Addressing challenges in the development sector requires a dynamic, collaborative and flexible approach to navigate conflicting ideas in order to achieve a common goal.

Anar Bhat, our next pathbreaker, PhD Candidate at IIM Ahmedabad, researches projects commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture related to agricultural trade, farmer’s income, climate adaptation to inform policy decisions.

Anar talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about combining her extensive consulting work experience with her research background to focus on solving real on-ground policy problems.

For students, research in the developmental sector provides evidence for better policy making by helping governments and businesses with decisions on what works and what doesn’t work based on data.

Anar, what were your early years like?

I was born in Kerala and grew up in Ahmedabad in a two-state family! My father is a Gujarati and my mother is a Malayalee.

Good part of our summer vacations were spent in Kerala where my grandmother lives. Back then it was a remote place in a small town with long and frequent power cuts. It got so dark at night during power outages that we could count fireflies. No TV meant we had to rely on books to kill our time, so we used to read all that was there to read then, the reader’s digest, Tinkle, all the Archies comics, Champaks, as well as the Filmfare and Women’s Era magazines when our mother wouldn’t notice. This got me hooked on recreational reading. And it also helped that the elders in the family back home in Ahmedabad, my parents, grandparents, and uncle were avid readers. Growing up, my sister and I had a room full of books. My uncle whom we lovingly call kakaji used to give us beautiful books from the British Council Library which I looked forward to reading! The more you read the more you want to read.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelor’s in Economics from St Xavier’s College of Arts and Science Ahmedabad and MA (Economics) from the MS University of Baroda

Can you talk a little about the kind of influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

At school, I wasn’t the kind of student who studied to chase the highest grades and therefore I did not get the highest grades! But if I loved a subject I’d read it even if it wasn’t in the syllabus and go deeper into it, purely out of curiosity. I got introduced to Economics in the tenth grade and was fascinated by how the subject tried to study complex societal arrangements through differently shaped graphs and curves. I scored the highest marks in my school in Economics in 12th board. I clearly had an inclination towards the subject and made it to the merit list of St Xavier’s College of Arts and Science, Ahmedabad. I chose psychology as my second major since the study of human behaviour always intrigued me. I did my MA (Economics) from the MS University of Baroda which deepened my interest in the subject, especially related to the Indian Economy, Macroeconomics, Economics of Growth and Development, and Econometrics. I especially enjoyed the lectures by Prof DK Oza who brought rife tensions alive in class through discussions highlighting the decisions that nation builders had to make to form a new nation, as well as to deal with the current economic challenges. Prof SM Joshi piqued my interest in macroeconomics. But I was to pursue a path less taken in Economics.

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

I started my career with the Centre for Microfinance at the Institute for Financial Management and Research (now IFMR Lead). They were conducting several interesting research projects surrounding savings and financial decisions of farmers. While I was trained in economics, I was not familiar with the microeconomics of rural households and their economic decision making. During my masters, my interest was gradually leaning towards macroeconomics (fiscal and monetary policy, international trade). At that time I was keen on pursuing a PhD, but was not sure about the topic that would interest me enough to spend five years on. Therefore I refrained from taking the plunge to apply for any PhD programme. At the same time this job description and the research project itself sounded too exciting to pass up. So I gave my best shot at the application and the interview process. I was soon selected as a Research Consultant and remember joining my first job in Ahmedabad three days after appearing for my MA final exam in Baroda. It is here that I got familiar with randomized control trials used for evaluating policy interventions. I had a tough time explaining to my friends and family what I did! In 2009, except for those in the sector, not many had heard about Professor Abhijit Banerjee and Professor Esther Duflo. Under their leadership, a number of policy evaluations using this method were underway across the world, including India. I worked on projects evaluating how weather indexed insurance and futures price information changed agricultural decisions like sowing and marketing of cash crops in Gujarat over the two main crop cycles for 8 years. My job included monitoring the survey process on the field, with my fluency in English and Gujarati, and training in Economics. I was to ensure that the field investigators and the respondents understood what was being asked. Additionally, I was responsible for data collection and cleaning. It is while working here that I learned STATA ( a general-purpose statistical software package) on the job. During the 14 months I spent here, the learning curve was very steep though the collection of panel data (in my role) limited me to doing the same thing every six months. My 22 year old self, seeking instant gratification, was not seeing the impact of my work in such a short time. I therefore started looking for alternatives in a similar domain. That is when I spotted an opportunity posted by a Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences that required Research Officers to provide support for drafting a 10 year vision document (it was 2010) for a particular district in Maharashtra, commissioned by the Collector’s Office. Noticing that they were looking for someone with agriculture and rural development domain knowledge, and a background in economics, I applied. Since I was not familiar with Mumbai then, I thought I could use this three month assignment to look for something longer term in Mumbai. Within a week, I got a call for an interview and I booked the next flight to Mumbai. I got selected and was asked to join immediately. Luckily, at that time my sister was already interning in Mumbai and I was able to sort my accommodation quickly. Looking back, after having worked in Mumbai for a few more years, I think it was a blessing. But the commute from Andheri to Chembur via Wadala in local trains was gruelling for someone who was used to the easy life of Ahmedabad. While living away from home I realised how to manage my own finances and my time. I did not want to spend a good part of the day commuting to work and back. I loved what I did and I still love what I do, but physical and mental health is most important, and I wanted to make time for my workouts, friends, and family during the day. I therefore decided that proximity to the office would be an important criteria in choosing my work.

