As I entered 11th standard ISC, a barrage of information on competitive exams was thrown at me and a lot of people asked me the standard question “Are you going to choose Engineering or Medicine?” given that I had chosen Science. But my mind was fixed on pursuing scientific research and I hope to give you readers a glimpse into my journey including key decision points and procedures I followed hoping that it might help you in making the same choice. I will break the journey into different time points to enable easy readability.
High School (9th and 10th)
As this was the first time one gains exposure to wider concepts and opportunities, I would only say take this time to experience things as there is yet no pressure to decide. A lot of schools have international collaborations these days, so make complete use of them.
The turning point for me while choosing my current field of study, Nanotechnology, was when I attended the NUS Science Camp while in 10th standard. This exposed me first-hand to an international research environment, where I was made aware of the current research advances and what scope there would be for future work.
If international opportunities are out of reach to you for whatever reason, either look for scholarships or local opportunities in Indian universities. A lot of universities conduct outreach programmes for school students and involvement in such programmes is great because they help you to begin understanding whether research is for you and also make a great addition to your CV to demonstrate your commitment to science.
Senior Secondary School (11th and 12th)
A lot of us are under the pressure of performing well in board exams and competitive exams but this phase is extremely crucial, especially if you are applying to universities abroad for undergraduate studies. Now is the time to convert your enthusiasm for science into something more practical – so this would involve either undertaking some laboratory/research shadowing or contributing to your independent research project.
The difficulty of doing this depends on your field. For example, it might be easier to write a code to solve a programming problem rather than convince a professor to let you do some experiments in the lab. However, just try emailing professors in your area of interest stating your interest in the field and how spending time in their lab would be crucial to your future career. You may not get responses a lot of the time, but don’t be disheartened! Also in India, I saw that having contacts help, especially at this stage.
Personally, I completed an observership before the start of 11th grade at the Department of Neurovirology at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bangalore during which I gained insight into diagnostic methods for diseases such as HIV, H1N1, Japanese Encephalitis, Herpes Simplex type 1, Measles, Dengue, Chikungunya and Rabies. In the summer holidays before 12th grade, I undertook another internship at Tumkur University working on a Materials Science project synthesising nanophosphors and characterizing them, which led to a scientific publication.
I cannot stress how important these experiences were in helping me to secure further internships and Masters/PhD positions, all while helping me better understand what field I would like to pursue in the future – I now understood that I enjoyed materials synthesis and wanted it to have an impact on human health. Also, this helped start my publication record which is something of paramount importance if you want to become an academic. Obviously, universities don’t expect you to have published before undergrad, but there are a number of journals which accept submissions from school students.
Undergraduate Year 1 and 2
I moved to the University of Leeds, UK to pursue a BSc Nanotechnology course, which I thought fit perfectly into my academic trajectory. During the term times of 1st and 2nd year, I focused a lot on developing interpersonal and leadership skills through involvement with societies such as AIESEC, Women’s Cricket Club and also became an active part of the student representation system. In my opinion, involvement in such activities will help you no matter what, whether you are applying for jobs, internships or scholarships in the future. And yes, keep your grades up as high as possible if you want to pursue a PhD as competition is very severe for international students in almost any country – I currently have an 82% average, which is considered a high First Class in the UK.
In the summer of my 1st year, I returned to India for an internship at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) at the Light Scattering Laboratory as most internships in the UK was meant for 2nd years. I gained experience in Surfaced Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS), a characterisation technique that was widely used in Nanotechnology. Although the project I worked on did not completely work, it provided me with important training in wet chemistry synthesis.
2nd year was more crucial as I had three options in front of me – a study abroad year at the University of California, a year-long internship at GlaxoSmithKline or a summer internship in my university supported by the Royal Microscopical Society. I chose the second option as I felt that it would enable me to gain extended laboratory experience and experience research in an industrial setting. And I was not wrong! I worked in the Materials Science department supporting global projects on colloidal formulations using characterisation techniques such as rheology, optical and electron microscopy, and thermal analysis. This year did not just help in developing technical skills, but finer interpersonal skills such as negotiation, presenting to senior management and accounting for cultural differences. Also, it helped me understand that I would like to incorporate soft matter in my further research.
