FAQs: A career in research

It can be a challenge explaining what it is to be a researcher to one’s family and friends who do not have much background in the same. This blog is a kind of ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ (FAQs) on a career in research (more relevant to research in the engineering discipline) that would hopefully be enlightening to both non-researchers and students who may be interested in pursuing a career in research.

1. Does research mean ‘dreaming up new stuff’?

Wish it was! All one has to do would then be to sleep uneasily and dream a lot 😉 Jokes apart, there are research hypotheses to be formulated, then there is the real hard work involved in establishing whether they are true or not and an even harder job writing it all up convincing a bunch of people that your research advances the knowledge in that area.

Depending on whether one is a researcher in the industry or in research institutes/labs or in the university, the final goal of the research may be varied. It could be the development of a new product or improving the efficiency of a current product in the industry. It could be simply developing new theories with hitherto unknown applications or the discovery of a new material (or an algorithm or a new ‘particle’ and so on) in the university. In a research institute setting, it can span the entire range of purely applied to purely theoretical research.

2. Do you really get paid to ‘read’ and ‘think’?! (This was often asked during my stint as a researcher in the industry)

Well, yes. These are some key ‘activities’ that a researcher does.

3. So what exactly does a researcher/scientist do?

Though the goals may vary depending on where one is, at the end of the day, a researcher still has to do research. There is much that is unknown about this physical world – complex connections between human beings and our surroundings, natural phenomena, cutting-edge technology that is constantly changing this world around us. A researcher’s job is, in some sense, to identify, validate and communicate these deeper connections that exist but are hitherto unknown. There is analytical thinking involved, good communication involved, a lot of perseverance and a lot of inspiration too. One can be trained in the first two, and, hopefully, with enough training and a lot of perseverance, some inspiration starts striking too! In more simple terms, let’s say there is a task in a factory that is to be performed, like drilling a hole in a tool. Then the researcher’s job could be to find out what is the size of the hole and the exact geometry of the hole to be drilled that can give the best performance of the tool. Or it could be designing a new drill that can do that drilling much more efficiently.

4. How does one identify if one has a passion for research? 

This is a tricky one. I read an article recently that talks of passion – https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/19/well/mind/the-right-way-to-follow-your-passion.html
It brings up some very useful pointers, the key one being ‘self-reflecting on your passion rather than looking for validation only from external outcomes, which may be misleading’. In any case, if you want to find out, you have to take the plunge and find out for yourself how it feels. If it doesn’t work out, there are always other opportunities. A research experience, even if it doesn’t lead to a degree, is considered valuable, as it fundamentally changes the way one approaches any problem. Moreover, one can gain research experience as early as during Bachelor study, once one has gained some knowledge in the area of specialisation.

5. Is a PhD for me? Do I need a PhD to pursue a career in research?

PhD is a long-term commitment and if you are sure of pursuing a career in research, it may be better to do a PhD than not. However, after having had a taste of the Nordic culture where titles and degrees are much less important than the skills that a person has, I would say that it is still possible to pursue a career in research without a PhD degree, though one may not have gone through the daunting but highly rewarding task of writing a PhD thesis and learn more ‘on the job’.

6. What are the career options after PhD? How much money can I make?

If you would still like to stick to research after PhD, there are the three typical paths – industry, research labs, academia. Before I go into those, I should also mention that there are some other less conventional choices too – becoming a science writer or a full-time scientific editor, or a policy-maker, or a teacher in a college with little or no research involved.

As far as research jobs are concerned, industry can be a great place to see ‘research in action’ where most of the work one does is actually used by someone else. This is rarely the case in academic research, where most work ends up in research papers that only a handful of people may ever read. Research labs offer a wider range of options in the kind of research one wants to do. However, it is expected that one becomes more independent with more experience as a researcher and is able to get one’s own funding. This becomes extreme in the case of an academic career, where one is virtually left on one’s own. As a postdoctoral researcher (a post-PhD temporary position in academia/research labs, which is my current position), there is still some ‘safety net’ in terms of a professor who would be a supervisor, but one is expected to perform research almost independently and mentor others in the research group (PhD and Master’s students). On becoming a professor (typically starting out as an assistant professor), one is entirely responsible for building one’s own research group, attracting funding from government funding agencies and industries, teaching and being involved in administrative tasks at the university. This also means that one is almost free to choose one’s scope of research.

The money one can make is really variable depending on the field of research, the industries involved and how wide one chooses to expand one’s network and attract funding. Moreover, it requires a lot of patience since it would be several years before one would get a fairly stable job.

7. On mentioning my ambitions of becoming a professor, the oft-asked question is ‘Oh! You want to become a teacher?’

True, teaching is an essential part of being a professor, but it may not even be half of the professor’s job. A professor is most often simultaneously a researcher, a teacher, a project leader, a mentor, an administrator, and there is further scope to be an industry collaborator and an influencer in the scientific community. In that sense, teaching is a relatively small part of the whole bargain and there is certainly no question of two-month-long summer vacations and ‘college timings’ working hours.

Being a professor would be a lot of work. Moreover, being highly competitive, both in the selection process and  in eventually getting a permanent position (which may not even be guaranteed after five years of starting the position in countries like the US), it may not be for everyone. Though many start their PhDs with the ambition of becoming a professor, less than 5% actually manage to do so.

This blog is most relevant to research in the engineering sciences. Pure sciences may require much more creativity and may involve an even more challenging career path.

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