The Road Not Taken: A Path To Research Careers

The Road Not Taken: A Path To Research Careers

Guest Author | May 24, 2021

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Krishna Ramayajam, PhD, a scientist at Medical University of South Carolina (Class of 2017) writes: 

It has been a journey for me as a scientist that started way back in my undergraduate degree, several unknown stations and destinations that I have travelled across to reach where I am. NIT Rourkela was the station where I stopped for completing my PhD, a lot of good things happened, 5 international publications from my PhD thesis, many international conference presentations, international awards to travel and present our research in Canada and China. Everything happened while I was a graduate student at NIT Rourkela. The journey has continued even after coming here. Recently, I was awarded the first prize in a department symposium here. To sum up, if I can do it so can you.

One thing is for sure, every step taken needs an effort, a plethora of key and strategic decisions and the hunger to succeed. You might be wondering what I am talking about? Hey, I am talking about you, me, and every other person who has a dream that tells you that it is possible. 

Today, I will give you my personal opinion on how to approach a career in research and let me tell you, it takes some serious passion, drive, hunger, perseverance and a lot of adjectives that can describe dedication and patience. 

Let us look at it one by one. You are in an undergraduate degree still figuring out life, in general, teenage is the best time to figure out life in an independent setting and coming out of cocoon transforming into beautiful butterflies. While you are at it, start in your 2nd year of the undergraduate degree and look for getting your mind trained to implement small research projects. Look around you, see the problems around you and try to answer them through simple solutions, apply your degree/education to solve issues around you. You will be amazed at how innovative you can be and this approach to problem-solving and asking questions is in a nutshell is called research. There are some useful fellowships that you can target as an undergraduate student, like the Indian Academy of Sciences fellowship where one can visit a prestigious research lab across India and do research in the summer, try to understand where your passion lies. Then there are institutes like IISc and IIT Kanpur who have their own summer research program, there are programs like Khorana fellowship and many more for those wishing for summer internships abroad. The world is an ocean so do not limit your expression and once you start looking at that you will surely find some interesting research internships/projects. 

Now that you have identified your research area at the beginning of the third year of engineering (6th semester), try to ask yourself, do you want to pursue research as a career or need some more time to figure that? If the answer is yes, then start looking at entrance exams, you can appear GATE and pursue MTech/PhD directly after engineering in IITS/NITS or research institutes like IISc, CSIR labs. MTech or MS program if you are unsure, PhD if your cent per cent sure that your passion is research. Of course, after PhD, you can decide whether academia or industry is where you belong, but a PhD makes you an expert in a niche field. This option is recommended for people who wish to stay in India.

The second option is to look for a masters or PhD program in institutions abroad that require entrance exams like GRE and language testing like TOFEL or IELTS. My suggestion is to decide firmly what augurs well for you by the 3rd year and have a streamlined choice and follow that religiously. Along with your research internship and entrance exams, can you present your research work at an international conference or publish your work in an international journal that would be an asset. With a strong CV, statement of purpose and research profile you can even try IVY league schools. Nothing is impossible, it is just our exposure that decides where we eventually end up. Some people are smart to figure out themselves while others learn by doing it. I was from the latter school of thought and therefore would want to share that experience so that everyone transforms into the former category.

The graduate school applications in India test your technical knowledge of a subject whereas the application for degree programs abroad looks at an applicant's complete package. The larger goal of this article is to infuse a meaningful dialogue among the young NIT Rourkela undergraduates, to ask their inquisitive minds whether research is their cup of tea or not. If research is your cup of tea, then the road ahead is a long and arduous one, but let me tell you that the satisfaction is immense, at least that is what I envisioned when I started walking the first steps. Obviously, with the COVID situation, everyone understands how important scientific contributions are, without that, I am sorry, but we would not have had vaccines in such a short span of time. This is just a small example from the list of various innovations that we use in our day to day life that are a result of research and development. For someone who wants instant results and achieves everything in a jiffy, this career track might not pan out well. Think about what you want from your life, the sooner you ask this question to yourself, the better.

Ask your immediate seniors, network with your alumni who have done that to understand what it takes. Do not be shy to ask or seek help, you will be surprised how kind the world is. With this, I think you can always ask me any specific queries, I would be more than happy to help people in a way I can. One article is frankly not enough to put everything out. But I have tried honestly to put forth my views in the best way possible.

Adios! Keep asking meaningful questions!

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