Your dreams and aspirations need not be set in stone, because they evolve along with you, pushing you and driving you to take on new challenges personally and professionally !
Divya Sharma, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher at IIT Roorkee, researches the long-term recovery of communities affected by natural hazards in the Indian Himalayan region.
Divya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about quitting her dream job as Mechanical Engineer in the Aerospace sector to do her PhD in Climate Science, and subsequently managing her demanding role as field researcher along with being a full-time mother !
For students, normal career choices are like highways, you know your lane, you know your pace, you have the signs to guide you. But an unconventional career path has no sign boards, no lanes, and no concrete timelines. The pace might be slow, and you will have to adapt a lot to the uncertainties along the line. It’s a path of patience and perseverance.
Hi Divya ! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am a native of Dehradun, Uttarakhand, one of the 11 Indian Himalayan states. My father was a lawyer at ONGC and my mother is a homemaker. I have an elder sister. I did my schooling in Kendriya Vidyalaya ONGC in multiple cities as my father had a transferable job and we had to change schools often – sometimes, in the middle of a term. Due to the nature of my father’s job, I have traveled a lot in my childhood.
As far as I can remember, I always wanted to be an engineer as I loved mathematics. The brevity, certainty, and the logic it encompassed, always amused me. There are no grey areas in Mathematics. Specifically, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer, as I was fascinated with aircrafts, cars, and big engineering marvels like bridges, towers, etc. I still remember that I liked the chain mechanism in my bicycle and always used to fix it myself. I always fancied designing an airplane.
The road to engineering and graduation was not an easy one. In my 10th std, I could not score well due to reasons beyond my control. I was questioned about my caliber, which is natural, and if I was good enough to get into the science stream for 11th and 12th. But I could not imagine doing anything else. I took mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology in my 11th and 12th grades. To prove my caliber and to get into engineering college, I worked hard during both the years and got admission into engineering college on merit. My father was based in Gujarat during that time and Gujarat had a system of merit-based admission in engineering colleges. I was frowned upon by the naysayers about my choice, due to a conventional perception at the time, that being female in mechanical engineering might prove difficult for me. But my father, mother and sister stood by my decision, and I knew I could do it. I completed my degree with flying colours and even got placed in Tech Mahindra (Satyam Computer Services Limited), with a work profile closely related to my area.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I completed my graduation in Mechanical Engineering from Sardar Patel University, Gujarat, and received a Master’s degree in Climate Science and Policy from TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) School of Advanced Studies (TERISAS) in New Delhi. I then pursued and completed a PhD in Climate change vulnerability and adaptive decision making from the same institute.
What drove you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
My career path reflects my own evolution. This evolution process was filled with eureka moments and growing pains.
During my undergraduate studies, I was one of the 8 girls in the class of almost 80 students and always felt as if I was being constantly scrutinized. However, I found most of the subjects intriguing and fell in love with the courses related to Engineering Drawing because i found myself naturally adept at it. I worked hard those 4 years, as I knew I needed a good job as my father would retire by the end of my graduation.
After my graduation and 14 rejections, I was finally selected in Tech Mahindra (Satyam Computer Services Limited), through an off-campus placement where 150 out of 3500 students were selected. I was trained in Microsoft .NET technologies for 4 months after joining Tech Mahindra as a trainee. I liked coding as well, as it had a similar structure and logic as Mathematics.
After my training period, I was assigned to the strategic business unit serving GE Appliances. They were looking for engineers for their design team. We were taught Pro Engineering for 3D Modelling. I worked there for 2.5 years and eventually became a team lead and then joined Infosys. At Infosys, I got a chance to work with Airbus as a client at their facility in the United Kingdom and my dream to design an aircraft became a reality.
Though these were mainstream jobs, they were priming me for what was ahead in my life, in terms of skills, aptitude, adaptability and leadership.
Over a period of time, I came to an understanding that I am a sensitive and curious human being. Being sensitive means that you cannot look away from the unpleasant things around you and that they deeply affect you. The internal unpleasantness motivates you to fix them. Though sensitivity can be seen as a weakness, I consider it to be a strength. Sensitivity has the power to transform a person.
To be a mechanical engineer and working on the design of an aircraft was a professional choice, but the motivation soon died out. The question “What I want to do for the next 40 years of my life?” started haunting me. After 6 years of work experience, I felt that there was a lack of purpose in my professional life even though I excelled as a design and stress engineer, won accolades, got the promotion, bagged training and onsite opportunities, and was getting paid handsomely. My superior analytical abilities and problem-solving skills made me an above average performer at work, but I always longed to research more on topics that I came across. I was witnessing a budding researcher within me. I started reading a lot to address this need of gaining deeper knowledge and understanding.
