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How I pivoted from science to banking against all the odds

Toronto MBA graduate Pragati Galhotra says her story is about overcoming all odds and not listening to naysayers to achieve her goal of a career in banking.

Globe and Mail Update

Pragati Galhotra is a recent MBA graduate from the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto. After a successful career as a project lead (research scientist) for a U.S.-based mining company, she set her sights on the banking industry, a challenge that proved to be difficult, but a journey that resulted in a position with one of Canada's top financial institutions. This is her first blog entry for MBA Diary.

June 16 is a day I'll never forget. That was the day I graduated with my MBA, which is a huge milestone in my life. My master of business administration degree represents years of hard work in my quest to pivot my career from science to business. At the end of the day, grit and determination helped to get me where I am today. My story is about overcoming all odds and not listening to naysayers to achieve my goal of a career in banking.

Each of us has our story to tell. My experience has shown me that my story is one of my strengths.

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I come from a small town in northwest India, nestled near the Pakistan border, away from any major metropolitan area. Being from a small town, I was not exposed to strong, career-minded women, nor was I aware of the different career choices to pursue. There was also an unspoken rule on the limits of what a woman could pursue and dream. This is true for millions of women in smaller towns and rural areas across India and in other developing nations.

Despite these social norms, I always wanted to be a "successful woman" and I was driven by this ambition, even though I had not yet determined what that success meant. Very soon, unlike many other young women in my town, I earned a master degree but was not married.

Looking again at a rather traditional future in India, I decided to pursue a PhD in the United States. This was a surprise to my family, as I would be the first one in the entire extended family to do this. I did not have a mentor to guide me in this process and was not fully exposed to the power of the Internet back then.

It was with a mix of luck and sheer hard work that I received admission at the University of Iowa for a PhD in chemistry. I became one of the first few women from my town to go abroad to pursue a graduate degree with a full scholarship.

The PhD program was intense. After four years of hard work, I graduated and soon started working for a leading mining and minerals company in the United States. As a project lead, I was one of a few women and the only international woman employed there. I had opportunities to work with teams to solve some very difficult yet interesting technical problems for the company.

After a few years, I was interested in changing my career focus to pursue an MBA to move into the banking sector. I felt this was going to be a difficult transition, but I was ready for it.

There are very few who have made a transition from deep science to a post-MBA career. Many give up. Employers think they are overqualified. Interviewers are skeptical about fit and lack of experience to deliver on typical MBA tasks.

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My strategy involved having a crisp narrative that explained what was driving me to change careers. To address potential employers' concerns, I built relevant experience through internships.

Another key element was to prepare for interviews. There are two key types – case interviews and behavioural interviews. Case interviews are just practicing problem-solving skills in a more structured format. I thought to myself: If I can do a PhD, I can do a case interview.

Regarding behavioural interviews, I reflected back on my science background and internships to prepare for those. The most crucial question that I was about to face was, "Why do you want to change careers?" Most people found it hard to comprehend. I am proud of my PhD; it shaped me as a strong, independent woman. However, at the same time, I was ready for a new direction and new horizons. I focused my response to the skills gained from the PhD and my past experiences – problem-solving, focus and determination – that I could transfer to a post-MBA career.

I leveraged all opportunities to perfect my answer to the quintessential question, "Why change your career?" and looked for visual and verbal cues. In my heart, I knew, "If Jeff Bezos could quit his lucrative Wall Street job to open Amazon and start again, I could start again as well."

Networking is also a very powerful tool. It is important to speak to people in the industry and understand their roles and experiences.

The Ted Rogers MBA program supported me through this challenging process, which I think is possible because of the one-on-one relationships that can be built in a niche program like this. In addition, the classes happened in the heart of downtown, which made it easier for me to network with people in the banking industry.

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Finally, I'm happy to say that I have transitioned into a new role at a banking institution. But my journey does not stop here. I hope to keep charging forward and chasing my dreams.

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