Friday, 10 July 2015

On changing career paths and academic directions

In another post ( I have laid a heavy emphasis on choosing one's field of study and career path based on where one's interests lie rather than just where one is likely to earn the fattest pay checks (while acknowledging the harsh reality that economic considerations might outweigh other factors for some people, at least early in their careers, as they take on the responsibility of liberating their families from severe economic hardships) or which professions are most "socially respectable" (a notion that I have argued as being based more on ignorance than anything else).

In this post I address a related question: What if one chooses a career path to start with but realizes midway that his or her interests lie elsewhere? What does one do in such a situation? Is one condemned to living a life of professional frustration or is it possible to change directions towards what one may enjoy doing more? My focus in this post will be on switching directions within the overall field of science and technology or moving from science and technology to other fields such as literature, economics, history, sociology, philosophy, music, etc. I will address the converse possibility of moving from other fields to science and technology in a subsequent post.

Changing academic directions and career paths is already possible to some extent (I'll give some examples shortly) and we ought to be doing more in my opinion to allow people the freedom to maneuver their careers in new directions as long as they are able to demonstrate a capability of absorbing new fields of knowledge and picking up new skills. In my opinion there is nothing to be gained from "staying stuck" where one doesn't want to be - either for the individual concerned or the society at large. On the contrary, the sooner people migrate to fields they enjoy the more likely they are to contribute meaningfully as well since they are then likely to be more self motivated. The extent of contribution or the possibility of achieving excellence in one's profession or pursuit depends significantly in my opinion on whether one actually enjoys his or her chosen profession.

Does this mean I am advocating a scenario wherein we don't do anything that doesn't interest us directly? Well, no. If we live at home with our family, sure we would need to chip in with what I would term as "housekeeping responsibilities". So too with our offices and colonies we work and live in. Everyone does need to participate to some extent with responsibilities that are necessary whether or not we enjoy them greatly.

What I am referring to as I make my arguments in this post however are our core pursuits - activities that shape our professional careers and through which we express ourselves and make our unique contribution to the society and world at large. There is a difference between these and housekeeping level "on-the-side responsibilities" that we all may be required to participate in from time to time if we are to stay in a community.

To give a few examples to drive home my point: Imagine a scenario wherein we insist that Ustaad Zakir Hussain stay committed to playing the flute, Pandit Hariparasad Chaurasia be a guitar player, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma play the table and Ustaad Bismillah Khan be a pianist. Or Albert Einstein be an IT professional and William Shakespeare get a PhD in nanotechnology.

Sounds absurd, right?

Well, look around you. What do you think prevails in our society today? How many people do you think are in professions that are aligned with fields of knowledge and activities that interest them? And how many treat their jobs as mere drudgery that they have to somehow put up with? How many of us wake up every morning looking forward to our day at work? And how many curse that alarm clock when it goes off?

Now this problem wouldn't arise if (a) all of us made (or get to make) our choices perfectly the first time around (as I suppose the above named greats did, but not all of us are that clear or lucky (or perhaps capable - we can always build on that too) early in life) and (b) there is some guarantee that one's interests cannot change as one progresses through life.

But the fact of the matter is neither of these conditions hold. In fact, most students in my opinion opt for science and technology streams after their 12th grade simply because it is more “prestigious” to do so and not because they are truly passionate about them. You can check on the truth of this statement yourself by simply going to different institutes in our country and seeing for yourself if students are motivated, driven and immersed in learning (which is what the case ought to be if there is a genuine interest) or just somehow getting by in a disinterested fashion. Then it is engineering above science (poor Albert Einstein and Marie Curie - they must not have got high enough ranks in the JEE to get a computer science seat at an IIT and hence got stuck with physics and chemistry!). Even within engineering there is a “social hierarchy” of disciplines that has invaded our psychology and I doubt most students choose their branches based on what fascinates them. And once they make their choice, they feel stuck.

To repeat an example I gave in an earlier post: I once came across a student in computer science at IIT Delhi who regretted having done so well in the JEE. When I asked him why (with his rank he could have chosen any branch) he told me that his interest lay in automobiles but his family persuaded him to take computer science. The chap was just in the second year of his undergraduate program and already demotivated about the prospect of staying stuck with a professional career that would not allow him to do what he was interested in in the first place!

