Indian students are no strangers to competitive examinations with the mantra of ‘No Pain, No Gain’ ingrained in our DNA. With the announcement of the 2018 toppers of the Union Public Service Commission exam (UPSC), we have reason to do the happy dance. Making the institute proud are two of our alumni, Madhuri Gaddam, from the BTech batch of 2015, with an All India Rank of 144 and Garima Agrawal, from the batch of BTech and MS by Research (Dual Degree) batch of 2015, with a rank of 241. We caught up with the two successful candidates in the heady aftermath of their success.
To get a sense of the rigorous selection process of the UPSC exam for induction into the Indian Administrative Service, the Indian Foreign Service, and so on, here are some stats: More than 4,50,000 candidates appeared at the first stage, a written test called the Prelims. Only about 13,000 made it to the written (Mains) examination and 2,500 to the final interview stage. Out of which about a 1000 finally got selected.
24-year-old Madhuri modestly describes herself as a Hyderabadi, having done all her education in the city. With her father as a Senior Lecturer in a Govt. Polytechnic College and mother who is a homemaker, academics was always in the foreground in this household. With a AIEEE rank of 708, she stepped into IIIT-H for a 4-year BTech programme in CSE. 26-year-old Garima Agrawal, hailing from Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, who is the youngest and self-confessed, “most pampered one” in the family, says her industrialist father and homemaker mother were very supportive of their children’s educational aspirations. Though she admits that IIIT-H was not her first choice at the time, she has no regrets however and calls herself a “proud IIIT-ian”. She graduated with a BTech and MS (Dual Degree) in ECE.
Can you tell us about your time at the institute? Your academic achievements, a professor or mentor whose advice still rings true, a favourite memory of the place..
Madhuri: I have performed decently in academics and remember taking 3 Dean’s Academic awards. There are many professors I look upto in the Institute . As part of the Human Values course, I had a great opportunity to interact with Kamal sir and Radhika ma’am. These (interactions) were instrumental in shaping my thought processes from then on. Kannan Srinathan sir’s lectures and my discussions with PK Reddy sir during my B Tech project are also really fond memories. Nandkishore Acharya sir’s classes were directly useful in the Civil Services Examination I took later. On the other hand, the friendships that i fostered in IIITH shaped me as a person and still continue to do so.
Garima: For me, my paper being accepted at AAMAS2016 (International Conference on Autonomous Agents and MultiAgent Systems) Singapore stands out as one of my most memorable achievements. I was awarded the Certificate of excellence in organising events and building relations across batches’ in 2014. I was also on the Dean’s merit list for three consecutive years.
I’ll always remember Prof. Kaul who showed immense faith and confidence in me during my first and second semesters. It was a time when I was struggling with my CGPAs and he really motivated me to stay on track. My thesis mentor and advisor Prof. Kamalar Karlapalem not only supported me a great deal on my research work on campus, but also kept in touch with me after I graduated. In fact, before my UPSC interview stage, I contacted him for advice on many issues regarding IIIT-H. During my mock interviews, I was often questioned on why an autonomous university is doing far better than older, government tech institutes and so on.
My most favourite memory of IIIT-H has been the student life on campus. I was on the Student Placement Committee, part of the Student Parliament. I was also the Cultural representative of Prithvi House and Chief Editor of campus magazine ‘Ping’, to name a few.
What did you do after graduating from IIIT-H?
Madhuri: After IIIT-H, I began preparing for Civil Services. This is my second attempt. It took me three years to arrive at the final result.
Garima: I did an internship at the University of Bonn, Germany in Robotics. Then I went to Delhi and began preparing for the Civil Services.
Madhuri: There is an oft-repeated phrase in the IIIT-H family that “this institute prepares us for our last job and not our first”. Hearing this multiple times made me think about what I could see myself doing 30-40 years down the line. A result of this thought process, was my decision to take a stab at Civil Services. I thought that even if I couldn’t succeed, the knowledge acquired in the process would make me a better person and citizen.
