If one is smitten by science in middle school, it is because the subject is all about exploration, creativity, fascinating projects and mostly ‘fun while you learn’. This application-based worldview of science is what motivates most students to think of pursuing it as a subject beyond school.
But by the time a student is enrolled in an undergraduate (UG) science programme, a bit of that excitement gets dampened as science is learnt from photocopied and online study material, some books and a smattering of lab practicals (Note: thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, even the lab experience has taken a beating this year). There are exceptions, of course, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) or the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), which have transformative learning atmospheres. But such learning hubs account for just a small fraction of the entire UG science ecosystem.
Sandwiched in between school and postgraduate level education, UG education does not seem to have undergone much structural or pedagogic change over the years in India. School education has evolved significantly in the last decade as schools adopt new-age learning and teaching methods. At the postgraduate level too, many new opportunities for extra-curricular learning, internships and fellowships now exist to engage the minds of science students. Steeped primarily in curricular learning, the UG science ecosystem is in need of an infusion of life so that young adults, bubbling with creative energy, do not fall out of love with the subject.
Nowadays, many STEM-UG students come armed with basic skills in computer coding, social media handling, market research and survey methodologies, communication, presentation and documentation. In the first year of UG, they quickly learn skills such as basic lab techniques and scientific literature search.
The UG science ecosystem is in need of an infusion of life so that young adults, bubbling with creative energy, do not fall out of love with the subject.
However, this large prospective scientific workforce suffers from the absence of a streamlined process to access empirical work opportunities in the form of internships, volunteering, mentorship or entrepreneurship. Conversely, by not tapping into this demographic dividend, the country’s academia and industry are losing out on a massive semi-skilled student base, keen on hands-on learning early in their scientific career. This also assumes importance in the light of India’s new skill development initiatives (Skill India Mission) and vocational learning opportunities arising out of the National Education Policy, 2020.
What work opportunities mean to UG students
Work experience at the UG level helps students become more confident about their decision to study science. It gives them a true experience of what being in science, along with all its joys and frustrations, really means. Working in a lab or with a group of researchers actively pursuing a hypothesis teaches the student many vital life skills alongside area-specific skills. Work experience helps students identify their strengths and unexplored careers, understand which skills might be in demand and how those skills can be honed. It primes young students towards a professional environment and teamwork.
Many describe their first (and often only) UG internship or fellowship as an eye-opening, stimulating experience. They come with an interest in the subject and many times leave with a purpose. These experiences help students gauge whether they are cut out for the field or not.
Work experience helps students identify their strengths and unexplored careers, understand which skills might be in demand and how those skills can be honed.
Interning at a research lab in academia or industry, a student can gain knowledge as well as recognition for his/her work. Such collaborations are generally hands-on and last for nearly 4 to 8 weeks, sometimes more. Students may also receive a stipend or certification for their work, which adds value to their career record.
Volunteering, on the other hand, can take many forms. It is a more flexible collaboration where the student can offer to work with a group of professionals on some aspect of their work that he/she finds interesting or is experienced in. This generally culminates in a letter of recommendation that facilitates the student’s admission to higher education institutes or future employment.
Mentorship is a flexible and deeply enriching exchange, where the student may or may not actively work with a mentor but gets career guidance and direction in the mentor’s area of expertise. Many STEM-UG students also come up with start-up worthy projects and ideas and could benefit from entrepreneurship guidance by incubators, funders or industrial houses.
A UG science education without work experience is like reading only the abstract and the discussion portions of a manuscript. When a student actively engages in even a small part of the research process, it’s like regaling in the deeper knowledge of the methods, the design of the scientific study and its results.
A UG student’s journey towards gaining work experience
Generally, when students reach the middle of their second year, they start looking into postgraduate courses and their eligibility criteria. This is when the importance of work experience dawns upon them. Postgraduate science courses involve lab rotations, writing dissertations and application of scientific knowledge in research-based work. Most premier colleges, both in India and abroad, prefer students with prior work experience. They give priority to students who may either have worked in laboratory settings or participated in activities such as communicating science, volunteering or organisational efforts involving the scientific community.