My three months’ work at TISS in 2011 involved assessing the Agricultural & Rural Development sector at the sub-district level and assist in developing year wise development goals and objectives, programs and projects to achieve the district administration objectives for the decade.

In my search, I came across an interesting white paper on microfinance policy and I looked up the authors of the paper. I noticed that the authors worked for a company named Intellecap. I looked it up and found that they were doing consulting and research work in sectors like microfinance, agriculture, healthcare, and clean energy. By now, I had already built strong domain knowledge in the first two sectors. I saw on their website that they were looking for someone to manage content for an international microfinance information portal, conduct research for the same and draft a newsletter. That was the only opening in their research division, but I thought it would be good to apply if it opens up a conversation, and so I did. I received a call from HR for an interview with the team lead. I discussed my keenness in working on research projects, but she said that my primary responsibility will be to work on a portal since that was one of the few projects they had at the time. But they were open to getting me on any of the research projects that they got in the future. I thought that was a reasonable ask and I loved the vibe of the place, filled with driven individuals, and so I decided to join when they offered me the job. Apart from managing the portal, I was co-author of many subsequent research projects and publications on social enterprises in India, climate smart rural development, and clean energy. I was also promoted in my job. By 2014, I had gained five years of experience in the sector and my idea of doing a PhD was nagging me, though I was not yet willing to take the plunge. The research consulting work in this sector was fun and challenging. The work entails responding to the client’s research needs, leaving little to no scope for satisfying your personal intellectual curiosity. I was toying with the idea of taking a break and working on my PhD applications and so I put up my resignation. I discussed this with my previous boss and mentor who had also completed her PhD. She had joined this new consulting firm Okapi Advisory founded by two academicians and also said that they were keen on creating a place where researchers could also pursue their research interests. They had just received a four month assignment for drafting a report for a British donor agency to study the ecosystem for social enterprises in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The work involved traveling to all four countries, including Pakistan. It sounded like an adventure I’d be up for. So I joined them in mid January 2014.

I had also applied for the Legislative and Governance Fellowship Program funded by the U.S. State Department. If I got through I would spend the month of May 2014 in the US working with organizations in the government and affiliated organizations while living with a local host. I also thought that it would be an intense five months of travel where I would hardly have any time. And it was exactly that way. When I was in Sri Lanka, I received an interview call which I took on the way to an interview. When I was in Bangladesh I got offered the fellowship. I really couldn’t believe that it was happening. I celebrated with my boss then in Dhaka, with coffee! When we got back to Mumbai, I completed the first draft before leaving for the US and we decided that I will complete any pending work on the report upon my return. I joined Okapi upon completing my fellowship and spent two more years working on subsequent projects on local government driven development, and social entrepreneurship development in South Asia as well as a Food, Agriculture, and Nutrition Policy project focused on developing the district ecosystems to develop the same. The leadership at Okapi was always supportive of researchers’ skill development as well as encouraging us to pursue our interests. In fact, they had made available a month’s salary which we could use to pursue any course we wanted. They also supported my conference presentation at Colombo, Sri Lanka, and further nudged me to pursue PhD. By now I had substantial work experience in social business models, especially in the rural context and it was clear that I wanted to join a PhD programme that is interdisciplinary and focuses on relevant research. I had heard about the eminent scholar Professor Anil Gupta’s work on grassroots innovation at IIM Ahmedabad and was keen on pursuing impactful research. I applied for their Fellow Programme in Management (which is now a PhD degree programme) and got through in 2016.

How did you get your first break?

