Mom, Dad, I Want To Be A Scientist......
    By Akshit Kumar | February 7th 2011 12:08 PM | 15 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    DISCLAIMER: This blog is neither a letter by a child to his parents nor a path to become a scientist (simply because there doesn’t exist one…....or maybe there exist infinite ways of equal probability). It is just a description of the present scenario in India and other countries concerning science as a career. Also, the text may bear resemblance to the blogger’s life….


    A typical Indian middle class dining room with a dining table that can seat 6 at a time. The kitchen is a few feet away and the walls are decorated with a couple of paintings. Seated at the table are three people – an austere father with graying sideburns and an even grayer ‘Don’t you dare joke at this time’ look, a doting mother with a serious look that doesn’t suit her and a habit of repeatedly going to the kitchen to see something she is cooking and a morose looking boy in his late teens having a ‘I know what’s coming next but I don’t know how to react’ expression. He is trying not to respond to the beckoning calls of the wafts of delicious smell coming from the kitchen.

    Dad:- (trying to say coolly and failing miserably) So, Son, have you thought what to do with your career??? Not that it should be a problem since you are an IITian. (smiles proudly).

    Son:- (not sure whether it was sarcasm or a serious praise) Errr…. Yeah, I want to be a………..

    Dad:- (interrupting in between) After college, will you join industry in…..errr…..pulp, right??…its paper,yeah…

    Son:- (trying not to sound too angry) Its pulp and paper technology and I have already told you that I am not interested in it.

    Dad:- (Perhaps noticing his son’s not so latent anger) That is shown by your marks. So, you don’t have to tell me.(waits for his son’s face to go red)

    Son:- Yeah, Dad and that’s because I never said I wanted to become an engineer and it was only a year before that I realized that the paper I used is manufactured in industries…

    Dad:- So, what do you want to become then(stress)?

    Son:- (hesitates) A scientist…

                                                      ________STUNNED SILENCE_______

    Mom is the first to start giggling. Dad is still trying to push the thought down his oesophagus.

    Dad:- The same way you wanted to become a doctor in class 9 and ended up in IIT three years later, right???

    Son:- (not missing his Dad’s poor attempt at sarcasm) No, its not like that. I’ve wanted to be a physicist since I was in 11th and that’s the time when for the first time in life, I was not under Mom’s or your influence….(realizes he has said a very wrong thing…)

    Dad:- (dismissively) Chhhhaaaa…. (turns to his wife) Physicist banega yeh….ha.. (to his son) You don’t even score well in physics. Your Maths is better.

    Son:- (who has had enough of ha’s and chhhaaa’s) You have to have an upper hand in Maths to understand the true nature of physics..(pauses to see if his father is impressed by his dialogue…he isn’t..). And, I never scored in physics because I never read the course material.

    Mom:- (coming out of the kitchen, rubbing her hands on the apron) Beta , these scientists have no family life. They are always stuck up in labs.

    Son:- (his parents were the last persons he wanted to discuss his future family with) Mom, Dad, I am neither dyslexic nor schizophrenic. (again pauses to see whether his parents are impressed with the words…they aren’t..) Common people (Dad raises one of his eyebrows) have this stereotype for scientists that they are abnormal (Mom shakes her head) and stuck up in labs and frustrated and too much overworked--freaks is the word for them. On the contrary, 99% of the scientists have a normal life, better than the rest in fact, because of the respect they get. It’s just because they are cleverer and more knowledgeable than the rest that they earn the ire from the jealous crowd.

    Mom:- What about the package? Scientists live from hand to mouth, don’t they?

    Son:- (exasperated, he knew the question would come, sooner or later) Ever heard of a Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam, Mom?? Would you call him a beggar? (and before his Mom says something about the former President being a bachelor at 79) The salary is very good. Better than what I’ll get in any paper company (choses not to mention the American and German paper companies with annual turnovers crossing billions of dollars).

