Research, IISER, and Physics
Since my childhood days, I would engage myself watching a lot of shows on the discovery channel, and doing comparatively better in mathematics at school, I made up my mind that I would surely not do engineering or medical, becoming a researcher (without actually knowing what is research) became the aim of mine. Back in 2016 while surfing through the net about research in India I came across something about “IISc” and “IISER”, from that moment I decided I would get into IISER Kolkata (cause it is near my home and KVPY seemed really difficult at that time). After a hectic period of boards preparation and messing up almost all the entrance examinations, I secured a somewhat decent percentage in H.S. Finally I got a seat in IISER Kolkata through IISER Aptitude Test. It was one of the greatest moments in my life. My parents always supported me in whatever I did, and they were happy about my success. 31st July was the day of registration when I left my home and began my journey to experience the hostel life for the first time in my life. At that time, I was filled with excitement and had huge expectations from our institute, but the reality is very different.
Before I proceed to discuss my life in IISER, let me talk a little bit regarding why and how I decided to study Physics. As I have already mentioned, I was comparatively good at mathematics during my school days since a very young age, to be honest, mathematics was the only subject which I was truly good at during my school days and it was the only subject for which I would take an extra class (tuition) till class 10th. I had a record of scoring full marks in all my tests and exams from class 6 to class 10th Half-yearly examination. At that time, I had a strong desire to study mathematics after completing 12th. What about other subjects related to science? Well, from classes 6-10 we had only one subject as science, the content of each sub-domain of sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) never made me that much interested in them because of the way they were taught in our school and also they were trying to put 3 subjects in one book, no topics were discussed in depth, but yeah, I did do good in physics numerical problems since they were mostly formula based. So what I want to say is that until I got into 11th standard, I never tasted the essence of the subject of physical sciences (or any other branch of science). It was the first time I have taken tuition for 4 out of 5 subjects (Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Computer Science). Even though I joined tuition classes, I would mostly depend on self-study and also the things taught in school. As time was passing by, I would find myself studying physics more and I started enjoying the subject very much. I would love to understand the concepts of various physical systems and I shifted my most focus to physics from mathematics. I ended up doing equally well in both mathematics and physics in my CBSE 12th Boards examination so I applied for both subjects in various colleges. I could not do well in the entrance examinations (JEE, WBJEE) because I was not interested in engineering, and I would find questions for such entrances really tough; even though my scores in physics in the entrances were decent (not great), my score in other subjects was really poor. Well, a decent percentage in my boards led my name to appear on the list of some good colleges (St.Xaviers College, Kolkata, and Rahara Ramkrishna Mission) for physics as well as mathematics. I was eagerly waiting for my IISER Aptitude Test results, and the moment I saw the mail on my phone that I was allotted a seat in an IISER, I was more relieved than happy! The reason I wanted to join IISER rather than any other normal college because the course structure from IISER would give me a little more time to explore and have a wonderful environment where I would meet with students having a lot of potential. So with all such great expectations, I joined IISER which was somewhat like a dream of mine for a long time.
I was assigned room E-206 (E block 2nd floor) Nivedita Hostel, along with 2 roommates. The first few days were quite awkward for me to talk to my roommates, but gradually things got better, one of my roommates taught me math, and the other taught both of us biology and chemistry. The first few weeks went by me trying to figure out which people I would be getting along with and who are the people whom I would avoid, exploring the campus, and playing football. Day by day, I came across various people, and I was really overwhelmed by the thought that I am along with so many brilliant minds, sometimes it made me feel inferior about myself, but I realized there are many batchmates who feel the same as me. We had lot of fun, mostly we would go to sleep really late at night especially before any examination or quizzes, waking up just 10 min before the beginning of classes, skipping breakfast which is very common, then spending about 8-10 hours of classes, including lab classes, in our beloved Lecture Hall Complex (LHC-107). While the first few weeks went well, I soon realized which lectures I would be paying attention to, which lectures I would try my best to skip, and which lectures are just for taking a nice nap (or deep sleep; the choice is yours), keeping in mind the minimum attendance criteria. Some teachers were really wonderful, some made me question how, why, and what they are teaching us!??! Some teachers were friendly, some were strict but eventually, we got used to it and understood that most of the work depends on ourselves, we just can not wait for others to guide us. Messed up mid-sem woke me up that this is the time I should really focus on my academics, I worked really hard, but ended up with an average GPA in the first semester. Quite devastated, I decided to be really serious from the second semester. One important thing which I would like to mention is that many of your batchmates will be doing great in academics along with attending various events, many of your batchmates will struggle as well. For me, it was quite a struggle, I would end up comparing myself with others which made me feel bad about my own abilities, and in turn, I was unable to study or do anything properly, so I realized instead of pondering about what I can not do, I must carry on doing the things which I should do, so let’s just carry on moving forward.