I was preparing for my final exams of my MA second year and at that time, the Economics Department at MSU Baroda did not have a placement cell. Therefore, I had to look outside and see what options are available after eliminating what I did not find interesting. I was not keen on NET-JRF route that most of my peers were contemplating at that time since I was not sure if teaching was my forte. I was also not keen on working in a bank or an insurance company. I wanted to work on a research project before pursuing my PhD. One of my professors advised me to apply to research institutes as they are always on the lookout for postgraduates in Economics. So I did. I also started telling my friends about my job search. One of my friends had a new roommate, a PhD student who was working as an intern on a CMF project in Ahmedabad. He shared that one of the research managers is looking for someone with an Economics background to help with execution of randomized control trial projects for policy evaluations. My friend put me in touch with the intern who helped me connect with the CMF team. Things worked out for me to get my first break in such a serendipitous way.

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

The key challenge when you work as a researcher in the development sector is the diversity of problems you are expected to be an expert in. Often the projects one works on are a factor of the funding available to your company or organisation and one may not have the requisite knowledge at the time of starting that project. One must be flexible with the way to approach a research problem. One project may involve regression modelling while another may demand conducting interviews and focused group discussions, or both! Such dynamic demands of a project calls for getting comfortable with collaborative work where you learn to bring your best in teamwork to achieve common goals. Working in teams involves navigating conflicting ideas, approaches, and even interests to achieve a common goal. But this is how one develops effective communication and leadership skills. In sum, new problems to solve with every project, dynamic approaches, and working in teams have challenged me to bring myself up to the task to deliver. The skills I developed as a researcher over time helped me tide over these situations, by becoming a fast learner on the job.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am currently pursuing my PhD in Management from IIM Ahmedabad and I’m in my dissertation writing phase. I am affiliated with the Centre for Management in Agriculture here. The last five years at the institute was a very steep learning curve for me. The first two years involved rigorous coursework that included courses on technical research methods (both quantitative and qualitative) and specialised subject courses on agricultural development policy, marketing, agribusiness. PhD students at this center get involved in a number of projects commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture to inform policy decisions, depending on their interests and inclination. This includes agricultural trade, doubling farmers income, irrigation solutions, marketing problems in agriculture, adaptation strategies for farmers, to name a few. For instance, I assisted one of the senior Professors in presenting to the Prime Minister of India on a panel that was to recommend how can farmers’ income be doubled through agricultural trade. During my PhD, I got the opportunity to work on several such projects with industry associations as well.

What are some of the skills needed in your research role?

The fundamental requirements for being a researcher are curiosity and an open mind. The thing I love the most about my job is I get to read a lot, write, meet interesting people, and travel. These are the four things that I have always loved to do, even as a child.

My PhD thesis focuses on the climate adaptation policies devised by the government for communities that are dependent on natural resources. I’m specifically studying their uptake behavior and how they coordinate amongst themselves to enable access to such policies. The fact that my research will have relevance to the actual realities that communities and policy makers face motivates me to bring my best to work everyday.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work provides evidence for better policy making and business decisions, and provides governments, businesses with on-the-ground evidence on what works and what doesn’t work based on data.

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

That is a tough one to answer but I would like to share an incident from back home in India. Right before my PhD I was working on a project that studied district level ecosystems to support innovation within the food, agriculture, and nutrition sectors. Lack of sanitation affects health and nutrition outcomes, so we were also looking at initiatives towards improving sanitation. The research work involved interviews of women of the households as well as different stakeholders in the government at the District Panchayat level. Within India’s mission to eradicate open defecation, toilets were being built on a large scale through the Panchayats. In our interviews in one of the study districts, we found that women were not willing to use the toilets since they were built near the entrance of the house where the elderly men of the household usually sat. They were hesitant to use the toilets when people were sitting outside. A design thinking expert will tell you that this is a classic case of the user not being involved in the design of the product or an intervention. In one of my meetings with the district collector, I shared this finding with him. He was one of the most dynamic collectors that I had met and open to feedback that would improve conditions in his district. He did take this up to the relevant department to ensure the placement of the toilets are thought through. I am not sure what finally would have happened, but it was a learning to see that some seemingly trivial research findings are practically significant.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Pursue what truly engages you and excites you, something that makes you lose track of time when you are at it. Ensure that you have a strong grip on the fundamental concepts of the area of your work. Seek support when needed and no question is unimportant so be sure to ask.

Future Plans?

My research and consulting work experience prior to PhD was focused on solving real on-ground policy problems. The research question is given to you and your work as a researcher starts from there. In academia, one is expected to make contribution to the existing, vast body of knowledge in any given field through PhD work. Here the question comes from the researcher. While policy and practice-oriented research is extremely relevant, academic research demands rigour that is equally important according to me. I am keen on pursuing research at an organization or academic institution which provides an environment to support researcher to achieve both of these objectives.