Nikita Mikhailov, a second year student of Master in Management (MiM) program at the Graduate School of Management of St. Petersburg University (GSOM SPbU), has recently returned from India. During three months at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad Nikita has felt the force of knowledge and realized the need for it. He brought home 10 kg of books with cases. Read the interview to learn about the specifics of education and student life at the best business school in India.
Nikita, why did you choose India for the exchange semester?
I was searching for friendly (as many of the agreements between universities have been canceled) and cheap countries. My budget was not very big. Apart from that, my groupmate from India advised me to go there. He told me that the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) is the best business school in the country, and the competition to enter there is even higher than at Harvard (about 200 thousand people), so it's better not to lose such a chance. I agreed with him, although I was afraid in the beginning. The source of my knowledge about India were by no means Bollywood movies — among other things, I watched a lot of Youtube videos and Google street views. I knew that I was going to be surrounded by chaos.
Some of my fears appeared to be true, some not.
What would have been useful to know before the visit?
As I am an introvert, it would have been useful to know that I would have to communicate with people 90% of the time, which is very exhausting. Sometimes I had the feeling that it was impossible to stay alone even in my own room.
Other exchange students did it smarter: they organized their schedule in such a way as to attend classes only in the first two or three days of the week, and then they traveled around the country. If I had done like that, it would have been emotionally easier. But I didn't know it was possible, so I was learning every day. In addition, I couldn't leave even for a couple of days in the period of mini holidays, because initially I didn't include this kind of expenses in my budget.
A very important fact that you have to take into account before the trip: you can pay all university fees only by card! They didn't accept cash, and Unionpay didn't work. I asked my buddy (a groupmate assigned to each exchange student who you can turn to with any question) to pay for me by his card and then returned him cash. However, it is quite easy to open a bank account, there shouldn't be any problems with it. There's an AXIS BANK ATM at the campus where you can withdraw cash from Unionpay, but it's better to take large sums, because the commission is 300 rupees regardless of the sum — 100 or 10000 rupees. Also, you cannot withdraw all money from the card, because the ATM requires you to have at least 500 rupees on your account. I was lucky to find a DCB BANK ATM in the city, where it's possible to withdraw all your money, but the commission was the same.
One more piece of advice that may help forgetful people: Indian ATMs, unlike the Russian ones, do not use the principle "take your card and then the cash". They give out money and then the card. Once I nearly forgot to take my card from the ATM in a very crowded district.
What did you learn about India and its citizens?
Indians are incredibly loud, but very friendly. I experienced both aspects of their mindset. As for friendliness, I can say that you'll never get lost at the campus — everyone wants to help you and give you some advice, and also gives you contacts saying "If you need any help, just text me”.
You understand how loud Indian students and people living outside of the campus are after dawn. Students are throwing parties and music is playing outside of the campus almost every night. Indians always celebrate something. I advise you to take ear plugs with you, although they won't save from dogs living casually on the campus territory that become active at night.
IIMA students are night dwellers. After 11 pm their life just begins: sports fields and cafés near the dormitories are getting full. They finish many of the projects by 1 am. My friend from France had a bad experience: he did his part of group work in the daytime, and after midnight they asked him to come and discuss and rehearse the presentation.
I was incredibly surprised in a good way that Indians respect their traditions: they dance national dances at parties, no "western" moves. Many of them wear traditional clothes in everyday life. You look at them and think: this country has a future.
Students speak English perfectly. English is part of their life from childhood, and higher education in India is offered only in English.
In general, IIMA students come from very rich families, but I've never seen anyone boast or demonstrate their wealth. They behave in a modest and friendly manner and wear simple clothes, almost like pajamas, to classes.
Unfortunately, locals outside of the campus have a poor command of English.
Did you experience culture shock and how did you cope with it?
Of course, I had culture shock. But I spent 90% of the time at campus and was, let's say, isolated from real India, so for me culture shock meant chiefly getting used to local food. Almost all food in the canteen was spicy, but there were also two cafés in the campus, where you could find some Chinese food or pasta. It was a bit hard to get used to the fact that in Gujarat state, where the business school is situated, meat dishes are 99% chicken. The city of Ahmedabad stands on two river banks. I was told that you could find beef and pork on the other bank, but these kinds of meat are quite expensive.
