(16 Nov 2020) The Career Planning Note Book

Here are some tips and pointers from me for young students and their parents on career planning. Some of these thoughts are unconventional and just practical advise from own experience and from talking to many young people. I am not trying to be academically accurate or complete here.

My advise to parents — Help your children explore and collect data points for their own decision. Give them time. There is no hurry and this is not an “efficient” process. Do not compare with others (especially kids who seem to be sure what they wish to do)— this is a very personal journey.  And there is no right way!  It is very likely that you will influence the decision indirectly via your own life, choices, etc — nothing wrong in that as long as you do not want everything “your way”!

 Observations — Here are some observations to think about:

  • Your work will represent at least 50% of your waking adult life.  So should we not systematically think about how we would like to spend that time?
  • Have you noticed that in most things that you enjoy doing, you tend to loose yourself in it. No other thought comes to your mind at that time. No other worry, deadline, etc bothers you at that time. In fact, it is quite possible that it is the other way around — you enjoy those things which completely occupy your mind. You might notice this when you are completely absorbed in a movie or a song or a book or a video game or soccer game or for some people doing maths or puzzles.
  • Some children say they hate biology.  In most cases, I  find that what they hate is the need to remember many details and rote learning. It is rarely the subject matter of biology itself  — in fact, it can often be curious, amazing and relevant to understanding life around us. But the rote learning overshadows all that. The tragedy is that when people actually use biology in their careers, they actually may not need to use their rote learning of younger days.  So this is a problem of the method of teaching rather than the subject itself. Students should not confuse the two.
  • Some children say they love or  maths depending upon their comfort with the methods taught in maths. I find that very often a student with a strong start and good early teachers is able to keep pace with the new stuff being taught year on year and is not overwhelmed. Others just get lost and frustrated. Much of math has the character of puzzle solving where you learn some methods and then master them with practice.  There is  a chance that you are good in math but just did not have a strong start. So do not confuse your ability to do well in math in class year-on-year with an intrinsic ability to do math or interest in math.
  • A very important aspect of physics taught in schools is the ability to visualize a physical phenomenon and convert them into equations. Some kids have a good intuitive feel for physical phenomenon but just cannot get comfortable converting them into equations or the math associated with it.  This should not be assumed to be an inability to learn and use physics.
  • Some children develop abilities, talent and confidence in certain activities — like writing, poetry, art, dance, acting, sports etc.  These activities may capture their interest and imagination as well. When we see such prodigious talent, we are all in awe and encouraging. Many older people follow these talented individuals as fans(for ex, Sachin Tendulkar). But many of us fail to see that potential talent in early stages and understand the hard work it takes to nurture such talent.  Considering this a high risk venture and under-estimating potential, we often send young people on safer paths where the young people neither excel nor display interest.  Note that in most cases people whom we admire have taken risk at some point and not stayed with the safe path or the crowd!
  • Most children have not really been exposed to many careers or people in different careers. Most children will get exposure to careers of their family members and may be teachers.  If you come from a under-privileged family, you may not even get a significant exposure to careers from family members. It is strange that career planning is done without any “data points”.
  • You will notice that many of us have implicit biases about different professions and careers. These biases accumulate in subtle ways over time. For example, a person from an academic family may have a low opinion of the merchant professions. A person from a white collar profession may have a low opinion of blue collar professions. You will hear comments such as “why should an IIT engineer be wasting his life on selling books?” or “why should a physicist be wasting his talent on trading shares” or “why should a senior manager be doing farming in his village farm?”
  • In many cases, parents and family members can be very large influences in a child’s decision. Many children will have only the life of their parents as data points for their decisions. In some cases, parents may actively push children in a certain direction. Opportunities for greater exposure and collecting more data points are always welcome.  Nothing wrong in this as long as it does not create a lot of baggage (either conditioning or psychological pressures) for the children when they are taking their decisions.
  • In most cases, we rarely directly use the information or specific cases that was learnt in school and college. But we do use the generic methods (like how to do experiments, generate data systematically, how to evaluate data for quality, how to infer from data etc). So do not worry too much or waste your time about whether the information learnt is directly relevant for your future or not — it is probably not meant to be.

 Tips and  Pointers:

  • To give it more formality and force a disciplined exploration, start a note book titled “Career Planning Diary”. This is for:
    • Setting up a plan of To Dos
    • Noting down insights you learn along the way
    • Keep track of how your thoughts change over a period of time as you encounter new data / experiences
  • I think career planning has three main parts:
    • Internal explorations and self-discovery
    • Exploring the external world
    • Small experiments to gather insights
  • Internal explorations and self-discovery:
    • Try to start with a clean slate and minimise biases.
    • Understand how your mind works. This is a very personal  exploration. Note everybody’s mind works differently and priorities things differently because everybody is conditioned differently depending upon their life and experiences.   Acknowledge that this is also subject to change in the coming years as you experience more of life.  So, recognise your mind’s preferences but understand that it is okay to change your mind.
    • See Framework 1 below
  • Exploring the external world:
    • How can we understand a variety of professions?
      • Reading and seeing videos of them
      • Talking to people in different professions; interviews; listening to talks
      • Internships; Shadowing other; Observorship
      • Biographies and following role models
      • Browse websites of organizations or people you admire or are curious about
      • Observe your family members
    • See Framework 2 below
    • How things are changing in the world around you? Trends. New developments.  Does anything catch your fancy? How can you go about this?
      • Read newspaper
      • Follow trends via a few selected magazines, websites/ podcasts etc
  • Small experiments to gather insights about yourself, your preferences, various professions etc:
    • Organising roles in school or neighbourhood; Lemonade stands; community plays
    • Summer job/ experiences; Part-time jobs
    • Internships
    • Volunteering
    • Self-initiated projects; Shadow exercises
    • Mentoring/ teaching siblings/ friends
    • Building a tree house/ real-world solution
    • Trading cards; monopoly
    • Sports — experience in different roles


  1. What motivates you?
    • Livelihood
    • Access to resources; freedoms that it gives you; Buys you what you want/ need.
    • Keeps your mind engaged and interested.
    • Gives you satisfaction; You feel happy with the consequences of your work and the impact it has
    • Gives you purpose; You feel that people/organization/ Nation wants/ needs you; It gives you a sense of importance.
    • Gives you sense of worth or prestige or respect or power; Gives you a sense of identity/ recognition. Allows you to be part of a “club”/ community.
    • Gives you sense of continuous growth, progress, advancement.
  2. Core “nature” of work of different types (Note: Any given job may have multiple of the following “natures” encapsulated within it.)
    • Education — teaching, training the next generation
    • Research — new knowledge creation
    • Technology development — problem solving in new ways
    • Practice — applying knowledge  with existing tools to execute projects/ solve problems
    • Management — reaching end goals by “managing” resources, timing, complexity, decisions
    • Leadership — setting the vision, goals, agenda; raising/ attracting resources; motivating and mobilising action
    • Labour — carrying out routine tasks (can be physical or mental tasks)
    • Analysis — take stock of multiple pieces of information and experiences, and provide a basis for a decision or plan.
    • Trading — buy low and sell high
    • Business — buy, add value and sell
    • Entrepreneurship — foresee a future opportunity well in advance and mobilise resources and action towards tapping the opportunity
    • Services — support activities of others with valued services
    • Farming and related — grow and sell
    • Performances — performing any art form or sport, exhibiting results and seeking appreciation

(22 March 2020) Making “Work from Home” work (for startups)

Question from a startup — how do we make “Work for Home” effective? Here are my suggestions from our experiments —

Useful components: Plan the following —

  • WFH Coordinator/ Gate keeper  (ensuring the process is taken seriously and discipline is maintained)
  • Mechanism for employees to list daily WFH Plan (in consultation with Reporting Officers)
  • Mechanism for employees to send daily WFH Report


  • Senior managers need to take out time to think about what can be accomplished, organise them into sets of smaller self-contained tasks, identify who can do it amongst the staff and assign it.
  • This does require greater time commitment of Senior Managers. But this is unavoidable. If Senior Managers do not take the lead in planning workforce juniors, WFH may not work (unless the junior is self-motivated and has awareness of the bigger picture already).
  • If the Senior Managers are careless or lazy in reading the Plan and Reports or in giving suggestions or seeking clearer/better goals, then the process will quickly fall apart.

Ideas for what all can be done  under WFH:

  • Preparing presentations; carrying to related desk research
  • Writing reports
  • Planning and detailing proposals
  • Planning and  developing marketing collaterals (posters, flyers, data sheets etc)
  • Planning, creating and updating websites
  • Planning and executing social media campaigns
  • Plan and build databases; Client databases
  • Add useful capabilities/ qualifications via Online Learning Courses ( I will write a separate blog on this)
  • Software development
  • Patent (and other IP) related searches, analysis
  • Search scientific literature; Build technical literature compilation
  • Write publications and articles
  • Prepare SOPs, regulatory documents
  • Update well-wishers of your company vis email, phone, blog posts etc
  • Prepare pitch decks, financial simulations, plan a fund raising campaign
  • Contact potential investors; research and build a database of potential investors
  • Codify and standardise your company processes; explore software resources to increase efficiency
  • Planning internal training on Zoom (or equivalent) where all employees sign in and participate
  • Compile, organise and structure data; Data analytics
  • Put together concept ideas for problem definitions collected; Invent (at least the concept)
  • Modelling, simulation, design, visualisation
  • Lot of routine office work can be done online if you have an ERP or equivalent or have some operations systematized on Google Sheets etc.
  • Follow-up on pending payments, paperwork etc
  • Develop lecture materials, new teaching resources, upgrade/ update teaching slides.

(16 Dec 2019) Benjamin Franklin method of taking decisions

I first came across Benjamin Franklin’s method of taking decisions while reading one of the books that described the many practical pieces of advise he gave. I have always found this piece of advise useful in my life (all though I use it partially). Recently, I shared this with my son when he was to take an important decision. I am sharing it here for the benefit of others.

The method has three parts:

  1. First frame the issue that needs a decision and write it down
  2. Franklin observed that when we feel confused and unable to take a decision, it is due to our mind recognising different reasons for taking the decision on way or the other at different times independent of each others. At any given time, we are not able to keep all the pros and cons together in our mind. His solution: Write down all pros and cons.
  3. Once you have a list, how do you decide?  He suggests matching one or more pros with one or more cons based on comparable degree of importance and ruling those out from further consideration until you are left with only a few pros and cons to decide between.

