(Written in November,2020)
The desire for getting a doctorate crept in my mind in my middle age, when I read in the newspapers about some renowned people getting it in their advanced ages like sixties or later. Many of them got their doctorates in Vaishnavism. To think about studying Vaishnavite literature for Ph.D after my retirement looked very attractive. I was waiting for it.
I took voluntary retirement from Indian Overseas Bank, after thirty years of service in the year 2010. As our children had settled in life by then, only two of us, my husband and I were in our home generally for a long time. And when my mother joined us, we were three. Our eldest daughter lived with her family in Mumbai and younger daughter and son lived with their respective families in United States of America.
I started my retired life in a relaxed manner – cleaning, reorganising, listening to music, dance, literature and interview programmes in Podhigai TV, doing a little bit of online trading in shares, browsing or reading, apart from normal household work. Our second daughter’s family returned to India from USA in 2011 and started living in their home in Chennai. We could enjoy with our grandchildren in our mutual visits. I could watch them play and grow. They enjoyed my traditional stories from our scriptures like Gajendra Moksham, Prahalada Charitram, Valli Kalyanam, Krishna Leela, Vittalopakhyanam and Kuchelopakhyanam. I was so touched when the elder of them told me all those stories in her attempt to be soothing to me after a minor incision procedure in my neck in the year 2012. It was gratifying to know that the younger one had told her PreKG teacher in 2013 that she learnt the names of Tamil months from me. I could share with them some interesting news items or pictures from newspaper which delighted them.
I closed the online share trading account in May,2013, after losing interest in that. I have shared my feelings on share market investment in my article ‘My stints in share market investment’ in my website : https://lalithasitaraman.in/2020/11/01/my-stints-in-share-market-investment/.
As I was having more free time at my disposal, I thought about enrolling for Ph.D. course in Vaishnavism in Madras University. Upon accessing the university’s website, I was surprised to know that postgraduation in Vaishnavism was required for that. I had never thought about that criteria as I had imagined all along that my earlier postgraduation and having studied Tamil as second language upto degree level would make me eligible for enrolling in Ph.D. in Vaishnavism. Learned professor Dr M.A. Venkatakrishnan sir was the Head of the Department of Vaishnavism in University of Madras then. I contacted him over phone in the number provided in the university website and he was kind enough to pick up the phone and answer my question regarding the eligibility. I requested him whether I could be given a special exemption in eligibility criteria as I had a good practical knowledge in Tamil literature. I explained to him that I was already writing a lot in Tamil and I requested him for an opportunity to show my works to him. He patiently answered that I was welcome to show the works but the University rule is that postgraduation in the same subject is necessary for doing Ph.D. His further elaboration that there were not many guides in the Department to take fresh students and that students who were already doing their postgraduation in Vaishnavism might find it difficult to get a guide if they were going to seek admission in Ph.D. Thus it became clear to me that the chances of doing Ph.D in Vaishnavism were remote.
As the idea of doing Ph.D in my postgraduation subjects of Mathematics or Computer Applications seemed to be a little overstretched at my age, I thought of doing it in a Commerce topic based on my professional qualification in Cost Accountancy. Madras University is one among the many universities who have recognised that qualification as eligible for doing Ph.D. So I emailed to some nearby colleges in Chennai looking for enrolling in a Ph.D course in a Commerce subject. But I did not get any reply. I observed from the Madras University website that there is a provision for online application for Ph.D. But, along with application, I was supposed to upload a consent letter from a Professor for being a guide for me. I didn’t have any idea about which Professor to approach. So my admission to Ph.D appeared very remote for the time being.
While browsing the university website, I observed that The Institute of Distance Education of University of Madras was having a postgraduation programme in MA Hindi. As my earlier attempt to study MA Hindi in Panjab University in 1990 was unsuccessful, I decided to pursue it in Madras University then. I obtained Migration Certificate from Panjab University and joined in MA Hindi course in Madras University in October,2013. During studies, I referred to the earlier Panjab University study materials too which I had preserved carefully over the years. Compared to that syllabus, MA Hindi in Madras University was like having a cake walk and I could finish the course in 2015. Thus, I became a triple postgraduate.
In the meantime my second daughter’s family had relocated to USA in 2014. So, other than the times our children visit us in Chennai or we go to their places for a few months’ stay, I generally had more free time. The smooth going in one earlier pending course encouraged me to attempt the other pending course too. I registered in The Institute of Company Secretaries of India in January,2015, once again.
