Alumni Speak

“I am thankful to Apeejay School, Noida for sending me to Japan as a student ambassador. My aspiration to be a diplomat stemmed from that experience”

Indian Foreign Service officer, Ms. Smriti Mishra, an alumnus of the school, gives a glimpse of her school days, officer training and work profile. In an interview, she also provides tips for Civil Services aspirants

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Smriti Mishra [IFS 2019] awarded the President’s Gold Medal for Best Officer Trainee at the 94th Foundation Course conducted in Mussoorie.

Ms. Smriti Mishra’s decision to become a part of the Indian Civil Services was formulated during her years at school. The young diplomat says, “The idea of representing India in another country has been captivating for me since I was 16.” This once-shy kid at school is now a dynamic officer of the Indian Foreign Service. So, where did her journey start and what challenges did she overcome? Ms. Mishra elaborates in an interview. Edited excerpts:

Please tell us about your educational journey.

I am an alumnus of Apeejay School, Noida. After class 12, I studied Economics at the Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC), University of Delhi and then went on to do a Master’s course in International Relations from the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

When did you decide to consider Civil Services as a career choice?

I was quite young when my father introduced me to the Civil Services and indicated that working in government would be professionally and personally fulfilling. He thought that given how much I enjoyed reading and learning, I could potentially consider this. These ideas became clearer in my head when I went to Japan as an exchange student under the Japan-East Asia Network of Exchange for Students and Youths Programme (JENESYS). For 10 days, we were India’s “student ambassadors” in Japan. For a 16-year-old, it was incredible and I realised that representing my country and becoming a part of India’s growth could become a potential career for me.

How do you look back at the time you spent in Apeejay School, Noida?

Looking back, my time in school was enriching and rewarding. I was in Apeejay School, Noida from classes Nursery till 12. I was a shy kid in school, but always curious. I thoroughly enjoyed reading, creative writing and public speaking. I could not be more thankful to the school for the opportunities it provided. My teachers looked beyond my rather shy demeanour and spent considerable time and energy in polishing and honing the skills I had. They have played a key role in shaping my personality and worldview.

How and when did you crack the Civil Services examinations?

After completing my degree at JNU, I cleared the Civil Services Examination and became part of the Indian Revenue Service. I was fortunate to work with very encouraging seniors and colleagues, at an important time in the country’s indirect tax administration: the introduction of GST. But there was a nagging thought in the back of my mind that if I did not give the examination another shot, I would always wonder “what if..” I had gone down this road to become a diplomat, and so, I reappeared for the examination in 2018. I finally achieved my goal in April 2019, when I ranked 116 in the examinations.  

What basic training do officers receive once they are selected?

The training begins with the Foundation Course at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie. For an initial period of 3 months, officers from across the services converge there. While one is trained in important subjects like law, administration, public policy, economics etc., there is also emphasis on the development of emotional and social skills that the job requires.

For service-specific training, we move to our respective parent academies. Indian Foreign Service Officer Trainees are trained at the Sushma Swaraj Institute of Foreign Service in New Delhi. There, we undergo intensive modules in Foreign Policy and Diplomacy. Post this, trainees are attached briefly to one of the Divisions in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to learn on-the-job. The next stage of the training happens in Indian embassies abroad, where we are first posted as Third Secretaries. This is an intense time where we are expected to work at the Embassy and get exposed to the various functions. We also have to attain a high level of proficiency in the language of the country of posting. This leads to a truly immersive experience and one gets an insight into the country’s culture, traditions, and the way of thinking. As a diplomat who is also a student, one straddles two worlds; the learning curve is steep. My first posting was in Berlin, Germany, where I was working at the Indian Embassy until recently.

Ms. Smriti Mishra at Embassy of India, Berlin

Now that you are back in India, what’s up next for you?

I am currently working as an Under Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), as desk officer for Germany. My recent stint in Berlin and knowledge of the German language have helped me here. My current assignment has made me appreciate how the various ministries work in their respective domains, and how the parts come together as one Team India. I now understand the role of international partnerships, steered by the MEA in India’s growth story and how these collaborations make a positive tangible impact in people’s lives.

It is an assumption that the Foreign Service is all about travelling abroad and having a great and ‘glamorous’ life, how true is that?

A few decades ago, when very few Indians sought work abroad, this may have been the assumption. But now, with the Indian diaspora making its mark in all corners of the world, I do not think living and working abroad are associated with ‘glamour’ anymore. Diplomats do spend a considerable period of time working abroad, but like in any job, we have targets and deliverables that must be accomplished. What I would like to point out as a very appealing aspect of the job is the fact that we are exposed to many different cultures, which can be rarely found in any other job. The agility in us to adapt to different circumstances and perform our roles effectively in diverse work cultures becomes a great life skill.  

They say that there is no better place than home. Did you miss India during your posting in Germany?

Yes, particularly as travel was restricted due to the pandemic. But every time I felt homesick, I would marvel at how far we have come technologically as a country. For my seniors, who had no WhatsApp or FaceTime, it would have been far more difficult to manage. Presently, I could be in touch with my family at the click of a button!

For aspirants wanting to join the Civil Services, could you give some tips?

I am of the belief that the Civil Service examinations have multiple variables and throw up so many surprises that advising aspirants is quite a tall task. But I can give some tips on what to avoid, what not to do, from my own experience of writing the exam. Wise are those who learn from the mistakes of others! First would be the tendency of gathering material and referring to a lot of sources, it’s a different kind of Fear of Missing Out where you feel you have missed an important book/source. My word of advice here would be to learn from a few, reliable sources to get your concepts right, and widen the scope only when the former is done thoroughly. The second tip would be to try and adopt a multi-directional approach towards issues. This requires training oneself mentally so that when reading about a particular topic, the mind can make connections and interlinkages. If one has this orientation while preparing, the exam itself will not be stressful. The third tip would be the importance of knowing where to stop. I would often get so engrossed in reading about a particular topic that interested me, I was left with hardly any time for the others. The exam does not require one to write a mini-thesis for every question. One must give adequate time and attention to every subject, especially the low-hanging fruits, to maximise the chances of success.

Your advice for school students?

At the cost of sounding preachy, I can only advise young students to always be open to learning: from people, circumstances, one’s experiences and the experiences of others. We live in a competitive world, where there is pressure to excel all the time. Of course, one must strive to excel, after all, “Soaring high is our nature.” But young people should also consciously appreciate the learnings that lie outside the classroom because they help one acquire essential life skills.I would also encourage young students to develop hobbies. Life as a working adult is often demanding and hectic and hobbies come to our rescue and offer a creative outlet when that happens.

Mrini Devnani is Senior Correspondent (Newsroom). She covers student achievements, interviews and contributions for the website. She was a former Correspondent covering Edutech for the India Today Group, and has a passion for Social Media and Digital Marketing. You can reach her at [email protected]

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