Making a career out of your favourite subject in school is a luxury very few can afford, especially when that subject is mathematics!
Ramya Emandi, our next pathbreaker, pursued engineering as an extension of her love for maths. But down the line she realized her inclination towards social causes and transitioned to a career in economics to fulfil her career ambitions.
Ramya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about embarking on a meaningful career using maths as a quantitative tool to create econometric models that analyze, monitor and evaluate social challenges based on data.
A great career for students interested in mathematics for the greater good.
Ramya, tell us about your background?
I spent most of my life in Mumbai and in a few other cities like Hyderabad and Bhubaneshwar. I studied science and ended up studying Engineering. One of my favourite subjects is Mathematics. Initially I had dreams to be a doctor, as I wanted to serve the public. As I couldn’t score enough to pursue MBBS in the first attempt, I switched to Engineering. From a young age, i was always clear that i wanted to work for a social impact. Working for a social cause ultimately led me to the places where I worked and to my current career. My extra-curricular interests are sketching and learning. I always had an interest in learning new things – I tried my hands on learning instruments like Veena and Casio. I like reading non- fiction books.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I graduated in Engineering and did my post graduation in Business Administration. The motivation for doing Engineering was my interest in Mathematics. Engineering subjects were new and filled me with curiosity, which led to good grades. I was offered a job in a software company which I wasn’t keen on. I decided to pursue an MBA with the idea of becoming a social entrepreneur. I learnt a lot during my MBA days in TERI, the course had several aspects of polity, social service and environment. I was influenced by polity and economics, and had a long craving to studying economics. After 7 years of work experience, i completed Advanced Studies (equivalent to MPhil) in International Economics from Kiel Institute, Germany.
What made you choose this career?
I was influenced by both Dr. Raghuram Rajan and Dr. Shashi Tharoor, I loved the way they articulated their thoughts and attracted public interest. Both of them are great individuals who are highly regarded and I admire. Dr. Shashi Tharoor wrote a lot of columns and non-fiction that appealed to readers. But Dr. Raghuram Rajan probably had an edge over Dr Tharoor in terms of academics. So the question is, who do I want to be inspired by? Dr. Rajan’s comments had logical/mathematical explanation which I wanted to learn. That is when I realised that I needed to enhance my skill set and hence decided to take up a career in economic research.
Mr. Sachin Swami, my senior while working at Indian Oil Corporation Limited, has guided me throughout my professional journey. He identified and motivated my craving to do something social and impactful. I loved writing non-fiction and his constructive criticism helped me align myself. More importantly, I learnt a lot of professionalism at work from him. He groomed me in people management and work-life balance. He and his family are family to me now.
The first turning point was when I opted for an internship at an electronic newspaper platform to enhance my writing in the genre of non-fiction. I wanted to improve my columns based on data analytics. This platform gave me a boost. The second turning point was when I got to publish a public policy paper in the journal of Institute for Public Enterprise. This completely changed my outlook about myself and imbibed me with tremendous confidence. If I could publish this without formal education , I knew i could publish more papers with formal education.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
As I said, I love to learn and explore new things. I can relate myself to a Polymath. I love Mathematics (the reason I pursued Engineering); Economics & Social Entrepreneurship (the reason I pursued MBA); Political science & International relations (took MOOCs (Massive open online course) and spent 2 years reading them); Art History & Fine Arts (took MOOCs for an year); hobbies – solo travel, athletic outdoor activities and playing musical instrument Veena. There hasn’t been a single year without learning a new subject. Unfortunately, I’m an average Polymath – making me a Jack of all and a master of none. Ultimately, I figured out Liberal Arts is my calling and at the exact intersection point of Venn diagram that I drew of my favourite topics. With an already established job in an Indian Public Sector company, I was completely discouraged to quit and pursue studies to become an Economist.
Before pursuing a serious career in economics, I had the privilege to take guidance from Prof. Sanjit Dhami, University of Leicester. He gave me immense motivation and confidence to take up the path. His words were encouraging and assured me that I had a strong background in mathematics which was crucial for economics.
How did you get your first break?
I encountered failures as usual, then came the opportunity for research studies at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, Germany. This institute is more than 100 years old and is under the German Federal Government and the state of Schleswig-Holstein. A big turning point – I also chose to quit my well-paying and secure public servant job. I threw myself into the non-comfort zone. My journey into the Advanced Studies Program in International Economic Policy Research had begun. The program provided rigorous and profound training in international economic analysis, methods of empirical research and the evaluation of economic policies to students since 1984.
