Through the Goggles of a Graduate: Niharika Gunturu

For our next TGG, we have Niharika Gunturu! Niharika graduated in 2020 with a BTech in Engineering Physics and is now a pursuing her PhD in Applied Physics at Stanford. She introduces herself four times, talks about her journey pursuing research, her time as a Placement Core and the T5E Exec-Ed, and the importance of cats and Miniso (not necessarily in that order). 

Here comes another TGG – another story about hardship and failure, followed by perseverance, and ultimately some amount of “triumph”. A dash of breakdowns and loneliness, a pinch of losing your way – but hold on for just a few minutes, perhaps there’s something fresh I have to say.

For someone who was a part of T5E for as long as she was an IIT Madras student, writing this article should’ve been a breeze. Especially for someone who has doled out message after message of tips, pointers, edits and “gentle” reminders for TGG authors last year. Alas, it seems like looking back at insti – TGG – brings forth a flood of memories as overwhelming as the journey itself. I’m not too sure where to start or how to go about this – whether I should recount my journey for what it was, or try to condense it into bite-sized Instagram motivational snippets for the zoomer attention span. Perhaps I should figure it out as I go.

So let me cut to the chase and make this really short (and save the editor some word-count grief):

During my undergrad, I amassed four internships – including a research internship abroad (which I picked out of four offers), a publication, a coreship in my third year, was the Executive Editor for T5E in my 4th year, graduated with the second highest CGPA in my class (there’s an academic prize for that, apparently), and got into Stanford for a PhD in Applied Physics (as well as 5 other top 15 schools). I interviewed a former RBI Governor and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. And also a bunch of volships and coordships along the way. 

Oof. This is supposed to be a TGG – not my bio for a fundae session hoping to fill a few seats (but are they really that different?). Since I did graduate with a B.Tech in Engineering Physics – which by credits makes me at least 50% an Electrical Engineer, I want to be cautious to sample my story just right. And I definitely oversampled the good times and undersampled the bad. Let’s try again:

I came here confused, tired, absolutely burned out and without a clue about what I had gotten myself into. It took me a whole year to shake off the trauma of factory, piece together what was left of my self-esteem and even dare to set myself the smallest of goals. I was part of a “sisterhood” wing which was great, and I convinced myself of it. Until it wasn’t, and I couldn’t convince myself of it any longer. In my 4th semester, the notorious EP “death semester”, I had a rather earth-shattering realization that I was pretty friendless, alone and isolated. I then channelled so much of my energy into what I perceived to be a career “must-do” – obtain a research experience abroad, that I quite nearly went insane in my third year. Like checking my smail 4 times an hour. For weeks, if not months. And when I finally did get what I wanted – and more, I was so emotionally maxed out that I was incapable of feeling any joy for weeks afterwards. I picked up a few more non-ideal habits on the way – the occasionally skipped breakfast which turned into an average of 1.75 meals a day. A sleep schedule that shifted around so much, that I had alarms for every 15 minutes of the day. While not not-sleeping and not-eating that semester, I spent many many hours vegetating in my matchbox room. Exhausted by just looking at the list of things to do, but trudging along somehow. There was an undercurrent of loneliness that I felt from time to time but by the time I got to my seventh semester, I was the loneliest I had ever been in my 4 years, at a time when I probably needed the most support. 

Yikes! All of those things are also true. But pieced together like that, my four years sound absolutely morbid. And while there were several spells of testing times, that narration makes it seem like it was all doom and gloom – which it really, really wasn’t. Definitely oversampled the bad times this time. Let’s try again:

To be honest, there were so many people who were instrumental to my “success”. Friends who gave me a shoulder to cry on in the trenches, great company in the plains, and rooting for me at the “peaks”. I found great friendships in places where I never expressly sought it out.

