A PhD imparts life skills to adapt to different working çultures, explore new areas of research, work on potentially disruptive technologies and finally apply all your learnings and experiences in the industry.

Mukesh Kumar, PhD, our next pathbreaker, R&D Manager at at TVS-Brakes-India Ltd, works on design & development of braking materials for automotive applications (OEM & IAM) with a focus on durability, performance, comfort, safety, and environmental friendliness.

Mukesh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his industrial research on asbestos-free brake friction materials for automobiles at IIT (Delhi), his postdoctoral research experiences in Sweden and Japan, and subsequently applying his research background for the benefit of the automotive industry.

For students, in the journey of life, grab every opportunity that comes your way, because those learnings will help you navigate the uncertainties in the future !

Mukesh, can you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born and raised in a small village (Bhater) in the Bilaspur district of Himachal Pradesh (HP). My father was a Govt. high school teacher and mother was a primary school teacher in a private school. My primary and secondary school education was in local state board schools within the same district. Being from a village, I didn’t get much exposure as there was no internet at that time (1995), especially in the rural parts of HP. The values of my parents had a huge impact on my upbringing. Apart from my parents, my uncle Mr. M.R. Garg’s guidance also played a vital role in shaping my career. When I was young, I was enthusiastic about different things like reading books (particularly detective stories), writing diaries, playing cricket, and exploring different things very deeply, especially engineering-related stuff. I came to know about the word “IIT ” through my father during my high school days, so I was a little bit motivated to join IIT at some stage in my life. 

What did you do for higher studies and post graduation?

I chose the science stream (Physics, Chemistry & Mathematics) as my career after schooling and did a bachelor’s degree in science (BSc, Physics) from a Govt degree college in my hometown Bilaspur (HP). During my bachelor’s, my math teacher (PL Sharma) inspired me to pursue a career in higher studies. He himself rose to the rank of University Professor from the post of a primary school teacher. 

For my post-graduation, I went to Bhopal University (MP) and completed my masters in Physics (M.Sc) with Material Science as the main specialization. Later, I ended up doing an M.Tech. in Materials Science from the same university. For my M.Tech. thesis I joined an industrial project in Tata Refractory Ltd, (a Tata Group Company) in Belpahar, a town in the Jharsuguda district of Odisha. During my five months at Tata Refractory Ltd, I was exposed to Refractory Materials (refractory is a material that is resistant to decomposition by heat, pressure, or chemical attack, and retains strength and form at high temperatures). Overall, my first industrial exposure helped me to closely witness and experience the strict and disciplined life (8 AM to 6 PM) of industry professionals for 5 months.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

Frankly speaking, it was my childhood dream to join IIT in my life. The name and the “IIT” brand inspired me to choose research in “Materials Science” as a career. I had never thought of doing a PhD in my childhood. However, all this changed when I was exposed to research during my Master thesis in Bhopal University (MP). I would admit that the exposure we got at Bhopal University also played a major role in choosing research as a career in my life. We were exposed to many international and national level conferences during our post-graduate studies (MSc/MTech) at Bhopal University, where reputed scientists used to deliver talks and interact with students. I still remember meeting and talking with Dr. Rajagopala Chidambaram, the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India in one of the conferences in our department. Similarly, in another incident, I got an opportunity to listen to the inspiring talk of Dr. Mashelkar, the DG of Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) during my stay at NML Jamshedpur. All these factors played a major role in my choosing research (PhD) as a career. 

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

My first career opportunity was in Jamshedpur, Jharkhand. I joined as a Project Fellow in one of the CSIR Laboratories (National Metallurgical Laboratory (NML) in 2004. I got this opportunity during my M.Tech thesis work itself. I must say my decision to come to Tata Refractory Ltd in Belpahar for my master thesis really paid off.  This is because Jamshedur is very near to Belpahar (4 hrs train journey) and I was able to attend the interview for the post of project fellow at NML in a very short notice period.  Had I been in my hometown (HP) or Bhopal (MP), I could not have taken up my first career opportunity. I worked in two projects with two different scientists at NML. My first research project was based on corrosion, where the task was to investigate the corrosion behaviour of various materials. The second project was to study the thermal characteristics of brake disc samples of the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft). Overall, during my 1.5 years at NML, I got opportunities to operate several sophisticated equipment and learn many research techniques which developed my interest in choosing research as career. Hence, I started to think about doing a PhD in materials science. Accordingly, I started to look for PhD opportunities in premier institutes like IITs or IISc and succeeded in getting an offer from IIT Delhi in summer 2005. My life changed 180 degrees from here and I never looked back. I must say that the research exposure at NML helped me immensely, especially the project related to aircraft brake disc materials where I used a special equipment (TC Analyzer from Anter Corp, USA) to measure thermophysical properties of aircraft brake materials, helped me to secure a PhD position in IITD. This was also one of the reasons that I got an industrial project in a similar domain (automotive brake materials) for my PhD research work.  

