There was only one category of human beings that I could mostly not satisfy with my professional prowess — my parents. That is, until about half a year ago. That changed when my B-school interview season started in January; several B-schools used the following terminology — ‘Professional inconsistency’ as a label against me. Here is why, and here is why I had to be ‘professionally inconsistent’.
Disclaimer: The piece is not meant to be a rant or a sob story. It is being written as a sort of a self-explainer. If it ends up as a rant, my sincere apologies, for that is not the intention.
A bit of context
I am a Mechanical Engineering undergrad by education (Class of 2013–17) from College of Engineering Guindy (CEG), Anna University, Chennai. I got placed at a SaaS company as a Business Development Executive straight out of college through campus placements. The manager I reported to was abusive to say the least; after having escalated the issue more than once to the concerned people/departments in the company, I had to transition out (a.k.a. quit) after nine months of severe mental turmoil (I am not exaggerating this; I had written a long Facebook post in December 2018, talking in detail about the issues I faced. Since the top brass of the organization came out and tried to douse out the fire, and the issue was closed, I am deliberately not going into the details nor am I linking the Facebook post here). The stint spanned from June 2017 to March 2018.
Transitioning out and transitioning in
In April 2018, I joined Teach For India as a Teaching Fellow. Now, those who are familiar with their Fellowship model would know that it is a two-year stint; the Fellows are supposed to progress grades with the students. For example, if in the first year of Fellowship, a Fellow is placed in a classroom of seventh grade students, the Fellow will move in with the same set of students during their second year to the eighth grade.
In my case, I was allotted a ninth grade classroom during my first year of Fellowship (between June 2018 and April 2019) at Chennai (my preferred region). By now, you understand the drill. For my second year of Fellowship, I had to move along with the students to the tenth grade. All kosher? Not quite. (The Ken articles have this ‘All kosher?’ bit quite a lot — not in the recent articles, unfortunately — and I must confess I have come to like the usage)
There were interventional issues in a temporary teacher (in administrative parlance, a Fellow is a temporary teacher, and that is not offensive at all; it is a mere fact.) teaching a group of tenth grade students because of the fact that Board examinations were involved.
Case 1a: If I were allowed to teach at the tenth grade classrooms, and the results of the academic year would turn out to be bad, that would put the non-profit as well as the school administration under pressure because they would have been the people who let this (that is, me teaching) happen.
Case 1b: If I were allowed to teach at the tenth grade classrooms, and the results of the academic year would turn out to be great, that would create bigger, undesirable dilemmas. Were the great results singularly because of the non-profit intervention? Where does that put the permanent teachers? Does this ‘great’ result automatically mean that non-profit, contractual, temporary teachers are better? Hard questions that had to be discussed.
Both the cases depended first of all on the decision of the school administration — the Headmistress and the other teachers — who had the authority to decide what they saw best for the overall scheme of things. They decided Cases 1a and 1b were simply not viable.
Which brings us to the other set of possible events.
Case 2a: If I were not allowed to teach the same set of students, as per the Teach For India policy, I would be allotted some other classroom — either in the same school or in yet another school. I could continue my second year Fellowship at the allotted class and school, and complete my tenure.
Case 2b: If I was adamant enough to stay and teach with the same set of students, Teach For India could not accommodate me, and I had to find out workarounds for the intervention to continue.
What did I choose to do?
I had put in a lot of personal effort during my first year of Fellowship; there was a sort of rapport that had been built with the students and parents, not before I struggled for a full three-month term. If I chose to go to a different class/school, that would mean I put the new set of students unnecessarily in jeopardy, since me getting used to the classroom practice and the students, and them getting used to my face and teaching would take a good amount of time (couple of months, at least).
Furthermore, I had a mentor who ran (and still runs) a non-profit solely for the educational purposes of those students whom I taught during my first year of Fellowship. He had been running it for a few years, and the primary purpose was to keep the students focused on their academics and career aspirations during out-of-school hours and days. I had the option to join him, if I decided to stay with the same set of students.
What was my intention?
This was the one question I kept trying to answer for myself. When I transitioned out of my first workplace, what did I want to do? I wanted to explore out on a job role that was not mainstream, would reinstate the morale and self-confidence I had lost, thanks to the abuse, and try to not quit abruptly.
On the other hand, when I got my Teach For India Fellowship offer, I was fixated on the idea that it was supposed to be a two-year thing, as opposed to one-year. All my thoughts had been directed to think towards a continuous, consistent intervention of two years.
(Actually, thinking about it, even when I view it from a ‘businessman perspective’, doing what is best for the customers — in this case, students — had to be the foremost priority.)
So, I decided to join my mentor, transitioning out of Teach For India, and into Vasippu Trust. And here, I continued to teach tenth grade students (one-third of the entire strength of the class) during out-of-school hours, during the academic year 2019–2020.
The academic year ended with the pandemic raging already, and the Board examinations were finally cancelled. My work was becoming fairly limited, and I decided to join elsewhere while continuing to volunteer with the scouting of schools and admissions into the 11th grade.
I joined another ed-tech in June 2020 and continued working there until April 2021, at which point I resigned, having secured admissions from a few B-schools by then.
If I have secured admissions anyway, what was the exact issue?
As they say, the devil lies in the details. A “few” B-schools have decided to give admissions to me anyway, and I am, by no means, decrying the process of what those schools that rejected me after the interview stage. Nevertheless, here is a list of some of the questions that conveyed a sense of predisposition towards my ‘profile’.