Garima: After my graduation from IIITH, I had a lot of opportunities, both in industry as well as research in the field of Robotics. While most of these opportunities were abroad, I was kind of sure of staying in India and utilising my skill set in a broad way. I chose to study and appear for the Civil Services exam. I chose bureaucracy for the kind of platform it provides to contribute back to the society. It is a very diversified and challenging job experience! I’m often questioned as to whether my sister had a role to play in my choice. While it was definitely convenient to have in-house help at hand during preparation, I would trace my motivation to joining the Civil Services way back when I was in Grade 4 or 5. It was then that Alka Upadhyaya (now, Joint Secretary, Dept of Rural Development) from Madhya Pradesh made news as a UPSC topper. I thought it was awesome for a woman to have broken ranks in the field then.
How did you go about preparing for it? Do Engineering candidates have an upper edge?
Madhuri: Civil Services is a long process, consisting of three distinct stages. The first stage is prelims, which is a multiple choice paper with negative marking, Second stage Mains is a descriptive examination with 9 different papers. And finally the process culminates with a 30-min Personality Test which is an oral interview. The demands of each phase are different, understanding them thoroughly will go a long way towards success. Planning and execution are two other essentials. Engineers are both at advantage and disadvantage with respect to this examination. The
advantages include being familiar with competitive examinations and the stress associated with them. Also studying for long hours is something we would have done in the past. Therefore Prelims is considered an area of comfort for most engineers. But the disadvantage , is in terms of writing skills which are almost forgotten by the time we graduate. This creates issues at the Mains stage but can be overcome by regular practice. My initial failure (in the first attempt) was due to this issue, I couldn’t clear the mains last year. But rectifying that helped me secure a rank this time.
Garima: I moved to Delhi and enrolled for coaching for GS (General Studies) and Optional for a year and the next year I appeared for the exam. A well planned strategy and following a strict study timetable go a long way in helping you manage this crazy exam in one attempt.
An Engineering background does make CSAT (Civil Services Aptitude Test) easy, but there is no other direct application of Engineering content in this exam. That said, the scientific temperament and logical approach of engineers help in studying smart.
What, in your opinion was the winning answer that you gave during your interview? And to which question?
Madhuri: Few of the tough questions I had were among the initial few questions of my interview. I mentioned that I worked as a TA in IIITH. So they asked me the difference between assessing somebody for the job of a teacher versus the job of a civil servant. I took my time and explained the qualities that I’d look for clearly, emphasizing on the leadership aspects a Civil Servant must have. In my opinion, the qualities I mentioned there set the tone for the interview and that is why it was the most important question.
Garima: There were 4 to 5 such answers that can be considered as the winning strokes. One that I can recall is:
Q. Given a choice, who would you choose, a female leader or a male leader?
Me- whoever has better leadership skills and suitability for the position. However, if everything is the same, I would choose a female candidate because of threefold reasons:
i) Lack of representation of women at leadership position (less than 11% in 2014 Lok Sabha)
ii) For setting an example. One woman leader inspires thousand other young women.
iii) For a better discipline and ethics in the organisation.
There were also a couple of questions on IIIT-H, and private universities in general, I think I managed them well. The panel members in fact congratulated me for passing out from such a premier institute.
Are there other IIIT alumni that you know of who have cracked the UPSC exams in the previous years? Did you seek their advice?
Madhuri: In my last year at IIITH, Pankaj Kumawat sir held a talk that helped me gain significant clarity about the examination. Apart from that, I also talked to Himanshu Jain sir in this attempt. I feel it would be unfair not to mention the amazing support you get from co-aspirants who also belonged to IIITH. We talked on a regular basis and one of my seniors Garima Agrawal also made it to the list this year. Many more will do so in the next few years. I also urge any juniors who have an aspiration to come forward and begin their preparation, support from my side and other seniors is always available.
Garima: Yes, a couple of them. Himanshu Jain sir (IAS) was also a student of Kamal sir. I consulted him for advice on how to deal with questions relating to my area of research and Engineering in general. Pankaj Kumawat sir (IPS) conducted a talk on how to prepare for UPSC. He was at the Police Academy in Hyderabad at the time and turned up in his uniform. He was a great source of motivation.