In this process, interestingly, I developed an affinity towards economics while dabbling with the stock market. The ball got rolling from the point when I came across the book Origin of Wealth by Eric Beinhocker which led to the understanding of the complexity of economics. The tipping point came when all the century-old trees in the neighborhood area were being cut to widen the road. I felt devastated and started asking myself what this wealth is leading us into? I could see that we are robbing the planet of its resources and are still not happy with our lives. Books like Eco-economics by Lester Brown and documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore made me aware of the probable connections among multiple subjects (development, climate change, economics, environment) and pushed me further to the path of multidisciplinary field of environment and climate change.
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
With my expanding eagerness in this new area of environment, economics and the connections between the two, I started getting serious about pursuing my post-graduation in this area. After much research, I found that TERI University New Delhi was the only university in India that offered courses relating to the field of environment and sustainable development at that time. I felt compelled to join it and go there as a proverbial dry sponge to absorb as much as I can from fellow students, professors, and experts.
I had selected Climate Science and Policy as my post-graduation stream and it made me well versed with current international policies on climate change, environmental economics, various data analysis methods, geographical information system, and many other subjects. The plan of getting a master’s degree was to earn a PhD eventually.
After joining the Master’s program in climate science and policy, I wanted to learn as much as possible with an open attitude. Perhaps, this factor in addition to my curiosity, pushed me to spend more time working and playing in the new exciting field of study. Incidentally, I could get an opportunity to do a part of my Master’s thesis in Freie University, Berlin, Germany. Finally, the icing on the cake was the gold medal in my Master’s program, which further strengthened my already evolving resolve to pursue a PhD.
TERISAS had an MOU with Environmental Policy Research Centre (FFU), Freie Universität Berlin, for graduate exchange students, under the project: German-Indian Sustainability and Climate Change Dialogue. This exchange was funded through DAAD scholarship. I wrote a proposal for my master’s thesis and applied for the exchange and got selected for the exchange.
My research was focused on building an understanding of the subsidy frameworks of Solar Power sector in Germany and how these subsides have steered the evolution of markets and institutions. Solar Power sector in Indian was in a nascent stage then and had undertaken similar subsidy strategies. With two different perspectives of industrialized and developing nations in the study, I tried to analyze the relevant policy gaps. This was done with the help of expert interviews, secondary data analysis and literature review.
After my master’s, I delivered my first child and when he was 1.5-years old, I started preparing for my PhD. Getting into a PhD program is a long process of applications and rejections. I prepped for my GRE by staying up from 11 pm to 3 am as that was the only time my child used to sleep.
I got admitted into the PhD program at the University of Georgia, but could not join due to family issues. I did not give up. I was also admitted to MDI, Gurgaon for a fellowship program, but it was mandatory to complete 2 years of management courses before starting the research. With a 2.5-year-old toddler, it seemed a little too much to be able to manage. I was in a fix! I joined the fellowship, but it became difficult for me to commute every day and take my son from daycare while navigating the rigorous assessments and evaluation process at college.
Meanwhile, I had been applying to other places. Finally, I chose to pursue my PhD at TERISAS because the project was about complexity and systems modeling, which was indeed, my favorite lens to look at environmental issues. Also, the fieldwork was in Uttarakhand, where my parents live, and I could very well create a support system for my son with them. The PhD was fully funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada.
The Indian Himalayan region has been identified as a climate change hotspot. Additionally, Ganga basin, has been highlighted as one of the most affected river basins in Hindukush Himalaya due to climate change. Therefore, my PhD research work was focused on Upper Ganga basin, Uttarakhand.
In my research, I presented a layered approach for unpacking the factors that lead to specific adaptation decisions taken by agricultural community in the region. Also, diverse tools (agent-based modeling, cluster analysis, multinomial logistic regression, social network analysis) are utilized to analyze a specific adaptation choice, with a case study approach, in accordance with the nature of the choice, based on both primary and secondary data which was collected as part of the research.
How did you get your first break?
My first break was getting into the PhD program as mentioned above.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: It’s not a highway, and you don’t know the rules.
Normal career choices are like highways, you know your lane, you know your pace, you have the signs and you know that you will reach where you want to reach in what time.