An EP16 classmate who was quite literally my lifeline for four years: our friendship even withstood the wrath of being each others’ lab partners in EE2019. A “third time’s the charm” roommate who was my source of joy and laughter for many many months. Together we have calculated A slot attendance at 7:58 am on countless Mondays with one eye open and considerable brain fog. How could I not mention my angel of a Saathi mentor, and her best friend – both of whom were amazing mentors, friends, and wise women who knew just how much fundaes to give and when. Was it really a semester if I didn’t accost either of them at the mess – maybe twice or more – with “Hey I got x/20 in Quiz 1/2 do you think I can still put S?” – and they always smiled, said yes, and provided some much needed words of comfort. A department senior who was a trailblazer: forging new, untrodden paths, and challenging conventional fundae-wisdom of what is and isn’t possible. And when he wasn’t doing that, gladly took out many hours of his time to guide lost younglings like myself. And of course, two of the best friends I made in insti – all by virtue of a chance encounter via the placement team.

If there was ever an antidote to any sort of blues I had in insti, it was a meal with the two of them at IR, FFT or Zaitoon.

Too bad they had to graduate a year before me :/

Hmm… I seem to be getting a hang of this now. But to be fair, with the click-bait bio that’s most certainly on the Instagram description of this article – most people have come here for the career bits. And I would hate for T5E to be accused of false advertising, so here goes:

The truth is that the fish-print kurti I wore on my first day in insti was meant for Kharagpur. But as I would soon discover, the “plan” was about to change rather drastically – as I “floated” to Madras in the penultimate round. Luckily, said kurti worked for Madras too. That anecdote is symbolic of a lot of my change of plans in insti – unexpected, but ultimately working out just fine. I had originally planned to do the bare minimum physics that an Engineering Physics degree required, rack up a few finance interns and graduate with a fancy, high paying corporate job. Until I actually did a finance intern – which I ended up absolutely loathing, and the foundational premise of my plan fell apart. I then gave my core subjects a chance – and discovered it wasn’t the lack of aptitude or inclination towards EE or Physics that was the problem. It was the lingering trauma of factory that had me convinced that I wasn’t “made for” a future in STEM. So I tried my hand at Electrical Engineering – a semester project here, an intern or two there… I thought I had found “my thing”. That was till I did a course on Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Information, and there was no looking back. The girl who had a tumultuous relationship with 11th grade physics (mechanics really) was now, out of her own free will, seeking a PhD in Physics as her future. 

That’s a lot better! The truth is, every one of those paragraphs is entirely true and factual – but excluding even one of them would strip my journey of its soul – the litany of humbling failures, the rerouting, the soul searching. Nothing was ever linear, nothing went perfectly according to plan, things took time, effort and yes – some amount of serendipity. But the effort was constant. And looking back, I realise that there were plenty of good times not just at the peaks, but also the plains. 

Perhaps a more linear narrative would help a curious reader connect the dots of my highly non-linear trajectory in insti. Indeed, my first draft for this article did just that – and if you want to read it in all it’s 6,800 word glory – here it is. But I’ll keep it short here and get to the gyaan-esque bits now.

Respecting Yourself

Here are some things I wish I knew at the start. First and foremost, respect yourself enough to treat your body right. We expect great things for ourselves, but our body has to be functional for any of those things to materialise. IITM wasn’t kidding when they had us do dozens of health screenings and get a doctor’s certification that we were healthy and fit enough for a fast paced undergraduate degree. So eat, on time and enough. Sleep, on time and enough. Drink water, lots of it. These three things put together can save you from so much grief. And yes, not doing these things will make you weak not just physically but mentally.

We’re all great at endurance and sacrifice – that’s how most of us got here. We’re ready to sacrifice our social life for years of coaching, strong enough to endure long hours of study, ever ready to give up sleep for quiz prep and so forth. But this policy of “endurance and sacrifice” is not a healthy motto in the long term – and we really should leave it in the past.

