In my last article, I shared my two cents on pursuing pure sciences in India as an alternative to medicine and engineering. With this article, I am going to share my opinion on higher education in pure sciences in India and how I decided research was my calling. Since this a personal account, I have broken it down into bite-sized life lessons!
Recommended Read: Pure Science Courses After Class 12th: A Path for Young Science Lovers
Lesson #1: Expectations in life, rarely get fulfilled. One ought to keep swimming in the hope of finding their island
Having been a science-nerd since 3rd grade, my choice of subjects in high school was an obvious one. After finishing my 12th grade with a decent cumulative percentage in board exams, and despite offers to study dentistry, I chose to pursue a B.Sc. in Biological Sciences from Delhi University.
But like all good/great things, nothing that followed since admissions came easy. My anxiety about ‘what next’ after 12th had been replaced by trying to figure out my long-term career given the overwhelming number of choices and balancing my work and extra-curriculars.
My confidence in my decision to pursue science was falling apart in my final year, when IISER-Pune serendipitously selected me for a winter school in Ecology and Evolution. It was an intensive workshop, we attended lectures on genetics, animal behaviour and quantitative biology until 8 pm and then would rack our brains to solve computational assignments or prepare for exams for the respective module.
This was my first exposure to the world of research and to being taught by enthusiastic scientists!
This experience was key to the next steps in my career. The contrast between teaching colleges and research institutes helped in deciding which one was closer to my heart.
Like all good/great things, nothing that followed since admissions came easy. My anxiety about ‘what next’ after 12th had been replaced by trying to figure out my long-term career.
Recommended Read: Career After B.Sc/M.Sc: 5 Alternate Paths Beyond Research & Teaching
Lesson #2: Transitions can be a rough ride, but will be rewarding if sincerely worked towards
The transition from bachelor’s to master’s, was a rather turbulent one. I had applied for admissions to only Indian universities with a one-track-mind. It would be fair to state that applying to master’s programmes abroad, such as those in Germany, which attract a lot of Biology students would have been a good idea.
I cleared many entrance exams in India but had failed to get through the Integrated-PhD interviews at IISER-Pune and NCBS Bangalore, perhaps the best of all prospects at the time. I remember having been rejected 6 times in one week and holding more than 6 acceptance letters in the next.
Of the ones I remember, Environmental Sciences at JNU (Delhi), Forestry at FRI (Dehradun), Human Genetics and Counselling at CHG (Bengaluru), Bioinformatics at IBAB (Bengaluru), Biotechnology at MSU (Baroda) and Biomedical Sciences at DU (Delhi) were my choices.
After much deliberation and given my interest in genetics and developmental biology, I chose to pursue Biomedical Sciences at DU, although it was a close call between CHG and DU.
Many would have criticised this move, but I stuck to my interests and chose a course completely based on my interest. I would suggest that people interested purely in research try to score a position in an integrated PhD programme (possibly with the option of a master’s exit) at one of the top research institutes in India or move abroad to greener pastures directly after bachelor’s.
The Max Planck institutes in Germany have great joint-PhD programmes. Other countries in Europe which also seem to be a favourite among science students are – France, Sweden, Finland (Helsinki specifically) and Switzerland. Japan and Singapore are also attractive choices as of now.
I remember having been rejected 6 times in one week and holding more than 6 acceptance letters in the next.
Lesson # 3: Find opportunities to answer the question: “research or something else?”
After the winter school at IISER-Pune, I returned to my university full of evangelical zeal about research in Ecology and Evolution. I followed it up by writing to professors working in these sub-fields for an internship and was lucky to score one in Delhi.
The internship turned out to be a great experience! I worked for days without leave and even during my lunch breaks for a month after my master’s classes started. Nothing could drain my energy for work, not even being slammed with data analysis and writing a research paper in addition to staying for classes till 6 pm every day. This experience helped me realise how much I enjoyed working in a lab!
