To begin this year’s edition of Through The Goggles Of A Graduate, we have the wonderful Rashmi Ravishankar. Rashmi graduated in 2019 with a Dual Degree in Aerospace Engineering and is now a consultant at McKinsey & Company. She shares her experiences regarding the five years she spent here, wherein she managed to visit a few continents, get an admit to MIT and be awarded the Institute Blues – all that when she wasn’t busy being a Bharatnatyam dancer!
Life in insti is about doing a bunch of random unrelated activities, telling yourself some story as to why you are doing said activities, and having faith that they will lead you to exactly where you need to be someday. Some of them help you discover who you are, while others help you discover how strong you are. Either way, no one comes out unscathed.
The grind begins with freshie accommodation. First year hostel rooms are like Hermoine’s purse in that they house as many freshers as the administration needs at any given time. Love or hate your roomies, sharing personal space means you will be armed with blackmail material on them for life (and unfortunately vice versa). First year is the year of branch change. First year is the year of making peace with your branch either way. First year is the year of monkeys. First year is the year of “could this day get any worse”, until a monkey steals your room key (true story). First year is the year of wingmates. First year is the year of homework that cannot be winged (anyone who procrastinated Engineering Drawing will understand). And first year is the last year of sticking to attendance percentages.
Let’s talk about PoRs (positions of responsibilities). As a student I felt I saw PoRs for what they truly were – glorified unpaid work – placement ponzi scheme. How could people sacrifice semesters at a stretch, stop sleeping, sell souls, all for…extra work? (or Saarang/Shaastra coupons, which is even worse). It has truly needed graduating goggles for me to see the reality of it. While classes make you booksmart, PoRs make you streetsmart. And some questionable study conducted by Harvard long ago showed that while there is no correlation between success and grades (among graduands of the same university in the long run), there is a strong correlation between success and communication skills. Indeed, at the final round of my McKinsey interviews, when I was asked the question, “what is your biggest regret in college?”, I replied, straight from the heart, “I wish I had done more PoRs”.
One thing I did get enough of was travel. I did an exchange semester (Singapore), a research internship (France) and two paper presentations (both in the US). Exchange carries the obligation to immerse culturally but not to work or study (all courses are pass/fail) and foreign internships are sometimes confused with them. Not getting that branch change helped me obtain scholarships for both – there was a one-per-department rule for Singapore – and the aerospace card helped with France (“the aerospace hub of Europe” is what I wrote). There is a lot to be gained from travel, domestic or international. Travel makes you deal with paperwork, which means you can deal with anything. Travel builds network. Travel gives you stories to talk about. Like the time France won the FIFA World Cup, and I saw an entire country descend into insanity. Or the time my bus got burgled. Or the time a drunk man followed me for fifteen minutes and I had to cleverly lose him.All I remember from my experiences are lessons, lessons, lessons. And really good wine (which is probably why I can’t remember much else). Kidding, or am I!
I was very lucky to have finished insti on a high note. I received an admit to MIT for computational engineering among other CS programs, landed job offers from McKinsey and Goldman Sachs, and graduated with the Institute Blues Award. Going by stereotypes, none of this should have happened. MIT typically takes students with CGs in the high nines. GS loves CS junta. Consult shortlists go to secretaries and cores. Institute Blues is won by quizzers and athletes. I was none of the above. My biggest advice would be to not let boundaries you create yourself be the reason you don’t try hard enough. In fact, on closer examination, each of the statements above is true in only some 50% of the cases, which goes to show that stereotypes are far from statistically accurate! The institute swimming captain from my batch could not swim before joining insti and nearly drowned at NSO trials (Sanket Warad, everybody!). Most people would have let that stop them.
Here are some of the other things I wish I knew earlier:
- Mentorship: People love giving free advice, so capitalize on that. As the adage goes, “a smart person learns from his mistakes, but a wise person learns from the mistakes of others.” I wish I had taken more fundae during college but made up for it in final year by speaking to dozens of people each for placements and apping. I was despicably shameless in taking help, reaching out to even an uncle’s estranged childhood friend in another country for interview advice from the interviewer-types. Now, seeing it from the other side, it is apparent that seniors have a level of perspective that includes literally meeting – or being – the people who make selections. Often, that knowledge is non-intuitive and simply too precious to ignore.