The truth is that we need to rest and recharge to give ourselves a fair shot at executing all the grand plans we envision for ourselves. By all means, work hard – but realise the importance of rest. We have long vacation periods not just to pursue internships but also as a much needed pressure release from the toil of the semester. Check in with yourself from time to time – are you happy? Happy today, not “enduring” today in pursuit of a happy tomorrow! And realise that while there’s great fulfilment to be gained from achieving the career goals you set for yourself, there’s also a lot of happiness to be gained in enjoying the day-to-day. 

So go for that OAT movie and relax after a long week. Or that LitSoc event that you think you have no shot at placing in – who knows, you may still have a blast. I did, when I found out “Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.”  was a palindrome. Or linger around near the courts till you get a court to play on – even if you’re bad. Or just hop on an insti bus, and go out of campus. Even if it is “just” Phoenix. Immerse yourself in the pastel glory of Miniso. Just get out of your room, and take a break!

And if none of that excites you enough, take a break in your room. Stock up on your favourite food and treat yourself to a day-in. Even if you’re mostly “in” all the time. Not just to celebrate the end of quizzes, but just because. I know I’ve busted a lot of stress eating KitKats while watching Gordon Ramsay have meltdown upon meltdown. 

So This Is the Promised Utopia?

If you’re anything like me, and landed up in insti completely burned out: read on. For those of us who have been extolled the virtues of “being an IITian” and getting into a “good IIT with a good branch” as motivational pep-talks to sustain mind boggling study schedules, the first week in insti can be a rather deflating experience. Just a few days in, a Saathi core rounded us freshie girls together at the stairs of Sarayu hostel to deliver the big blow: “None of you guys are going to make 1 crore.” What?!?! You mean to say I was lied to??

While money was never a real motivating factor for me, I still found myself thinking on more than one occasion – was all that factory grind worth it? Looking through the goggles of a graduate, I’d say yes. IIT Madras is quite literally a land of limitless opportunity: and you certainly should look past just the classes. From the sheer access to an incredible set of alumni and speakers who you will invariably find on campus at any point – to the breadth of subjects that your electives allow you to pursue – to some brilliant professors – to the resources and space insti provides to explore multiple career paths while providing a comforting safety net in case none of that works out.

All of it is worth it. Just make sure you take advantage of some (or more) of what makes IIT Madras special!

Avoid This Trap

After my second year, I ran into a bit of a pickle. The professor I had approached had told me over email that he didn’t take undergrads for semester projects. And this was all a little too much of a curveball.

I already had my plans mapped out – I had a microfluidics internship, then I would do another project in microfluidics, and then that would get me an even better microfluidics internship the next year, and a microfluidics thesis project later I would be extremely well poised to enter a PhD program with a microfluidics group and couple of steps later world domination etc. But he said no, and now everything had gone for a toss.

Please, please do not think like this – and do not let anyone convince you into thinking this is true. If I could end up at a nice place doing quantum optics research after spending a summer in finance, another summer in signal processing and microfluidics and several months of research in remote sensing – you can afford to experiment too. It’s the aggregate of amassed skills that matter – not years of experience doing the same thing.

Setting Healthy Goals, Planning Well and Knowing When to Stop

One thing that I luckily got right when it came to career planning was that I spent less time thinking about the overwhelming number of options in my head, and more time trying out as much as I could: ultimately arriving at what I wanted to do as a process of elimination. There is only so much that you can figure out on paper, or by talking to people – at some point, you just have to dive in and find out for yourself!

I tried to structure my goals to emphasize what I had in my control. When I set goals such as “read a paper every week” or “spend 3 hours today on writing code”, I was able to be fully in control of achieving these tasks. On the other hand, I let myself get a little too carried away with poorly formulated goals like “getting a research experience abroad” – a target that wasn’t really fully within my control. With goals like that, you have to be okay with trying your best but knowing when to walk away. Excessively pining for them is going to do you more harm than good. 

Despite that clarity, I still faltered on more than one occasion with my penchant for “planning”.