I personally like Point 1 and 2 above and use it often.  However, Point 3 requires a certain degree of algebraic efficiency that I find difficult to do. But  the good news is that just doing 1 and 2 helps you take a decision with more confidence and assures you that you have taken a decision after careful consideration.

For those who are interested in reading more:

(25 Aug 2019) Science, engineering and technology

Recently, we had a very enthusiastic and excited bunch of undergraduate students from Mumbai visiting us at Venture Center, Pune. They were pursuing degrees in Biotechnology. In their introductions, some said they were doing a Bachelor of Science in Biotechnology while others said that they were pursing a Bachelor of Engineering in Biotechnology.  I decided to pick on that theme to discuss with them and explore what they understood by those terminologies — Science, Engineering and Technology!  Was there any difference between the degrees that they were pursuing or was it just a matter of words? (I do realise that several universities in India carelessly name degree programs based on what say AICTE will allow etc rather than truly structure the program to fit the name or -vice versa- chose the name that fits the program design.)  I feel that students should be aware of what their degrees mean. So here is my attempt at clarifying the nomenclature —

 A disclaimer — degrees and tags mean nothing eventually; they merely indicate a certain type of training and orientation. Everybody can change their training and orientation at any time in their careers or have multiple orientations.


People trained in “Science” are trained in the “Scientific Method” — a certain systematic way of constructing a view (theory) of the world based on experiments and known facts. ( I will not get into the Scientific Method here.) Scientists are explorers and discoverers of new knowledge. They do not necessarily want to design or control the world around them. They will explore the world with curiosity, try and build understanding of the phenomenon and wish to share that new knowledge with everybody. Scientists are explorers who discover new knowledge!


People trained in engineering are trained to develop mastery (in the sense of being able to design, control, optimise etc) over complex systems (like machines, factories, computers, electronic equipment, bridges, dams, aeroplanes, now even cells and tissues etc). Engineers are taught to develop quantitative understanding of systems, equipped with tools to model and analyse such systems, and therefore be able to design, predict and control the behaviour of such systems. Engineers are “masters” of complex systems and their behaviour!


You will note the difference immediately if you think of say flying on an aeroplane. You do so with confidence because you think that there are people who have designed it with care, have thought through various possibilities and planned for it, have put in place measurements and control systems etc. That is to say, you know engineers have been at work ensuring the system works with reliability.  Imagine yourself agreeing to fly on an aeroplane made by a scientist (who is keen to experiment and learn new things all the time) — very unlikely !!   Actually, engineers need to make their systems very very predictable and thus boring — and this turns off scientists!  (I find this amusing!)

Similarly, engineers can find the elegant simplicity that physicists strive for or the chaos in which biologists operate very unsettling!  Scientists are at ease exploring the world around — with all its “chaos” — and teasing out facts and insights.


Technology is an entirely different thing. Technology is all about problem solving. This is a different orientation and may often need a different training. Somebody, somewhere at some point has a problem or a need that needs to be solved. A scientist or engineer may have explored the problem (such as a disease for ex) and discover new ways to tackle it.  Somebody, somewhere and at some point has tools to address the problem. A technologist wants to solve the problem, is resourceful in finding the tools he/ she needs, sees the connect and acts to demonstrate a solution.

Scientists discover the world around you, Engineers design and control the world around you and Technologists build the world around you.

You will note that there can be scientists who are excellent technologists or engineers who also excel as scientists and so on. Boundaries exist only to the extent you allow them to exist.

So coming back to the young Biotechnology students from Mumbai —- if their degrees reflect what they learn, one could probably say that:

  • All of them were studying Biotechnology. So they are focussing on learning to solve problems using living systems (bio) or in living systems (bio). For example, producing a biopharmaceutical molecule using cell lines and bioreactors.
  • The folks studying towards a science degree are probably learning how to discover new insights and knowledge about living systems that can be useful for biotechnology. For example, discovering pathways in cell lines that influence the yield of a certain biopharmaceutical product.
  • The folks studying towards a engineering degree are hopefully learning how to design, predict and control living systems that can be useful for biotechnology. For example, being able to quantitatively design a bioreactor, predict how the reactor will perform under different conditions and situations, predict yield and control the system if it does not perform as required.

Some personal opinions and hypothesis:

  • You will note that the ability to design, predict and control gives a certain advantage to “engineers” in incremental innovation.
  • The fact that “scientists” are first to reach new knowledge, gives scientists an edge or a lead in path changing or radical innovation.
  • The fact that most large organisations today are complex systems, I believe that an engineering training is a better preparation for managing larger organizations. One often needs to put predictable and reliable processes and systems in place in large organisations and not keep experimenting with ad hoc ideas — something that engineers (in orientation)  probably understand better than scientists (in orientation).


(25 Dec 2018) So you want to be rich?

October-November-December: This is the season when many students are forced into some soul searching and career planning as they take important decisions about their future. Very often these are triggered by thoughts on which program they should apply for and if certain choices will close certain doors. Often, it is a “Statement of Purpose” or similar essay that forces them to think.

I have been talking to young people who approach me asking me for inputs and advise. In this blog, I am picking up one theme that comes up quite often —- do certain career choices align with a person’s financial aspirations?  Here are some observations and simplistic points.

The framework to think

You will notice the following:

  • Level 1: The richest people in the world are owners of scalable businesses or owners of property (financial, land, building etc or intellectual). Example: Ambanis, Tatas, Birlas, Trump, Saudi kings, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, JK Rowling, etc. Occasionally, a prolific inventor like may be Lemelson. Can include rich land owning farmers.
  • Level 2: The next rung are business people with relatively smaller business (but fairly big businesses), folks who leverage their skills/ talent (including entertainers like actors, sports people, successful artists etc) beyond looking at regular employment
  • Level 3:  Highest level managers, professionals in various companies. CXOs. Presidents. Vice Presidents etc.
  • Level 4: Middle level employees in high paying sectors/ MNCs. Ex: In india, mid management IT jobs or bank jobs, finance / consulting jobs etc. May be successful small business people including doctors, consultants etc
  • Level 5:  Government employees, civil servants, defence employees, teachers, professors, scientists (unless they own any property) etc (many public service roles)
  • Level 6: Skilled labour/ workforce; small marginal farmers; Lower level IT work
  • Level 7: General labour; Farm labour


Each Level is associated with certain preparation, certain risk taking, having access to certain resources (including funds, networks, knowhow etc). For example, it is easy to prepare to be in Level 1 for second generation entrepreneurs whose parents have already put them in Level 1 orbit. A classic example is Mukesh Ambani who was put in Level 1 by his father (Dhirubhai Ambani) who moved from Level 7 to Level 1 in one generation.  Dhirubhai Ambani had ambition and took immense risks. Mukesh Ambani has the benefit of resources at his command, knowhow, networks etc.

Many of us in the Indian middle class, belong to Level 5 and often try to push their kids to Level 4 and Level 3 via (for example) the rat races called IIT-JEE, NEET etc. Occasionally, one first generation entrepreneur makes the jump to Level 1 and 2; and we celebrate those cases. (ex: Narayana Murthy of Infosys, Sachin Bansal of Flipkart etc).

Some of us are content being at the Level we are at and others are not. JK Rowling was at Level 5 or below as a teacher. But she believed she had a talent which will take her to the top league. Fortunately for her, she created intellectual property that was valuable and  she has been propelled into Level 1.

You will also notice that:

  • When the government or large companies or even some foreign governments promote skill development activities, they are just trying to populate Level 6. This may be okay for people in Level 7 (unskilled labour)  but what if they are aspiring to be in Level 5, 4 and above. Of course, there will be unhappiness. Classic example is of a lower middle class urban family or a middle class rural family wanting their children to get “high paying IT jobs”.
  • You will also notice how many middle class families in India want their kids to become IITians so that they can graduate into Level 3 and 4 jobs. Many kids are quite unhappy in those roles (which can be mundane line functions) but they do meet the aspirations of their family.
  • And then you have those who were left with no option (that is did it not because they were very keen on public service careers but because they had no other option!) but  become government employees/ professors etc, and then feel envious  about the guys who chose to go to Level 1, 2, 3,4.


Now, if you wish to be in the top bracket (Level 1), you cannot be preparing for roles more suited for Level 5. And if you have chosen to do Level 5, you have to find satisfaction in the role and its contribution to society and not constantly compare yourself with Level 1 folks.

For students, here are the implications:

  • In school and college, choose the right path for yourself. If you are increasingly focusing singularly on academic excellence and seeing your teachers/ professors as you role model, you may head to Level 5.
  • If you wish to reach Level 1, you will need to learn things to take you there and select those activities which help you build resources, networks, knowhow etc to take you to Level 1. For example, for many first generation entrepreneurs, the ticket to Level 1 is creating, owning and exploiting valuable intellectual property. (Note — I am saying “owning”! ) . Then clearly you need to know how to create and exploit intellectual property.
  • Many young people with entrepreneurial aspirations, need to often steer clear from Level 3/4/5 careers and actively move towards Level 1/2.
  • Do not confuse entrepreneurial training (for Level 1/2) with skill development (Level 6).
  • If you find great satisfaction in public service, research, teaching and the general glory/ respect/ fame it brings or can bring, be comfortable with the idea of being at Level 5. And also convince your family that is where you wish to be.

(11 Aug 2018) Convocation address, Dept of Chem Engg, IIT-Bombay

Convocation address at the Department of Chemical Engineering,  IIT Bombay, by Dr V Premnath on 11 August 2018.

Good afternoon everybody. Good afternoon to the IIT-B Chemical Engineering family!

Class of 2018: Congratulations to you and your families!

To those who have done very well in class: Congratulations. You have excelled and definitely demonstrated consistent and focused hard work. May you keep shining in your endeavors and may you make wise choices.

To those who have NOT done so well in class: Nothing to worry. Nothing is lost. Some flowers blossom a little later in the season. I can tell you that some very successful classmates from my batch ended the IIT-B journey as 5/6/7 pointers.

To all: The conclusion of your IIT degree just marks the beginning of a much longer journey. Do not stop to relax now. Do not feel satiated and satisfied. Make wise choices for your future and pursue your dreams.