You should have seen the relief on his face when I told him that that was just not true. That it is in fact possible to change one’s field at the Masters level.

So the first thing to realize is this: There are options to change your field of study at the Masters, Doctoral and Post Doctoral levels. So you are not stuck forever. This is one of the advantages of the core course component in most undergraduate programs that has to be taken by students in pretty much all disciplines. Above and beyond this take as many electives as you can in your area of interest so that you can make a stronger case for admission in a Masters program of your choice. If possible do your final year B.Tech. project (and summer internships) in your area of interest as well to further strengthen your case (many institutes allow the option of doing the B.Tech. project in a different department). Finally and most importantly, work really hard and get the best grades you can - you may not be enjoying all your courses right now but getting good grades will increase your chances of getting admission in a program you do enjoy at the Masters level. Likewise for changing your field at the Doctoral or Post Doctoral levels. Do what it takes during your ongoing program to strengthen your case for getting into a program of your choice at the next level.

If you are one of those undergraduate students who is feeling stuck, I recommend you do some research into which institutes in the country might be willing to absorb you in a  Masters program of your choice and under what conditions. You may find some institutes to be more liberal than others. Make a list of your options. If you feel there not enough options within the country (or if you wish to go out of the country for your post-graduate studies anyway) then research your options in universities in different parts of the world. When the time comes, work hard and do as well as you can in the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) - the entrance exam for M.Tech. programs in the country or GRE (required for admission in US universities) and apply for programs of your choice. If you have ensured that your grades and GATE/GRE scores are good and have done well in your internships and projects (this is where you get your recommendation letters!) there is a good probability in my opinion that you will able to switch your fields.

[Note 1: I'll give some examples of people I know who switched their fields later in the post.]

[Note 2: You might continue to face some challenges later - specially in India where we are a little too stuck with associating one's capabilities with their first degree (as if learning or the capability to learn stop at the end of one's bachelors program!). But my advice is always to be ready to take a bit of risk and grapple with challenges that come instead of not going after what you like.]

But do you have to (or should you) wait till the end of your undergraduate program to change your field? Are there no other options?

Well, there is an option of branch change at the end of first year at most institutes. So if you know what you want and qualify for it, you can change right then. But this is usually very competitive and only a few get it.

What if you don't get a branch change? Are there other possibilities of changing directions at that stage or do you have to wait till the end of your undergraduate program?

I am going to make a suggestion here that many may find awkward but I think its worth thinking about. So here goes:

If you figure out early enough (say within two to three semesters) that you would like to study something else, then consider the possibility of changing colleges right then. You may end up at a college that is ranked lower than your present college (say move from an IIT to a NIT or BITS or even to some other college that may not be as famous but is good in terms of its teaching standards) - but that may be ok. In my opinion we often make this a bigger consideration that it is. One can always come back to one's present institute (or perhaps even go somewhere better) for a Masters degree. What is more important in my opinion is actually getting into a program that you enjoy.

I see very little point in being in a program that one just does not find interesting. Say, for example, that you would want to be an electrical engineer but end up in a metallurgy department (there is nothing wrong with either department by the way - I'm just talking from the viewpoint of what one is interested in and not from any sense of some branches being "higher" or "lower" than others as such). This can lead to a loss of motivation, which in turn can make one stop putting in the required effort. Then the grades drop and its just downhill from there. I think we are just way too hung up with brand names. I don't think brand names are nearly as important as pursuing one's interests. In fact a whole lot of this problem of being stuck in a branch one doesn't like wouldn't even arise if we corrected our mindset in this respect.

So my advice would be that you find out if you can change colleges midway and switch your field that way. There may be colleges that will accept some of the coursework you have already completed and you won't have to repeat all of them. But even if you have to repeat courses in the new college, I would recommend you give this option a serious thought. Some time lost towards getting something you like may be alright in the long run.

What I am suggesting here would hold not just for those students who wish to change from one engineering branch to another but also for those students who realize that they don't want to be engineers in the first place - they just chose engineering either because they weren't clear enough when they finished their 12th grades or mixed up their priorities or succumbed to parental and societal pressures. Maybe some would prefer to be physicists or mathematicians. Some perhaps would find themselves happier in the liberal arts or music. My advice: switch early if you can even if it means changing colleges and/or losing a bit of time.