But a career path like mine is a path less traveled, with no sign boards, no lanes, and no concrete timelines. The pace might be slow, and you will have to adapt a lot to the uncertainties along the line. It’s a path of patience and perseverance.
Challenge 2: People might not believe in your dreams, but why should they? It’s your dream. So, it is your responsibility to defend your dreams and make a path for yourself.
People might doubt you, and even discourage you, for taking a less travelled path, as you can reach your monetary and career goals early on the conventional highway. But, if you are truly convinced about your goals and directions, you have to believe in what you want to achieve and where you want to go.
If you are a mother, you have even greater challenges. But you can turn your challenge into an opportunity. I used to take my son on field visits too, just to make him more familiar with rural India. He still remembers how he plucked cucumbers from the farm and ate. To date, he relishes cucumber. Even now, I try to keep him close to nature so that he learns to connect, which can help him later in life, to be more compassionate while making choices.
Challenge 3: Motivation
Due to uncertainty and because people may not perceive what you can envision, it becomes difficult sometimes to persevere. There were days when I thought of quitting. During the first year of my PhD, my father died in a car accident and I had to take over lots of responsibilities, but my friends, PhD guide and research group acted as my support network and gave me the much needed reason to to keep moving. I showed up in every single meeting and for every field work, half prepared most of the time, but somehow persevered with courage and conviction.
When there is only a rough sketch of the path you want to walk on, you need support, courage, and hard work to keep moving. Sometimes, I had to motivate myself while on other occasions, my friends had to drag me to work to keep going. Often one must keep emotions aside and just engage one’s mind and show up.
Channel your emotions in creative pursuits and in learning something new. Pick hobbies and engage with them. I play guitar and do oil painting to keep my creative-self active and these hobbies keep me grounded.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I am currently working at IIT Roorkee as a Postdoc researcher and a project coordinator of the Indo-German collaborative project (https://ir.iitr.ac.in/COPREPARE/).
As part of the project, I am looking into the long-term recovery of communities affected by natural hazards in the Indian Himalayan region.
My typical day is spent reading research papers, collaborating with fellow researchers, planning for data collection, writing research papers, and working on new ideas.
I am also a part of voluntary water network IYWN (https://twitter.com/IYWN_) and co-host a podcast (https://anchor.fm/decision-lab)
Still, it’s a long way to go to establish myself as a good researcher, but I would say I am on track. I am also a person who believes that there is no end to growing intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, and the important thing is to be open and to stay committed to lifelong learning. Cultivating a growth mindset is the key!
How does your work benefit society?
11 years ago, when I made the shift in my career path, I knew climate change will create havoc in the future and will require more people working on a solution, which questions the business-as-usual scenario. I think, fundamentally, the motivation was to be on the side of the solution and contribute in my own way. I did not want to sit on the side and just feel frustrated with what’s going on. Now I do not feel that frustration. I do my work with sincerity and feel good every day that I am able to contribute in small but meaningful ways.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I am fond of complexity theory. I believe that my work on Uttarakhand migration where I have explained the process with the help of Agent-based modeling, has the potential to open up new directions for new methods of analysis. Such a contribution was certainly worth the effort.
Incidentally, given my engineering and coding background, my coding skills, which I had learnt long ago, came in handy in such a computational analysis. Thus, I think that no learning goes to waste.
One more research work on Participatory GIS, which I had envisioned and worked on, is also quite interesting, wherein, technology and community knowledge has been brought together. Such an integration is also new in the area of my work.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
There was a time in my life when I was in the UK working for Airbus and watching my dream landing on the runway. But as humans, we keep evolving and our aspirations and dreams might change. CATER TO THAT CHANGE AND FUEL YOUR EVOLUTION. THERE IS NOTHING SET IN STONE. Creative destruction is part of life. If you have the courage to face your fears, you can evolve and have an enriching life.
Take a break when you feel burned out, and re-calibrate your strategy. Keep evolving and keep moving forward. Find your pace and do not compare yourself with anyone. At the time of uncertainty, count on courage and not on fears.
Read books to open yourself to new perspectives and wisdom. I have always turned to books to find answers. This year I am planning to read 20 books.
Everyone and their circumstances are unique. Understand your uniqueness, then own it. The acceptance will open you to many new pathways and perseverance will take you wherever you want to reach.
To be on the side of the solution for the climate change issue
Concluding remark: There is a quote in The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho – “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”.