How anybody can become a scientist

EWhen we ask young children what they want to become when they grow up, we often find answers such as cricketer, pilot or scientist. However, very few children eventually go on to do what they really wanted to as a child. Most young children are thrown into the rat race of education in order to become an engineer or a doctor, or to vie for a government job. These are still considered to be the epitome of success in India.

However, times have been changing and these days it is possible for practically anyone to become a scientist irrespective of their gender, their financial or social background, and even to some extent irrespective of their educational background (whether they are class/school toppers or not). In today’s globalized world, even an average student without any source of funds can go on to become a scientist and bring laurels to his/her family and country. The only requirements that a student desirous of becoming a scientist must have are determination and perseverance .

The journey towards becoming a scientist begins in childhood, and most successful scientist today will probably relate to the fact that they wanted to become scientists from a young age. However, due to the wide range and variety of educational opportunities, these days a student can leave the decision of working towards becoming a scientist even as late as their 10th standard or 12th standard.

Most students (and their parents) are unaware of the options after completing high school i.e. 10th standard. It is widely believed that the progression is to move into a junior college (also called intermediate in some places, or 11th/12th standard, henceforth referred to as ‘junior college’). There is also another major option available at this juncture, which is the polytechnic course.

Polytechnic courses

Polytechnic courses are certified by the AICTE and consist of a course duration of three years beginning after 10th standard. These courses provide students with hands on exposure to the industry and to engineering tools and techniques. Many polytechnic courses also integrate vocational training into their syllabus, thus enabling students to be trained in particular skilled professions which might turn into alternate employment opportunities later in life.

The polytechnic route also offers some additional benefits. Students are exempted from the immense pressure and competition that takes place in the 12th standard. The 12th standard board exams are a period of extreme stress for both students and parents. Choosing a polytechnic course ensures that students can continue from 10th standard onwards without the pressure of impending board exams. This allows students to focus more on gathering knowledge and skills and learning how to implement them in the real world.

While junior college comprises of only two years of study, a polytechnic course has a duration of three years. However, polytechnic students are in no way losing out on anything beause of the facility of lateral entry . Lateral entry allows a polytechnic graduate to take admission directly into the second year of select engineering courses, thus saving one year of time which has already been expended in acquiring the polytechnic credential. Thus, the option of lateral entry puts students who have chosen to study a polytechnic course on par with those who have chosen the more conventional route of going to junior college.

While there are many arguments both for and against polytechnic courses, it is a fact that such courses address the requirements of a large section of students in India, while also producing a steady stream of employable, vocationally trained skilled workers. A polytechnic course might be very appealing as well as affordable to a student from a socio-economically weaker section of society. It is also an ideal choice for students who are looking to become employable as soon as possible in order to relieve the financial stress on their family.

The option of lateral entry allows for even such students to reintegrate themselves into the mainstream of scientific and technical education and to proceed onwards on their journey of becoming a scientist.

For more details about technical entry and how it works, refer [ARTICLE ON LATERAL ENTRY]. For more details about polytechnic courses, watch out for a special feature in our forthcoming issue.

Undergraduate degree

Lakhs of rupees are given away each year as scholarships and sometimes, much of the money set aside for this purpose is not utilised because there are no takers. Students who are under some financial strain would be well served if they spent some of their time studying about what are the various scholarships offered by the central and state governments, as well as other charitable and educational organizations. Apart from this, an education loan can also put an undergraduate degree within reach of an economically weaker student.

For more details on how students can achieve their goals through education loans, watch out for a special feature on education loans in our forthcoming issue.

Picking up a Foreign Language

One of the key things that a student can put into practice at the beginning of their undergraduate degree (or the second year, if going through lateral entry), is to start picking up a foreign language. The long duration of an undergraduate course (typically three or four years) will allow the student enough time to thoroughly pick up one foreign language without negatively impacting their undergraduate studies. The reason a student should look towards picking up a foreign language is that it opens up immense possibilities for higher education. Specifically, the european languages (German, French, Spanish, Italian etc.) provide enormous scope for a prospective student to pursue higher education in those countries. The countries in the European Union are far ahead compared to a country like India, in terms of development, economy, health, technology, and most importantly in terms of education and education related infrastructure. Some of the best universities in the world to study technical or scientific subjects can be found in Europe. Even the best IITs in India are unable to match up to the level of these European universities.

The best part about technical/science related higher education in Europe is that it is either completely free for all students, or highly subsidised . Comparatively, a postgraduate degree from a reputed university in India is much more difficult to get into and at the same time, much more expensive as well. Due to these reasons, an economically backward student will find it impossible to further his/her agenda of becoming a scientist either due to lack of funds or lack of merit. However, much higher quality education is available at world class universities in Europe for nearly no cost to the student. The only hurdle is that the student must attain proficiency in the foreign language.

While learning a foreign language can be a difficult task, the scope and breadth of opportunities that await at the end of the study can be well worth the effort. Not only will students be able to study at some of the best universities in the world, they also stand to earn stipends worth thousands of euros (which is equivalent to lakhs of rupees per month) for the duration of their postgraduate course. Thus, students who invest their time and effort in picking up a foreign language find their efforts generously rewarded later in their career.

Doctoral and Postdoctoral Studies

At this stage, when a student has completed their postgraduate study, they generally become financially independent, allowing them to continue studying further without worrying about tuition fees or housing and living expenses. Students who have made it past a postgraduate degree are already halfway through the journey to becoming a scientist. The next step is to attain a doctoral degree in the subject of choice.

This is the cornerstone for any student dreaming or aiming to become a scientist - a PhD in the subject they want to specialize in. For a student in India, options might be restricted to one of the top tier NITs or IITs, which are very difficult to get into. However, this is the juncture at which students who have opted to pursue post-graduation in Europe will find it much easier. European universities, on an average, are vastly better funded than any university in India and therefore, are able to offer stipends and PhD admissions to a larger number of students. The students also are benefited by the higher quality of infrastructure and teaching that would not have been possible in any Indian university.

However, those who have studied post-graduation in India need not feel that they have been left out. European universities also admit students directly into PhD programs, although a student who has completed their postgraduate study in a European university will find it much easier to get admission. Indian universities also almost universally provide stipends to PhD students, and a doctoral degree from an Indian university will serve the purpose just as well as a foreign university degree.

Some fields of study in science are still in their infancy in India, whereas the pursuit of these fields of study is far more advanced in European and foreign universities. Students who are moving abroad to pursue higher studies can take advantage of the high quality of teaching and infrastructure in such fields.

In physics, fields such as atomic energy, nuclear fusion, optical physical, nanotechnology etc. are extremely promising. Coming to the biological sciences, fields of study such as genomics and genetic engineering, biomedical engineering, prosthetics, biotechnology etc. are excellent choices with respect to future potential. These fields of study are relatively underdeveloped in India, but huge opportunities await students in foreign universities.

Thus, a doctoral or postdoctoral degree in any of the subjects mentioned above (or in any other science subject) qualify the student to become a scientist. By this time, students have either been exposed to intensive lab work and have become skilled scientists in their own fields, or can apply for the position of a scientist in a variety of institutions. In this way, any student coming from any socio-economic background can excel in the field of science. Therefore, as was mentioned in the beginning of the article, with only determination and perseverance, a student can achieve the dream of becoming a scientist, and that too without spending a huge some of money!