The expectations (from various quarters) from you will be high. There will be pressure to conform to the “ideal” of what an IITian is expected to do. People may want to gauge you on a scale of Return on Investment.  People may want to compare your salaries, your car, your home, your MNC tag and your trophies!  My advise to you would be to ignore all that!  Focus on that one thing which you will be happy pursuing day and night without feeling tired! That one thing that will make you happy, give you satisfaction and where you can be truly excellent.

All of you are IITians! I have always wondered, what, if anything, distinguishes us as IIT-Bombay alumni.  We are all probably fairly bright. We are capable of incredible hard work when needed.  But most importantly, we are all usually brimming with a quiet confidence nurtured by the stunning successes of the many people who have walked these corridors over years. That confidence makes us cocky! And that is a good thing. That confidence makes us believe that we can do the impossible. That confidence inspires us to pursue dreams. That confidence makes us set the bar high for ourselves. I want each of you to not let go that confidence!  Find your mission in life and pursue it irrespective of the hardships you face.

I graduated from this very department almost 25 years ago. That is a long time to gather some lessons.  I want to share some selected lessons with you today.

  1. This graduation marks a beginning and not an end. Give yourself a mission for your life, chart your course, have a plan and you will be surprised how much success and joy you will see over time.
  2. Till now, your life has been fairly structured. The education system set down the rails and you ran on the rails. You will be shortly seeing the rails disappear. You will have to shape your own course and more importantly make important choices. Choose strategically and not merely opportunistically.
  3. Do not follow the crowd and do not always sway to the winds. Each of you is unique, then how can your path not be unique?  Seek that which you are so passionate about that you will not stop for rest or sleep while pursuing it continuously.
  4. Pursue excellence and not jobs. If you are the best in the world in something, the whole world will chase you to give you jobs.  Excellence is not just about scale, numbers, scores, ratings, indices etc. Remember that you only have to do one piece of world beating work to win a Nobel prize.
  5. Always be a learner! Know your limitations. Understand that in many fields India is still quite far behind in the level of expertise. Go abroad to learn from the very best you can find. Do not get satiated with your IIT degree!
  6. It is important to contribute to this country that has made you what you are.  Abraham Lincoln once asked “what good is it to have lived and not left your country any better”.
  7. India has made enormous progress in the last 70+ years. We can hold our head high in the comity of Nations.  Despite all its problems, it is clear that India will be the poster child of growth in the coming decades. There will be immense and unique opportunity for many of you to solve real world problems and thus create value for society. I hope many of you will see the promising Land of the Golden Sparrow and an Emerging Phoenix in front of you and NOT a Sinking Ship.  I also hope many of you will contribute to India’s rise and success while also ensuring your own success.
  8. It is okay to aspire to be rich! Wealth allows you freedom to pursue your ideas and dreams.  But be careful that you do not get trapped into becoming a slave of money.
  9. It is okay to aspire to be powerful but remember to exercise power to serve a larger, inclusive and generous purpose.
  10. My last piece of advice — Be proud to have been trained as chemical engineers!  Chemical engineers are taught to be masters of matter and transformations. As chemical engineers, we are the most versatile of engineers. As chemical engineers, we can contribute to the largest number of industries and the most pressing problems of the world be it health, energy, environment, food, nutrition, water etc etc. It is only Chemical Engineers who have the privilege to dabble in and apply all natural sciences – chemistry, physics, biology and mathematics. As chemical engineers, we can, in principle, wield enormous power — see how the Shale Gas revolution in the US has entirely changed the world politics by making US the largest gasoline producer in the world. As chemical engineers, we can understand many more industries and most importantly are ideally positioned for spotting future opportunities. That means that we hold enormous potential to build new industries and create wealth for society.  Chemical engineers and technologists have pioneered various industries — pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, medical devices, conventional energy, alternative energy, nuclear power, energy storage, environment, waste management, materials, water, FMCG, food, dairy etc. It should not be surprising that chemical engineers today hold the position of Principal Scientific Advisor to the PM, Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology, Chairman and MD of the largest company in India and the Director of the number one IIT of the country. Chemical engineers have made important National contributions and have been recognized by Padma Vibhushans – including Homi Sethna, MM Sharma, Raghunath Mashelkar. But beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.  If you insist on regretting not making it to a higher JEE rank, nobody can help you. Irrespective of whether you remain in the chemical engineering profession or not, this training and community will be an asset for you. Embrace it. Be proud. And make the most of it.

I want to thank Prof Gudi for giving me this honor and opportunity to speak to you today. He has asked me to speak on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, which I will do now. It is my view that technology innovation and entrepreneurship is going to shape India’s rise is the coming years — a rise, which I am convinced, will be the hallmark of the next 100 years! All of you will have an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ride this wave. It is time to be prepared and ready.

What is technology? Technology is merely the act of providing a solution to a problem. A technology with key novel ideas and elements is an invention. And when such a technology is taken through progressive stages of de-risking and translation to finally a product or service in use, you have an innovation.

So, when Bob Langer (a chemical engineer who is referred to as the Edison of Medicine and is probably one of the most heavily decorated chemical engineers of all times, pioneered the field of controlled drug delivery and tissue engineering and founder of companies worth billions) noticed a pressing health care need, he looked for solutions and then came up with new inventions that are today in use — and hence are considered a technology innovation that changed the world.  Notice that you have to be passionate and deeply concerned about problems in order to start work on them or to recognize a solution for them when you come across them. Notice that you cannot always be only focused on “solving” (which is what we are trained to do in school, for JEE, IITs etc or any other exam focused activity), but have to explore, seek out and work on new problems that matter – something very different from what you have done so far as students.  Notice also that people who come up with the best inventions often have new and unique insights into the problem (ex: new pathways causing disease) and/or are developing new materials, methods and techniques to fill up the solvers’ toolkit; so you have to be in touch with the “new” and be open –minded.  Notice also that inventions do not happen unless a problem and solution meet each other — and that connect (so to say, connecting the dots as Steve Jobs said!) is the art of an inventor and technology developers.  But stopping there is not enough — you have to take it all the way! Remember that the inventions you remember today are the ones that went all the way and were put into use. You remember Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell today because of their inventions that found extensive use.  An innovator cannot afford to say that his/her job stopped with inventing — well, the job isn’t over till the problem is solved. And it is my firm belief that as Chemical Engineers you have an unparalleled opportunity to excel in the innovation process. I am of the opinion that Chemical Engineers are ideally suited to “connecting the dots” (you need versatility for that) and are perfect for the translation process and journey to market!  You are all trained in chemical engineering but remember that your degree is in Technology!

Let me turn your attention to entrepreneurship now! Entrepreneurship is all about creating a sustainable and scalable “engine” that will create value for end users, who acknowledge the value that they are receiving and hence pay for it, thereby creating a virtuous circle for sustenance and growth.  What distinguishes entrepreneurship and makes it interesting is the following: Very often you have an entrepreneurial team that is seized of an opportunity which is futuristic — one that the team is convinced about but most of the world probably laughs at or thinks it is too small to merit attention and resources. If the opportunity pans out, the team will have an incredible story of growth and scaling. The team is ambitious and looking at an opportunity that needs resources far beyond what is at their immediate disposal — and so the teams needs to communicate their vision and arrange resources.  The team also needs to have a built in innovation capacity to develop the ideas continuously and respond to the emerging challenges and opportunities in a creative and timely manner. I want you to notice a few things here:

  • The entrepreneur needs to be able to spot an opportunity well before others and be convinced enough to pursue it. For scientists and engineers, that ability to spot an opportunity early comes from their ability to understand where science and technology is headed. You as technologists and engineers have a natural advantage in “technology foresight”.  Nurture your technology roots.
  • For all entrepreneurs, the initial journey is very lonely. You are often the only believer! Have courage. Draw upon that “confidence” and “cockiness” that I mentioned IITians seem to have.  Remember that if others (especially those with a lot of money or established businesses) were all chasing the same opportunity, you would not have the opportunity to pursue it yourself in that crowd — so it is a God sent opportunity for you. Find fellow believers and supportive home bases  (incidentally, I run one of them in Pune called Venture Center)!
  • In fact, interestingly, most entrepreneurs start on their journeys pursuing a passion or to give purpose to their life fully realizing that while money is essential to the story, it is only a by-product of a happy ending. If money was the central focus, most people would either not get started at all with the daring ideas (that look small initially) and/or give up at the first disappointment in their journey.
  • What an incredible opportunity that entrepreneurship presents to you? Your ideas. Your vision. Your convictions. You are rallying the world to support your cause and direct resources to that. Your sweat and sacrifices directed at what you are passionate about – something meaningful and useful. And finally you would learn and may be succeed. What an exciting journey!
  • You will notice that innovation and entrepreneurship seem to be close cousins. That is true. They are. Both aim at solving problems.  In fact, entrepreneurship is the vehicle that mobilizes resources to deliver innovations.
  • The journey of entrepreneurship draws upon so much more than just your formal education. You will need to be resourceful. And this where you will find all your experiences in life and at IIT very valuable — your friends, you alumni network, your professors, what you learnt or who you met at PAF, E-Summit, Mood Indigo, Inter IIT or Night Outs.
  • One particular type of entrepreneurship that I am very passionate about is social entrepreneurship! We are indeed lucky to have exemplary case studies in social entrepreneurship in India.  To me the benchmark for social entrepreneurship is Amul and Dr Kurien. It is impressive to see the scale and scope of impact Amul has had while also being very profitable. Social entrepreneurship is entrepreneurship (sustainable and scalable) directed towards socially important needs. These ventures have multiple bottom lines – not merely profits but social and environmental impact. These ventures pursue topics that appeal to your humanity and therefore attract a lot of good will (which the entrepreneur needs to leverage to raise support and resources).  Many (but not all) social enterprises are based on frugal innovation and are inclusive in nature (not exclusive). As Dr Mashelkar says it strives for “More for less for many”!

There is so much more I would like to say to you all. But today is not the time and place. In conclusion, I commend to you a life pursuing innovation and entrepreneurship, while drawing upon the spirit and legacy of chemical engineering!

Thanks to Prof Gudi for inviting me. Thanks to all of you for your patient listening.

Congratulations to all of you.

I wish you good luck and all success.

(20 April 2018) Dr Padmanabhan’s new memoir

Recently (20 March 2018), Dr G Padmanabhan (Formed Director of IISc Bangalore and a leading biologist from India) celebrated his 80th birthday. He was felicitated by BIRAC/DBT at BIRAC’s 6th Foundation day. (http://www.dbtindia.nic.in/press_release_birac-celebrates-its-6th-foundation-day/ )

More about: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Govindarajan_Padmanaban

On the occasion of his birthday, he also released a memoir titled “Doing Science in India: My Second Innings”.

