Human Behaviour is complex and sensitive to context and circumstances. Understanding behaviour and coming up with policy recommendations requires a background in Behavioural Economics (to interpret qualitative data) and Econometrics (glean information from statistical models). 

Gayathri G, our next pathbreaker, Behavioural Economist at Indian Action Political Committee, a political consultancy firm, strategizes and designs campaigns for parties across states through secondary research and data analysis.

Gayathri talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up behavioural economics as a specialization after being intrigued by how human behaviour does not follow the predictions of economic models.

For students, take up a career in behavioural economics which is a very interesting field that draws its roots from Psychology and Economics.

Gayathri,  Your background?

I grew up in a small town in the Western Tamil Nadu. I am a first generation graduate and my dad has been my mentor all along till date. I was more of a studious person throughout my 12 years of school life, hence I was not very active in sports or extracurricular activities. I was part of the School cycling and Volleyball team for a couple of years. 

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

After high school, I chose to pursue Bachelors of Commerce at MOP Vaishnav College for Women, specialising in Accounting and Finance. During my Bachelor’s, I figured out that my interest lies more in Economics as a core and its allied specializations. Eventually, I decided to pursue a Master of Arts in Econometrics at University of Madras. Econometrics is an interesting field where we use numbers to forecast and derive conclusions on various issues. As Econometricians, we use Statistical and Mathematical methods to develop new theories or understand the functioning of existing theories in Economics. Post my graduation, and after my short stint in various roles, I decided to pursue Masters of Science in Behavioural Economics from City University, London. This is a very interesting field that draws its roots from Psychology and Economics. As Behavioural Economists, we try to understand people’s behaviour, especially why and how human behaviour does not follow the predictions of economic models. 

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

After my 10th board exams, I decided to choose the arts stream (Commerce Group) as a result of which millions of questions were raised from everyone. I always wanted to pursue and explore something which is termed ‘not so mainstream’ or ‘not a common path’. After my 12th, I decided to pursue the usual B.Com route as taken by every Commerce student. I secured the highest rank in my board exams, and was eligible to receive a scholarship (all 3 years of UG). During my UG at MOP Vaishnav, I again decided to pursue Economics rather than taking the route to become an auditor. I gave entrance tests to multiple colleges across India for my Post Graduate course in Economics. I got through the University of Madras and continued to finish my Masters of Arts in Econometrics. 

Since childhood I have always questioned every decision made by me. Why did I choose this colour?, What made me choose this even though there are other colours I like?, Why am I not repeating the same decision (next time)? and other simple decisions. This has always been there in my mind. Only during my dissertation did I stumble upon a field called Behavioural Economics, which discusses theories and concepts behind human decisions, which also matched with questions I had earlier in life. 

Simultaneously, while doing my MA, I started learning more about behavioural sciences and behavioural economics and prepped myself to pursue the field. I started researching about the field and the Universities that provide the course. I shortlisted around 20 Colleges and Universities to apply to both in Europe, and USA. I chose City University because of the curriculum they provided and also because of the city, London itself. 

To sum it up, over the course of years, every field that I decided to explore led to different courses, classes, and jobs that shaped my interests and helped me to be in the place where I am. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted?

During my role as Research Assistant at the Economics Department of Madras University, I worked on a project which addressed the issue of Distress Migration (migration is increasingly becoming a forced choice because rural people usually migrate in search of better opportunities. Poverty, food insecurity, lack of employment opportunities, natural resource depletion and environmental degradation are some of the reasons people leave their region or country)  in Dharmapuri district. I assisted the team in primary data collection where we travelled to around 30 sample villages in Dharmapuri district of Tamil Nadu, documenting case studies and collecting data. We processed the collected primary data and ran regression models to understand the causal nature of the problem. My tenure as RA helped me get hands-on experience on practical application of theories I learnt in the classroom. At the end of the project, we also provided policy suggestions to tackle the problem statement. Simultaneously I joined as Field Investigator at Agro Economic Research Centre, where I extensively travelled in sample districts – Palakkad and Kannur, visiting fallow lands and agriculture offices documenting case studies. 

These projects gave me an overview of the (economics) research field, from conducting a literature review, designing questionnaires,  selecting sample villages, analyzing the data using statistical software and to recommend constructive policies to address the problem statement. 

To understand the research field and to see if they aligned with my interests, I undertook the RA and Field investigator roles. The experiences I gained came in handy as the deciding factors for my second master’s program. They helped in sketching the curriculum, course structures I was looking to study.  

How did you get your first break? 

Post my graduation, I was looking for a role where I can apply the theories and concepts from Behavioural Sciences. During this time, I came across a similar role in I-PAC. The organization was working towards the Tamil Nadu State Assembly Elections 2021. As we know Human Behaviour is complex and sensitive to context and circumstances, the decision to cast a vote, is influenced by many variables. And I personally felt joining I-PAC will help me understand the possible applications of BE (Behavioural Economics) concepts and also about the political field, of which I had no prior academic knowledge or working experience. 

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

Since I was a first generation graduate, the entire process, right from deciding the universities, taking necessary tests (IELTS, GRE), scholarship process, course applications, visa applications, was all new to me. It was an exhaustive learning process, but with more reading and talking to people, I was able to address the issues. I would suggest everyone (who have plans to pursue higher education abroad) to keep in mind that the process is very lengthy and exhaustive, but with proper planning (one year in advance) you will be able to achieve your dreams. 

Though I found the field I ultimately wanted to work in, it was a new field. Be it Econometrics or Behavioural Economics, they were all niche fields and hence, gaining more information about these fields was a challenging task every day. Both in India, and in other places, the field of behavioural sciences and its applications aren’t used in every industry and it’s a budding field. But reaching out to more people, updating your knowledge every day and networking helped me cross these hurdles. Networking is something that is very important in such times and I would recommend making it a habit to start networking at an early stage as it will help secure our desired career path. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role at I-PAC

I currently work at Indian Action Political Committee, a political consultancy firm in India. Our area of work is Electoral Politics. We strategize and design campaigns for parties across states. Every day is dynamic and challenging. A typical work day looks like anywhere from conducting secondary research on problem statements to discussing and deliberating on certain strategies and designing solutions. The interesting thing about my job is I get to experience all verticals within the organization.

How does your work benefit society? 

My current role requires analysis and interpretation of available data to aid in policy framing, analysis and designing campaigns. Behavioural Concepts are employed while framing and designing campaigns and propagation plans. Having a background in a quantitative and qualitative field helps me to interpret the data and information to arrive at conclusion for problem statements. 

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

Post my experience as RA for a year, I wanted to have academic and classroom knowledge about Behavioural Economics. Since I was keen on continuing my aspirations (Doctoral degree) in the same and there is no available full time course at that time in India, I went ahead to pursue my second master. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Keep your mind open. Listen first and then act upon. Always have a plan A and plan B. Design your life. 

Future Plan? 

I am planning to pursue a doctoral degree, in the field of decision making and human behaviour.