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Abhay Singh Chandel, an IISER Bhopal alumnus (2013 batch), found his way to becoming a Flying Officer at the Indian Air Force (IAF). Flying Officers are class I employees of the Government of India, a sought after position for many. We dwell with Abhay into his life now and backtrack it to his IISER-B days.

Mukund: You have been a proud part of the Indian Air force for two years now, how do you like it there so far? Tell us a bit about your position and what’s the daily routine like?

Abhay: Life’s been wonderful so far and I am quite happy with my job. A usual perception amongst people is that IAF is all about flying, but it’s not quite like that. There are many departments within IAF that facilitate flying, these include but are not limited to Meteorology, Air traffic control, Logistics, Accounts and Administration. I work in the Meteorology department here which falls under the operations group in IAF. Meteorology section needs to be manned 24×7 and hence there are multiple officers who work in shifts. Meteorology is basically study of atmosphere and atmospheric phenomena affecting weather. Weather plays a very important role in the field of Aviation. I monitor weather conditions with the aid of satellite pictures, weather radar etc and provide information to the aircraft based on which they decide to land or postpone or cancel the flight.
I work five days a week and get a nice two full days off. A shift on a working day for me can either start in the morning, afternoon or night, all of which are typically 6-8 hrs long. I need to do only one shift each day. When I get a night shift I get the following day off. I really like the working hours, and there is ample time each day for leisurely activities.

M: So does it get stressful at times during the job?

A: Not quite, but it does get hectic at times when the weather is very bad. I have to be really on my toes during seasons like pre monsoon and post monsoon when weather is extremely unpredictable and can go from good to bad to worse within no time. However we are equipped with excellent monitoring tools to handle such situations. We closely monitor and learn the atmospheric conditions in real time using satellite pictures, doppler weather radar, lightning detection system, etc, which helps us to forecast weather with reliable accuracy.

M: What are the different perks of being a flying officer at IAF? Do you get vacations?

A: Numerous. I live in the Air force cantonment area, which is well guarded and quite safe. I don’t have to worry about safety of person and property. We have a nice mess here and the food is great. We are also provided with canteen facility within the campus. The medical services are free. We get domestic help for housekeeping so I don’t have to worry about making my bed or cleaning my room each day, the list goes on. Regarding vacations, we can take upto 80 days of paid vacation in a year which is really nice. Beyond that we can take another 60 days of vacation with half pay every three years but the 80 day provision is more than enough I feel. Vacation days not used get carried over to the next year and so when I retire, I’ll be eligible to get monetary compensation corresponding to the total vacations not taken (and that adds up to a hefty amount). Moreover, I will also receive pension each year after retirement. But you need to work 20 years with IAF to reap the benefits of the pension plan.

M: What is the name of the exam you appeared for and procedure if someone wants to join IAF. When and how did you prepare for this?

A: The procedure is a bit long and there are several stages to clear. It first starts with a written AFCAT exam, then an exhaustive five day SSB exam and finally ends with some Medical tests. I appeared for AFCAT in June 2012, i.e in the summer before my final year at IISER-B. About 3 lac candidates appeared that year for the exam. There are three sections in the AFCAT exam- Maths, English and General Knowledge. I passed the exam along with some 3 thousand odd number of aspirants. The following September we were called for the five day long SSB exam. Here, through several interactive and group based activities, I was tested on my Communication skills, Behaviour, Logical thinking and Physical strengths. In my batch of SSB exam, out of 150 students 7 were selected. This was followed by a Medical Exam in January 2013. After that a merit list was published based on vacancies in the month of April 2013. Only about 300 students got through in the merit list out of which 13 were selected for Meteorology branch. I secured an AIR 3 amongst those 13 students. The moment was really gratifying when my chest number was called at the end of SSB exam.

M: You majored in Mathematics. Did the education you received from IISER, in any particular way, help you secure an admit to IAF.

A: Not really, a Masters degree in Science was all that was required. The sort of Maths that is asked in AFCAT exam does not require any college level course. A good handle of maths upto 12th standard is enough. As I mentioned, its basically a test of aptitude in Maths.
One might not remember all the things that he/she has learnt but the training we are given at IISERs is very good in the sense that we are pushed to the dais time and time again during courses and projects. That’s how we learnt how to face the crowd and improve our communication skills. Presentations, one on one interaction with faculty members and critical analysis on daily basis led to personal grooming especially in the final year. This inadvertently helped me face my Air Force interviews. I also feel that students from IISERs get an excellent conditioning of mind; the way we dissect and look at problems, and design answers starting with basic reasoning, gives us a unique edge whilst working in any field.

M: Do you see yourself using the Math you learned during the five years at IISER at your job?

A: Not at all. Few days back I stumbled upon my thesis file on my computer, the topic of my thesis was ‘Free Groups and Amalgamated Products’, I was hardly able to recall what the different symbols meant in my thesis. Honestly, I never came to truly appreciate where some of the abstract Math we learned could be applied. However knowledge of some subjects such as Programming and data structures, Nonlinear Dynamics, Computational Mathematics and Atmospheric sciences proved useful to me during my training here.

M: Wait, you said Atmospheric Sciences! Do you think it was a good idea that you had such interdisciplinary courses in the first two years of IISER?

A: Some of us were wrong in not appreciating such interdisciplinary courses at that time. I always thought I would never come across it again because I was going to take Maths and couldn’t see how Environmental science would blend in any job that I knew of at that time. But here I stand, after doing my Majors in Maths, earning my bread and butter not by Maths but by using concepts of Atmospheric Sciences. Of course I underwent courses here during my training to learn the topics and skills relevant for my job, but I felt I had a slight edge when I was learning things here. Apart from what knowledge became relevant and what not, I came to appreciate in general that we should at least understand the basics of how the Atmosphere we live in works. I think it is a lovely topic.