Reaching out and efficiently utilising opportunities are major contributing factors in the long-term. Since a career in research would require a commitment to ‘research training’ a.k.a a PhD, it would be essential to figure out whether it indeed maybe one’s cup of tea. Although books will give you theoretical knowledge, the only way to find out if you would like research is by getting your hands dirty!
There are many schools – essentially, workshops in sub-fields of science/mathematics which are held at many institutes across the country, funded by TATA institutes, DBT, SERB, IISERs, etc. – around the year, which expose participants to a sub-field in a short amount of time.
In India, one can intern through specific programmes at research institutes, examples of which are JNCASR SRF/POBE, IISc, IISER and IIT’s Summer internship programmes. The Science Academies’ Summer Research Fellowship Programme places a huge number of students into labs of their interest every year, and they cover substantial costs of the same!
There are also international schools and internship opportunities such as by DAAD, MITACS, Khorana fellowship, Charpak, Vienna Biocentre, Oxford summer schools – which will not only add research experience, but also expose you to international communities and cultures.
In addition to the programmes, writing to scientists abroad seeking internships or longer projects (such as a master’s thesis project) is also a good possibility to consider.
Although books will give you theoretical knowledge, the only way to find out if you would like research is by getting your hands dirty!
Lesson # 4: Finding and making it into a good PhD programme is a multi-step process.
A career in anything these days is not governed by strict paths but rather many small avenues coalescing into a final dynamic product. In other words, at any stage, there will be many ways to get from point A to point B, so worry not about the long-term too much!
In India, one must qualify a set of entrance exams- a combination of UGC-NET, joint CSIR-UGC NET, JAM (for integrated PhD), JEST, GATE, etc. before applying to most institutes. There are also multi-institute entrances like JGEEBILS which help qualify for over 10 institutes. Among them in biology are: NCBS, DBS-TIFR and other TIFR institutes, IMSc ( for computational and mathematical biology), MAHE, ACTREC, etc. The IITs take into consideration the GATE scores among other prerequisites to call for the interview.
For better stipend, one can also apply through the new PMRF and PMF schemes, or go for industrial PhDs, but many of these opportunities are currently open only to students of NITs, IITs and IISc.
An increasingly popular path is going for your PhD abroad, which offers better pay and opportunities, and unlike India, there are many more fellowships. Every institute has their own process and GRE scores, prior research experience (internships and personally led projects) and one’s write-ups are contributing factors in the application.
At any stage, there will be many ways to get from point A to point B, so worry not about the long-term too much.
Lesson # 5: Do not listen to what people say – they don’t know enough about you and your career in all possibility!
No matter how many articles or people tell you that a PhD is a natural progression given you have a master’s in science, do not fall for that trap. If and only if you’re interested in a career in research must you go down that path. The overpopulation of PhD holders is only turning it into a degree that features in the eligibility criteria for jobs in industry or academia.
But given how specific the question in your PhD is, you will only gain a select few skills. This means that it would not add to your skill set as much as multiple short projects would.
If you see yourself doing research in the industry, it might be beneficial to apply as a research assistant to gain skill sets that will land you a job and then follow up with an industrial PhD, if needed at all. Your pay-scale would depend both on your qualifications and ability to negotiate at any level.
As a conclusion, let me consolidate my final thoughts as follows:
Do not take any quantitative measure in academia as a measure of your capability. Where you are and where you expected to be will be different if you’re anything like me, but do not let that bough you down.
My boss’ all-time favourite advice related to work is to persevere, be patient and persist, something I think younger minds would benefit from imbibing before they take steps towards a PhD. Every step you take, would be towards a better tomorrow, even if it doesn’t seem that way sometimes. And at any point, if you feel you’re committing to too much or too fast, take a step back, take a few deep breaths or take a break. Believe me, that’s all you need sometimes!
If reading this article or life-experiences have led you to decide that research is not your calling, talk to career counsellors to look for other possibilities. If you need any help with specific doubts, leave a comment below and I shall get back to you ASAP.
My next article will be about alternative careers in science and might be worth a read too!