One very important step that academic bodies in our country can take to enable such shifts is to bring in the idea of "credit transfer" (which formalises the process of carrying over coursework that one has completed at one college to another) and actually open up for admissions directly into 2nd, 3rd and 4th years.

[Note: I really wish students chose their fields of study far more consciously than I believe they do today. I have presented some thoughts here:]

Now for some examples of people I know who have switched their fields at the post-graduate level:

Dr. Prashant Shukla: B.Tech. and M.Tech. in Mechanical Engineering followed by a PhD in Material Science at IT-BHU. (This particular case also serves as an example of how, as I mentioned above, some places in India are a little too stuck with one's first degree. The erstwhile IT-BHU hired faculty members in different departments based on their first degree rather than their PhD (which I believe is extremely silly for an academic institute!). So Dr. Shukla is presently a Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. But things will hopefully become more liberal in the years to come and he will be able to shift to Material Science - a subject he actually prefers.)

Dr. Anurag Gupta: B.Tech. (Civil Engineering, IIT Roorkee) followed by a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley. He is presently a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering at IIT Kanpur (an example of a more liberal, and in my opinion, sensible department that hires faculty members based on their PhD work and not just their first degree. I'll give examples later to show that its possible to be even more liberal if the candidate is academically and intellectually strong enough.)

Dr. P. M. Dixit: B.Tech. (Aeronautical Engineering, IIT Kharagpur) followed by a PhD in Mechanics from University of Minnesota. Presently a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at IIT Kanpur.

Dr. Viral Acharya: B.Tech. (Computer Science, IIT Bombay) followed by a PhD in Finance from New York University. Presently a Professor of Economics at NYU. Recently became the Deputy Governor of Reserve Bank of India.

Dr. Rajan Sundaravaradhan: B.Tech. (Electrical Engineering, IIT Madras); Got interested in pure mathematics and obtained his PhD in the same (specialization: Algebra) from Purdue University; did so well that University of Michigan at Ann Arbor offered him a post-doc position without him having to apply. Its another matter that by this time he was strongly interested in spirituality and chose to join Mata Amritanandamayi Math instead - he is presently a faculty member in the Department of Mathematics at the Amritapuri Campus of Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham and continues to work in the field of number theory.

Ameya Limaye: B.Tech. (Civil Engineering, IIT Bombay); Went on to pursue a MS in Computer Science from Purdue University and is presently a Software Development Engineer at Apple Inc.

Myself: B.Tech. (Civil Engineering, IIT Bombay); Got interested in aircraft and decided to switch to Aerospace Engineering; obtained my MS in the same from University of Cincinnati and then a PhD from the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue University; then got interested in biofluid mechanics (an area of research in biomedical engineering) and went for a post-doctoral research fellowship in the same at University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Came back to India and have taught at a few institutes including IIT Delhi (Applied Mechanics), IIT Kanpur (Aerospace Engineering), IIT (BHU) (Mathematical Sciences), IIIT Delhi (Mathematics), IIT Goa (Mechanical Engineering) and now IIT (ISM) Dhanbad (Mechanical Engineering).

Dr. Gregory Blaisdell: BS and MS in Applied Mathematics from Caltech followed by a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford. Presently a Professor in the School of Aeronautics and Astronautics at Purdue.

Dr. Kirti Sahoo: B.Tech. in Mechanical Engineering followed by a PhD in Engineering Mechanics from JNCASR; then a post-doc in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College. Presently heads the Department of Chemical Engineering at IIT Hyderabad. (Recently won the DST Young Scientist award).

Dr. C. Venkatesan: B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Physics followed by M.Sc. and PhD in Engineering (I believe Computer Science but I'll double check) from IISc Bangalore. Taught for a few years in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UCLA. Presently a Professor of Aerospace Engineering at IIT Kanpur.

Most of the examples I have given above are from academia as that is what I am more familiar with. If you aspire to work in industry, I would suggest you put in the effort to find out ways to get where you want from where you are now. It is quite likely there are paths that exist but you need to look for them. It may involve studying more and you may get there a bit later than others (with perhaps a little more struggle too). But if I were you I would not stop till I got there. It's your life after all!

Good luck.

PS: If any reader has examples to share about people who managed to maneuver their academic directions or career paths, please do submit them as a comment. They will hopefully serve to motivate some folks out there. Thanks!

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