The social conditioning of defining oneself through gauging his/her achievements or introducing oneself with a set of ostentatious bullet points on the CV has led us to this new world, where our stories are being labelled with success or failure, rather than being heard. Although I am not in favor of completely discarding this idea, I would beg to differ from that at least in this piece of writing.
Instead of telling you where I stand in terms of my success, let me start with a different perspective which rather sounds a bit dull and mundane. Unlike others, my life in academia started from a failure. Yes! a failure that made me reconcile with what I would like to do, and more importantly what I could do at that moment. I couldn’t pass in medical entrance examination and therefore started a career in Chemistry from Presidency University, Kolkata simply because I was feeling like doing it.I had no clue whatsoever. The only thing that was quite clear is that I was good at chemistry compared to any other subjects, if that counts as a justification to what I decided.
Following which I did my post-graduation from IIT Bombay in 2018, which is by the way is a great place to be motivated in modern science and technology. Moving on, I decided to engage in serious research and thus started pursuing a PhD in chemistry. Nowadays, I really love working in the lab and thinking about new scientific ideas, and concepts.
The whole purpose of this introduction is to prove that, failure is undoubtedly a subjective idea. And secondly, there is no such thing called ‘brilliance’ as a necessary criterion to pursue science. To paraphrase Feynman’s words, understanding science doesn’t require intelligence. It is only through hard work and consistency; one masters in this field. In my opinion, anyone who loves to be a chemist or a physicist, can potentially be able to make a career in that field through pure hard work and inspiration. So, if you are reading this, please consider PhD as an option if you would like to, no matter what grades you have in standard and substandard exams.
On a practical note, you need only one impactful research idea in your PhD career to become successful. If you succeed in getting that no matter where you are or who you are working with, your purpose as a scientist is served. Rest are all uncertainties, as can be found in every other job. So, don’t think too much and take yourself lightly!
If you are planning to apply for an overseas PhD position, I would like to give you a head start by saying that it can be stressful at times. Usually, the application process takes a great deal of time and effort during your graduation year. It is an intense period of 10-11 months that starts with the preparation for GRE and TOEFL. Interestingly, these two exams are getting lesser and lesser importance with the evolving student admission process since these exams judge primarily on your communication skill. Although, there might be other popular consensus about TOEFL or GRE, which might as well be taken care of if someone wants to.
I can imagine at least in chemistry that several US schools nowadays give more priority to the coherence in between your CV and SOP. By coherence, we mean how well your CV, Letter of recommendation and SOP complement each other and help the committee to understand your research motivation and existing skill sets. Also, if possible, one can write a research proposal based on the work they intend to participate in. It is important to consider that too generic a proposal might be inefficient in grabbing attention of the selection committee.
If you are applying to Europe, it is important to decide your area of interest beforehand since the research position is usually tied up with some specific project goal. However, not knowing your specific research goal is not a disadvantage, especially if you are applying to US. Choosing a research group in the first year of grad school is possibly the most crucial step of grad life. There are a couple of things that bothered me when I was going through this stage. Let me share those concerns/aspects with you.
Keeping a broad mind
As per the standard consensus, research in any primary field of chemistry (Organic, Inorganic, Physical and Biological) can be further sub-divided into fundamental and application-based research. However, there is no distinct division between these fundamental and application-based subfields, since no one knows where one subfield ends and the other one starts. Moreover, it is important to consider that there is no hierarchical structure among these sub fields, and therefore we must refrain from all sorts of prejudices while choosing our field of research. As a true researcher, we should be able to appreciate both extremes equally and focus more on the interconnection and the synergy between the two. Choose your research topic based on what enthralls you and will keep you going for five long years; instead of any hierarchical standpoint.
Narrowing down on Guide
The second important aspect to me is choosing a faculty advisor. Frankly speaking, there are two primary thought processes which usually work in the backdrop. Those are respectively ‘name slash fame’, and ‘coolness index’ of the supervisor among his students. I believe this is a personal choice, and therefore I leave it to you. At the end, it’s all about making the right balance in life! Whatever you decide, always try to appreciate science and keep learning.
Finally, I would like to conclude by saying that PhD life is neither great, nor bad. It just stays as normal as any other journey, which can be experienced differently depending on which seat you choose; like how you are operating in your research group, or in your personal space and how poised you are to deal with your social life. I haven’t really experienced it enough so that I can give you some suggestions on this. But I am sure that everyone finds their own way to stay happy and satisfied during the PhD year, no matter how strange that sounds.