- Master the art of sour grapes: IIT Madras is an extremely biased sample set. Highly motivated individuals make this a charged environment, not just academically, but in every sphere of life. If I had to give myself advice now, I would say, nothing, absolutely nothing, should have the power to steal your joy. And comparison is a big one. There is always a way to justify that you are better off without that thing you wanted. It is called sour grapes and is a useful skill to have.
- Do what you love and let PoRs happen organically. I came to Chennai with one clear goal, which was to do as much Bharatanatyam dancing as I could. While I dabbled in various institute activities and teams, my one constant was attending classes with my Gurus in T-Nagar and Besant Nagar. The one semester I consciously didn’t was when I performed worst academically. In contrast, the year I was convenor of the newly formed Classical Arts Club, I also published a paper, opened for Saarang Classical Night, spent months on a startup, secured the Charpak scholarship, wrote GRE, and performed well academically. It was my most effective year. A PoR/side-hustle you are passionate about will ideally give you energy rather than drain energy from you.
- Learn Tamil, or at least pretend to learn it. I did. Let’s just say it will be useful for workshop, “administrative purposes”, and maybe even explaining your location within campus to cab drivers, but let’s be honest, no language or map can do that effectively yet.
- CGPA: While CG is not a great indicator of capability, it is an objectively comparable number that sits on top of one’s CV. Wherever you stand, never stop caring completely. IIT Madras houses so many passionate, world-class professors (who could be making a lot of money elsewhere) and I credit them for helping me retain my interest in engineering. Some seniors will say CG doesn’t matter. Others will say they had it down to a science:
- “I attend every class and take notes like a journalist” (Somayajulu Dhulipala)
- “My CG is from effort inside class rather than outside” (Vedant Agrawal)
Finally, cliché as it may seem, you will be telling your kids and grandkids about the out-of the ordinary, regressed-from-mean, wild-and-crazy experiences you had in college (provided they aren’t unspeakable) and not about time spent mugging in room/library (or CCD if you’re one of them – I was). Life memories are like video compressors – elements that frames have in common are consolidated and copies removed – and insti is the perfect place to have as many unique experiences as possible! The Westins, Bessies, Pondies are crucial to the insti experience, as are quintessential standup comedy shows, EMLs with vera-level people (Vishwanathan Anand, the Dalai Lama…) and of course, night outs at Ramu/water tank/Saras terrace (but then again what happens in Saras
stays in Saras never happpened). How a limited piece of land can accommodate unlimited activity still boggles my mind (mathematicians will liken it to Gabriel’s paradox) – there are early morning meditation/ schroeter sports that people actually do, quizzes with “work-out-able” answers, epic burns during JAM pickup line round, election drama, real drama, concerts (carnatic to rock), hostel nights, star-gazing (academic/ non-academic), late night runs in the enchanted forest… devour it all. Do what sets your heart on fire. In writing this article I counted performing on stage some 40 times but also noted with a pang of sadness that I have never experienced that famous Queen of Sheba frenzy. Oh well, nobody can do it all (see, sour grapes).
With the memorable highs come the memorable lows. Looking back, I have survived so much that I believed would break me in the moment. Twenty five pages of partial differential equations that were mugged like they might as well have been gibberish. Judges and participants collecting outside a competition venue with the key nowhere to be found. Excruciating heart-burn and nausea to the point of throwing up on seeing leaders from NASA in the audience question, cross-question, and demolish the presenter before me. But I survived. Thrived, if you count my “disruption is coming” meme becoming the talk of the audience after. Alas, clay does not become porcelain by sitting out in the sun for eternity. No, it takes the brief and intense heat of an oven to do that.
Over and out. AE14B046, signing off 🙂
Editor’s Note: You can also read the other articles from this series from the years past here.