- An MBA is a course where you are required to stay at the same college for two years, unlike what you have done so far with your career. Is that something that you are aware of? — A taunt, apparently. I started with a “Yes, I am aware”, and went on to talk about the inevitable situations that had forced me to transition from one place to another.
- Teach For India is a great organization. Why did you quit after a year, when the Fellowship should have lasted for one more year? — After a point in my interview season, this particular answer had become a refrain of sorts. Explaining that I had two options (as highlighted in Case 2a and 2b earlier) and that I felt it would be best — both for myself and for the students (the ones I had taught earlier, as well as the one who would face disruptions because of the getting-to-know-the-teacher aspect, if I had chosen to move to another class/school) — if I chose to move out of the Fellowship and continue the intervention via a workaround.
- Why did you have to move away from the first job? — Now, this was the trickiest part of any interview that involved this question. I could choose to form a story that I moved because I had lost my ‘passion’ (whatever that means) and had to find ‘meaning in my life’ — that is a constant refrain the non-profit folks keep prattling about. OR, I could just be honest about the fact that I was subject to verbal harassment/abuse from my manager and had to quit. I chose the latter, for the shame rested on my manager, not me. The transition happened not because of my professional misconduct, but because of the abuse I received.
- That suggests that you are not mentally tough enough to continue in a job, does it not? — This was usually a follow-up to Question #3. While any candidate who has gone through the whole B-school interview season would easily categorize this as a ‘stress interview question’ — and to be fair, it is — the sheer disregard I received because of the fact that I switched jobs was phenomenally overwhelming. Anyway, coming back to the answer itself, I kept differentiating between criticism and abuse. Using cuss words to abuse an employee would fall in the ‘abuse’ bucket. In a couple of interviews, I went to the extent of stating that there is an ocean of difference between the statement, “Your work ethic is bad” vis-a-vis “You are the worst employee I have ever had to manage. Who even hired you? What kind of place do you come from, <insert cuss word>?” (P.S.: I did not mention the cuss word in the interview(s), though)
- Your profile is inconsistent. We understand you are a decent test-taker, and have scored well in the entrance because of which you are here. You won’t be hired by any organization that looks for a long-term commitment from a new hire. — How more could I justify to let them know that, in fact, I have volunteered for Vasippu during 2018–19 — while I was with Teach For India as a full-time Fellow — and worked full-time with Vasippu during 2019–20, and then volunteered again during 2020–21. Is the consistency there too hard to notice?
My takeaways from the B-school interview season
Note: The following could come off as gross generalization, but I wish to clarify that these conclusions are entirely subjective (hence, ‘My takeaways’). There were a few B-schools where the interview panel was entirely receptive of my professional career as well (because of which I have landed in a prestigious school now, obviously).
- Brands speak more than work. — For all the hoopla along the lines of what-you-did-matters-more-than-where-you-worked-at, I must point out, unfortunately, that where you work does matter, too. I was laughed off for choosing Vasippu Trust over Teach For India, when in reality, my experience with the former was more enriching than the latter (no offense to any employer, by any means). And, no! Before a conclusion is being made about me on the grounds of “This guy buckled under pressure in a stress interview, and is now whining”, this did not happen in one interview, but in many. And, at some point, it became clear that despite all the justifications, the interview panel members were just not going to be satisfied at all.
- Sometimes, the decision has already been made. — I attended an interview where the panel started with the information that they would not take me in as a candidate, thanks to my ‘professional inconsistency’. Considering that as a challenge, I gave comprehensive answers to almost all the questions they asked during the course of the interview, only to be told on my face at the end of it all, “You can expect to be not considered; thank you for attending the interview. Please keep applying to other places.”
- It is hard to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. — If all the panel had to ask you were the same sets of questions over and over again in successive interviews, it could feel like a damp squib occasionally. There came a point where I even thought about framing fake answers to come off as a ‘nice’ guy; fortunately, I did not stoop that low.
My explanation for my ‘inconsistency’
Nobody finds joy in switching workplaces constantly. It puts one at a place where finding new friends becomes a routine and almost none feels like a long-term bond. Also, just when you feel like you are part of an organization, if it so happens that you have to move out, that is not a pretty sight.
If anything, I am proud of the career choices I have made thus far, leave aside whatever ‘consistency’ means. Inevitable circumstances pushed me to keep moving from one place to another, and given a valid choice, I would have always preferred staying put.
For all the hoopla about wanting candidates with ‘different’ profiles, the only difference I could manage to muster up was in my professional career (Males with an engineering degree form the major chunk of a B-school population, and I am one of them.) And if that amounts to nothing, I personally have no idea how else I could go back and reverse the degree I chose for my undergrad.
The B-schools’ perspective
The competition in this country is stiff that the schools need to find a way to filter out candidates. As is the case with most admissions centered on competitive examinations and subjective personal interviews, the objective is to see if a candidate ticks all boxes — not many, but all. Naturally, ‘inconsistent’ people do not fit the bill.
Whatever has happened has happened for the better. All in all, I must have attended close to 30 interviews this season. Thankfully, I did not choose to remain selective about the colleges I applied to.
P.S.: Yes, it is cynical, I know. Though it does sound like I have an undying vengeance against the B-schools that made a fuss about the ‘inconsistency’, I think it can be discarded on two counts: 1) It does not matter anymore because I secured an admit, and 2) They would not mind either, because they have other, much more important things to do.