With a resolve of doing better and being serious, I and many others started the second semester, and apart from that, it was the season for approaching various researchers around the country for any possible research project during the long 3 months of summer vacation. Even though we started the semester with the target of being determined, waking up for the early morning classes during cold January-February was quite difficult and so was concentrating on classes. Along with the course work, different people started to get excited about their upcoming research projects during the vacation, many sports activities were happening (Inter-batch and auction tournaments – football, cricket, basketball, etc.) and a huge amount of people were quite engaged for the upcoming fest of our institute which is INQUIVESTA, but then the new COVID-19 started to spread and the lockdown of our institute started from March 2020.
Spring Break to Online Mode and the Saga Continues
After the mid-semester exams, we were all excited for 9 days break (Spring Break) starting from 7th March. Many started going to their home on 6th March itself. After so much hustle during January and February, the little break of 9 days seemed blissful. But, only if we knew, that our 9 days of vacation would soon be extended into more than 15 days. Many were happy about the decision and extended period of vacation, without really caring about the increasing rate of covid spread in our country. And soon at the end of 15 days, our vacation was extended until July and also our state (West Bengal) conceded the Amphan Cyclone which made things harder for the admin and teachers living in the IISER Campus to communicate. Slowly the worries about how will we be completing this semester, when are we going to get any information about our pending course works, when we would be called back, etc., started to creep into our minds. Slowly the course started to take place with many assignments with tight schedules along with connectivity issues and proctored exams. Somehow we ended up completing the semester where most of us had our internship canceled due to inability to move into other states. Somehow I indeed ended up getting a place in Summer Research Program 2020 conducted by IISER Kolkata itself. I have mixed feelings about my experience, more than learning anything about the research itself, I just understood I have a really long way to go and I should try my best to first understand and learn the basics of the topics required to carry out any advanced project.
Soon after the completion of my online Project, our Second year started in mid-August. I had to choose 3 pre-major subjects for my second year. I knew I would take Physics and Mathematics, but I was really confused about the 3rd subject which I shall study. I ruled out Chemistry because I was really bad at it and thus I had to choose between Biology and Earth Science. I would choose Earth Science since it looked more related to physics and I had no confidence in my biology but right now I feel I could have taken Biology as my third subject but what happened has happened. The beginning of 3rd semester was really hectic. I would end up feeling really stressed and burdened with so many assignments to do, so many lectures to attend and so many things to learn. Various things started to bother me and I feel many other students felt same as well; not being able to learn things properly, professors not really understanding the difficulties of the students, an excessive amount of workload since teachers were still thinking we are on vacation! Slowly I started to get used to the workload, or rather I prioritized myself and my mental health more than my academics. Out of 7 subjects, I would be giving my honest effort to only 3 (or maybe 2) of them. By early December our third semester was over, and then I decided to learn the concepts which would be necessary for my courses in upcoming semesters. I started reading concepts taught in the first year, and I was really happy that I was being able to truly understand the concepts in a more solid way and that helped me gain some confidence in myself about my abilities to study. From mid-January, another semester in the online medium and I would begin the semester with great determination to study at least all the subjects from Mathematics and Physics department. The beginning of the semester was good. Even if not all subjects, I would do my best to study Quantum Mechanics and Thermal Physics and I was actually able to truly devote myself to my studies till mid-semester exams. After the mid-semester examinations, due to some personal reasons, I became totally demotivated and diverted from my studies. Slowly I tried to catch up and somehow ended up doing better than my own expected results.