My second career opportunity was in IIT Delhi. where I joined as Project Scientist and completed my PhD in Materials Science in 2010. My stay at IIT Delhi was full of opportunities and I must say it was those five years (2005 to 2010) that changed my life. The first big exposure at IIT Delhi was the opportunity to assist my mentor in organizing an international conference which helped me to develop my management and organization skills (we ended up organizing three more such conferences during my 5 years stay at IITD). I also got international exposure when i presented my research work at an international conference in Montreal, Canada (It was the first time in my life when I boarded a plane, and that too to travel abroad). The very next year, I received my first international scholarship (EGIDE) from the French Govt. to visit Ecole Centrale de Lille, France (one of the technical institutes of France) for three months as an exchange student. I did some part of my PhD work there and learned many new things during my 3 months stay. I studied the Hot-Spot and thermal-localization behavior of friction composites developed at IITD lab. It was a unique facility (braking tribometer) available with our French collaborators to study the Hot-Spot phenomena of friction materials during high-speed braking. This visit resulted in two journal and one conference publications.

Similarly, at the end of my PhD, I got another opportunity to visit Singapore and present my research work at an international conference. 

My PhD research was an industrial project with an aim to develop asbestos-free brake friction materials for automobiles. As a part of the work, I was fully involved in the design & development of friction materials along with the purchasing and successful commissioning of a single end inertia brake dynamometer (a unique facility available only with very big automotive friction Industries and first of its kind in an academic institute in India) for the performance evaluation of the developed friction materials. It was that time when I was exposed to many industries and got trained to handle and run various machines related to brake performance evaluation.  Apart from my PhD work, several other consultancy projects were completed under supervision of Prof Bijwe in the area of frictional materials. Few of them were, i) Development of brake linings materials for TATA Truck 1612 Rear brake applications, ii) Development of disc brake pads materials for Volvo-bus (B7R) front brake applications and, iii) Thermophysical properties analysis of organic brake block materials for Railway Brakes.

Overall, in a nutshell, my PhD at IITD not only helped me to grow professionally but also shaped my personal life and transformed me into a dynamic and independent person with various skills and qualities.  My PhD mentor Prof. (Mrs.) Jayashree Bijwe played a significant role in this transformation. She was the mentor cum mother to all her students which helped us to become very strong both physically and mentally. She used to say that PhD is a training to shape, groom, grill, and train ourselves for future challenges. I must admit that all the training, experience and exposure helped me to grow and overcome various challenges in life including my decision to switch to the industry in the latter part of my career. 

My third career opportunity was in Europe (Sweden). I won a very prestigious and competitive international scholarship (Erasmus Mundus) from European Union to pursue my postdoctoral research from Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), Stockholm, Sweden. This was one of the big moments of my life as I got this scholarship before submitting my PhD thesis. I would like to share a small story here. Our dept had hosted a professor from Sweden to deliver a talk and interact with students. It was that interaction and his lecture about the beauty and culture of Swedish people and the reputation of Swedish institutes, which motivated me to go to Sweden at some point in my life. From that day onwards, I started to have a dream cum vision to see myself in Sweden after my PhD, and exactly 2 years after that lecture, I fulfilled my dream and landed in Sweden for my postdoctoral studies. My stay at KTH Sweden was one of the golden times of my life. I went there with my family (wife and daughter) and enjoyed my stay. Though I switched to a new field in Sweden (from Experimental Materials Engineering to Computational Physics), I enjoyed it a lot and learned many new computational and simulation skills, thanks to my mentor Prof. Clas Persson who not only gave me freedom but also provided me with many opportunities. My ERASMUS scholarship was for 1 year, but I received another scholarship, the Swedish Institute Fellowship, from Swedish Govt. and stayed there for three years and visited many countries such as the USA, France, Germany to present my research work. In addition, I also received two travel scholarships (Olle Erikssons stiftelse för materialteknik) from KTH to visit France for conference. One of my greatest moments was meeting many Physics & Chemistry Nobel laureates in Sweden as they used to come to our university for a talk before receiving their Nobel prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. 

The broad area of my research at KTH involved atomistic modeling (Density Functional Theory) of semiconductor compounds for clean energy photovoltaic, light-emitting solids, and thermoelectric devices. My research was focused on analyzing different types of material structures to obtain both broader and deeper theoretical understanding of materials at the atomic level to micrometer scale. 