    Dad:- (with a gleam in his eye that says I’ve got you cornered) Ok, Ok. So, you want to become a scientist, huh? Why did you chose IIT then?

    Son:- (trying not to say Because you wanted me to) Because I thought IIT was a great platform to start the work I want to do. But when it was clear that I am not going to get anything better than Pulp and Paper, I told you I wanted Physics in IIST but you and Mom wanted that tag name. You wanted me in IIT, partly because of the awe it will create among the people you know and partly because it’s a common belief that IITians have salaries in 7 figures.

    Dad:- Calm down, son.

    Heavy silence for a few minutes.

    Dad:- Ok, most people give CAT also. Do you know about it?

    Son:- (No, I don’t. I am a dumb guy) YES, I do and NO, I am not interested.

    Dad:- Ok. So, what will you do to become a scientist?

    Son:- (caught off guard by the direct question but also glad that the conversation was on safer ground now) After my B.Tech, I will pursue a M.S. in physics in some reputed university abroad. For that I have to give GRE…and TOEFL will be an added bonus. I consulted a counsellor on the internet. According to him, I should give GRE during my final year and TOEFL six months later.

    Dad:- So, will you need coaching for these exams in your final year?

    At this point, a girl in early twenties enters the dining room. She has the look of a book-friendly person-bespectacled et al.

    (With a twinkle in her eyes and an expression saying LOL) “Bro, did I hear correct? You going abroad? For studies? When are you leaving? Tomorrow? Or day after?

    Son:- (chosing to ignore his sister’s comment and answering his father instead) No, I’ve already started its preparation. A particular cut off is needed for a scholarship, which is obviously necessary for studies abroad. Depends on the university too.

    (drowning his sister’s “OOH!! Scholarship..”) As for TOEFL, I’ll most probably need coaching which is easy to get in Delhi and Chandigarh.

    Dad:- So, you have got it all planned out, huh? Good. Work hard to achieve your dreams. I want to see you on the top of the world. What I couldn’t do, I want my son to do it.

    Son:- Yeah, I will, Dad. (noticing that 2 hours have gone without any result. Or maybe, there was a result and he failed to notice it)…….

    Mom announces Dinner

    Scene:- A modern dining room of a typical American apartment with an attached modular kitchen having an electronic chimney. Seated at the dining table are a pleasant faced “I leave my work at office” kind of man and a son having the aura of excelling at sports as well as academics at school.

    Son:- Dad, I want to pursue a career in science. I always top in Mathematics in school. So, most probably, I will get the Thomson Scholarship at Princeton. There, I will pursue a Masters in physics and then do my Ph.D at MIT or Caltech. My friends are going to Yale or Harvard.

    Dad:- (with a genuine smile) Very Good, Son. I know you will do me proud.

    Son:- Bye, Dad. Mike’s calling me for a soccer match. See you in the evening.

    German and Russian prodigies usually run away from home and follow their dreams in a foster country.

    EPILOGUE:- If a decision to become a scientist takes 2 hours to be taken in India and less than a minute or so in other countries, is it a surprise that a country with the second largest population (soon to be the largest) has an infinitesimally low yield of scientists? No, it isn’t. A scientist per generation or two is a shameful blot on India. I urge my fellow Gen-X guys to pave their future in science if they have an inclination towards it. Dig out your desires from the deepest of your heart and work so hard to fulfil it as if it’s the last thing you’ll ever do(which is probably true)….. Enter this world before the Last Law ever is discovered…….and The Gates close down forever….Enter the World, fellow countrymen…The Nobel Awaits you…………


    Sounds fairly accurate, except for the "soccer match" in the American family.  Though it would be terrific if more people played it.    Also, if the American parents are also scientists they are likely to ask, "How will you eat?"
    Yeah, the "scientist parents" would have the experience, wont they??? ;D

    Didn't concentrate much about the sports thing..partly because I didnt think about it.. should have written baseball..or maybe basketball.. :)
    So are engineers not doing science?
    Oh yes.. engineers are doing science.. In fact, engineers are a very integral part of any science... But science as a career is, for the lack of suitable words, thought of being weird, if not foolish.... atleast in most parts of my country..India... You can judge that by the very low yield of scientists...(as compared to the population).... But engineers, well, in today's world of science and scientists, a little easy hand with the machines can be extremely helpful... So, I guess, engineers are very much into science...
    I think engineers are far more important for a developing country than scientists. Things like sanitation, roads, bridges, buildings do far more for quality of life than scientific discovery. That's probably why doctors and engineers are so highly prized in developing countries.

