From medicine to foreign services, the transition might sound strange, but then he says the experience has been enriching, much more than he had expected. Meet Dr Sumit Seth, the doctor-turned-bureaucrat. “The best thing”, he says, “is that he learned Spanish.” Curofy had a word with him, in English of course, and here is how it went.
Curofy: From medicine to forensics to Indian Foreign Service; how and why did this transition come about?
SS: The transition was not abrupt. It was a gradual evolutionary process. It all started way back in 1996, when I was in my 2nd Prof. (Professional year). In those days, the 3rd year of medical college was considered a “Honeymoon” year. There used to be no exam in that particular year of MBBS and medical students got the chance to explore the world outside medical books, demos and lectures, and could indulge in extra-curricular activities. For me, that turned out to be a watershed year, as I had the fortune of meeting some retired Ambassadors, including the legendary late. Shri. J.N. Dixit. My conversations with them inspired and convinced me to join the Foreign Service.
I joined Forensic Medicine as a hedging strategy. It was too risky for me to appear for civil services sitting idle, unemployed, simply preparing for the exams. I couldn’t afford that luxury. So I chose to join MD. in Forensic Medicine as there was no night duty nor emergency. It was a 9 to 5 job,5 1/2 days a week, with plenty of time to study Geography, Political Science, History, Psychology and so on, and at the end of the month, a salary cheque to pay for books and the fees of coaching institutes.
I didn’t manage to qualify for the exam on my first few attempts. I became disillusioned and dropped the plan of Civil Services altogether. I started working seriously towards making my career in Forensic Medicine. I happened to become the youngest postgraduate of Forensic Medicine in India. In 2004, I received an offer to write a book “Review of Forensic Medicine”. I wrote this book keeping in mind ‘the student’ and not just ‘the subject’. The book was received very well by medical students. After a series of failures, these successes helped restore faith in myself.
A few months later, I had another offer to write a book, this time on Geography for Civil Services. I liked the idea of replicating what I had done in my previous book. Since I had one attempt left for the Civil Services, I thought of reattempting the exam (after a gap of 2 years) just for the sake of consolidating latest study material for writing this book on Geography. I also began using the internet (read Google) to research my book. It was like studying the subject, de novo
I began writing my manuscript imagining I was a Geography teacher. My focus shifted from impressing the examiners to helping future aspirants. This shift in focus changed my method of study.
Since I had started enjoying teaching in medical college, investigating homicides, visiting crime-scenes and appearing as expert witness in courts – feeling very Sherlock-esque! I no longer felt inclined to abandon my career as a doctor in which I had invested almost 10 years. I told myself
“I can only leave all that for one service – the Indian Foreign Service.”
This Service provides a unique opportunity to live multiple lives within one life and offers, moreover, an opportunity to represent one’s country on an international stage in a meaningful way. So I chose the IFS.
I hope I have been able to answer the how and the why of this transition. You will have guessed by now that my book on Geography is still unpublished
Curofy: Tell us about your journey in the Foreign Service; where have your represented India during your career?
SS: I got 42nd rank and was 5th in the merit among the candidates who had opted for the IFS. The journey began in the Queen of Hills, Musoorie where the entire batch of Civil Services had their foundation course at Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy for Administration LBSNAA. It was an intense, unforgettable experience, which helped create life-long networks across services. Then came a year-long training programme at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). The training of an IFS Officer is multi-hued; including seminars, panel discussions, simulation exercises, attachment with the Armed Forces, Industry Associations, Cultural Institutions, visit to Indian Embassies in the neighbouring countries, tête-à-tête with retired ambassadors, eminent persons and the amazing 15 day, ‘MTV roadies’ like Bharat Darshan. After this one-year training, I was allocated the foreign language of my choice, Spanish, and thus I did on the job training (desk attachment) in the Latin America and Caribbean Division of the Ministry of External Affairs.
I went to Madrid, Spain for my language training, after which I was posted as Second Secretary to the Embassy of India in Bogota, Colombia. I’m presently working at the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations, Geneva. Before commencing my current assignment, I was in New Delhi, entrusted with the responsibility of steering the # digitaldiplomacy for the Ministry of External Affairs. I was the first IFS Officer to do so. I received the prestigious Web Ratna Award on behalf of the Ministry for outstanding digital content. I have had the chance of accompanying the Vice-President and the Prime Minster on their visits abroad as the Deputy Chief of Protocol, which took me to places like Los Cabos, Mexico to Cu Chi tunnels in Vietnam.
The journey has been extremely enriching, full of diverse experiences, some of them surreal. Much more than I had dreamt of.
Curofy : Despite your busy schedule, what contributions have you made to the field of medicine?
SS: My book “Review of Forensic Medicine” is now in its 5th edition. It is read by medical students, medico-legal experts, lawyers, police officers, journalists covering crime-beat and professors who write questions for exams. In addition, I write a Web-log on Forensic Medicine ( https://www.facebook.com/ReviewFMT ) which has more than 16,000 followers around the globe. The frequency of my writing has decreased progressively, but my interest in the subject is very much alive. I keep updating the blog as per the current trends in competitive exams during my leisure time, which I must confess is getting progressively less and less.I am pleased to be able to give something back and help medical students, in a small way.
Curofy : Medico-legal cases are on the rise in our country. What are the main reasons,according to in your opinion, for the meteoric rise for such cases?
SS : I don’t think there is a meteoric rise in the incidence of crime, but I could be wrong as I’ve been away from the ‘scene of crime’, for almost a decade, now. There could be multiple reasons, from more efficient monitoring & reporting systems to an improved Forensic Investigation Infrastructure. With a synergistic combination of 24*7 (twenty four by seven) news channels and social media, public awareness has definitely increased. The pressure on investigating agencies is immense.
Curofy : What advice would you like to give to a medical student who is aspiring to enter the Civil Services after MBBS?
SS : Preparation for this exam has an opportunity cost. One should have a fallback plan for one’s career, as there is no certainty of success in this exam.
As far as the exam is concerned, there is no magic wand. One has to learn to read the pulse of the Civil Services Exam, which is divided into three stages: the Prelims, the Mains and the interview. The prelims require speed, sharpness, extensive knowledge and the skill to tackle Multiple Choice Questions. For Mains, one should prepare personal notes of what one reads. Reading per se is not sufficient. Writing practice & revision are must to consolidate, what one studies. One should strive to gain a threshold understanding of the subject in order to write a coherent essay within the time-limit. The text should be both concise and precise. The interview requires long-term preparation. It takes time and effort to groom one’s personality. A pleasant demeanour, eloquence, the ability to think on one’s feet, and both wide and focused reading habits are some of the indispensable traits of a distinguished and mature person.
Even if one doesn’t succeed in this exam, the journey of preparation in itself is very rewarding.
Curofy : Do you think social media plays a big role in networking for doctors?
SS : Social Media plays a crucial role in networking in general and can definitely help doctors build professional linkages. It is an important tool to create ambient relationship with friends, acquaintances, patients. Important instrument of image/ brand management. Social Media has its pitfalls. It cannot substitute one’s professional acumen. Using social media for professional success requires training. Some people pick it up intuitively but for the majority training is recommended. I must confess, I have taken professional training on handling social media myself from experts at Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.
My advice to doctors is, do use social media but only after learning the nuances of riding this ‘beast’.
Click here to download