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Ankur Sharma, Physics major from IISER Pune 2007 batch. Currently he works at Honda R&D, Greater Noida. Alumni-writer Swati catches up with him. Read on to discover his not-so-straightforward experiences at IISER Pune, which finally led him to bag this fantastic opportunity.

(If you don’t have time and only want the take home message just go to the last question)

Excerpts from the conversation

Swati: Ankur, you were on your way to becoming an engineer, how did you decide to switch to science? Especially an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

Ankur: I had already joined an engineering college at Indore. At that point I had no clue what IISER was. After giving JEE that year, I heard of IISERs. My uncle’s advice, to lead a researcher’s life by studying in an upcoming, well funded science institute as compared to engineering (which was routine) was a major motivation.

S: An engineering degree gives some indication of a career, now you were entering a new territory. What were you looking for?

A: I had no idea. Just knew that any option apart from PhD was going to be difficult. I was interested in physics, specifically astrophysics. I took up mostly theoretical physics courses in my third year, worked with a few professors for three semesters, so I was doing well. However, by my fourth year, I realised that I did not want to take up an academic career. At the time I did not see myself becoming an academician.

I applied to almost 100 or more companies but my CV did not match with what they were looking for …

S: So what next?

A: Well, given the theoretical courses I had taken in my third year, PhD seemed like the only option. Since I wanted to pursue an alternative career, I made a list of about 50 possible options, discussed it with my friends, dissected each of them logically and was finally left with only a couple of feasible options. It was prudent to take applied physics courses such as Computational Physics, Advanced lab Courses, Mathematical methods in physics, which is what I did.

S: Were the courses enough, or did you have to do something more?

A: To be fair the courses were unrelated to what I do now. The critical point was to look for an industry oriented internship. My uncle advised me to try working at the R&D of Escorts Agri Machinery, which is a tractor manufacturing company. Following my third year, I decided to go there and this was key in getting to work in the same company for my final year project.

S: What was your final year project about? How did it contribute to your career?

A: My final year project at Escorts Agri Machinery, involved designing silencers for tractors. Although the R&D section was small and funds were limited, I found my work interesting.I can hardly overemphasize the role of the final year internship in pursuing a career different from a PhD. IISER training is probably ideal for a PhD, but it is not something that would easily give me an engineering job. So the primary selling point on my CV was the one year industrial experience.

S: So, with one year industrial experience did things become simpler?

A: No, during my final year, I would say I applied to almost 100 or more companies but my CV did not match with what they were looking for (mechanical engineers, CAE). So things were not smooth.

they tested my physics fundamentals and the training at IISER built my basics…

S: Aur phir(then what)?

A: Luckily Escorts Agri Machinery appreciated the amount of work I got done in my final year, they made me an offer. Since my qualifications were not exactly what they seeked my package was lower than say an IIT MTech. At the end of the day I had to compete with MTechs from IITs and other engineering colleges and I am told even they have a hard time.

S: Then, how did you come across your present job?

A: I was working at Escorts Agri Mac. when I was contacted by Honda R&D since they came across my profile in naukri.com.

S: What was the process after that? Did an IISER training help there?

A: Honda set up a series of five interviews. They knew my background and given that I had only 1.5 years of work experience, they did not expect much engineering knowledge. So, they tested my physics fundamentals and the training at IISER built my basics, which was good.

During the process, I realized that they had heard of IISER as a good institute but weren’t clear on any details. In one of the rounds, there was someone on the panel who apprised others about IISERs which seemed to help.

S: What kind of portfolios were they looking to hire?

A: They were looking to recruit people in their R&D CAE section in the field of Crash, Durability and Noise-Vibration-Harshness (NVH). I told them I had no background whatsoever in Crash, Durability and that an engineer might be a better fit. However, in the field of NVH, I had some knowledge of wave theory and vibrations and prior work experience. So here I am, one of their first recruits at NVH.

S: What was the competition like?

A: There were many people interviewing. Some were much more qualified than me, MTechs who had >3 years of experience in fields that exactly matched what Honda was looking for. I was really lucky to get in. Maybe they were looking for enthusiasm and willingness to be trained and learn something new.

need to be aggressive and learn everyday…..

S: What is your current position and responsibilities?

A: Currently I am an Executive at Honda (Anyone with 1-4 years experience is an executive). I am in the CAE/Simulation department at R&D at Greater Noida, presently dependent on their main centre in Japan. My work involves running simulations and suggesting design changes to improve performance of cars in terms of noise and vibration. I find it extremely interesting!

S: What do you think is the most challenging part about your job?

A: It is quite challenging, since I don’t know mechanical engineering. Many times, I stuck with the basics! Learning is a constant process, I still study like a student. After office hours, I discuss engineering principles with office mates. These discussions made me realize one benefit of my science background. Sometimes, I have a deeper perspective on my work since I understand the science of it and not only its engineering applications. We need to be aggressive and learn everyday otherwise we cannot progress.

S: What is the growth trajectory like?

A: I consider myself very lucky to get a job at Honda. Honda invests a lot in its R&D. I am currently at Bangalore for an 8 month training and they have already invested a lot in me. I am the first recruit in their NVH division. I will be moving to their main R&D centre in Tochigi, Japan this September. After a two year period I would return to the NVH division here. So it looks pretty good to me!

S: Going back to your IISER Pune days. What other activities, apart from science kept you busy?

A: I was active in the music club and did a fair amount of painting.

S: People often wonder whether these activities help get a job?

A: It is hard to make general statements, but I think it depends on the company. In my case, they did take note of it. Smaller R&D companies usually view employees as a temporary asset, since people switch jobs often.

However, big companies like Honda lay emphasis on how you grow as a person and can contribute to the company in the long run. In fact, I remember being asked about my extracurricular activities and was even encouraged to play guitar for their in-house band.

S: How helpful were the faculty/alumni at IISER Pune in helping you find/decide a career?

A: I discussed careers outside academics with a few faculty members, some dismissed others encouraged: but they were not well aware of such opportunities. So, it was not much help. Although there was some direction on how and where to apply for a PhD in your field, help on how to go about applying for a job or an industrial R&D was almost nil.

S: What would be your major take home for the readers?

A: I would say your fifth year internship is crucial. Do it in the field you want to pursue after your Masters, essentially to gain knowledge and let prospective companies you are applying to know that you have some experience in that field. Doesn’t matter whether the internship is paid or not. Just be clear on what you might really want to do, and work on it.