    Engineers as such do study sciences.... but the very name of their profession implies the application of the results obtained by scientists. if a scientist ponders over how things work (in nature), an engineer worries about how to make things work (to meet their end, mostly using the principles that were obtained by scientists of much earlier generations). Ofcourse in the short run the work of an engineer might seem more important but in the not so near future, the things explored by our scientists today will be used by our engineers then. A scientists' work is like a small step now, a giant leap for humanity. when talking of sanitation, roads, bridges, buildings, satellites, power, infinitum, dont forget the works of so many chemists and physicists and biologists that have gone into, many centuries earlier.

    Yes, this is true, but for developing countries, there's no need to reinvent the wheel. What's needed are people who can design and implement these innovations. What they don't need is basic science because basic science today is extremely narrow in focus. Learning about subatomic particles and protein:protein interactions does nothing for the common person in these countries. In developed countries, this is not true because these greater understandings lead to major medical and technological advancements.

    Its not like the major medical n tech advancements dont have their uses in developing nations...they may be developed in 'first grade' nations but they are used for development all over the world... for example the missionaries use medicines invented in developed nations to cure people of underdeveloped nations.... and developed nations need engineers for the technological advancements...these engineers come from all over the world... India (a developing  nation) is one of the leading exporters of talent to US(developed nation)..... This is the way how things work and there cant be a healthier method of world learning....

    Plus, the developing nations have a multitude of engineers for their development... There are many non-scientific factors (that need and should not be mentioned) that are potential hindrances for development...
    Ashwani Kumar
    Scientist and science of life . Usually there are four subjects which have science after them: political science, Military science, social science and I dont remember the fourth one. Science does not have science in front of it or behind it . Success in life and career and success in scientific field are two poles miles apart. A man doing reseraches on trees or developing methods to raise forests will end up in frustration of not achieving what he has aimed at at the end of the day while the one who had a mine which destroyed the forests and polluted the atmosphere will end up having luxury of Lage sedans and making capital gains . The reason people are so shy to make their children scientist is that its a long journey to search of peace and happiness and prosperity that the parents want to see in their own life for their children while scientist have to toil for the entire life his familiy suffering his presence or absence , his dreams remaining unfulfilled due to lack of resources or technologies or simply environment to promote science and scientific pursuits. Science and scientist need an environment to grow and society is not very friendly to science or scientists especially if they make any predictions towards misuse of resources, or green house gas emissions or global warming. People expect to hear scientist to report new oil reserves, new sources of energy or new technologies to keep man alive for 125 years or to provide them with organ transplants . Common man does not consider it good idea if a scientist starts preaching about environment or grow more trees or use smaller cars. What science needs is science of science teaching and research and mastery of social sciences and political sciences from the scientist .
    Being from India, who would better empathize on the drama. You are quite superficial while making a point in your epilogue that scientists are in low numbers in India. Yes, they are in low numbers, but it is because at the point when one is a full-blown scientist in India, he/she will not work any longer for lower salaries whatsoever and definitely fly to greener pastures. 
    Moreover, no one enters science to win a Nobel Prize (that's what I blogged about sometime ago) and Indian parents will not fall in that emotional trap for sure. In any case even if one is Ph.D cannot save people's lives, but can definitely make world a better place to live in--- Nobel Prize just comes your way eventually. 

    So, long story short-------------- it all comes down to monetary benefits my friend ! 

