More often than not, our childhood career aspirations remain just aspirations, unless ofcourse we leave no stone unturned to transform them into reality !
Shruti Badole, our next pathbreaker, Data Analyst at BBC Studios (London), analyzes users behavior (such as what ads they click on) in order to generate insights that can be harnessed to further drive business growth.
Shruti talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being driven by a strong desire to become an Astrophysicist, doing her BTech in Engineering Physics at IIT Madras, a PhD in Astrophysics, and subsequently transitioning to a career in Data Science.
For students, there are no right or wrong decisions, a career is a skill and experience building journey that should prepare you for the long haul !
Shruti, can you tell us about your background?
In July 2022, I graduated with a PhD in Astrophysics from the University of Manchester. I started my university education in 2011, pursuing a Bachelor of Technology in Engineering Physics at IIT Madras, followed by a Masters in Astronomy at the University of Sussex.
I spent the first 12 years of my life in a town in the Gondia district of Maharashtra, following which I moved to Nagpur, the winter capital of the state and also the closest major city to Gondia. Back then, my dad used to be a Civil Engineer, which kind of influenced what I thought I wanted to be when I grew up (an engineer, not necessarily Civil). My mum used to be a housewife but is now also a published poetess and has also released a Marathi album, having penned the lyrics (dad also wrote the lyrics for some of the songs). I used to love school and was also interested in astronomy/space sciences; my ambition was to work at NASA when I grew up! I had decided that I would study to become an aerospace engineer. Like lakhs of students across the country, I started preparing for the IIT-JEE examination. It was only when I was in 11th standard (Year 11, in case any British kids are reading this article) that I realized that I was not actually interested in engineering and wanted to pursue physics. Thankfully, I cleared the JEE and discovered the existence of the course Engineering Physics, a course which was back then only offered in 4 IITs (I had also seen it mentioned on the NASA website; that’s when I made up my mind to study it in college). In the beginning, during my undergrad, I was torn between high energy physics/theoretical physics and astrophysics, but I eventually realized that my interest lay in astrophysics. Outside of work, I enjoy reading, writing, singing, and being out in nature.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
As mentioned in the answer to the previous question, I studied Engineering Physics at IIT Madras, followed by an MSc in Astronomy at the University of Sussex and then a PhD in Astrophysics at the University of Manchester.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I am not sure if this was a major turning point, since I was still pretty young, but when I was around 10, my dad bought a DK Encyclopedia for my brothers and I. I still remember its glossy pages full of interesting information and pictures. I was quite enamoured by the astronomy section. As a kid in school, I was always interested in science, math, and understanding the workings of our universe, so it was only a matter of time before I decided I would study a physics related subject in college. There was a short phase when I wanted to be an astronaut (which kid doesn’t?!), but I quickly accepted the fact that I am scared of going to space!
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career?
I already knew early on during my undergrad that I wanted to do a Masters degree in Astrophysics abroad. A lot of these programmes are quite competitive, so I knew I had to make my CV as astrophysics focused as possible. IIT Madras did not have an astrophysics department as such, so I knew that if I want to do an astrophysics project, it will have to be at another institute.
During my third year, I applied for the Summer Project Programme at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore. The application was successful, so I spent the summer of 2014 at the institute (the programme also consisted of a 10 days long Summer School at the Kodaikanal Solar Observatory). It was an enriching experience and I highly recommend astrophysics-aspirants to consider applying for it (and also internships in other institutes in India!). The idea behind internships is not only to improve the CV; it’s mainly about getting acquainted with the field before deciding whether you really want to devote the next 1 or 2 years of your life pursuing that subject, so I highly recommend applying for internships during your undergrad itself. I should also mention that my CGPA during college was far from stellar (pun intended), but that did not deter me! If you do not have the grades that you think are good enough for applying for higher studies, don’t be disheartened. Most (or at least a lot of) faculty members give more importance to your enthusiasm for research rather than marks. Doing projects and internships make your CV stand out, even if the grades are less than satisfactory. As I said earlier, IIT Madras, at least back then, did not have an astrophysics department, but thankfully I was allowed to do my final year project under the supervision of my advisor from IIA Bangalore. I should also mention that before getting accepted to the IIA Summer Programme, I emailed a lot of faculty members in astrophysics institutes in India (can’t remember whom exactly, but some of the more famous institutes in India in general are TIFR, IISERs, IUCAA, PRL, IISc), asking them about possible internship positions, but that did not work out. It works out for some students though, so definitely email people you are interested in working with (but do not send GENERIC emails please! Faculty members hate that, and your email will definitely be ignored if you do not demonstrate that you are a serious candidate and not a “spammer”). Projects also mean that you can get (hopefully good) references for future applications as academics are more enthusiastic about giving references for students they have supervised, rather than students they have only taught.