M: You did your major in Math. What inspired you to take Math and what stirred you away from continuing it after your graduation.

A: It was simple for me to chose maths but difficult to continue it. I was keen on taking maths for major since 1st year. I was terrible in cramming even little information, so subjects like bio and chem were out of question for me. Physics was an option, but maths seemed like a subject where I could take control. So I took that, and well, my life became miserable after my third year. I failed miserably in groups and rings course in the 3rd year and had to repeat it. I was called to the office of the then faculty member teaching the course and was counseled to consider changing branch and maybe take physics instead. I decided not to step back since I didn’t want to repeat a year. Although my grades were plummeting, I was having fun learning the Math. So, what stirred me away? Well when I joined I had a wrong notion that PhD takes 3 years, but when I joined math I learnt that it can take 7 years or so. Going abroad for PhD for such a long duration was not an option for me due to some family constraints.

M: So once you were almost sure in the final year that you won’t continue in Science after graduating from IISER, what different career options were you considering?

A: With primarily Defence services in mind and PhD out, I was also, alongside, preparing to take CAT for doing MBA and joined a 2-month crash course to prepare for the same. I joined a coaching class in the city. I remember having to rush each day on my bike to MP Nagar for the coaching class soon after my class at IISER-B would finish at 5 PM. The coaching class would start at 5 PM and I would be 15 mins late each day. It was a bit of a struggle finding time preparing for other exams. I also secured 95%ile in my CAT exam.

M: How did the faculty members at IISER-B help you prepare for your future?

A: Faculty members were very helpful and were there whenever we needed help in the courses. Workload was in excess especially in maths, can’t say the same for other subjects. I was giving chalk-talk style presentations almost every other day in my final year. The presentations I gave ultimately shaped my confidence and helped me in interviews.

M: How did the placement cell help you learn about the different opportunities out there?

A: There should have already been one soon after inception of IISER-B. By the time we were in our 3rd we should already have had some idea of the career options. There was support and guidance for those who wanted to pursue PhD, but others were unfortunately left to freelance.

It is always motivating to have something good to look forward to, both in near and far future, in return of the hard work that we do. During our first couple of years we had no orientation, no career guidance. A weak placement cell was put in place in our final year and only one faculty member was seriously involved. I hope IISER-B is improving on that front and helping students learn about various opportunities out there other than PhD. I received numerous messages where students from IISERs were asking about the procedure of getting into IAF as an Officer. As a small personal suggestion, the placement cell should start a seminar series to simply disseminate information about various exams, their dates and test patterns. Students can then maybe form study groups and work together towards these goals. I remember people doing that for GRE and TOEFL and it was useful. The students at IISER over time, unknowingly, develop an excellent aptitude required to crack competitive exams, a little guidance and conducive environment could go a long way for some.

M: While almost all of your batchmates were playing safe and applying to various universities for PhD, you decided to choose an offbeat, unconventional and unique career. It was the first outgoing batch from IISER-B and the placement cell did barely start. With not much guidance around for what you could do with your BS MS degree from IISER, how were you feeling about your lone venture in your final year?

A: During my final year, I was bombarded with cliché questions from relatives “kya karne wale ho aage”, “kaunsi company aati hai college me”. The first 4 years I was least bothered by these and was enjoying my time at IISER, like many of my other batchmates were. But it’s in the final year when these questions really start to get to you. Ours was the pioneer batch and there was no set trend before us. While I was preparing for Defence Services and CAT I was also considering taking a drop if nothing turned out well for me. The void period, when you have no offer in hand is the worst.

M: What advice would you give to final year students who may not want to continue in Science and have lost interest in it but still need to do justice with the final year projects they have taken up?

A: I had no vision of winning an award or even publishing a paper out of my thesis for that matter. There was a time when I was advised to take a six month gap in my final year to attend to a family problem and then come back later. However at that stage I got selected for IAF so a gap was not an option. Final year projects are serious affair, faculty members in particular take it very seriously. In their eyes everyone is same, whether I was going to do PhD later or not, I was treated the same. If you have lost interest in science, whatever the requirement is, whatever your guide is telling you to do and whatever’s needed to pass it, just do it! After that you can follow your dream and go excel in it.

M: On the scale of 1-5 , 1 being “good riddance” and 5 being “truly missing it”, where do you see yourself with all the Math you used to do?

A: I would say for the abstract maths 1, for computational and numerical stuff 3.5. But definitely not missing the math I did in my final year, but yes some courses such as combinatorics and graph theory, complex analysis, operational analysis, probability theory, programming and data structures and topology were fun. The abstract math courses, such as Galois theory and Introduction to ergodic theory, were the ones I didn’t like much. I don’t think anyone who left it for good would miss it.

M: How did your perception change about IISER over time?

A: I was quite immature and naive when I came to IISER; frankly speaking the scholarship seemed lucrative in the sense that I was taking a financial burden off from my family, a point of pride. I got in through the JEE stream, and getting both BS and MS degrees in 5 years, from a Central Govt. run Institute were the factors influencing my decision. IISERs were new and when I joined I had very little to no idea what I was getting into- I can safely say the same for all my batchmates. But now 7 years down the line, I can say I will never ever regret taking maths, and for that matter joining IISER. The training that I received in IISER eased my way to joining IAF. There were phases in my IISER days when I didn’t felt like studying, while being down and depressed with some of the affairs at IISER-B; but now in retrospect that seems a waste of peace of mind and time. I take pride in saying that I did my MS from IISER Bhopal.