While I was preparing for the Executive stage of CS course in all earnestness, I saw a frontpage advertisement in The Hindu newspaper inviting online application for Ph.D. in IIT, Madras, in September 2015. I observed that my qualifications and work experience made me eligible to apply in Department of Management Studies (DOMS,IIT-M). There were many admission categories, like HTRA, NHTRA, part time and sponsored, of which HTRA category required a valid CAT (Common Admission Test, being conducted by Indian Institute of Managements) score, inter alia. As the HTRA (Half Time Research Assistantship) category students were eligible for decent assistantships I was attracted by the scope of that category and my unlimited power to dream prompted me to put an eye on admission in that category! I browsed and knew from the internet that enrolment for CAT for that year was open still and I enrolled in CAT immediately. Actually, the application process required a valid CAT score along with application whereas the ensuing CAT examination would give the score only at the scheduled admission time, three months later. I ambitiously applied for admission under HTRA category, submitting that I was appearing for CAT in that year. My subject of research proposal was Financial Inclusion, the subtopic being ‘Reduction of Inequalities’.
I allotted just five days to work out some sums from a CAT preparation book and appeared for CAT examinations. The English section was less challenging. The Data Interpretation and Logical Reasoning (DILR) section drained out all my energy without any tangible output and that section contributed to pull down my overall performance. Though I could work out a few mathematical sums in Quantitative Aptitude (QA) section correctly and reasonably quickly, my speed was nowhere near the expected speed. When the results came in January,2016, my percentile in English was above 85 and my overall percentile was a tad below 60. When I had appeared for CAT type tests in 1994 for selection to our Indian Overseas Bank’s Information Technology Department and in 1995 for regional entrance test for admission to MCA course in Indira Gandhi National Open University I stood in the top ranks. But the efflux of twenty years since had played havoc in my speed and response time. Thus my first application for Ph.D admission fell short of their requirement criteria.
I passed one group of executive stage of CS course in Decemeber,2015 examinations. I was expecting to finish the other group and the second stage also at the earliest as I was prepared to invest all my available free time in the studies. But that didn’t simply happen. My long drawn and persisting journey with that course has been elaborated in my article, ‘The Company Secretary Course Factor’ in my website : https://lalithasitaraman.in/2020/10/16/the-company-secretary-course-factor/. When the results of the CS examinations held in December, 2016 came in February, 2017, I hadn’t cleared the second group. Suddenly I felt that I was having lots of time at my disposal as reappearance for two papers won’t demand that much time. I became a little distracted too with the negative results of CS examinations and so I wanted to appear for CAT, 2017 and to apply with that score for Ph.D admission to DOMS,IIT-M in March,2018.
I joined in an online coaching class too, for CAT preparation. With their study materials, I brushed up with a lot of mathematical formulae and got acquainted with various approaches to different problems. Apart from many notebooks and loose one side sheets, many of my diary pages of the year 2017 also turned out as my worksheets while preparing for QA and DILR sections. When I took various tests kept by them, their assessment showed that my correctness of answers in QA section was always above ninetieth percentile. But I could attempt only about fifty percentage of the questions each time. The performance in English varied from fair to good depending on the length and vagueness of passages. The performance in DILR section ranged from dismal to fair depending on my energy level. I couldn’t change that composition much during my preparation and I appeared for CAT 2017 in that framework.
The English section was not so comfortable as it was in 2015. The DILR section which came as the second section had exhausted me. The subsequent QA section was easy but the questions had to be examined carefully. I worked out the sums carefully but with barely eighteen questions (out of thirty four questions) the time was over.
When later in the day I saw the analysis of the question papers in the internet by professionals and experts in the field, I was ratified that they had shared my view that the Multiple Choice Questions in English section had vague or similar choices. They had also observed that the QA section had many traps but I was thinking that I was careful about the traps. But later when IIM released the keys for the question papers, I realised that I had not been careful about a few traps. When the results came in January,2018, my percentile in QA section was above 81 and my overall percentile was above 65. I was disappointed that my 2017 score with a decent preparation had not markedly improved over that of 2015 with almost a nil preparation.
When the results of CS examinations held in December,2017 were declared in February,2018, they brought the happy news of my clearing the second group and thus completing stage one. So, my focus shifted once again to completing second stage of CS at the earliest. Hence I neither applied for March nor September, 2018 batches of Ph.D admissions of IIT-M and thus the CAT score was not used at all.