This is a short book and written in an informal and anecdotal style. What stands out is the sincerity, honesty and forthrightness of the stories and messages. Such a book can only be written by somebody with great humility.

I found Chapter 2 very touching. The chapter is about Dr GP’s efforts to leave a legacy and how he struggled to give it some stability and his distress at seeing it crumble. This is something many of us can relate to —especially those of us who have made our own sacrifices to work towards building something of lasting value and wider impact.  The fact that in India we often neglect to build on previous initiatives is also worrisome.  Anything that has been accomplished in this world is clearly something built over many years/ generations with cumulative efforts. Are we not wasting efforts and disappointing our pioneers by abandoning their hard fought gains and achievements.

This set back aside, Dr GP has of course done enormous work and achieved many things.  He will definitely leave a legacy behind to be proud of.

The book makes you think — and think deeply!


(10 June 2017) Mission Admission — A reality check!

Mission Admission:  A reality check!

By, Dr. V. Premnath

It is (once again) that time of the year when students (10th, 12th) and parents are all breathing heavy carrying the weight of hopes, aspirations, worries, hyper-competition, lack of information, too few choices or too many choices, decisions and (of course) long queues! It is time to take one step back, do a reality check, put things in perspective and then jump back into the ways of the “real” world!

Taking a step back:  The general belief is that the choices we make or feel compelled to make in 10th or 12th are going to be the most important turning points of one’s life. It is true that these are important milestones but are they the all-determining decisions? How many global leaders in their own chosen professions (except perhaps in academia), are known or remembered for their excellence in winning the education “rat race”? Narendra Modi, Sachin Tendulkar, Shah Rukh Khan, Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Saina Nehwal, Deepak Parekh, Verghese Kurien, APJ Kalam, Devi Shetty, and so on? For many, these moments will be deeply disappointing and appear as if doors are closing for them forever. While keenly watching doors close, are you forgetting to notice the doors that are opening on the other side? Is moving with the “crowd” blind sighting you to your (or your children’s) unique strengths, gifts and the immense potential to contribute to this world.  If for example, you want to contribute to global health, is being a medical doctor the only way to do so? How about being a scientist studying causes of diseases, or an inventor developing new drugs and devices, or an entrepreneur building a company that makes and sells drugs and biological, or an government official administering an national program in health, or public health professional overseeing major health initiatives, or a social worker in a non-profit working on rural health activities etc etc.

Reality check: Here are some observations and questions to get you thinking. Why are we educating our children? Is it to train them to be part of the labor force (however white collared it might be) or is to help them achieve their fullest potential? Will they be confident and passionate young people shaping the future? Are we providing them tool sets to survive the world or thrive in this world? In the process of running the race, are we sure we are running the “right” race?  Has winning the race become the end in itself? Is the journey worthwhile and the destination desirable? We know that every body’s journey in life will be different and personal; then why should our choices in education not be personalized? It is made out as if there are only a few career tracks worth considering —- is that really so? If you look at the people who made the most difference during the year or decade or who influenced the world or contributed to happiness and success, which professions did they come from? I am often reminded of Mark Twain’s story of Tom Sawyer painting a wall. Tom Sawyer is given a punishment to paint the wall and he “sells” that as the coolest thing to do for a young boy amongst all his friends. Finally, all his friends are competing to paint the wall while Tom Sawyer sits back to watch the fun. Have we made careers in engineering and medicine the metaphorical equivalent of “painting the wall”?

The opportunity: I firmly believe that these milestones are important opportunities for young students to break away from the usual instructional mode of learning (which they get constantly from schools, tutorials and even parents) and ask questions about what interests and excites them. What is that one thing in life they would love to do? What would be satisfying? What will keep him or her working day and night on the chosen task till the goal is achieved without seeking all alternative hobby or holiday? What is that they would love to excel in —however, small in scope — and excel in such a way that the world will seek them out for their excellence and reward them rather than they having to seek jobs?  This is also a great opportunity for parents and those guiding young students to really rethink what they see as the future! The future is being shaped and reshaped with much greater speed.  Are we responding to change fast enough? I am reminded of the 1967 movie The Graduate featuring Dustin Hoffman where he is advised – “I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”  Plastics probably still have a future but the one foreseen in 1967 has already history and has been tapped (for ex, by Reliance). Are we being wise in foreseeing the future for our children and guiding them in that direction? Does IT represent the future? Or will themes in health, energy, environment, food security, water, materials, electronics etc be more important? If so, are we preparing our kids for the future?  Would it not be fantastic to see our kids bring new energy to bear on the most pressing problems of the day?

Some advise for youngsters: Find time to explore your dreams. Identify people who you admire and respect, and study their career path and choices they made. Anchor your self in your interests and passions and build unique capabilities in those areas. Find places that excel in those domains. Systematically develop excellence in your chosen field!  Remember it is a marathon and not a sprint. Developing excellence takes time and consistent efforts over years. Success will come automatically and making a living will not be an issue — you will not have to chase jobs, they will come to you!

Final words: I keep in mind Robert Frost’s memorable words –“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”


Dr Premnath is Head, NCL Innovations and Director Venture Center. He writes blogs for young people at blog.premnath.org 

Notes to editor: High-resolution photo can be found at http://www.premnath.org/images/Dr-V-Premnath.JPG

(2 June 2016) Success is defined by your choices

Article for Times of India, 2 June 2016

By Dr. Premnath V (CSIR-NCL, Pune) (www.premnath.org )

This is the time of the year when school students of Class 10 and 12 would be awaiting or have received their results from the Board examinations. Many students and parents will experience bouts of anxiety, worry and fear of the future.  My message to students is to not worry but use this opportunity to explore your interests and chart the course for your future. My message to parents is to wholeheartedly support this exploration by their children and help them excel in whatever they choose to do.

If you are unsure about which career to pursue, do not despair but go and learn about diverse careers. Meet people, understand their professions, and see if it suits and excites you. It is only after the confusion of the dawn that the morning sun rises.  It is better to find your passions and then pursue it rather than follow the crowd and take up a career that you will regret later in your life.

If you have not done very well in your exams, do not despair but commit yourself to working hard for the future. Remember that people like Albert Einstein and Sachin Tendulkar did fabulously in life but did not do very well in school. Many of the most successful people in life were not necessarily the best students in school. They probably bloomed late or discovered their passions late in life or their school education did not nurture their interest.  I often tell my young friends that you must try and find that career for yourself, which will interest you enough that you will be willing to spend your nights and days pursuing it and excelling in it. If you do so, you will invariably succeed in life.

Yet another temptation to avoid is to compare yourself and your scores with others.  Also, do not get swayed by what is celebrated by the crowd and everybody around you.  Remember that most outstanding people you can think of pursued goals which most of the crowd around them did not even see as an opportunity. Look at your heroes in sports, arts, law, politics, invention, entrepreneurship etc — how many of them were Board exam toppers? Success in life is defined by the choices you make and the efforts you put in over decades; it is a mistake to consider your board exam results as all determining.

Why do we work?

While you are planning your future and career, you may wish to think about what motivates you to work or what will motivate you to work.

Why do people work? Here are some which I have been thinking about.

  1. (Survival motivation) They work for making a living, to provide for their family’s needs and wants, etc
  2. (Enjoyment motivation) They work to keep themselves busy, entertained, occupied, to stimulate their minds, to learn etc
  3. (Fulfilment motivation) They work for self fulfilment, find a greater purpose in life, give meaning to their life, satisfaction etc
  4. (Achievement motivation) They work to satisfy their ego/ aspiration for power, prove something to themselves and others, peer recognition, social/ economic status etc

Survival motivation:

  • This is the dominant driver in many people at the lowest level of the economic pyramid, people carrying out laborious/ tedious/ mundane/ risky tasks.
  • In many of our families, we might find that there were older generations which struggled through their life with the survival motivation being the key driving force throughout their lives.

Enjoyment motivation:

  • This is seen often in the case of spouses of well to do families (with considerable financial security) where one family member prefers to explore work as a source of keeping one self busy.
  • This is also seen in many retired people.

Fulfilment motivation:

  • This is often seen in the case of people seeking to do something useful for society with their lives. Often seen in people pursing non-profit organisations and social causes.
  • This is the key driver often when one finds a person highly successful in their professional field quitting and pursuing a larger and socially more important cause.

Achievement motivation:

  • Ex: a sportsman striving to be the fastest man on earth.
  • Ex: a scientists wishing to be the most decorated scientist in his/her field. The motivation to stand above other fellow scientists.
  • Ex: A desire to challenge oneself and prove that it is possible


  • There is nothing right or wrong in any of these motivations.
  • To each his own. Each person may value each aspect differently and be driven by each motivation in different proportions and combinations.
  • You might also notice that succeeding in one motivation and failing completely in another may also lead to a lot of disappointment in life.
  • An ideal job or career may be one that provides the employee an opportunity to “feed”  each of the above motivations to the right extent and proportion as desired by the employee.
  • Of course, the great HR challenge for organisations is a) to hire employees whose motivation are aligned with what the organisation can provide and b) to find ways to help employees continuously “feed” their motivations.

Personally, I find my fulfilment motivation very dominant in me.

How can startups attract and retain talent?

This is a common question I get from several start-ups. Start-ups feel that they are competing with large companies for talent and that this is a un-winnable battle.

Not true — in my opinion. But it does require a lot of hard work of  entrepreneurs to attract and retain good talent.