Throughout my Masters, I gained more specialist knowledge which helped me when I was applying for PhD programmes (particularly, the Masters also helped me narrow down the astrophysics areas I wanted to do my PhD in and also realize what locations I was willing to consider for PhD programmes). Thankfully, I got accepted for the PhD programme I wanted!
Even though my general interest in astronomy stayed the same, there have been several shifts in the exact career I wanted. For example, sometime during my undergrad (probably in my first year itself), I lost interest in working at NASA (more specifically, I realized that for a lot of jobs, NASA only accepts US citizens; this may or may not be true now, so please do your own research and don’t take my word for it!)! For the longest time, I was never actually sure what I EVENTUALLY (after finishing my education, I mean) wanted to do. I only knew that I wanted to study for as long as I could endure those gruelling degree programmes! During my Masters and the first half of my PhD, I envisioned myself “maybe” working as an astrophysics researcher, but I was never 100% sure because I knew deep down that I was mainly doing astrophysics for my own intellectual satisfaction. Deep down, I have always wanted to do something that would make a meaningful impact on real people on Earth! There was this phase of a few months during my 4th year of PhD when I really, really wanted to stay in academia for as long as I could. But by the end of my PhD, I had lost interest in pursuing astrophysics as a full-time career. I gained a lot of transferable skills during my PhD that are very useful in other fields too (for example: programming, writing, presenting, team work), so I started looking at data science and data analysis-related jobs in the industry.
How did you get your first break?
I am not sure what really counts as “first break” here, but in case you mean the first important step that proved useful later on, I would say that for my astrophysics career, it was the summer internship at IIA Bangalore.
I finished my PhD only this year and started my first job very recently, so I guess you can call this job my “first break” in the post-PhD world? I work as a Data Analyst at BBC Studios in London and I got the job by working really, really, really hard! I was actively job hunting for 7 months before I got this job. I must have looked at at least a 1000 job advertisements so far! I realized in the first couple of months of active job-hunting that the technical skills that are most sought after in the world of data science/analysis are Python (any programming is good, but Python is more widely used) and SQL. I did not know SQL as I did not have to use it during my PhD, so I did a course on SQL on the Datacamp website. I attended three virtual STEM fairs conducted on the website stemwomenevents.com. It was a really nice opportunity to talk directly to employers and understand what they do and what they are looking for. I maintained an up-to-date LinkedIn profile, looked for jobs regularly on LinkedIn, STEM Women and Gradcracker. I talked to a few people (friends/acquaintances of my friends), got referrals from some of them (the referrals didn’t actually help at all, but it works for some people so no harm in trying), got career advice and also my CV reviewed by multiple people who already had jobs in the industry. I have an Excel sheet which I used to keep track of what jobs I applied to. I have found that the job I have is the 101st job I ever applied to! Job hunting is hard!
