Science is a preferred career in India, but Social Science is not ! India needs a nudge in the right direction to address social problems through change in attitude, behaviour and perspective.

Our next pathbreaker Krithika, talks to The Interview Portal about choosing Economics as a career and her work in Behavioural Economics

Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal talks to Krithika about the influences that led her to a career in Behavioural Economics.

Krithika, tell us about your background

I was born and brought up in Chennai, which is also known as the cultural capital of India. My father was from a very modest background and he worked hard to come up in life. He did his schooling in Chidambaram and he had access to just two square meals a day. He went on to do B.E in Annamalai University, Chidambaram. He completed MTech in IIT Madras and his college education was entirely on scholarships. He started off his career as a design engineer and eventually moved on to marketing. At the age of 52, he completed his executive MBA from the Great Lakes Institute of Management (sponsored by WABCO India Limited, which was the company in which he was working as a Vice President till he retired). Post retirement, he joined Madras Engineering Industries as a Senior Vice President. Since he studied with a lot of support from the Government, he was quite particular about paying taxes and was quite proud about it. He respected people from all backgrounds and took the slightest opportunity to extend whatever minimum support he could, for a person’s education. Having been brought up in an environment in which career decisions were driven by the need to support his family and come up in life, he was particular that me and my sister had to take up a subject/career that we had a lot of interest in.

My mother, on the other hand, was from a very different background. Her father had a 100 year old family business that had been established in Andhra Pradesh. Her schooling was entirely in Andhra and she did her college education in Chennai. Having been brought up in a business family where education was not given a lot of importance, she had to convince a lot of people to complete her college education. She wanted her children to have complete control over their education and career decisions and still continues to be a strong pillar of support for both my sister and myself in whatever career decisions we make. At the age of 50, she kick started her career by starting a pre-school (Kids Campus International, Triplicane) in Chennai. A few years before this, she started running a small, mini function hall (Rukmani Mini Hall).

Our parents were from totally different socio economic backgrounds. But, interestingly, most of their ideologies matched, the most important one being, giving their kids the freedom and space to make decisions on their career. That being said, they did not encourage unrealistic career options beyond our affordability. 

What did you study?

My sister completed MSc Economics from the University of Warwick, UK.  She is currently a Policy Manager at IFMR LEAD.  She also runs a wellbeing initiative – “DESHA DHWANI”, under which she organised a panel discussion and continues to address public gatherings (driven by her desire to communicate that economic growth alone is not enough; and that wellbeing lessons from traditional lifestyles could promote overall development of a person).

Right from childhood, we have always discussed social problems as a family. Starting from conversations with auto rickshaw drivers to conversations with businessmen, every issue will be a topic of discussion in our family. This helped me gain perspective on a lot of things. Our childhood was a culmination of traditional value sets combined with a contemporary lifestyle. This provided us with adequate independence while retaining values and culture.

My sister and myself are trained classical music singers and we have given about 4 to 5 duet concerts.  We used to play tennis as a hobby and were engaged in many extra-curricular events in both school and college. I was the Editor of the magazine of the Department of Economics at Ethiraj College.

I completed class XII with an overall 96% in CBSE and quite naturally, the society’s expectation was for me to pursue CA/CFA/Engineering. I chose to do Economics in Ethiraj College for Women, Chennai. During my time in college, I volunteered with Bhumi and BecomingI foundation, wherein I had to teach mathematics and music to primary school kids. This helped me understand how kids perceive things on a completely different dimension, compared to adults. I also completed courses on English language and presentation skills at the British council and completed 2 levels in French Language.

I went on to pursue a Masters in Economics from the University of Warwick, UK. The exposure and teaching standards there was incredible and that made me understand how Economics as a subject, is ignored in South India, while it is acclaimed as a great subject all over the world.

Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

My interactions from childhood, volunteering experience and the problems in the society that I live in were important in shaping my career. I wanted to be able to do something that could solve problems in society and economic policy is an appropriate tool for that. Of course, basic earning is essential for any career. So, I chose a career that could help me as well as the society.Unlike common perception, mathematics is an extremely important subject that one needs to like, to pursue economics. In that sense, my mathematics teacher in D.A.V Girls Senior Secondary School, Gopalapuram made me fall in love with the subject. My sister is a person whom I always look up to and she was a brilliant mentor and guide while I was making career decisions.As mentioned in the previous question, my parents had a huge (supportive role) to play.

Tell us about your career path

I quite accidentally started working specifically in Behavioural Economics and it has proven to be a great experience. I am quite interested in public policy and development economics and took modules in those subjects during my coursework at Warwick. I had a small chapter on Behavioural Economics in Microeconomics. Apart from that, one interesting aspect that I noticed was that Behavioural Economics was something that cropped up quite a lot while I was reading papers in Development and Public Policy. My very first job was a Research Assistant with the Behavioural (Development) Economics Lab. That was when I started reading more on the subject and understood that any economic research that we do has a behavioural component to it. People’s response to some subsidy or cash transfer, economic decisions taken by individuals, taxpayers’ behaviour to change in tax rates – everything changed when it was viewed with the lens of behavioural economics. Within 6 months, I moved on to become a Research Associate at the Lab where I worked till September. After that, I started working on a Mental Health Literature review for IFMR LEAD (which is yet another aspect of behvioural economics). 

I did a couple of internships – one on writing and research in Sattva Media and Consulting and I was also a field intern at the Centre for Technology and Policy, IIT Madras Research park. The previous field experience that I had was a huge strength during my interview for my first job. I also completed an online course on EdX on Challenges of Global Poverty which introduced the concept of the study design that was used in my first job.