Here are some thoughts, suggestions and ideas:

  • In my opinion, monetary compensation is not the only or most important driver for people deciding about which job to take up. Start by not playing-up the role of money beyond reasonable limits. Yes, there is a base level but beyond that most team members will seek something more! It is for you to seek out what those are.
  • Look for people who do not measure their self-worth by the salary they earn or the vehicle they drive or the phone they own. Look for people who value their creative talents and wish to feed and nurture them. Look for people who are not carrying too much “baggage” — “baggage” which forces them to focus only on short term monetary gains. “Baggage” could be heavy loans, a high-cost and aspirational lifestyle, a social network that encourages comparisons with others etc.
  • Start-ups need to communicate a vision and purpose for the organisation as well as future for their team members that is convincing and something with impact that is worth pursuing. Fortunately, there are many people who aspire to contribute to changing the world — the question is if you can help them do that.
  • Start ups must leverage their strengths. One strength is flexibility and ability to act fast. So can you structure an employment arrangement that is customised to suit the employees other life choices? Can you offer flexibility in the job? Are you willing to listen to the employee’s needs and explore ways to tailor the job for them? Can you act fast to close the deal? (Big companies will not be able to do this beyond a point.)
  • Many people leave their jobs because they have a difficult boss. Can you be the best boss in the world?
  • Many people leave jobs because they do not like the work environment and culture. Many will stay on because they like their team and work environment. What kind of a work culture and environment are you building? Is your team getting along together — do they constitute a great peer group?
  • Can you spot talent in young people without track record (and before they are spotted by others) and offer them responsibilities that a big company would never offer?
  • Can you identify certain talents in people to take up a responsibility when they do not have the necessary formal background or experience to do the job?  Big companies will use software, HR consultants and HR managers to screen through applications — and they will typically use key words to screen applications. They will not dig deeper. Can you beat them at it?
  • Especially in India, family members influence the career choices of employees in a big way.  Have you made the effort to communicate to family members what your company does and the great future that awaits you and your team?
  • Are you fair and transparent on matters relating to compensation, recognitions etc? You should not only be so but also appear to be so.
  • Do you take interest in the career growth of your employee? Do you offer them opportunities to grow intellectually or professionally? Are you a good mentor?
  • Many young people will look for safe, clean and happy work places that they can feel good about coming to everyday and also showing off to their friends and family. They should not feel ashamed to show their workplace. They should also feel proud to show off their colleagues. Does your workplace and their team make them proud?
  • Have you taken the trouble to plan their work profile an responsibilities so that it is an appropriate balance of routine work, learning and stretch goals, and opportunity to excel?
  • Can you offer unique learning and networking opportunities? Can you offer an opportunity to enter a new industry segment?
  • Can offer opportunities to people who have had career breaks and are getting back to work?
  • Big companies will often offer narrow jobs with very well defined roles which basically offer them the benefit of  efficiencies that comes from repetitiveness. So, many people people will feel that they are mere “cogs in the wheel”. Can you offer them a bigger role and purpose?
  • Can you leverage your school and college network or alumni network or personal friends circle? These networks typically show greater trust and faith in you.
  • Request people in your personal networks to suggest or refer potential employees. They may suggest or refer people with the right orientation given their deeper knowledge of you and perhaps respect/ support for what you are doing.  The candidate may show deeper interest because of a referral from somebody they know or respect.
  • Can you create a work environment where employees feel that they are growing continuously and not stagnant. Growth can be in terms of intellectual growth, growth in responsibilities, growth in monetary compensation etc.
  • What are you doing to to make the team members own up to the company’s goals? Do they get a chance to represent the company on various internal and external forums? Do they feel they know everything about the company and that the  company is transparent and does not keep them out of certain things?
  • Do they trust that the leadership team will ensure that everybody will get their share of visibility and rewards when the organisation succeeds?
  • What are the things you can do to reduce uncertainty? Are you visibly taking steps to reduce the risk to your team member’s jobs?  Are you working to develop buffers? Are you prioritising that ahead of other risks?

Career development: Growing in responsibilities

In my experience, typical progression of responsibilities in work environments:

  1. Carrying out tasks under supervision (TRAINEE OR ASSISTANT)
  2. Carrying out tasks independently; Taking ownership and responsibility for a task that can be done independently with thoroughness so that no further supervision/oversight is required. (INDEPENDENT CONTRIBUTOR)
  3. Carrying out complex tasks involving multiple people — in coordination and cooperation with several others but takes ownership for the task. A key distinction here is the ability to get others to participate and contribute towards taking “your” (owned by you) task to completion (TASK MANAGER)
  4. Taking ownership and responsibility for project execution — including managing resources (people, funds, infra, etc) at hand, meeting project obligations/ timelines etc; One needs to be able to plan the project, assign tasks to others, orchestrate the execution with multiple parts. (PROJECT MANAGER)
  5. Taking ownership and responsibility for “functions”  in an organisation including managing resources (people, funds, infra, etc) at hand, meeting commitments in timely manner, delivering services satisfactorily etc (FUNCTION MANAGER)
  6. Conceptualising, planning, pitching (to raise resources) and executing new projects (PROJECT LEADER)
  7. Providing leadership for a division/ program including setting up a roadmap to achieve goals, arrange resources, motivate the team, set goals, operate multiple projects towards decided goals. (DIVISION/PROGRAM HEAD)
  8. Taking ownership and responsibility for key organisational strategic objectives and chart the course towards the goals. Organise divisions/programs, set goals for the divisions/programs and facilitate/enable/empower them towards their goals. (LEADERSHIP TEAM)
  9. Setting the organizational mission/core purpose, vision and values. Championing the “offering” and purpose of the organisation. Building the core leadership team. Raising the foundational resources. Motivating and driving collective action. Setting priorities. Takes ownership and responsibility of choices made.  (FOUNDER; TOP MGMT; CEO)

Note: The above is only a typical progression for discussion purposes. In actual practice there will always be differences based on each situation. Very often the same person will be carrying out many different roles — this is especially so in start up environments and small companies.

Some interesting observations:

  • Most young people will immediately notice that they like it when they are growing in responsibilities steadily. A job that is stagnant in responsibilities can get limiting even if the tasks keep changing regularly.
  • However, the common mistake its to assume that responsibilities are “given”. They are “earned”. People who are given greater responsibilities are those who have shown that they can handle smaller responsibilities very well.
  • In some specialised professions, people may choose to remain Independent Contributors but only grow in technical excellence but not in range of responsibilities. That depends on your personal orientation. So, some organisations may have a separate career track that recognises technical excellence instead of increasing responsibilities.
  • Interestingly, there may be no correlation between the nature of responsibilities and the compensation you get. For example, in NGOs or in small companies, you may have much larger responsibilities  but with much smaller compensations.
  • It is often because of the opportunity to take on larger responsibilities that many people may chose to either quit larger companies and create startups or choose to work part-time or moonlight or volunteer with NGOs.
  • Since larger entities drive efficiencies by streamlining tasks, they tend to reduce as many activities as possible into well defined tasks. Consequently, people are hired for  executing specific tasks well. Larger companies can pay well for execution of these tasks.
  • In general, smaller entities give young people a better chance to take up larger responsibilities.
  • You will immediately notice that for students, selected volunteering opportunities with NGOs or organising large events or taking on institutional responsibilities or club responsibilities or being  team captain etc are great ways to learn about and test your abilities in taking different types of responsibilities.
  • Once you have tasted blood in terms of taking on larger responsibilities, it is often hard to slide down to roles with limited responsibilities.
  • If you are on career growth track, it is important for you to realize that you need to show ability to handle larger responsibilities progressively in order to grow. Also, you should not reject opportunities of greater responsibility thrust on you since these are mechanisms to prove your worth. Sometimes, young people seek promotions without trying to build their ability to handle greater responsibilities or build in technical excellence in their roles.
  • If you are a student, you may wish to think about what your jobs and internships will teach you in the context of the above frameworks. Do not shy away from opportunities that stretch your abilities and help you test your strengths.

You may wish to use this framework to think about:

  • Where do you stand today? What kind of responsibilities are you taking up?
  • What is your personal orientation — growth in responsibilities or technical excellence?
  • Where (in terms of responsibilities) would you like to be next and what can you do to prepare for that?

Tips for writing a Statement of Purpose (SOP)

If you are applying for further studies in universities, you will most probably be required to write up a “Statement of Purpose” (SOP).

Some people find writing a SOP a pain. I found it very interesting because it helped me think through my plans and refine it as I wrote the SOP. It helped me think through what I liked to do and what I did not. It helped me build a working plan (note: working plans are subject to change but good enough to bet your resources for the moment) for action. It also felt good to communicate my aspirations to somebody. So, my first suggestion is that start developing an SOP by thinking in the right spirit.

The best SOPs are those that are honest and sincere, and reflect quite a lot of prior soul searching, exploration, research etc by the writer so as to get to a decent “working plan” headed in the right direction.

SOPs are documents where you have to state what course of action you wish to pursue and why you wish to pursue that certain course of action. While there is no particular formula to writing SOPs and I do not like formulaic SOPs, typically, the story line goes as follows:

  • Here is my plan for the distant future (for example, be an industrial researcher and inventor who develops healthcare products) — perhaps why you are passionate about that particular future.
  • Here is what I have done so far to prepare for that distant future (for example, an undergraduate education in engineering and biomedicine, and internships with health care companies, and clinical immersion at hospitals, etc etc)
  • Here is what I need to do in the near future (probably, attend a study program or seek a certain qualification) so as to be ready or be propelled towards my longer term goals (for ex: a PhD program in biomedical engineering)
  • The study program in XYZ college in PQR city is my best bet towards those goals and fits perfectly in my working plan for my career.

Clearly, writing this storyline is easiest and most credible when:

  • It is true and honest
  • you have done all the soul searching for it
  • you have done your research on the program and institution you wish to join

Some dos and donts:

  • Use simple, short sentences and simple language. (The SOP is not meant to test your vocabulary or your command of english literature or your knowledge of quotations) Avoid flowery language.
  • Make sure the SOP reflects your true level of maturity. (Do not ask somebody else/ senior/relative to write it for you. It will invariably not reflect your maturity levels and is clearly a dishonest beginning to a career.  By the way, it is easy to spot SOPs that have been written by somebody else —- one can make out from the quality of writing, the maturity of thoughts etc)
  • It is okay if you do not have all the answers or your plans are unclear. Build a working plan to the best of your abilities. It is also okay if you are going to use the opportunity of the program to explore options and finalise your plans.
  • Do not use templates. Customise each SOP using the research you have done on the program and institution. Everybody including the institutions like to see themselves as special and having been specially chosen by the candidate. If sufficient research was done in choosing the right program and institution, then it can help your SOP convey your specific reasons for preferring the given program and institution without making artificial and superficial statements.
  • Provide a copy of your SOP to your referees. If they get a chance they may be able to back up some aspects of the SOP and thus strengthen your case.


Does poor academic performance in school/college matter to my prospects?

The answer is yes and no. Let me explain.