I always set up my plans like a Rube Goldberg machine. If even a single element didn’t land just right, my entire plan would “fall apart” and send me down a spiral of distress.

Things “fell apart” so often because I had fixated on certain goals that weren’t fully under my control. Any and every deviation from “the plan” seemed earth shattering – sometimes akin to being dejected at finding a diamond when you were looking for some silver.

Got Fundaes?

Remember kids, “fundaes aren’t facts”. I remember being a wide-eyed freshie eager to consume fundaes with all senses. I have listened with my mouth agape as several givers of fundaes said, “Suno baccho, XYZ sabke bas ki baat nahi hain” – “Getting X without Y is impossible” – “You need 9.5+ minimum to get into ABC – “EFG got into LMN but they’re god level so obviously they did” – “CG matters the most” – “CG doesn’t matter” and so forth. We tend to convince ourselves that much of the conventional wisdom of insti is axiomatic – unquestionably true, even if they are sometimes contrary to common sense. It is indeed unfortunate that so much of our fundae culture is exclusionary – a hotchpotch of misplaced correlations and causations, speculation and cynicism under the pretence of “guidance”.

Fundaes are a good way to get a feel of a landscape – a quick shortcut to navigating a new space – but do not let it fundamentally dictate what you assume to be true or false, and give some thought to who you’re taking fundaes from and what their motivations are. 

There’s a reason why fundae culture is alive and thriving, despite every other cultural facet of insti withering away. To put it bluntly, the peer environment in insti is high on competition and low on collaboration. In the long run, this can really debilitate an individual. We’re in such a race to be “respected” that we convince ourselves that there’s no room for soul-searching, let alone failure. The easiest way to succeed in that race, it seems, is to pull up your socks, start early and run quickly along the well tread paths – a select set of PoRs, a pool of coveted internships, all leading to a handful of “respectable” career paths.  

Such a mindset makes life in insti – which is fast paced and stressful as it is – extremely transactional. The cool thing about insti is that there are scores of PoRs and activities you can take a chance on – all of which have space for innovation and value-addition. All that matters is that you apply yourself and do good work – it will most certainly lead to something great. You don’t have to take my word for that – extracurriculars that were so central to an experience in one TGG will barely find a mention in another TGG, but we all seemed to have done something right to have been asked to write these. 

The fact is that a transactional mentality breaks down because we have no idea how to navigate such an elaborate set of calculations. You cannot fully account for the “worth” of an experience at its outset. How do you account for potential pleasant surprises in paths untread, or unexpected curveballs in roads well documented? I was a part of T5E simply because I enjoyed writing and they seemed to like my stuff enough to publish it. In a transactional sense, this wasn’t helping my “research profile”, but by the time GRE came along, I wrote it with very little preparation and found it an absolute breeze. The truth is that I did prepare, unbeknownst to me for semesters as a correspondent and then an editor. When I applied to be a part of the placement team, which someone once told me was “where all the Saarang rejects go”, I was looking for a “lite” activity to take up some of my extracurricular time. But it turned out to be one of the most educational experiences I have had – giving me countless connections among peers and unparalleled access to recruiters.

Becoming the ExecEd for T5E meant that in addition to everything I had going on in my 7th semester, I also had to adapt to the national, regional and insti news cycles on a daily basis – a seemingly silly decision since it “didn’t add up” for someone pursuing research. But no experience could have added to me as a person as much as the dynamic challenges of that role did… and I’m excited to see how it all ties in with my story a few years hence!

Building a Support System

I’ve often thought about how much happier the campus would be if everyone just had a solid support system of peers on campus. Insti can be extremely hard to navigate all alone, and far too many of us – myself included – find ourselves in this spot at least for some spells if not entire semesters or years. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. In my case, it took me a while to realise that I did have a support system on campus – it just wasn’t this idea of a “wing” that I had developed in my head. And, avenues like the Placement Team, T5E, and LitSoc gave me scores and scores of acquaintances – and even led to some great friendships!

