Sooraj Ben KR has been busy for the past few days as congratulatory messages poured in. This 28-year-old from Mannur, Muvattupuzha, recently secured the first rank in the Indian Forest Service Examination, 2020, conducted by the Union Public Service Commission.
"It was disbelief at first. Then it turned into satisfaction and relief," Sooraj remarked on his first reaction upon hearing about the result.
This was his third attempt in the exam.
Sooraj had previously cleared the 2018 UPSC Civil Services Examination with 321st rank. Sooraj now works as an officer at the Indian Ordnance Factory Services.
[The Indian Forest Service or IFS is one of the three All-India Services. The Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and the Indian Police Service (IPS) are the other two; a common examination is held for these two and 22 other services, including the Indian Foreign Service.]
Excerpts from a Zoom interview with him.
Were you expecting to get the first rank?
This is a surprise for me. I was expecting a single-digit rank and it took me a while to realise it. I went to the UPSC site to verify. I wanted to ensure that nobody was trying to pull a prank on me. I believed it only after I downloaded the PDF of the rank list.
I was interested in the Indian Forest Services for a very long time. I studied at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Thiruvananthapuram. During my tenure there, I visited two different forest regions — one in the Theni Forest Division in Tamil Nadu and the other in Kolathupuzha in Kerala. There, I could interact with the forest officials and one of the first civil services officers I met was the DFO (District/Divisional Forest Officer) of the Theni Forest Division. I also took part in the elephant census in Theni in 2012. All these experiences gave me a lot of respect and admiration for the service.
When I started to prepare for the civil services, my target was IAS as well as IFS. I couldn't clear the cut off for the IFS in my first two attempts in the Indian Forest Service Examination. However, I cleared the Civil Services Exam with 321st rank. I decided to pursue IFS as I cleared the the Indian Forest Service Examination this year.
How was your preparation for the exam?
It did not matter if I studied for six or 12 hours every day. I was more concerned about completing the tasks that I had set for a day, a week and a month. I was also short of time. I had two months to prepare and two new subjects to cover — Forestry and Geology; these were my optional subjects and I was not familiar with them. I attended classes and I spent time on General Knowledge and English too. I kept targets and completed them and made sure I treated myself well. I gave myself rewards like sweets or something of that sort when I completed my set tasks.
What did you do to take the pressure off?
I played musical instruments and spent time with friends. I prepared for the exam in Thiruvananthapuram and it is one of my favourite cities. I took my bike and travelled around to refresh whenever I felt an urge to do so.
Was it always your dream to be a civil servant?
No. This dream came to me much later in my life. I went to the IISER to be a scientist. There I got the opportunity to work in several laboratories and realised that it was not my cup of tea. I was not able to restrict myself to the lab and be happy. While I was in the field doing ecological projects, I was happy. I was a part of several NGOs and was teaching in a few orphanages and at the National Institute of Speech and Hearing. All these experiences helped me realise that I would be better suited in the social field. This made me think of the civil services. I realised IAS and IFS suited my character. It was not a child's dream, but a very practical decision.
What are the different steps you took to ensure that you cleared this exam?
As I have a background in civil services my foundation was already set before the exam. A part of GK was covered during the preparation for the Civil Services Exam.
I had to prepare for the IFS exam as it is a technical service. Besides the exam called for a scientific bent of mind. Even the GK paper has more topics on Science and Technology as well as Environment when compared to the Civil Services Exam. The optional subjects are also important.
I went through previous years' question papers. I realised that there are a few areas from where questions are asked constantly and prepared those areas well.
A few friends in the Indian Forest Service also helped me. One among them, Ganesh, told me that IFS is an area where knowledge matters a lot. He asked me to keep reading till the last moment. I followed the advice to such an extent that prior to the commencement of the exam the security guard had to shout at me to get into the exam hall!
There was a question about the Australian bush fire and I had read about it right before entering the hall. I saw this question and I attempted it first.
Any other tips for those preparing for this exam and interview?
For the exam, I have a tip given to me by Harikishore, IAS: there are two main teachers for this exam — one is the syllabus and the other is the previous years' question papers. You cannot go wrong by following these.
I referred to question papers of the last 10 years at least and it helped.
Civil Services Exam is a very personalised exam and each person has to find one's way for onseself.
The interview is more about your confidence and the way you carry yourself. I had scored the lowest in my first interview with 143 marks. But for the second I was one of the high scorers with 198. The only difference was in my confidence. The UPSC panel have people with great life experiences. So you have to be authentic, accept your faults and be ready to realise that you are not perfect, but at the same time that you deserve this service.
You also need the knowledge needed for a civil servant, but they are looking more for your personality. It is more like a personality test.
What is the next step?
I have not thought about it. There is a lot of peer pressure to write the Civil Service Exam again for the IAS. I am very happy about the Indian Forest Service and I think this is something that can make me happy and satisfied. I am only still processing the fact that I got a good rank. Maybe on the way, I will figure it out.