If you performed poorly in school/college, it could send the following messages:

  • The person may not be hard working — perhaps a little casual
  • The person is not interested in the subject matter
  • The person lacks maturity and is irresponsible
  • The subject of study is not the person’s strength and the person does not understand the subject matter
  • The person does not think it is important to excel in school performance metrics
  • Or there was some event that distracted the person from focusing on studies

All of the above assumptions can hurt your prospects. So in that sense, poor academic performance can hurt your prospects — often short term prospects.

But that said, poor academic performance is not a good indicator of future prospects in a long enough time frame and clearly is unimportant. I often note with interest that many people who were considered poor students in school/ college go on to achieve excellence in a field of their interest and leave classmates who are academic stars far behind in life. For example, a young man may achieve excellence in sports and national honours despite doing poorly in academics at school as a child while his classmate who used to top class exams could be doing a boring job with limited growth prospects. For example, some of the weak students at school who were forced to chose arts for 11th and 12th instead of science may become excellent lawyers, judges, artists, writers etc while the science topper may be in a low profile job (albeit intellectually stimulating job) with limited opportunities to excel and shine. So over a long enough period of time, your school and college performance hardly matters if you do not allow them to matter.

So, if you have done poorly in academics at school or college, do not loose heart. You can do very well in life provided:

  • You find your passion in life and put all your energies into it
  • Identify your strengths and learn to leverage it
  • Make wise choices and do not follow the crowd (especially not the so called academic toppers)
  • Pursue excellence in whatever you are doing

You can remind yourself of the many people who have excelled despite poor academic performance — for ex, Albert Einstein, Sachin Tendulkar and many others.


Quotes from “I too had a dream”, by Verghese Kurien

I am excerpting some paragraphs from Dr Kurien’s biography. I encourage all to read about his amazing journey!!

Quotes from “I too had a dream”, by Verghese Kurien

“….choosing to lead one kind of life means putting aside the desire to pursue other options.”

“ I have often spoken of integrity as the most important of these values, realizing that integrity – and personal integrity, at that – is being honest to yourself. If you are always honest to yourself, it does not take much effort in always being honest with others.”

“Life is a privilege and to waste it would be wrong. In living this privileged “Life”, you must accept responsibility for yourself, always use your talents to the best of your ability and contribute somehow to the common good.”


“…failure is not about not succeeding. Rather it is about not putting in your bet effort and not contributing, however modestly, to the common good.”


“Most of us compare ourselves with someone we thin is happier – a relative, an acquaintance, or often, someone we barely know. But when we start looking closely we realize that what we saw were only images of perfection. And that will helps us understand and cherish what we have, rather than what we don’t have.”


“…. If we are brave enough to love, strong enough to rejoice in another’s happiness and wise enough to know that there is enough to go around for all, then we would have lived our lives to the fullest.”


“Working with Tribhuvandas and Kaira’s dairy farmers, I saw that when you work merely for your own profit, the pleasure is transitory; but if you work for others, there is a deeper sense of fulfillment and if things are handled well, the money, too, is more than adequate.”


“The greatest satisfaction and joy came from the priceless reward that comes when farmers whose lives depend on your efforts appreciate what is being done for them.”


“I began to see then that when the government enters business, the citizens of India get cheated. The greatest repercussion of the government entering business is that instead of safeguarding people from vested interests, they themselves become the vested interest.”


“..with adequate support, confrontation at the right time pays off.”


“Our belief at Anand has always been: let the people’s energies be unleashed.”


“What, therefore, is a government at its best? It is a government that “governs” least and instead finds ways to mobilise the energies of our people.”


“I opted to remain an employee of farmers all my life ….I did it because I realized I had a job which gave me the greatest pleasure, the greatest satisfaction. The idea of working for a large number of farmers translated itself into the concept of working for social good. I soon realized that money is not the only satisfaction that one can seek, that there are several other forms of satisfaction and all of these were available to me at Anand.”


“In every crisis, if you look carefully, you will spot an opportunity. My insistence on finding and seizing that opportunity has often been a source of annoyance for many of my collagues because it means that unlike most people, I never try to sidestep a crisis. Rather, the more monstrous the crisis, the more I am tempted to rush at it, grasp it by the horns and manoeuvre it until it gives me what I want!”


“The cooperative structure never encourages huge bureaucratic systems, for it knows that mammoth bureaucracies cannot be sensitive to the needs of people.”


“We need the bureaucrats to look after the interests of our people. The tricky part has always been: how do we educate the bureaucracy to be truly public servants – servants of the people – rather than the bosses most of them continue to be?”


On ICAR: “Then I would ensure that the researchers got not more than 5 per cent of their research funds from government coffers and the rest would come from the industry. This way they would be answerable to the industry and would also get rewards for their good work from the beneficiaries.”


“ Our bureaucracy today is too bloated and therefore it is burdensome.”


“Basic social and economic change needs to brought about gradually and the more carefully and thoughtfully it is effected, the more permanent it will be.”


“True democracy will emerge only when we allow the people to manage. And only when the people begin to take control of their lives will rural development gain momentum, when goods and services produced by rural areas will get better terms of trade than goods and services produced in the cities. Only when our farmers are involved in the processes of development will they be able to command their destiny. True development is the development of women and men.”


“The bottom line is that the government must govern, in every sector. The government need not nationalize banks but government must see that banks do not defraud people. The government need not run dairies but the government must ensure that the private sector puts out good quality milk at reasonable prices. That is governing. So, let the government get out from places where it should never have been in the first place.”


“I was just twenty-eight years old when Tribhuvandas made me the General Manager of Amul. It is an age when one believes nothing is impossible and one is ready to take on challenges. I believed in entrusting professionals with responsibilities at an early age, encouraging them to take initiatives, and correcting them when things went wrong, instead of penalizing or condemning them.”


“While integrity and loyalty are core values, there are other values, too, which are a prerequisite to achieve success in any field. For example, the leader has to set a personal example and make others understand in what ways “change” is going to be useful.”


“I believe that professionals working in our organisations must have clarity of though combined with a passionate pursuit of mastery of their subject. I have always emphasized that large endeavours are only the sum of many small parts and, therefore, we must keep in mind not just where we are going but how we are going to reach there successfully.”


I also believe that a person who does not have respect for time, and does not have a sense of timing, can achieve little.”


“What is the primary job of an efficient manager? In my book, it is to bring in and groom the right people on the team. Once this is done, the manager must then groom the successor most appropriate for the institution.”


“My attitude towards money has always been a very realistic an utilitarian one.  …. it is terrible to have too little money because you will not even have enough to eat and appease your hunger. But it is far, far worse to have too much money because then you will surely get corrupt.”


“I may be old-fashioned in my thinking but I have always believed that it is only when you get less than you are worth, that you can look for respect; if you paid much more than you are worth you will get no respect.”


“ It was only much later in life that I realized the tremendous benefits of this classic game of strategy. Chess has taught me the skill of how to always remain a few moves ahead of my opponents.”


“….my friend Vikram Sarabhai who often said to me: When you stand above the crowd, you must be ready to have stones thrown at you.”


“Pitroda is his address, that startled some of my colleagues, said, “In order to get things done you have to be a bit mad.” And then pointing towards me continued, “You have an example in front of you of a man who came with a dream – a bit mad – and today we are all reaping the benefits of his vision, his ideas. We don’t have to agree with him on everything or admire every little thing he does but the fact remains that what he has created is a dream that we all like to share. We need more and more people like him to create more dreams for our people.”


“ …each one of us has a responsibility, as a member of our nation’s privileged elite, to help bring about that stage. That responsibility is both to criticise and to correct. We must take responsibility for our nation’s future; we must hold ourselves accountable for that future. It means that we must act not only as advantaged individuals but as concerned members of our society. It means that in all that we do, we must be aware of its effect for he greater good.”


“ I have often claimed that I have had but one good idea in my life: that true development is the development of women and men.”


“… there is no doubt in my mind that as a people we stand second to none. Among us are people of great intellectual ability; people of the highest moral and ethical attainment; people of great tenacity and courage. The challenge is to put our talent, morality and courage to the right purposes, in the right direction.


Bureaucracies do not exist only in government. Tragically, most institutions, given time and allowed to grow big, tend to get bureaucratized. When employees begin to believe that the institution exists for them, rather than that they exist for  the purpose and ideals for which the institution was built, then clearly, that institution has mutated into a bureaucracy. The revolutionary in me would demand that such an institution be broken down unabashedly, and built again anew.”


Tips on writing good resumes

Typically, a resume is meant to excite sufficient interest and open doors for you or get you an interview call. It is not meant to be too detailed but needs to point the reviewer to all the reasons why you should be noticed. For example,

  • Somebody may feel that their academic performance is the highlight of their background
  • Somebody may wish to highlight the institutions where they have been trained because the reputation of these institutions might be very high
  • Somebody else may wish to highlight certain specific achievements and recognitions/ awards
  • Somebody else may wish to highlight their leadership activities

Here is the exercise to do when evaluating whether a resume has shaped up well and will do its job for you:

  • Give your resume to somebody who does not know you (preferably somebody who is representative of the kind of people who might be evaluating your candidacy)
  • Give the person 30 seconds (max 60 seconds) to scan the resume
  • Take back the resume and ask the person to write down (or tell you) what ever they remember from the resume.
  • If they put down all the points that a) you wish to showcase and b) are your strengths or that make you stand out, then your resume is headed in the right direction.

While there are points you wish the reviewer to notice, there are also points which you do not want the reviewer to assume, and for this some precautions are necessary:

  • Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors indicate sloppiness, laziness, lack of attention to details and lack of thoroughness.
  • Poor english and poor style of writing indicate not only poor communication skills but also lack of experience and depth  in english communication.
  • Poor structuring and formatting of the resume indicate lack of ability to organise your thoughts, lack of comfort with document processing software and computers etc. To me it also sometimes indicates lack of attention to certain aspects which will save the reader some time. It also indicates an inability to “sell” one self.
  • For scientists and engineers, lack of attention to how scientific  references are quoted indicate incomplete higher education and poor research training. Similarly, lack of attention to units and metrics while stating achievements may indicate lack of in-depth understanding.
  • Hyperbolic claims (especially with certain superlatives) and an excessive focus on certain indicators of success (ex: h-index, financial success etc) can back-fire depending upon the audience.
  • Emphasis on the ” wrong”  points may indicate lack of perspective and/or understanding of the evaluator’s priorities. For example, over emphasis of sporting talents or religious interests for an academic program/job.