Forcing yourself to fit into situations that are not healthy and natural can have dire consequences. Who you surround yourself with in insti is among the most important choices you make. Environments that were once pleasant can turn toxic – but that doesn’t mean that the people involved are “bad people”. There’s just an unhealthy clash of personal evolutions at that point of time. If you find yourself in these environments, do yourself a favour and exit. You deserve to be in a space where your peers encourage your wildest, most ambitious goals and help you achieve it – at worst are neutral – but certainly not a space where cynicism masquerades as well-meaning advice.

Sometimes, there’s too big a fixation on “friends” being the bedrock of an insti support system – and we forget that our friends can be going through as stressful a time as we are! 

There’s a lot to be gained from the wisdom of people that are a good 20-30+ years older than you. Professors are an oft-overlooked source of support and solid mentorship. Without the serendipitous input of a professor whom I met at an IITH Open House in the summer of 2016 – I would’ve never even considered EP at IITM. Thank heavens that my roll number modulo 4 equals 2, because it meant that I was in a particular class for Signals and Systems with an instructor who became my primary academic mentor. Not only was his teaching par excellence, he was always open to chat with a bunch of students after class (pro tip: be that kid who hangs around after class), talk about his research and was always willing to guide a lost soul who was interested in research but didn’t know where to start. And of course, my thesis advisor – who was simply the best advisor I could ask for, ever understanding and supportive and with whom I had many long, interesting conversations regarding research, academia and my participation in T5E!

Keep in touch with your parents! My parents were equal partners in this insane roller coaster of a journey, which on many occasions I have made more insane than necessary. I had always imagined a very senti speech that I might’ve delivered to them after convocation, maybe a few tears that slipped by accident and one nice group picture with me holding up my degree flanked by them on both sides in front of GC. Nonetheless, this is really a triumphant group victory – “We did it!!!!!”

Through the Goggles of a Graduate

The good news is that after all these months it is the good moments that came racing back to me in vivid detail far faster than the blurry memories of the hard times.

If I were to close my eyes and recollect the sounds of insti, I would hear: the faint echoes of the UFO-esque squeals of our on-the-cusp-of-functionality Analog Lab breadboard – then the screeches of monkeys in a territorial dispute – followed by the deathly, horror movie-esque shrieks of “Akka! Monkey! Second Floor!”.

I was going to add the 8 AM bell near the academic section, but let’s be real – I never got up in time to hear that. The smells: of a great plate of pasta at Italian Bay after a long day of lab work – a peculiar scent of the foliage that I can’t really describe – and of course some unpleasant scents left in the corridors of Sharavati by our primate friends. But the sights.. they were the best of them all:  a deer chilling in the grass as you make your way to the mess – the elusive albino blackbuck – the fresh green of the campus after a drizzle, I can go on and on.

In that sense, your journey in insti is just like a Pokemon evolution.

I entered as a wannabe corporate who thought a bar of Magnum cost 20, didn’t know how to catch an auto and passed on boarding an insti bus because “it was full”. I graduated as a physicist in the making, who not only navigated peak hour Mumbai local madness, but figured how to properly paisa vasool an intern salary, and even managed to make it to a random Swiss glacier through a very extemporaneous, solo journey on a series of trains and cable cars after maybe oversleeping and missing the original train with her lab group. 

But hey, what matters is that I made it. And you will too! 

PS: Don’t miss your trains in Europe, Shah Rukh Khan won’t help you catch them – and the doors close automatically :/

You can read Niharika’s old T5E articles here.

Editor’s Note: You can also read the other articles from this series here.

  1. Shashank Sharma

    IITG student here
    Extremely comforting to finally meet someone who has experimented with a lot of research fields, and also finally ended up in a good place. Pretty much all the seniors I met had all their research kind of targeted towards one goal from the beginning, with no experimentation
    I also didn’t realize up until 4th year what I really wanted to do

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