The quirks and perks of doing a PhD in life sciences

One of the most important life stages of every life science researcher is inevitably the coarse-grained five years of doctoral degree. While the earlier stages of life science education are majorly concerned with inculcating the fundamentals and theoretical aspects of research, a PhD is unseemly designed to test the limits of the budding scientist in terms of patience, perseverance and stress-management. A PhD program is a hard-boiled commitment towards research and one needs so much of endurance and problem-solving ability to finally become a seasoned researcher! But then, there remains always this debatable argument of whether to pursue a PhD in India or abroad. A highly ambitious Indian life-science enthusiast could set down a number of reasons to why a PhD in a foreign country is much coveted over a PhD in India, who would otherwise sing patriotic praises for his motherland!

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PhD in India Vs Abroad

Firstly, the research and development activities in India are seen to make a snail-paced progress when compared to the other developed countries. India is gradually making an unimpeachable impact in the area of biotechnological research on an international scale, though having the potential to perform much better. Research in India is also hampered sometimes due to the unavailability of appropriate consumables and instruments, which is not the case in highly industrious nations like USA. Since a PhD tenure is limited and time is very precious in a competitive research environment, one cannot afford spending a lot of time for importing chemicals and enzymes needed for the experiment. Whereas it becomes increasingly feasible to pursue high-end research when the access to necessary equipments and supporting excipients are ready in hand! Also funding and bureaucracy are some key factors driving students to look for opportunities abroad, where the ambience is collaborative and focussed on science.

Indian academia is designed such that the students have a much wider knowledge-base while lacking the practical experience and technical specializations. It is the other way around in foreign academia, and scientific discussions become a part and parcel of everyday life there. Except for a few good institutes, scientific conferences discussing original research are seldom organized in India. Science communication is based on the traditional art of story -telling , which should be done for the dissemination of knowledge about the novel findings. It is more important to talk science everywhere than to document the scientific breakthroughs and keep them confined to research papers. That is exactly how science evolves with the pivotal questions like why? where? and how? a particular biotransformation reaction occurs. There are several such reasons that become rejoinders for the question- “Why a PhD in abroad is more valuable than in India?”

Direct PhD over Masters

Another big confusion among the amateur research aspirants is, whether to go for a direct PhD after undergraduation or to pursue a master’s degree first and then go for a doctoral program. This is more a subjective question to be answered than an objective one. It completely depends on the student’s confidence about his/ her area of interest in research. Since PhD is a long-term engagement, one cannot jump into an unknown discipline in science without prior knowledge and then regret for years to get relieved from the race. Pursuing a master’s degree for two years before a PhD helps to keep the options open; to introspect and decide on which field the student is interested in. It also helps the student procure ample research experience before entering into the scientific race. But there are increasing number of students opting for a direct PhD program over master’s, in countries like USA and Malaysia. However, a direct PhD program is not offered in European countries. When the student is clear about his/her research interests and career goals, there is no greater necessity for an additional two years of post-graduate study. A suitable research internship in the respective field and its allied fields would do for the practical experience. Also supplementary studying about the field through non-guided platforms like internet would be sufficient to cope up with the suddenly expanded syllabus. Another big advantage is that one can avail a doctoral degree at a relatively younger age and hence get settled much earlier in life!

How to search for research positions and relevant entrance exams?

Most of the open positions for PhD are advertised in different websites such as TAIRJOBSJOBVECTOR etc. Additionally the webpages of many universities also roll out the vacancies in their various departments. So these are also potential places to keep an eye on. It is also important to look at the QS world ranking of the universities based on the subject area. One must look at the subject-wise or department-wise rankings while shortlisting the universities and must not decide merely from the overall ranking of the university. Another good idea is to attend the educational fairs and conferences organized annually by various reputed universities to get know about their research works and about the programs offered.

While GRE was once considered as a major entrance exam in most of the universities, it is completely waived off in the past few years, though some universities ask for the GRE score in optional categories without strong demand. Before deciding on which English proficiency test to write, like opting between IELTS and TOEFL, it is better to first decide on the country one wants to study. Each geographical region prefers certain competitive tests over others. Having a priority list and preparing for the exams specifically saves a lot of time, stress, and money.

Cultural shocks while migrating to a foreign country

It is quite normal to experience cultural shocks when moving from India to Europe especially. One would find a lot of differences in the food habits, the vogue of outfits, their way of living and most importantly the language spoken. An elementary learning of the language there, would come in handy at times. As said in the proverb, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do“, it is very important to adapt to the place.

To tell in Darwin’s style, it’s important to follow the theory of adaptive radiation in order to survive as the fittest of races, or else one has to struggle for existence in the suddenly mutated environment that would look completely way out!

