary program in liberal arts and sciences? What does it aim to achieve?
AR: For me, it’s the skills. Suppose you’re in a position of leadership like a manager of a particular team in a firm. There’s a high chance you have an engineering, finance, or commerce background. You’re good with numbers, you’re a good communicator, and you have good people skills because you’ve been in the field for a while. However, you haven’t formally studied the subject of psychology. In a global pandemic, people are struggling, and their loved ones are in hospital. People are leaving their jobs, skipping meetings, and not performing at their best. If you have a background in psychology, you’ll understand why this is happening.
Having those different lenses and perspectives is very important. When you are doing ground-breaking work, you need to have interdisciplinary thinking. You have to mix everything and blend everything to create something perfect. After a multidisciplinary program, the skills you’ll develop are not tangible, but they aren’t limited to any particular field. I don’t think I realize the full potential of it yet. It helps you have holistic development and gives you an evolved worldview.
MM: Would you like to give some advice to the students who wish to enter such a multidisciplinary program but are confused about what career paths it might lead to?
AR: If you haven’t decided on anything, in particular, you should apply for a multidisciplinary program. You will get exposed to everything there is to see, and then you can make up your mind about what you want to do. You can also blend subjects to your liking. I spoke to a senior who graduated from an IIT and got the Young India Fellowship; now, he is working at a consultancy firm as an HR Psychologist. It is just a one-year course so that you won’t be losing out on many opportunities. There is also substantial financial aid that they provide, which depends on your situation. It will not be a loss in any way; do it, you’ll walk out with so much more.
SOME WORDS OF ADVICE
MM: There is a lot of fuzzy thinking among the students in today’s world, owing primarily to the vast majority of options available to explore. What, according to you, is essential to find things that we are passionate about? And based on that, decide what careers we want to pursue?
AR: This is a very tricky question. It starts in school where we are segregated into Science, Commerce, and Arts, and after a point, there is no way of going back. If I were to advise people who are part of our college- NIT Rourkela, which will eliminate a lot of the variables and biases. For a college student, if you’re at NIT Rourkela, don’t worry. If there’s a job opportunity, take it.
One of my biggest regrets personally is not going for higher studies right after college. I had a lot of time in hand, so I could’ve kept my GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, IELTS scores ready if I wanted to apply. Make sure you apply to foreign universities for internships and have some experience before you decide if you’re going to shift from core to non-core or if you want to go for a job.
Go with an elimination process, be sure of what you don’t want to do and don’t want to go for, and eliminate the companies out of the list that you don’t want to go for after selecting a few companies. Once you get through, go for it. You will learn in the process, and if you find out you don’t like it, you can switch any day.
MM: What are some of the challenges you have faced in your personal and professional life that you think kept you motivated and persistent towards your goals?
AR: I had a lousy CGPA at the end of my first year. I was unable to understand how to balance things. There was this pressure of ending in a ‘bad branch,’ which doesn’t make a difference; in the end, you pass out as an engineer. In engineering, it is essential to gain practical hands-on experience, be it in any branch. I felt pretty bad as I had ended up with a low CGPA, and to make matters worse, after the first year on the independence day, I saw a few of my friends getting the Academic Excellence Award for each branch, and I had no idea that something like that existed. I belonged to Biomedical, which had a relatively small student strength, so it looked pretty achievable to be a branch topper.
Still, somehow I couldn’t make it as I was involved in many physically demanding clubs, I did not study the right way. For example, if we were asked to follow the book Krezig, I used to sit and read through the book line by line and go and appear for the exam without going through the previous year’s papers. I didn’t know how to juggle these things during my first year. So the first-year experience did teach me a lot.
I became more attentive in the class and took proper notes, I did all previous year's question papers, and from the third semester onwards, I scored around 9.3 in all the semesters that followed. I eventually received the Academic Excellence Award in my third year.
At the end of the third year, there were these compulsory internships that we had to do which were graded. Most of the students applied for exams like GRE, GMAT and kept the score aside because it had a five-year validity. I also wanted to do that and started looking at those applications and their eligibility criteria of 8 CGPA. This was my primary goal even if I had not received the award; I still wanted to apply for these internships, I wasn’t sure if my application would get accepted, but I wanted to try.
MM: Do you have any things you would’ve done differently in life, particularly any decision you took?
AR: I don’t regret my college life, but it would’ve been so much easier if I just gave GRE and GMAT like I could’ve applied at least after getting my job in August. I wasted a lot of time; I was also doing my B.Tech project was very time-consuming. While I was doing that, I didn’t do anything else, I didn’t think about applying to foreign universities, I didn’t sit for any off-campus placements, and I was very complacent. I just wanted to enjoy my last year in college. I didn’t even have a lot of co-curricular in the final year.
MM: What were some of your most memorable moments at NIT Rourkela? What role did NIT Rourkela play in shaping you as the person you are today?
AR: The open house was held by Monday Morning(read here) to change the late entry timings for the Girl's hostel; the Boy's hostel didn’t have late entry timings; we were on the campus, and why were we expected to come back early? Why were we paying for security if we were unsafe even on the campus? In the discussion, there were more boys than girls, but I was shocked to see these guys standing up for us and willing to have early late entry timings for themselves so that it’s the same for everyone, girls' hostel late entry was pushed from 10 pm to 11 pm.
Another one of my most memorable moments is the party that happened after the SAC elections. Our entire batch gathered together in a restaurant with almost everyone you know. It was an entertaining party.
In college, classes used to get over at 5:30 pm; I hit the gym right after classes and then went for a swim which used to get over by 6:30 pm, then I would change into shorts and play basketball till 7:30. To make up for synergy practice, I would cycle across the campus to SAC for practicing, and some days, I would dance in shorts itself; it was hilarious.
The most crucial role of college shaping me was making me independent; I had my timetable and routine because I was away from my parents. I got to do things I loved. I was lucky to have good friends who helped me grow.
There was a character-building process; I learned a lot because you have agency, there’s no scrutiny you get to do exactly what you want because I was staying in a hostel. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve been through. I wish and pray that you all get to experience that too.
Synergy helped me so much; it took up so much of my time, it helped me get out of the dire state of mind I was in. I felt safe, I had good friends, and the community was very supportive. I also had terrific seniors who helped me understand so many things and gave me direct advice - Abhishek Das asked me not to stand for SAC elections because people lose many friends. I followed his advice, and I didn’t stand for SAC elections, and I’m grateful for them as my guardian angels.
MM: What would be your advice to the readers, particularly the NITR Junta?
Do an internship during your semester breaks and every opportunity you get. Use your official NIT Rourkela email ID. Find out on youtube about the benefits you get with the official email id. Don’t miss out on the coding skills, learn some programming languages, sit for software development companies if you’re allowed. Get hands on designing, and try for foreign internships to gain exposure. Appear for GRE and GMAT because you are in touch with the quantitative aptitude and other skills in college. Once you’ve tried it, you can at least eliminate it if you didn’t enjoy it.
Team MM wishes her the best for his future and believes that she will achieve all she aims to and keep growing!