I must admit that the opportunities and exposure I received during my PhD period at IIT Delhi (to attend various international conferences and a student exchange visits to France) helped me to strengthen my resume which later helped me win many international scholarships (ERASMUS, Swedish Institute Guest Fellowship & Olle Erikssons stiftelse) during my postdoc period. 

The fourth career opportunity was in Japan. I received my second postdoc offer from National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS), and got an opportunity to work in the group of Dr. N. Umezawa. Japan is a country known for its great discipline and hardworking people. My experience in Japan was unique and different compared to European work culture. I really enjoyed working here and learned a lot both personally and professionally. I stayed here for 3 years and attended many International Conferences in the USA and Finland. I also visited the University of Oslo (UiO), Norway as a visiting scientist for one month from Japan. Overall, my stay in Japan was very pleasant and fruitful, yielding many good journal papers and many contacts in the area of my field. My area of research was to design and develop materials for solar cell and plasmonic applications using computational and simulation techniques.  

From a personal point of view, It was also one of the most memorable times as I took my parents for a one month tour of Japan.

My fifth career opportunity was in India. I resigned from my job in Japan and came back to India to settle down permanently. Initially, I joined as a researcher on a temporary basis in the Physics Dept of IIT Delhi for three months. In order to seek a reliable job, I spent almost 6 months looking for a job in India. In between, I also visited NIMS Japan for one month to keep my professional contacts active. Finally, I got an opportunity in one university (Thapar University, Patiala) and joined as an Assistant Professor in the School of Physics and Materials Science. It was deemed to be a private university with great history and reputation in the north. I was mostly involved in teaching undergraduate and postgraduate students. I taught various theory and laboratory courses in the Physics and Materials Science domain. I love teaching to some extent and always try to use modern teaching & learning methods. I believe teaching is one of the most noble professions to redefine and educate yourself as well. After spending two years at Thapar university, I resigned due to the lack of research facilities and support from university management. 

For my next career break, I made a big transition from a research /academic career to an industrial career and joined an automotive company named TVS-Brakes-India in Chennai in a new role of R&D manager. 

How did you get your first break? 

Many of my new roles were through networking sites or area-specific job portals/sites or through some consultants. I believe that these days networking plays an important role to secure an internship or job position. Hence one should be active on platforms like LinkedIn, Indeed, CareerBuilder and Monster, etc.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

I faced many challenges during my career journey. Some of them are summarized here below.

The first challenge was the transition from one field of research to another field. I switched to a completely new field for my postdoc studies at KTH Sweden. Since I had my own international scholarship, my mentor could not deny me from joining his group despite knowing that my background was totally different. However, I overcame this by learning computational techniques and software packages/codes through PhD students and attending courses during my postdoc period. It was like pursuing a fresh PhD degree in a new research area by attending course work and learning new computational techniques. Nevertheless, my PhD training at IITD paid off and helped me to grasp and learn things very fast. I need to thank my PhD mentor (Prof J. Bijwe) for a wonderful PhD training and Prof. C. Persson (Postdoc host) for his valuable time in teaching and guiding me in the new area of computation, simulation, and modeling.  

 The second challenge was returning to India without a job and struggling to find a suitable job. That period of six months was very painful and disappointing. One thing I would like to share here is that life was not that easy in India after spending 6 years abroad. The attitude of people was very bad with zero professional commitment. I had to struggle initially to find a reliable job of my choice in India. One lesson I learned is that one should not come back from abroad without a job in hand. Most of the employers rejected me because of overqualification. Thanks to Prof. BR Mehta from IITD, who offered me a temporary base in his research lab to search for a job from India, I ended up publishing 2 journal articles with his group in those 3 months. This period of 6 months was one of the most challenging times of my life. 

The third and biggest challenge was transitioning from academics to industry. It was one of the boldest decisions I have taken, to leave academia/research life and join the core industry. My PhD expertise helped me here and I got this mid-management level opportunity in a renowned automotive company named TVS-Brakes-India. The life and challenges therein are totally different in comparison to academics. Academics allows one to define their own problems and timelines, whereas, in the industry, the market defines the problems and the timelines. 

The fourth challenge was on the personal front. As I said earlier as well, during all these transitions (from India to Sweden to Japan to India (north region) and now in Chennai (south region of India), it was not easy to settle down with family and kids. There were many personal challenges related to food, culture, language, and kids schooling, etc. However, the exposure & experiences received during these transitions made my family very strong both, mentally and physically. Many thanks to my wife and kids for their constant support and faith on my decisions. I would also like to specially thank my parents, relatives, friends, and colleagues for their constant support & help during this whole journey where I made around five career transitions in the last 15 years.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role at TVS Brakes India

I work at TVS-Brakes-India Ltd. Chennai and have been doing well in this new role for the past two years.  We, at TVS-Brakes India, design and develop braking materials for automotive applications (OEM & IAM). The main function of brakes in the vehicle is that it allows the driver to drive at high speed. It’s the trust of an efficient and reliable braking system that allows everyone to drive the vehicle. Since braking is related to human safety, the responsibility to design and develop an efficient and reliable brake system becomes very important. 