I applied my heart and soul in preparation for second stage of CS examinations and appeared in December,2018 examinations. But the results didn’t bring good news for me. Now that I had gone through the syllabus once, I thought that my subsequent preparations won’t need much time and so I applied for Ph.D admission to DOMS, IIT-M, in March, 2019, this time in NHTRA category, proposed topic being same Financial Inclusion, with emphasis on ‘Reduction of Inequalities’ as earlier. I hadn’t heard anything from IIT-M and so I was proceeding with my preparations for CS examinations.
When Indian Institute of Banking and Finance (IIBF) invited articles on Financial Inclusion for the October,2019 issue of their magazine Bank Quest, I suitably modified and updated the text of my research proposal and submitted the article, ‘Financial Inclusion is only a gateway in the Economic journey’ and the article was published.
During my visit to USA in 2019 I had seen two trendy books in my daughter’s home, one being ‘Python in Easy Steps’, by Mike McGrath and the other being ‘Hands-on Machine Learning with Scikit-Learn, Keras and Tensorflow’ by author Aurèlien Gèron, published by O’Reilly. I was particularly attracted by the books because by that time I had known that Python Programming and Machine Learning are the two prerequisites for learning Artificial Intelligence (AI). I first started with Machine Learning book and after finishing the first chapter, I understood that I had to work hands on for further chapters and that knowledge of Python was necessary for that. So, I started reading the Python book.
With the strength of my fifteen years’ stint in Information Technology Department of Indian Overseas Bank, I learnt basics of Python Programming in just ten days. Those learnings were all done in between my contribution to household chores, watching select movies played by our daughter for us, helping our brilliant granddaughter for her Tamil test in California Tamil Academy and going on outdoor vacations in weekends.
I could learn them with such confidence that I noted down some technical proofreading errors in the book during my hands on working of the exercises. Most important among them was regarding freezing the program and packing it (to run in devices which do not have Python), in the last chapter. The book had used the syntax ‘MEIPASS’ in one function call which gave runtime error. After identifying the location of runtime error, I searched for the syntax MEIPASS in internet. It always appeared as _MEIPASS in its usage. So, I replaced the syntax in my program. The program ran successfully and it neatly packed. The packed exe program can run in any computer with Windows operating system without the need for installation of Python. I tried to send the exe to my children by email for them to execute the interactive program and see the results. But yahoo mail hadn’t permitted me to send exe program by email. So, I sent the exe in Whatsapp and asked my children to run it in a device operating on Windows. My son should have been thrilled to see his recent family function photo appearing as a gif along with the results. He promptly sent back the screen shots of the output and congratulated me.
After finishing the book, I gave a feedback to the publisher thanking for the lucid coverage of the subject and pointing out the proof reading errors. The publisher promptly replied by email within a week, forwarding point-war responses of the author. The author acknowledged two of my points as already known typos and three of my other points as new information. They thanked me, attached the revised pages and asserted that they are now available in the downloads page for other readers to download. They also stated that the corrections will be made in the next reprint of the book. It was very satisfying for me to know that the typo which gave rise to a runtime error and corrected by me was a new feedback for them.
As AI was an evolving subject and I was confident about my analytic and computing skills, I picked up the courage to try my chances of doing Ph.D on the topic of Artificial Intelligence in Banking. I applied for admission to DOMS, IIT-M in February,2020 in NHTRA category. I mentioned in the application that I was learning the concepts of Machine Learning and that I would finish reading the book in hand before the start of admission process. I did go through most of the chapters of the book before the start of the admission process and internalised the terms, purposes and approaches of basics of AI. I wrote to some professors of the department expressing my keenness in joining the course. One professor was kind enough to suggest that given my vast experience, I could explore a topic in the same domain where I could benefit from my existing knowledge as AI and associated paraphernalia are still evolving and doing research there would be a challenge. Still I was eagerly looking forward to their shortlisting as I considered my consistent merit in academic studies, trainings, work experience and writing experience as a textbook example for eligibility for admission. But my name was not in the shortlist. When I wrote to the department for knowing the reason for not being shortlisted I got the reply that I did not meet the selection criteria. It could be anything from my proposal not having been upto their satisfaction to my age of sixty five years being in the high risk group for COVID-19. That prompted me to have a relook over my ambitions and bringing it to a logical conclusion, by submitting to God that I have the satisfaction of earnestly trying and that it doesn’t matter if I had not got an actual admission.