Culture shock also meant that I realized why there's still such inequality in India. For example, I found out that without education even if you work 12 hours six days a week at a café or a construction site, you won't earn more than 15-20 thousand rupees (13-17 thousand rubles). It is crucial to have education in India, so courses to pass international exams necessary to enter a university are advertised everywhere, like a reminder about virtually the only way to escape from poverty.
Wealthy Indians generally believe that it's people's fault that they are poor (because they are lazy), or that it's their destiny. Fortunately, not everyone thinks like that. For example, the professor of Good Governance & People Living in Poverty course is an activist in the sphere of support of the deprived. It is from his course that I knew that there are many organizations helping the poor in India.
Tell us about learning. In which way is it different from learning at GSOM SPbU, if it is?
Classes at IIMA last for 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) with a 20-minute break, unlike those at Russian universities, that last 90 minutes with a 15-minute break. Education is organized according to the Harvard Business School model: classrooms are semi-circular and stepped for a more comfortable dialog between students and lecturers and various discussions. 90% of time at the classes is dedicated to analysis of cases. During classes students mainly learn the material in the dialog with the professor and each other. Attending the classes and participating actively is necessary to get a good final grade.
For each class of every course we were asked to read certain cases that became a basis for discussion. A case could be five pages or 15-20 pages. This is how classes were organized: 20-30 minutes we discussed the theoretical/technical part of the case (for example, explained how AI technology used by the company in the case functioned), then we discussed the case itself. Also, there were projects that presupposed group work.
GSOM SPbU Master's programs include technical courses on statistics, analysis methods, etc. At IIMA students complete such courses during Bachelor's programs, so they are not included in Master's programs. 90% of students have an engineering background, and education is based on the ways to recognize and use this knowledge in business.
I don't have an engineering background, but I cannot say that it was difficult for me. Only for the Optimization Methods in Logistics course I had to learn the basics of linear programming to understand what it was about. But I knew where I was going and I wanted to learn, so I took it as a part of my way, a part of the learning process, and I was very happy.
One of the key differences between the majority of Russian universities and IIMA (and other top Indian universities) is that in India there are so-called placements. These are some kind of career days. In the middle of the first year representatives of various companies visit the campus and recruit students for internships. Thus, all students will have a chance for practice in the summer before the second year of study. Usually this means that they are likely to get an offer after internship and will not have to search for a job after graduation. Companies understand that there are the best students at IIMA, so come to them themselves. Searching for a job means spending additional time: competition in India is very high, and, apart from that, students don't have much spare time.
Students in Russia more often have to search for a job themselves. Of course, there are career chats, case championships and career days, but even if you learn at a top university, you have to find a job yourself.
Probably, in India such an approach when jobs are offered at the campus, without any competition, only increases the inequality. Diplomas mean a lot there.
Was learning hard? What courses did you like and why?
It wasn't hard, even though I had some fears. Maybe it's because of the courses I chose.
AIDP-Privacy Paradox: Artificial Intelligence and Digital Platforms course tells about how application of artificial intelligence in business impacts the conservation of confidential client information.
The exam consisted in submitting answers to questions in due time. There was no group presentation. The questions are given out a week before the exam, so you just have to upload the answers before the deadline.
AIM-Artificial Intelligence & Marketing supposes the use of AI in marketing. There was also no final group presentation — only answers to questions.
I found Elephants and Cheetahs: Systems, Strategy and Bottlenecks the most important course of the semester. Despite the ambiguous title, the course is about systemic thinking in business and organization processes, and about searching for and overcoming the so-called bottlenecks in these processes. The exam was an individual project — a description of processes and bottlenecks of a chosen company.
OML-Optimization Methods in Logistics. I really liked that the course covered such things that may be applied not only in business: how to correctly plan the location of a factory, school or hospital. The course involved programming languages (so you had to know at least the basics, but this is fine — Indian students can help). For the final presentation they did the part with algorithms, and I did the theoretical part, because I'm not good at Python. At the course we were taught to use Excel for optimization. Probably, the necessity to code frightened off a lot of students — only five people attended the course. The exam was in the written form in the classroom, and we also prepared a group presentation.