In our R&D center (Apache Friction), we work on friction materials (FMs) development. Materials like disc-pads and drum-linings are called Friction Materials and used in braking systems to slow down or stop the wheels completely (vehicle movement). Friction materials need to satisfy various customer requirements like durability, performance, comfort, safety, and environmental friendliness. It is a multicomponent material having various kinds of raw materials (15-20 ingredients) such as resin, fiber, fillers, abrasives, and lubricants. A sequential dry mix of all these raw materials is hot compression molded with subsequent post-curing, powder coating, grinding, and finishing processes. After passing many laboratory tests (Physical, Mechanical, Tribological, NVH) and vehicle testing, the final product goes to the end application in the braking system. All these validation processes are called DVP&R (Design Verification Plan and Report). It is the process of planning, testing, and reporting to verify an automotive part or component meets a specific set of performance and reliability requirements during the design phase. 

Program management of various special projects is a vital key here. Apart from this, understanding the requirement of various raw materials used in our products and keeping the supply chain intact by developing alternate RM (RAW MATERIAL) sources from time to time for cost-saving and new development are some of the roles I have. 

What skills are required for your role?

The typical skills required at my level are, 

i)    Domain Knowledge (Technical skill) and Critical thinking (Research skill)

ii)   Simulation, Modeling and Data Analytical skills 

iii)  Teamwork, Decision making, and Adaptability skills

iv)  Collaboration, Communication, and Negotiation skills

v)   Leadership qualities 

Thanks to my PhD and postdoc training which really helped me to get all these skills.

How does your work benefit society?

My academic career of 15 years has yielded about 50 research publications (journal/book chapters/conference) with ~1450 citations having an h-index of 22 (till May 21), which will help the scientific and industrial community working in this domain. Being on the board of many academic committees (Syllabus revision, Doctoral Committee, Board of studies, Subject Expert, etc.) of various educational institutes would help me to share and transfer my knowledge to the needy. In addition, being a regular referee for numerous scientific journals will keep me updated with the latest technology and help the scientific community as well. 

From an industrial point of view, with the rise of E-mobility (Electric vehicles), the technology is changing day by day, and the R&D team needs to be updated with new product designs and prototypes to meet customer demands. I believe that data mining and data analysis will become very important tools in all types of new technologies.

Similarly, on the environmental front, there are many challenges such as vehicular traffic pollution, noise pollution, and avoiding harmful ingredients (Cu, Hg, Pb, Sb) in the FMs. These are some of the concerns that industries need to address for the benefit of society. R&D will play a significant role in addressing these concerns. Apart from these, the 3R (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) will be the new norms to be adapted for the benefit of society. 

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

There are many moments in my life which are very close to my heart like,

  1. Setting up the new friction testing R&D Lab at IITD during my PhD work
  2. Publishing my first journal article based on my PhD work
  3. First article from new research field during postdoc (KTH), and that too in a very prestigious journal which later helped me to secure position in Japan
  4. Delivering various invited talks in conferences & workshops
  5. Playing an important role to bridge the gap between academia and industry interaction

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students is that one should have a goal or dream in his/her life and try to live those dreams every day. Do the micromanagement in setting up the small goals in terms of weekly, monthly, or quarterly timelines. Write them down on a piece of paper and paste them on your study wall and review the progress of those goals from time to time. Compete with yourself (comparing the progress of your goals) rather than with others. Grab all the available opportunities with both hands and with an open minded attitude. Ask lots of questions, take lessons from anyone, and never stop learning.

There are plenty of opportunities in all disciplines. It’s not that medicine or engineering is the only career option; one should explore all other options as well. Today’s world needs more smart people than hard-working people. For example, a degree in Liberal Arts provides the opportunities to learn both science and arts simultaneously. A student can learn both History & Physics with Economics as their major. Hence, be updated with technology and adapt accordingly to chase your goals/dreams.

Future Plans?

  1. Keep working in my domain where I could contribute to the management vision and keep growing into various leadership roles to innovate, develop, manage, and deploy various products and technologies which help society
  2. Start a research foundation to help needy especially in the rural areas.
  3. Start my own consultancy firm in the relevant filed in later part of my career
  4. Would love to comeback to academia on a teaching/mentor role in later part of my career