Irrespective of which country you are pursuing your undergraduate in, I highly recommend obtaining an internship in the summer of your 2nd year. There are many schemes advertised by universities and over-arching organizations, but the only way you can find out is by contacting your home university or searching on the internet for internships you might be eligible for – unfortunately, there is no shortcut process.
Undergraduate Year 3/4
Depending on what sort of degree you are doing, this may be your penultimate or last year. If it is your penultimate year, I would say try to cram in one last internship depending on what you want to next. I did mine at the University of Alberta under the UARE programme, researching on microfluidics as this was one area I had found very interesting while studying a Nanophysics module but had not explored in depth yet. I fabricated microfluidic devices using CAD modeling and 3D printing, thereby adding to my skill set. This internship proved to be yet another pivotal one as it provided me the skills to complete my final year project and resulted in another publication (in preparation).
If it is your last year, then you would need to start thinking about whether you want to study further or apply for jobs. Since I chose the former, I can only give advice about this aspect. I have applied to both Master’s and PhD programmes at the moment and detail my observations below.
Applying for Master’s Programmes in Europe: This process is quite straightforward and does keep in mind that funding is limited to international students, although there are Erasmus Mundus programmes that provide scholarships. You generally need the following documents:
Official Transcripts from undergraduate universities: Remember that these take the time to obtain, so allow sufficient time!
Statement of Purpose: This is one that I wrote for KU Leuven. Focus on how your prior study and research experience link to the programme offered and how this programme will help in your career goals.
Curriculum Vitae: Tailor it to the programme by highlighting specific internships, here is an example I used.
2 References: Ask professors who know you well, they could be research supervisors or lecturers. Sometimes work managers are also fine, if you have been out of education for a while.
Applying for Master’s Programmes in Canada: While the documents mentioned above remain the same, in Canada most universities that provide funding for international students require you to apply for a Master’s by Thesis/Research. In this case, you would have to contact individual supervisors and ask if they have funding for you before submitting an application to the university. Here is an example of an email you could use for enquiries; the format I have used has resulted in a 100% response rate so far!
Applying for a PhD in UK: The UK is one of the few countries in Europe to allow for direct progression from Bachelor’s to PhD but you should remember that funding is extremely limited! Check out University Scholarships and the Commonwealth Scholarship. While some scholarships only focus on academic excellence, others want you to have demonstrated leadership, volunteered etc., so your extracurricular activities will play a big role in differentiating you from the next candidate. Again, one generally needs to contact potential supervisors and submit documents similar to those mentioned before. An additional component would be the research proposal – this is something that you would agree mutually with your supervisor and is based on your current interests coupled with your previous experience.
What can I do with a PhD?
So far I have related to you the path I have taken to get to a PhD, but you might ask me what can you exactly do with one? Of course, you spend 3-7 years working on your personal research topic and gaining expertise in preparation for an academic career. But let me tell you that there are also many opportunities outside academia. In GSK, a lot of senior management and technical personnel had PhDs and I have also seen consultants in firms such as PwC with science PhDs. So if at any point, you decide that the long drawn academia path is not for you, there are other opportunities out there! Doing PhD will teach you time management, project management, and interpersonal skills while increasing your resilience, all of which are valuable in industry.
I have tried to condense all that I have learnt and experienced over the past 6 years into this article. But if you would ever like to obtain more information do contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me on LinkedIn, I will be happy to help!
About the Author
Akhila Jayaram is currently in her final year studying BSc Nanotechnology at the University of Leeds. Keen to pursue a career in scientific research, she has secured admission to competitive Masters and PhD programmes in universities such as Cambridge, KTH Sweden, KU Leuven and Imperial College London. She has also worked with various NGOs globally engaging in enabling access to education, empowering youth, encouraging sustainability, inspiring children to pursue science, and advocating gender equality for the past five years.