The search process requires the UG student to actively research his/her niche areas of interest. For example, a zoology student may be able to explore research areas in quantum biology or biophysics. The next step involves looking for the right person/researcher/academic with whom the student wishes to work. These two initial steps are very crucial in the search for the dream work opportunity. A suitable intern must then be able to express succinctly his/her understanding of the work of the mentor or opportunity provider. This involves writing a professional email that showcases the student’s preliminary research and interest in the subject.
The challenges in tracking opportunities
It would be worth chronicling the first two years of my UG science learning to illustrate the challenges. As I enrolled into a three-year Bachelor of Science (Zoology) course in Delhi University, helpful seniors and teachers primed our batch for the years to come – the first year would be the easiest, the second tough in terms of syllabus, and the third toughest in terms of both syllabus as well as planning for the future. Accordingly, I set out to plan such that I could engage in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities in the first and second years (possibly also learn a new language), and by the third year learn a set of new skills and gain some work experience.
I expected that all my peers would also think similarly and we would collaborate as well as compete with one another in this quest to learn more and be better. However, it did not turn out that way.
Just graduated from school, UG science students are absolutely new to the world of advanced science education, research and its application. Emerging from a system that runs on strict discipline and an emphasis on scoring high, UG students in India are not well equipped for exploring ideas beyond the classroom or communicating with potential mentors, teachers or seniors from whose experiences they might learn. From being disciplined, taught and handheld by teachers mostly specialised in handling children, they graduate to a free teaching environment where teachers are specialised in their subjects but the onus of learning and seeking opportunities falls on the student.
Therefore, most of my classmates and I had no inkling of what sort of work experience we might be able to look for. The most common form of work experience seemed to be an internship. However, getting one was not easy.
Emerging from a system that runs on strict discipline and an emphasis on scoring high, UG students in India are not well equipped for exploring ideas beyond the classroom or communicating with potential mentors.
Fresh into college, in my first year, I took time to understand and adjust to the world of UG education. I was also involved in several extracurricular activities, so by the time I was able to scout for internship opportunities, all internship or research fellowship applications (among the very few available for first-year students) were closed. Despite studying in a college ranked number one in the NIRF, and having a stable internet connection at home, it took me three days to list the available opportunities, and in the process, realise that I had missed most deadlines.
However, I did not want to give up. I set up an active search and managed to land two work positions with directors of eminent labs, one in India and one in Germany. Although I did not get any certification from these mentors eventually, the knowledge and experience I gained were beyond my imagination. It not only opened up my world to the evidence-driven rigour of the scientific enterprise but also how scientific research can be monotonous, stimulating, frustrating and enriching at the same time.
Global versus Indian scenario
From then on, I began exploring and creating a repository, listing out various research and learning opportunities the world over (thanks to COVID-19, learning is no longer confined to national boundaries, and even UG students can dream of conversing with global scientific leaders on a Zoom call). During this activity, I noticed that in many countries leading in scientific research, e.g. USA, Germany and UK, UG research and work experience is as commonplace and important as postgraduate or PhD level research. With numerous national level summer and visiting programmes, and research fellowships, these countries have designed efficient information channels not only for the sciences but also for interdisciplinary and application-based learning.
Although there are some UG level programmes in India, their number, magnitude, and visibility are no match to those in other science-faring countries. In an era of global open learning, when students can easily begin to explore their interests and work areas at the UG level, it is important to make the UG work experience system more efficient and accessible.
As part of the Placement Cell of my college, I noticed that very few internship opportunities needed scientific capabilities or interests. Similarly, very few science higher education institutes in India list out work experience opportunities on their websites. I get approximately five calls every week from UG STEM students inquiring if I know of any work opportunity or internship. I can seldom answer them satisfactorily.
Some websites that collate information on scientific research opportunities do exist in India. However, they either focus on a very specific area of science (thus reducing the scope for imagination, creativity and interdisciplinarity) or focus mostly on postgraduate and higher-level research.
Thus there is a great need to streamline and organise the process of informing students about the existing opportunities by making them more accessible and visible. The need for creating a centralised hub where UG STEM students can learn all about the whats and hows of securing work experience and mentorship opportunities is evident.
In essence, India needs to harness the power of her UG STEM student community, ready to broaden their world view while they prepare to take fledgeling steps into the scientific research and entrepreneurship ecosystem.