What were the challenges? how did u address them?

Society’s perception towards the subject: Many people had questions on whether I would be able to get a job and earn a decent salary with this degree. I politely responded to them and waited till I got a degree and then the first job even before the official end date of my post-graduation. We are answerable to the society and the people around us who have our best interests in their mind. It is necessary to patiently respond to their questions and prove ourselves.

My father passed away in January, 2016. I had to start my post graduation in September, 2016. During the period from February to March, 2016, I had attended a series of interviews and got a seat for M.B.A in IIM Shillong, a job offer from Ernst and Young and a conditional offer to do MSc Economics at the University of Warwick. People around me advised me to either take up the job or do an MBA which looked prospective to them. But, my mother knew that I had been working hard to pursue this subject right from class X and both my mother and sister stood by my side in this decision. On a personal front as well, I faced a dilemma of leaving my mother right after my father’s demise to go abroad and study. But, with immense help from my mother and sister, I made the decision and came back 1 year later with a Masters Degree in Economics with distinction. During my time at Warwick, I faced additional challenges. I got a spoof call from a random individual claiming that he belongs to the British Police and that he would put me behind bars. I lodged a complaint with the local police and my sister informed the Indian Embassy about this mishap. They were extremely supportive. Meanwhile, in April, 2017, my sister underwent a 4 day long delivery to give birth to my nephew. Those 4 days (during my exam preparation time) were really tough to go through since she did not have any relatives to support her suing this time (since our relatives had other committments).

I started working as a Research Assistant in Behavioural Economics 1 week after I returned. Both my sister and me took a loan to pursue Masters since it was our decision and the responsibility was ours. Our parents were prepared for expenditure on education within India. Since we proved ourselves, they agreed to give us collateral security and vouch for us to get a loan.

I had received a job offer for a project and by the time I started working, the project had shut down due to unforeseen circumstances. I had to start working on a new scoping study and the project PIs, my manager and others on the project were extremely supportive. I worked with a lot of enthusiasm and determination and 6 months into the job, I was promoted as a Research Associate. Following that, a year later, I was given the highest performance rating in the organisation. Uncertain and challenging situations are times when our potential can be brought out.

What are you doing currently?

I currently work as a Short term consultant. Prior to this, the full time role that I was working on was the Research Associate position with the Behavioural Economics (Development) Lab, IFMR LEAD. Over the past two years, I have been assisting the Principal Investigators of the BDL with scoping and piloting study designs in the Behavioural (Development) Economics field. My work warranted both independent and team functioning. This has broadened my understanding of nuances involved in designing a study, particularly Randomized Control Trials . The time I spent on scoping included conversations with stakeholders across income groups and professions, which helped me understand practical issues and how that can be brought into the framework of economic theory and decision making. Apart from being involved in the study design, my role involved reviewing literature, drafting questionnaires, coding surveys, data cleaning, data analysis, setting up the data flow and ensuring smooth operations, managing a team of surveyors, assisting in the hiring process by interviewing candidates for RA positions, drafting IRB documents, assisting in drafting grant proposals, budgeting, and hiring.

My role as an RA was a great learning experience in terms of planning, coordinating with other teams and handling uncertainty. I usually believe in collaborative learning – and therefore, worked with colleagues to guide them on survey nuances that I had learnt; and in extension, also learnt a lot from them in terms of data organisation and data management. I developed a system within my team based on which survey staff made a list of skills that they wanted to develop – and I allotted work accordingly. This ensured training and development on the job.

What are the skills needed in your career?

My work on one of the studies at the Behavioural Economics (Development) lab on a topic named Bandwidth and Utility, is quite close to me. While working on any project, management and operational skills are extremely important. It is easy to obtain theoretical experience. But, practical experience implementing a study on the ground while managing operations and logistics gives a sense of satisfaction and experience that is great. This particular project gave me a wholesome experience on assisting the investigators with designing a study, drafting necessary documents to conduct a study, framing questionnaires, managing the field team and handling logistical challenges while not compromising on the study nuances. This project involved a lot of interaction with participants which made me understand varied perspectives of individuals and how that population views problems or issues through a different lens. 

How does your work benefit the society?

Though it was a great learning experience at the lab, the role was specific to academic research, which just had indirect benefits to the society. Initially, I had taken up economics as a subject in order to be able to use this as a tool to bring changes in the society. This is the reason why right now, I am working as a short term consultant and looking for opportunities abroad that are policy relevant. Behavioural Economics has a huge role to play with respect to policies. The Indian government has also realised the importance of Nudge and NITI Aayog has now introduced a nudge unit to frame effective policies. The government has proposed nudge and other behavioural interventions in Chapter 2 of the Economic Survey 2018-19 which is on (on Leveraging the Behavioural Economics of “Nudge”).  Thus, the subject, if used appropriately can benefit the society and the nation as a whole.

Tell us an example of a specific work you did that is very close to you!

My work on one of the studies at the Behavioural Economics (Development) lab on a topic named Bandwidth and Utility, is quite close to me. While working on any project, management and operational skills are extremely important. It is easy to obtain theoretical experience. But, practical experience implementing a study on the ground while managing operations and logistics gives a sense of satisfaction and experience that is great.

Aspirations need to be based on one’s interests and passion and at the same time, one’s affordability. Some family circumstances might not allow a person to pursue a career that is not very remunerative. All these aspects need to be thoroughly considered before making a decision. Otherwise, it might lead to frustration.

Future plans?

Working on policy based research which involves applying insights from behavioural economics/development economics for effective governance.