GGPLP-Good Governance & People Living in Poverty was an emotionally difficult course about the reasons why there's poverty in India and how to cope with it. Be ready to see a lot of photos and videos that make you want to cry; some students did so. The exam comprised three written tasks: a review of a film about poverty from the recommended list, a review of one of the books handed out at the course and, the most interesting one, a talk with a poor person or worker and description of your insights after the talk. This is a group project, so Indian students will translate everything from Hindi.
MCEO-Making of a CEO. Despite such a serious title, the course is a bit boring. This is a theoretical explanation of character traits of a CEO. There were a lot of presentations about real CEOs, who we analyzed from the point of view of their character traits. But I really liked that one of the final tasks was to interview two real CEOs: one of a startup and one of a successful company.
HEAL-Mindfulness-based Happiness, Emotional Intelligence and Authentic Living.
The most psychologically useful course. We meditated at the classes under the guidance of the professor. The course was about how to meditate correctly (Indian perspective) and how to be more mindful. The exam included a test, a group presentation and an individual report on your personal progress in meditation.
What was the most useful thing that you brought from the trip? Was it some kind of knowledge or impressions?
In India I felt what the force of knowledge means and why it is necessary to learn, and eventually realized it after the return: maybe I caught this cult of knowledge from the Indian students. They study 24/7.
When we discussed the cases, I finally understood why you have to be theoretically prepared. Without basic knowledge you will not understand how organizations and business in general function. This sounds obvious, but to be honest, when I was a Bachelor's student, before GSOM SPbU, I didn't understand at all why we needed the theory, because nobody showed us how to use it. I began to deal with real cases and real business only during the Master's program. In India I reached the peak of it — I realized why I learn all these things and understood that if you want to change the world you live in for the better, you have to possess a good theoretical knowledge base. This is what I came there for. The metamorphosis happened.
Apart from that, I literally brought knowledge with me — 10 kg of books with cases. They are included in the tuition fees, so you can take them home.
What extra-academic activities were organized?
There were tons of extra-academic activities — various sports activities like football, tennis (both big and table tennis), running, volleyball, basketball, yoga, as well as theater club and traditional Indian games (cricket, carrom) and dances. Besides, different kinds of traditional festivals with dances and music were often arranged at the campus.
I was a member of the university football team and through interaction with my teammates on the pitch I learned more about Indians: they have an incredibly high level of teamwork (this was noticeable outside the pitch, too), they support and help each other. They accepted me, and we went through a lot together, because football games with other universities were like real battles.
What about accommodation for exchange students? Where did you live and how were you received?
They provide separate rooms in dormitories, but they are allocated chaotically, so you can get a room in a new or an old dormitory. I got the old one. But I cannot say it was bad: the room was large and well-lit, there was a balcony, a huge wardrobe, 2 desks and a personal bathroom.
What places in India have you visited?
I haven't managed to visit other places, only Ahmedabad. Initially, I wanted to concentrate on my studies, because I knew that I was going to a very prestigious place and that I'd have to study a lot.
Ahmedabad is a typical Indian city with cows in the streets and an insane number of scooters and auto rickshaws, but this city is notable because Mahatma Gandhi lived and fought for independence here.
Tell about the financial aspect of life in India to those who are going to visit it.
Even with my modest budget I felt that life in India is less expensive than in Russia: everything is quite cheap. Probably, because of the bottom of the pyramid business approach (a business concept where the focus is on the poorest social groups, the so called "bottom of the pyramid") giant companies sell their products at a very low price, but as long as this part of the pyramid is the most "populated" one, they get profit anyway. Yannis Christodoulou, professor of Modern Strategic Analysis course at GSOM SPbU, said that the cheapest toothpaste in India will most likely be produced by a giant company, and his words were confirmed.
However, for some reason, coffee, some hygiene items and apples are quite expensive in India.
Did you have any additional unexpected expenses?
The most unexpected expense were fees from a list that I got after confirmation from IIMA, that were not mentioned anywhere before. The sum was 97,500 rupees (89,000 rubles). Of course, it included accommodation and learning materials, but anyway the sum was unexpectedly large.
In addition, I found out that I had to pay monthly utility bills (about 500 rupees). When I used the air conditioner it could be even 1000 rupees. In the new dormitory there were no monthly bills.
To summarize my impressions, I'd like to say that before this trip to India I had no idea how emotionally close I'd become with this country, its traditions and mindset.