That said, it is sometimes important to put down aspects of one’s background which can be relevant. Here is where good judgement is required. For example,

  • If you have excelled in anything at all, it may be worthwhile mentioning it. When I see somebody who has excelled in anything — be it sports, music, art etc — I take that into account because it tells me that the person knows that it takes dedicated and continuous (sometimes for several years) efforts to excel, is capable of putting in the necessary efforts to excel and the person values excellence as a value.
  • If you have done something which showcases your leadership qualities esp in taking initiative, conceptualising and initiating activities, mobilising groups around what one considers important, pro-active efforts etc, it is a good idea to point that out. I find this a useful indicator of the person’s abilities and interests in leading efforts.

Sending resumes to people:

  • Try to write a professional (means, no “hi”, abbreviations, slangs, sms-type of language) cover letter or email
  • Keep the letter very specific by addressing it to a specific person and keep the letter specific. Do not send bulk mail. Do not send email templates with obvious cut-pastes from websites. Write your own letter or email —- avoid copying your friend’s letter or email.
  • Sincerity, simplicity and seriousness is always appreciated in the covering letters.
  • Highlight a few key points about yourself that stand out in the letter itself.
  • Be sensitive to the reader’s limitations when sending out attachments. Nowadays, many people  use mobile devices to read email. So, it may not be a good idea to send a word file as attachment. Send text over email or attachment as pdf.
  • Have a professional email address from which you send out resumes. Avoid strange or funny email addresses.

Careers in intellectual property in India

I am providing here some guidelines and information for young people pursuing careers in IPR to help them plan their careers.

Here are different roles that people in the IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) field (with emphasis on patents) play:

  1. Drafting (here, building a rapport with inventors, understanding inventions and prior art in detail, building strong “story lines”, strategizing protection strategy, articulating inventions and understanding nuances of language is very important)
  2. Filing, Prosecution
  3. Litigation
  4. Teaching/ training, awareness, popular writing
  5. Research, policy, philosophy, advocacy
  6. Running in-house IP offices within organisations (including developing efficient and transparent procedures, building awareness and momentum, mobilising resources etc)
  7. Literature search and reports; informatics
  8. Analytics and strategy
  9. Administering patent portfolios (focuses more on meeting legal requirements and costs)
  10. Strategic management of patent portfolios (focuses more on aligning portfolios and organisational strategic objectives)
  11. IP/ technology assessment and marketing
  12. IP/technology transfer/ commercialisation with an emphasis on structuring deals, developing commercialisation models, negotiations
  13. IP related agreements including those related to collaborative research, ownership, administration, exploitation, transfer etc
  14. Examiners and other roles in the Indian Patent Office
  15. The IP-IT interface: Software platforms for data and flow management

One person could be doing one or more of the roles above. In the Indian context, mosts Indian institutions are novices to the field of IPR and so role specialisation is rare. Very often, one person has to carry out several of the tasks above.

Roles can emphasise interaction with different communities:

  • Inventor facing roles  (ex: 1, 6, 7, 13)
  • Client/ licensor facing roles (ex: 11, 12, 13)
  • Examiner/ Indian Patent Office facing roles (ex: 2)
  • Top management facing roles (ex: 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 15)
  • Student/ scholarly community facing roles (ex: 4, 5)

If you are in each of these roles, it is important that you build credibility with the community you are facing and you understand the thought process of the community you are facing (and show empathy).

Different roles require different strengths:

  • Depth in science and technology (ex: 1, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12)
  • Understanding of the law and implications (ex: all roles)
  • Training in law (ex: mainly 3, 13 but also 4, 5)
  • Understanding of business planning, finance, strategy (ex: 6, 8, 10, 12)
  • Marketing skills and orientation (ex: 11, 12)
  • Excellent communication skills in English (ex: 1, 4, 5, 8, 11, 12, 13)
  • Negotiation skills (ex: 12, 13, 6, 2)
  • IT skills (ex: 15 and sometimes 8)

A couple of observations: It is clear that the field is multidisciplinary and often you need to be multi-dimensional to succeed. It is also clear that some roles are more specialised (and hence less commoditized).

So how should you prepare for a career in IP?

  • Understand your strengths and weaknesses. Understand your motivations and orientation. Do not try to get into something where you are weak and have no or weak intentions to build as a strength. For ex, with weak or poor communication skills, it is hard to be good at drafting. For ex, with a poor grounding in science, it is hard to take up roles requiring an in depth understanding of the invention and prior art.
  • Unfortunately, there is no simple recipe. Your preparation depends a lot on which roles you wish to emphasise. If you still need a simple answer, I suggest start with a basic recipe of a grounding in science/ engineering  and strong communication skills, and then add to that an understanding of IP law and/or business.  A general rule I recommend —- seek out good programs and not the easiest to join (which by being easy get commoditized).
  • This is one field where mere academic preparation is not enough —- experience and self-learning is essential. I always recommend self-learning by compiling and studying classic cases in detail including the original patents, the case papers, news articles etc. This is one of the best ways of learning in this field — second only to learning from somebody with experience or in an organisation with considerable volume and variety, both of which are in short supply in India.



What is entrepreneurship?

I am often asked about the word entrepreneurship. What does it mean? How is it different from doing business (if at all)? Here is what I have learnt so far.

At the very heart of entrepreneurship is an entrepreneur — a person who is seized of an opportunity to build/deliver a product/ service of value to people and is trying very hard to find and put into practice a sustainable way to build/deliver the product/service for the benefit of society (or some part of the society). Two important features of entrepreneurship are a) the often lonely belief of the entrepreneur in the opportunity (often against the trends and dominant thinking of the times; this grand vision of the entrepreneur is a very important element) and b) pursuit of an opportunity that requires resources (funds, people, infrastructure etc) beyond what is readily available and efforts to put together resources creatively to make the entrepreneurial effort possible. Entrepreneurship is merely the journey of an entrepreneur.

So how is entrepreneurship different from doing business? Entrepreneurship is not focussed on the daily financial transactions but on the grand vision of entrepreneur to create something of value. He/she cannot ignore financial transactions but that is not the heart of the entrepreneurship journey.  The overarching vision of the entrepreneur is the clear driving force and resource planning is done to accommodate that vision (and not vice versa where the available resources determine the goals). Yet another important aspect is to remember is that when the final goal is important, entrepreneurs will find creative ways to build the organisation that will realise the vision of the entrepreneur —- and that need not only be the traditional commercial businesses where the backbone of resource planning is arranging finance/ capital.  So, an entrepreneur will arrange resources whichever way he/she thinks is most conducive to the project….. that could include seeking in-kind contributions, appealing to employers/ suppliers/ customers’ good-will to arrange resources, seeking grants from government agencies and charitable organisations etc. Some entrepreneurs may even choose to work within existing organisations to give shape to their vision.

So, are you an entrepreneur? You can be one. You need to have the following:

  • A vision to build something of value for some part of society
  • Willingness and confidence to walk alone against the wind
  • An infectious ability to transmit your vision and passion
  • A commitment, plan and execution abilities to arrange and manage resources sustainably.

Can anybody be an entrepreneur? Yes, I think so.  First find your passion and purpose, and be convinced that it is worth pursuing against the odds. The rest can be learnt via practice and experience.

How should you choose a place to pursue undergraduate studies?

Undergraduate studies is a time for opening your mind, exposing yourself to a variety of professional and scholarly pursuits, actively exploring your interests and potential careers while also building soft and hard skills for the future. It is not about becoming skilled labour (as is often bandied about by politicians and bureaucrats as the greatest need of the country under the umbrella of skills development).

With this goal, clearly Universities with a wide array of offerings which students can sample and explore are desirable. It is important that education is not limited to professional courses but also includes subjects (like history, philosophy, sports, etc) that will widen one’s thinking, help shape good judgement, learn to build organised activities etc. It is important that students have opportunities to debate and champion their causes.  It is important to have some flexibility for students to change their courses as they learn more about themselves.  It is important for students to meet potential role models and learn to excel.  It is important for students to be in the company of a peer group that inspires excellence.

So, within what is available to you, seek out the best places of learning and excellence rather than looking for job placement records of Universities!

Seeking a job vs seeking excellence

It is my thesis that if you seek excellence, jobs will seek you out. If you seek jobs without seeking excellence, you will often be one among many and also struggle to find something satisfying.

So my suggestion to young people is to find something that you are passionate about and seek excellence in that.  Chances are that you will not even have to search and hunt for jobs.

I have also been using this thought in finding appropriate people who can be part of my team. Instead of looking for “appropriately”  qualified people (often people who have gone on to pick up qualifications and pad their resumes to meet job requirements), I often look for indications of passion and efforts to excel. For example, for a position managing a library, I think a person with a passion for books/ reading/ learning/ sharing may be more useful than a person with a B.Lib degree but no interest in books.  A person who has excelled in something –say, sports, music, dance etc — is more likely to have the basic values necessary to excel such as discipline, persistence, attention to detail etc.  Such a person may be able to actually deliver in certain roles where specialised training is not required.

I also find that this maxim works well when I am interviewing students who have expressed interest in pursuing an internship or project with me. It is so much more fun and satisfying training students who approach their assignment with passion, interest for learning and achieving. It is very easy to spot those willing to strive for excellence — look for indications of willingness to struggle, make sacrifices, and build patiently and systematically. The perfect test is a hardship test!

How do US universities decide on who to admit for PhD programs and offer scholarships?

This is a question I hear often from young undergraduates preparing to study abroad. I do not claim to be the expert but here is my take on the topic.

In the absence of any outstanding factor tilting the selection process, here is my list:

First level of screening:

  1. Bare minimum (note: not cutoff) scores in TOEFL and GRE

Second level of shortlisting (in that rough order)

  1. Reputation of undergraduate school/college/ university at the university (often based on good or bad experience with previous students they have taken or reputation or renown etc; can also depend on personal experiences of members of the admissions committee may think; note: admissions committee can include Indians) — this is the reason IITians may do better than others.
  2. Class rank and performance (and so toppers may get preference here)
  3. Reference letters and SOPs  (SOPs with clarity of purpose, and alignment of goals and program chosen may score high; references that are aligned to SOP may work better)

Third level:

  1. If everything else is similar, then they are likely to use test scores. (Note: The test scores universities quote may be what people who got in scored but it may not be that they used a cut-off to screen candidates.)

