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Are you contemplating a career in the sciences? Then Chandrima Pal’s letter back in time to her 20-year-old self is perfect for you, to guide you through the ups and downs of a luminous career in Science and how to grab hold of opportunities.
It’s been long since I started working in Science. I started out as a graduate student, moved on to be a researcher and contributed to new work in Science, going on to become a science writer, and now in quality management of science writing. While walking this path, I moved through 3 countries, started my family and took breaks. Working with Science has given me both the deepest depressions and highest feelings of ecstasy. This journey has proved to be of many challenges and extreme fulfillment for me. Even today a new field in science and learning about it excites me, that same girl who had taken Chemistry Major in college.
Things were not so rosy some years ago. In my twenties I was a guilt ridden confused person questioning my choices. I was standing on the crossroads of parenting and a luminous science career. This letter is to that guilt-ridden woman in her twenties and to others in the Sciences who are in conflict with their career choices and family aspirations.
For some days you look very depressed and confused. You don’t talk with people about your qualifications in Science anymore. You always feel tired and when people talk about their promotions at work you switch yourself off. I am your older self and here I come to share some secrets with you about your future.
Well done! You have chosen Science for your career and overheard the humble concerns of people around you. Most women in India bow out of this option owing to a lack of opportunities and societal support. You need to nurture yourself, as you are rare.
Know the choices you have to pursue in your career, if you are looking for a PhD/MBA in a scientific domain in India or other countries. Do look for the topics that would be valid even 5-6 years down the lane and whether India is having a platform for that kind of science. Take an analytical look at the Science scene in different countries and how your topic of interest can make a difference to the existing challenges in the Sciences. Be futuristic in thoughts. For this you need to read a lot and network even more.
You shall be working in all-boys group often and you may feel overwhelmed due to differences of expression and the aggressive way men choose to work. Don’t stop talking in team meetings and participate in conferences. Don’t be afraid of being bullied or questioned. Speak your mind again and again. Be the best spokesperson for your own research and make your research sound important to others. Speak with confidence even when you are not sure about yourself.
Go for knowledge swapping coffee dates with people from other fields of Science. Listen when others are talking about their work. You pick up network circles in university open houses and conferences which will last you for decades to come. Network with the company stall representatives on the side of the poster lounge in a conference. Look beyond academics where your credentials in Science could be used (e.g., Scientific publishing houses, pharmaceutical companies, data analytic software companies). Just in case.
I know you earn really less compared to your peers in other careers, say in IT. But hey you are exploring the new and that is priceless! Be gentle with your money. Don’t spend it all on takeaways. You may not afford a full-time childcare with your meagre PhD/post doctoral scholarships. Find people with a similar state of work and life, and divide child care responsibilities among one another. You will save some money and will end up making family friends.
Pick up network circles in university open houses and conferences that will last you for decades to come. Network with the company stall representatives on the side of the poster lounge in a conference. Look beyond academics where your credentials in Science could be used.
Don’t shy from options to invest (time and money) in your career, to learn something extra, be it soft skills or marketing skills. Join an online course. Science is a field where change is the only constant, so be ready to learn always. Audit courses that intrigue your curiosity. Who knows, you may be the next Steve Jobs. Being arty and creative helps in Science too, so remain a learner always.
Long PhD period in Sciences also has days of chronic cough and depressions when nothing seems to be right. Continuous long hours of standing near a research bench and a pressure to get results in the back of the mind makes it difficult to remain healthy for researchers. Do something about this. Keep yourself healthy and creative. A weak and depressed scientist does not go very far.
Looking for mentorship only from your PhD supervisor is not enough. Find the area where you want to get mentored, and then find people who are best at it. If you are looking for ways to get a job in India while working as a PhD student in Germany, you need to find a senior in Indian Sciences. Learn from Scientific women from other countries, reach out to them in conferences and in meets and stay connected.
Science laboratories are lonely places and it is essential that you find other women your age not necessarily involved in Sciences to talk to as a peer. You are at your 20s so for god sake don’t try to emulate your 50-year-old boss. Go be a chatty, fun-loving and window-shopping girl on Friday nights. Indulge yourself once in a while, travel to places and explore life.
With Internet accessible all the time you struggle to disconnect from work. Learn skills to disconnect as a young working professional. Try not to negotiate your weekends and evenings for work. Be present for family when you are with them. Stop that nagging feeling for work. Take a break when you need to and come back to work refreshed. This is only going to help you be a guilt-free woman in the future.
Looking for mentorship only from your PhD supervisor is not enough. Find the area where you want to get mentored, and then find people who are best at it. If you are looking for ways to get a job in India while working as a PhD student in Germany, you need to find a senior in Indian Sciences.
Take time to retrospect and laugh out loud on your mistakes, talk about them to others and you become a great mentor. Remain humorous and that, my dear, will help you at work, to make friends, to a loving parent while you are nervously crossing countries and cities for work or for family.
Believe me things will be all right, may be just not the way you are planning today.
In confidence with you,
Image via Shutterstock.
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