    Sure, no one enters a field (and m not talking abt only science) to win awards... And sure, parents are experienced enough not to let their children chose a field bcz he wants to win awards in it... And its nothing to do with their emotions, they have an invaluable life experience.... But no denying the fact that it is very unusual (not to say straight into your face) when your child comes up to you and says he is interested in a career of science, esp when he hasnt said anything of the sorts in 18 years....

    And everyone will look for greener pastures.... In fact thats what "higher studies abroad" is all about.... there is a greener pasture in foreign education too.... but then, the condition of scientists in India (m nt talking abt ISRO or BARC or the sort) is nt good compared to what its abroad and no one will let go of the chance to experience that, well, condition.... unless you have a very strong reason (which cud b anything)
    Ashwani Kumar
    "So, long story short-------------- it all comes down to monetary benefits my friend ! " This is farthest from truth a scientist never works for money for his caliber he or she can make much more money in any other field as compared to science but he comes to this profession by choice and remains here by choice. However parents treat their children like a winning horse and invest on them with expectations to win quick returns yes in terms of monetary benefits and monetary benefits only . That part is true but a scientist does not work for monetary benefits alone . Science becomes his way of life . Will scientists agree with me ? I dont think a true scientist will leave science and open a BPO to earn more money. He or she is here because they love to do science and scientific study money or no money. Only frustration sets in when he or she has to go through beuracratic hurdles, procedural delays and lack of opportunities and challenges. Only difference in India and abroad is the growth opportunities are limited and if he makes some findings they hardly find way to the market due to several constrains. In US its common that scientist like Beckman earned their first two billion dollars by raising their own company from a University level when he was below 30 years. The need of the hour is to make science , science education and science achievements which will reflect the need of the society istead of copy cat of "western science "
    Your Mom is wise - you better listen to her. Not sure where you get that idea about 99% of scientists from but I remember having had similar ridiculous preconceptions about what a scientist is (like following ideals and stuff - my ass). Maybe in India they have a good life. Not in the developed world. Do not just look at the few who are lucky at some point, look at the vast numbers of people who try to get lucky. In Germany, the science working class is now called 'Praekariat' (not sure whether this or something similar is known in English), and it derives from the situation (financial, family wise, even respect wise) being precarious (= effed up).
    I second Sascha's opinion. There was a time I would believe in ideal life of a scientist, but that just does not hold ground in the real world. I may sound as a pessimist to most out here. 
    I never said scientists work for money, but they definitely work for monetary benefits. If we keep singing along the ideal scientist definition-if any, I am sure Indian policies towards science will not change. Also, I blame the silent spectators in our field. 

    Research in India is funded to a peanut-shell level and if we say that we are content with it----it is a farce. At some point we are to be blamed for we as scientists love to be silent intellectual spectators (that does not mean to start behaving like one of those Indian union leaders too), but definitely raise our real concerns that plague researchers.

    Come in science to contribute to the body of knowledge, not just for the sake of someone in science got a stardom status for himself/herself. Be real guys, its time we just stand up and voice our real opinions, considerations and the like. 

    @ Sascha- So, according to u, I should be looking at the struggling multitude of scientists and thus drop the idea of choosing science as a career.... Well, I dunno where u get such negative depressing (facing the reality to u, i guess) ideas... maybe it has something to do with ur 'active research' in suicidal philosophy (its going great guns, by the looks of it) or maybe the pressure of unpublished books (best of luck for that, by the way)... I, on the other hand, tend to look at successful people... In India, every child sees himself as a cricketer in his childhood.. He looks up to Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev and the rest of the Indian Playing XI and does not even think about the struggle of all the Ranji players.... A budding enterpreneur looks up to Ratan Tata and does not look towards his local shopkeeper.... And I cant comment about the life of scientists in India, or in any other nation, for that matter.. because life is what you want it to be....

    Plus, my Mom (she sends u her blessings, by the way..she thinks u need them) is now very much in tune with my dreams and my Dad, as always, is at my side....