But there can be outstanding aspects that may give somebody an edge. These outstanding aspects keep changing with the times and are often specific to universities. Some examples:

  1. A reference letter from somebody who is known to and respected by the admissions committee.
  2. Outstanding initiatives, experiences and achievements aligned to the SOP. (Ex: International awards, outstanding research work and indication of leadership potential)
  3. A very strong reason to be at that university and strong reason for the university to bring you in to strengthen their important program.
  4. A reference by somebody respectable from the department itself.

Needless to say, something done extremely poorly can also change the process and tilt it to the wrong side — for example, extremely poor test scores, poor english skills etc.

Fire in the belly

“Fire in the belly” — that is my latest fancy! I have been looking around to meet young people with “fire in the belly”.

Recently, I had a chance to listen to a talk by Dr Devi Shetty, the famed and visionary heart surgeon and social entrepreneur from Bangalore. In his talk he mentioned about his new initiative to catch young people from deprived backgrounds in West Bengal and train them to be medical doctors. His thesis — these young people will have the fire in the belly to work long hours as medical doctors in the service of the people (which he implicitly suggested that young people from well off backgrounds lack).

While I do not know if there is a rigorous correlation between “fire in the belly” and deprived backgrounds, I see his point and share his thinking. People who pursue goals with great vigour and obsession often need to be highly motivated and have a “hunger” for achievements. They cannot be seeking comfort and luxury. They cannot also have a philosophical view of “nothing really matters”. (Classic case being the case of ancient India which after years of global leadership, turned complacent in end of the first millennium to only be ravaged by “barbarians”  who did not hesitate burning our places of learning and centres of philosophy.) They need to be driven.

While one cannot say it is true for everybody, on average it does seem to hold that societies go from deprived and driven to complacent and content, and as this happens they go from growth to decline.  One can also see that refugees/ immigrants  seem to be excelling in most countries (while future generations of migrants do not seem to be very different from the natives). Even within India, one can see complacency setting in on well off states with the labour force not willing to take up certain jobs and the same jobs being taken up by migrants. One can see young people within one’s own families placing a greater premium on comfort, luxury and entertainment as India grows and becomes affluent.

It is in this context, that I would like to recommend to young people to be wary of complacency setting in. Seek the “fire in the belly”. The only way to create the “fire in the belly”  is to set the most challenging goals for your self and seek role models who have “fire in their bellies” —- basically identify the Mount Everest you wish to climb and be “hungry” to climb that and seek the Edmund Hillary to inspire you.

The curse of versatility

This blog posting is an opinion piece for young friends who find themselves versatile and good at many things but often find that the world seems to favour those who are specialised narrowly. Say, you are good at studies, sports, music and organising teams but everybody seems to only talk about the geeky topper in your class or the dumb sports star in your class.

One of my strengths is versatility — and I have always enjoyed it. I like learning/ doing many different things and combining them creatively in my work. For example, I can combine understanding of science, technology, business, finance, law, and philosophy in my work and use it creatively in the practice of technology management and entrepreneurship. But I can tell you that it is hard to build on your versatility (except in roles where you are in the driving seat and building/shaping the organisation’s agenda).

Most large organisations and societies like specialists.  They like people who conform to the ideal of that organisation/ society. For example, I work for a research organisation and the ideal is of a conventional scientist pursuing his/her narrow area of specialty over a career of 30 years with a solitary focus on peer recognition. In such large organisations,  versatile people are mavericks. And often such organisations are puzzled on how to deal with these mavericks.

Leaders of such organisations often worry how to recognise and reward versatile people and pen up opportunities for them. I was once advised by one of my mentors that I run the risk of “falling between stools”. What he meant was that my organisation had a “scientist”  career track and an “administrator/manager” career track and it would be suicidal for me to try to do both. He had a point! But then should I have chosen one “stool”  to stand on or follow my heart?

Based on my experience, I have the following recommendation for versatile people — if you wish to follow your heart and continue enjoying/leveraging your versatility, then build your own organisations (or work in small organisations)!  You have to be leaders who set the agenda so as to thrive as versatile people. Or else chances are that you will have to sell your soul to the specialists and conformists, and end up as a mediocre specialist!

The opportunity in front of chemical engineers today

Will the 21st Century be the century when chemical engineers will provide leadership for the world?  I think there is a good chance of that happening.


What are the biggest problems/ emerging needs of the Century? Energy (fossil fuel based, renewable), Food & water, Security, Materials, Health, Environment and wastes, Resource efficiency & optimization, Infrastructure products etc — all domains that will leverage chemical, materials and biological sciences; industries that chemical engineers operate in.

As we head into the future, everybody is operating on the assumption that humans will find technological solutions to the impending crises as we have in the past. That said, new technology solutions are increasingly interdisciplinary and complex. Chemical engineers often operate with comfort across disciplines and revel in complexity.

Technology innovation, invariably,  require advancing laboratory inventions through stages of de-risking, refinement/ scale-up, testing/ certifications etc and finally market-entry. This is a process that comes naturally to chemical engineers. Furthermore, technology orientation and pursuing “usefulness” in science is also a part of the creed of all engineers.

A lot of decision making on important global and national matters will need “systems engineering” approaches. For example, decisions and agreements on climate change, pollution control, energy security, resource efficiency etc. Chemical engineers can help make decisions more objective and based on facts/ data/ models  rather than whims of leaders.

(Excerpts from talk by V. Premnath at Azeotropy,  IIT- Bombay, 10 March 2013)

What is Chemical engineering?

What is Chemical engineering?

In my view, Chemical Engineering is all about an integrated/ holistic understanding and exploitation of underlying unifying principles in “unit ops” (or building blocks) in a variety of transformation processes in chemical, materials, biological (and others) systems leveraging physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and computational sciences (and others) to engineer/design/develop/ improve products, services and in general, solutions that deliver impact for society and the economy!

Key words:
  1. Understanding and exploitation
  2. Transformation processes (natural and man-made)
  3. “Unit ops” or building blocks
  4. Unifying principles, design, prediction
  5. Multidisciplinary (and hence the versatility of chemical engineering)
  6. Design, develop, improve, engineer, “synthesis”,  “Technology”
  7. Impact:  execution and delivery


  • Academic training in India emphasises 1-4 above but often 5-7 are neglected.
  • Industry (such as chemical industry) often emphasises the “routine” (something very important for efficient operation of plans and companies but quite boring for those aspiring for creativity)
  • It is important to note that chemical engineering skills are useful and used across many industries besides the chemical industry.  Chemical engineers contribute immensely in other industries such as energy and fuels, environment, materials, water and food processing, biotechnology, biomedical devices and diagnostics etc etc.

My opinion:

  • Early decades of 1900s saw the rise of chemical engineering with unifying principles relating to chemical plants being derived and used for designing and optimizing plants. The later part of the 20th century saw chemical engineering principles being applied to a variety of new fields and industry sectors. The character of chemical engineering departments changed dramatically.
  • It is my belief that this Century will be one where chemical engineers will need to re-invent themselves as technology innovators — people who will leverage their wide training to put together creative solutions for problems and unmet needs of society, and then help take them all the way to the market/ deployment. They will thus emphasize points 5-7.

(Excerpts from talk by V. Premnath at Azeotropy,  IIT- Bombay, 10 March 2013)

What is science? What motivates scientists?

(My objective in this article is not to go into the philosophy of science but take a simplistic view for a lay audience)

What is science?

  • a method of systematic thinking, and creating new and improved understanding, a method of pursuing knowledge?
  • a body of systematically accumulated knowledge?
  • a community of people ?
  • all of the above?

Characteristics of scientific pursuits and scientists:

  • Curiosity to explore, understand and explain
  • Desire to add to the body of scientific knowledge
  • Accurate, truthful and unbiased descriptions, statement of facts; measured words
  • Continuously improving and changing theories and models.  All theories need to be testable.
  • No authority. Nothing is sacred
  • Enjoyment of the process of science, and not merely focusing on the end point
  • Desire to strengthen and enrich the community of scientists (teaching, research training, conferences etc)
  • “Immortality”  via far reaching contributions to human understanding

Should you join a PhD program?

I am asked frequently whether pursuing a PhD would be  a good idea. Here are some of my personal insights –

A PhD is a degree that is very different from a bachelor or a masters degree:

  • It is not a structured, time bound program
  • It is an internship/apprenticeship program and not a classroom program
  • It requires you to demonstrate original thinking and work
  • It requires a “master” to certify that you are capable of independent research
  • A good PhD program teaches you to explore topics, identify and define problems, and then research those problems. It teaches you comfort with ambiguity and fuzzy information, and create structure and understanding in the midst of a “haze”. Very few programs teach that.
  • A PhD is a doctorate in philosophy (“love of wisdom”). I suppose some love and aspiration for wisdom is necessary to truly earn a PhD
  • PhD studies often require you to dip deeply into a cumulative body of knowledge with diligence and thoroughness
  • Often PhD programs require/teach considerable patience and a healthy tolerance for frustration/failure.
  • PhD programs are not meant for creating “skilled hands” but rather “thinking minds”. Developing skills (esp industry relevant skills) is not the objective of a PhD program  all though it can be a consequence. Similarly, familiarizing the candidate with the ways of career researchers (including the focus on publications, conferences, peer recognition, academic honors,  etc) is not the objective but a side effect.

So, should you do a PhD?

Competition and blinders

Competition for resources and opportunities is a reality we cannot escape.

But are we missing the big picture and many opportunities as we rush to compete and jostle along with the crowd? Do we have to all run the same races?

I firmly believe that blind competition blinds people to emerging opportunities. A healthy distaste for competition is good ( a lesson I first learnt in my school – Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Delhi).

Furthermore, you are a reflection of the choices you make. It is important to shape your own future and not necessarily follow the crowd.

Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”  is something that reminds me of this regularly: (http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15717 )

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost



Learning goals for primary school children

For a moment, let us leave aside what formal education contributes to a child. Here is what my wife and I had set as simple goals for our son:

  • Habit of reading
  • Writing as a means to think, clarify thoughts and communicate
  • Comfort with numbers/ maths and logical thinking
  • General awareness and information pool to draw from
  • Play team sports; aspire to excel; work as a team
  • Learn consistent practice, discipline and persistent pursuit in a few interest areas
  • Simple and direct experiences (not merely electronically or secondary)