Reading about the culture of the country or going through experiences shared by students can help develop a positive outlook and become familiar with a few cultural cues. Some good tips would be to make some local friends and initiate conversations with people from different backgrounds. One should not be hesitant to voice out opinions even if the language and accent varies. It is also good to spend the first few weeks exploring the new city and sign up for different student union clubs at the university. Another way to overcome the cultural shocks is to accept and appreciate the positives in the culture of the place without being overly critical.

Cost of living, stipend and reputed institutes

It is very important to consider the monetary aspects like the stipend and expenditure while moving to a foreign country, since everyone cannot afford to spend lakhs and lakhs of money. In this regard, the cost of living and the stipend varies from place to place. For instance, in Malaysia the approximate cost of living is about 400-600 Malaysian ringgits per month. The accommodation expense depends on the area one lives in, as the rooms closer to cities or posh places would cost more. Excluding room rent and any other tuition fees, about RM 800 (around INR 14, 000) should be good for food and other grocery expenses. Some good Universities/Institutes to start a PhD in life sciences in Malaysia are: The University of Nottingham, Malaysia Campus [Semenyih, Selangor], University of Monash (a branch campus of the Australian university) [Subang Jaya, Selangor], Taylor’s University [Subang Jaya, Selangor], Universiti Sains Malaysia [Georgetown, Penang], and Universiti Putra Malaysia [Seri Kembangan, Selangor].

In Australia, the average scholarship money is INR 15,00,000 per annum with small annual increments. Some research institutes would give a top-up of INR 1,00,000 per annum. And about half of the stipend can be saved by the student each month after spending on the essentials. Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Brisbane are some notable universities to look for a PhD in Australia.

An approximate salary for PhD students in Taiwan is 60,000 INR in which about 25,000-30,000 INR could be saved after taking care of the basic expenses. A newly admitted student would require about 1.5 lakh INR to start a life in Taiwan and the fees can be paid either using the complete stipend of 2 months or using the savings of 3-4 months. Some popular institutes to start a PhD in Taiwan  are: TIGP (research program affiliated by different universities), NTU (National Taiwan University), NTNU (National Taiwan Normal University) and the other universities associated with TIGP provide separate admissions as well.

In Canada, the average salary given for a PhD student in INR is 1 to 1.5 lakhs and around 1 lakh would be sufficient for a newly admitted student to start a life in Canada. Some good universities for a Ph.D in Canada are TorontoMcGillUBC and McMaster.

In Norway, the average salary ranges from 2-2.5 lacs rupees per month and the cost of living for most people would range from 1.2-1.5 lacs per month. For a newly admitted student it is recommended to carry a minimum of the basic one-month salary while flying for the first time, excluding flight expenses. The University of Oslo (UiO) is a reputed university in Norway for pursuing Life Sciences. For plant and animal sciences, The Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) would be a better place to study.

PhD is a journey!

Unlike any other professional degrees, a PhD demands more patience and analytical skills in both personal and professional landscapes. Just like a journey, it has planned and unplanned events which would teach a lot of life-lessons. The more one fails, the more one learns and a smooth drive is generally not advisable to bring out the best inside the researcher. When there are bouts of frustration, it is important to take care of personal health and mental stability as well. A PhD can be truly enriching if one invests a lot of time to learn new things all day. On the other hand, a PhD can turn out to be negative if the student is into it for a degree, or as a career step, and has a fascination for discovering something massive every day! If the student is excited about the problem statement and wishes to push the boundaries of scientific reality (no matter how minor this push is), a PhD can be very rewarding.

During the PhD term, one might face several downfalls and hurdles and these could be due to either the student’s own errors or from the supervisor’s side. The former can be rectified to some extent, while the supervisor’s misdemeanors are not in the student’s hand to control . So choosing the right supervisor is critical while it also involves a bit of luck.  Research involves many trials and tribulations and thereby it becomes tiresome to get the desired results. One can overcome the frustration that usually accompanies such long- term research by simply believing, “Every negative result is also a good result!”. The key is to consider every negative result as one step forward rather than backwards. With every negative result, one gets to reassess the experimental design and only that enables to get closer to the desired positive outcome. Hence it’s just a part of the learning process. A plant bears fruits only when it is constantly nourished with nutrients and water and such is the case with scientific research. Meditation, acceptance of failure and troubleshooting are like nutrients and water that act synergistically to produce the possible outcomes.

During the tedious journey of a PhD, there will be both good days and bad days. One need not be too hard on oneself on the bad days and shall take time to give some words of self-credit on the good days. Most importantly, one should not worry too much, since it will all work out in the end. The best advice given would be to follow one’s passion, find what the person is good at and enjoy shaping the path of PhD, based on that!

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