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
There were many challenges along the way. I’ll try to list as many as I can remember.
a) As I said earlier, I did not have a great CGPA during my undergrad and it used to bother me a lot. I am incredibly grateful and feel lucky to have been accepted for the IIA programme, but I do wonder if I got the other rejections because my grades were not that amazing. I just did what I could and left the rest to the universe!
b) It did not help that there wasn’t an astrophysics department in my college. It would have been wonderful if there had been, since that would have given me more opportunities to pursue related projects. So I emailed a lot of faculty members at other institutes (but did not receive any positive response).
c) During my Masters, juggling the coursework with my MSc dissertation project was trickier than I had imagined. I am not entirely satisfied with the amount of work I did for my MSc project; I feel like I could have done more, but that’s part and parcel of student life.
d) PhD was full of a lot of challenges and this would end up being a very long post if I start talking about it. In a nutshell, while it feels good to get scientific results, there is a lot of uncertainty and anxiety involved in the process that leads up to the results. I was a little anxious about my post-PhD career too, for a while. The best way to handle such situations, in my opinion, is to focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t. There is no point in over thinking about things that are out of your control, so do the best you can. Try to take a break from work on a regular basis; it’s very important to unwind and focus on other things in life too.
e) As I mentioned earlier, job hunting was a huge challenge too. I have already answered how I dealt with it! Again, it’s very important to take breaks from job hunting too; otherwise you are going to burn out.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I work as a Data Analyst at BBC Studios, London. I joined very recently, so I have not (at the time of writing) actually started working on projects and am busy getting myself familiar with the various software tools that the team uses. I work in the AdSales & Storyworks area in the Global News division. While the public service side of the BBC is funded by UK taxpayers, the commercial divisions (such as BBC Studios) are funded by various sources, which include advertising. The BBC website in the UK does not sell ads, but the ones abroad do and those ads are a major source of revenue that leads to the development of the amazing BBC shows + World News that audiences across the globe enjoy!
What are the skills required for your role? How did you acquire them?
As a Data Analyst, I will be working on several things, including analyzing user behavior (such as what ads they click on), developing and maintaining dashboards on Tableau that generate insights that can be harnessed to further drive business growth, etc. The work involves a lot of programming using Python and SQL, so knowing those two skills was an important factor that helped me land this job. I have been using Python since my MSc days, so that wasn’t a problem. As I mentioned earlier, I learned SQL through a self-paced course on Datacamp. My teammates are incredible and have realistic expectations of me, so I was definitely not required to know everything (there are still a lot of things I have to learn!). Other than the technical skills, it is also important to demonstrate that you will be a good teammate to work with! Communication skills are also very very important.
What do you love about your job?
The thing I like the most about the job is my team! Having had a positive experience during my PhD (amazing friends and colleagues in the office and in the department in general), it was very important for me to work in a friendly environment where people are not only motivated, but also cheerful, non-judgmental and happy to help. Everyone I have spoken to in my office so far has been amazing and I am looking forward to continuing working in this team! Other than that, it is also heartening to think that the work I do directly impacts the audience. Be it news, comedy and drama, or educational programmes, everything that BBC Studios is responsible for is the result of each and every employee who is part of the Studios family!
How does your work benefit society?
We generate revenue for BBC Studios, which leads to the production and distribution of many, many BBC shows, World News and other services such as several BBC channels that run in more than 200 countries across the world.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
My work that is very close to my heart is my first PhD project. It was a study of a gravitationally lensed quasar using the telescopes VLA and ALMA. I worked on that project for around 2 years and was the first author of the paper that resulted from it (also my first research paper in general). We found a result that was consistent with previous theories and also uncovered new, interesting insights. It’s very special to me for three reasons: 1) it was my first PhD project and I learned a LOT! 2) my first research paper 3) the famous astrophysicist Paul Schechter said to my PhD supervisor that the paper is excellent! 4) It is a pretty amazing feeling when you realize that you have discovered insights about an object which is millions of light years away!
It wasn’t an easy journey, but so worth it!
Here are some links for interested students :
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I think I have given quite a bit of advice already, so I won’t bombard you with a lot more. In short, I would say that you should try out things during your college to figure out what you really want and make the best use of opportunities. Other people are very useful resources when it comes to careers, so talk to different people to get insights into the different kinds of career you could pursue. Work hard and do your best, but remember to also take time off work and spend time doing things you enjoy.
My main goal right now in life is to use my skills to make a difference in people’s lives. I don’t know what the future has in store for me, but whatever it is, I hope it will keep me happy and give me the satisfaction of having helped people in some way or the other!