One of the highlights of my research career was i got to work as a part-time research assistant to Prof. Christoph Trebesch in the department of ‘International Finance and Global Governance’ on an ongoing research project ‘Political Boom Cycles’.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
- Challenge 1: Societal
Discouragement comes from everywhere, my ex-boss had asked me, “where is the connect to your previous studies”. Actually, one needs the same level of math that i studied in engineering to study economics. MBA was my introduction to economics and not to forget, my energy related work experience led me to ask a great research question which i used in my term paper. My research question was well appreciated and some decided to take-up further studies on the subject.
I was also trying to shift gears from my corporate life to research life. My MBA professor Dr. Kaushik Deb once said, “you always need some change, it is boring otherwise”. He is through and through an Economics guy (grad, post grad, PhD) – he worked in think tanks for policies, shifted to academics, shifted to corporate life and now is back to research.
- Challenge 2: Confidence
Since I did not have a formal background in economics, I lacked confidence in my approach. But my professors played a key role in boosting my confidence. The examples of eminent personalities from non-economics background who contributed in the study of economics cited by Prof. Dhami and the discussions with him during the course boosted my confidence further. It was a great decision in my life, I realised how little I knew about economics and econometrics. I learnt tremendously and my thinking horizon broadened by multiple folds. During my studies at Kiel, my love for economics increased and my grades were also at par with my peers, which was reassuring. The courses that influenced me the most were Macroeconomics in open economics by Prof. Cedric Tille, International Trade and Macroeconomics by Prof. Fabio Ghironi, Applied Microeconometrics by Prof. Sourafel Girma and International Finance by Prof. Carmen Reinhart.
- Challenge 3: Learning
I had to learn economics from scratch. It took longer hours to cope with other international students. As this course had students from across the world, I was kind of representing the reputation of India. Also, the advanced studies programme is pursued after postgraduation and hence, more than 50% students were already mid-PhD. So, the academic level was doctoral level and I was just a beginner. I invested hours and hours of my time learning. I managed to complete my term paper using the time series econometrics SVAR (structural vector autoregression) and impulse responses (an advanced econometrics) using EViews statistical software. I had so much fun and excitement, living the student life again.
Where do you work now?
I’m currently working at United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). I love to work with data and fortunately UNDP provides me with this platform. I deal with monitoring, evaluation, analysis and reporting for a project under circular economy. The job also entails research collaborations with Universities. Iam involved in the study of the relationships between business and society. Anybody good in data analysis, research and reporting is suitable for this kind of work profile. Every job is a learning process. I too, am learning through my work at UNDP.
I’m currently working under the programme ‘Plastic Waste Management in India’. This sector in India is one of the most developed but is also the most unorganised with an informal setup. The aim of the programme is to formalise this sector by creating a value chain connecting all the stakeholders small to big including Government, Corporates, Waste Pickers, MSMEs, Civil Societies and Citizens. Since this is an informal sector, the data collection has been setup from scratch to trace accountability and ensure transparency. I create formats and baseline studies to evaluate the system. The data is validated and monitored through advanced excel techniques until app based technology takes over the monitoring process. For analysis, substantial data is necessary to understand and bridge the gaps. Statistical tools like R and STATA are beautiful to analyse big data. For upcoming students, I would recommend beautiful lecture series by Prof. Raj Chetty, Harvard School – “Big Data to Solve Economic and Social Problems” (https://opportunityinsights.org/course/). This is the best MOOC course that I found to understand the applications of math/data in economic study in a real world scenario to tackle social challenges.
I believe that a job should provide two things – 1. Work satisfaction and 2. a platform for career growth. Many positions in international organisations stipulate the requirement of prior work experience, which is why, this job becomes imperative for future career options.
I’m also freelancing as an Editor at Exploring Economics – a German e-learning platform. I absolutely love this job, as it allows me to learn about the latest topics and recent papers. It provides me the opportunity to stay in touch with academics and evolving economics.
How does your work benefit the society?
The project that I’m currently working on is on circular economy. A circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system. It is motivated by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital. It is based on three principles: Design out waste and pollution, Keep products and materials in use and Regenerate natural systems.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
While my short stint with Reserve Bank of India, I was working on the nexus of economic growth and climate change. It’s a research paper on “Impact of temperature fluctuations on economic growth and its growth channels for the BRICS nations”. I had used STATA for the econometric analysis. I found that the results were significant and such a study was worthwhile to work for. I want to work on many more such impactful studies that have significant results.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I am not sure there is anything to advise, because I’m still learning and open to learn. We all learn from our experiences and mistakes. I could share one of the things that I would have loved to do earlier, which is that I would have entered the economics stream much before. Instead, I took my time in exploring the options in front of me. Once I failed in all the other options, I chose the option of economics last. I should have listened to myself instead of being a crowd pleaser and risk mitigator.
I want to align myself in research oriented studies completely. I want to use interesting econometric models on applied economics and have fun while doing so.