Life as a Physics Major at IISER Kolkata
Well, in IISER Kolkata, we have to choose the major subject of our choice for 3rd year, which would be the subject we will be getting our degree in. On the other hand, there is a catch if you are willing to take physics as your major subject. There is a restriction on the number of students who can take physics majors, and surprisingly most of the students from the batch wanted to take physics. There was always a fear lingering behind about what if I would not be selected for Physics Major, because of the following reasons:
1. I really wanted to do physics.
2. Even though I loved mathematics I was not confodent enough to take it as my main subject.
The environment was competitive from the start (1st year) for getting the physics major. It was someday in the third week of July 2021, suddenly I saw a mail having a title like “Allotment of Major Selection 19MS”. I quickly went to the file having the name of Department of Physical Sciences. I noticed that there were about 70 students. I was looking for my name I could not find it. I again rechecked and could not find my name on the list. Finally, on the third go, I could find my name on the list and that was a moment of relief and finally my worries about not getting into physics major would stop.
From the first week of August 2021, I started my 5th semester as a Physics Major, and I was again filled with expectations both from the professors and myself that finally, the time has come to get serious about studies since I am a physics major now, but the level of motivation did not last long. Although we were warned about the level of workload would increase starting from the third year, it was somewhat tiring to always invest my time doing assignments, writing boring reports, and not being able to explore topics which we like. Well, then again I did what I would always do, I again started prioritizing myself over academics, and I ended up liking some subjects and I have developed some clear idea about what kind of projects I would like to do. The coursework is really hectic, but when we enjoy the course, I am pretty sure everyone would love to do the hard work. So right now I am almost at the end of my 5th semester, with a mixed experience. Overall I am really glad that I am being able to study and dwell upon different aspects of physical science and sometimes I really feel great about how wonderful the subject of physics is.
Expectation Vs Reality
When I read about IISERs on the Internet, the statement, “Research-based-interdisciplinary” approach, made me think that we would actually get to do research while being students itself. Well, that was a foolish idea of a young boy, but indeed even while joining IISER Kolkata, I had similar expectations; Our faculties would be fantastic, they would motivate us to study different subjects, we would be motivated to explore more about different realms of sciences, we will be encouraged to do research work from the first year itself! But the reality was indeed different. Along with great teachers, who were literally awesome, there were people whose teachings would make no sense, very few teachers would encourage the student community to actively partake in research-related work. We would not even get to know about several workshops or internship programs that might help us get valuable experience.
As a 12th standard student in my school, the course structure of IISER Kolkata also motivated me into joining there. But to be really honest, it did not really take a long time for me to think the subjects such as chemistry, biology, and especially earth sciences as a burden to me. It was not only me, some guys hated studying mathematics and physics. Generally, we got used to studying so many subjects. But since we had to study a lot of subjects, it was somewhat difficult (initially) to focus on any subject properly. Along with hectic course work, at the beginning of online education, teachers were behaving as if we were still enjoying vacation and thus increasing the course load exponentially, making most of us lose our minds.
Then there is also an important aspect of the financial security of being an IISER Kolkata graduate. The placement cell has been established recently so in a nutshell if any of you think you will be given a job by the institute, then I really think this place is not for you. Most students who do get into jobs after masters, do so with the capabilities of their own skills and knowledge.
If I had to complain about IISER (Kolkata), I can go on and on and on, but actually, I still am actually glad for being a part of this community. I learned a lot of things being a part of this community, met a lot of people with various personalities. The freedom we get can be utilized in a great way for both our self-development as well as entertainment. Having the student community who are really motivated to pursue research, talking about each other’s plans for summer/winter project, learning such tough subjects mostly on our own, understanding concepts from seniors and fellow batch-mates, making your friends understand certain topics yourself, taking long walks with friends after a bad exam, trying to figure out that one difficult problem with your friends, being highly impressed by how much your friend is good at certain topics, those few teachers who really made you wonder how are they so great at explaining such complex things in simple language, the time when a senior would help his or her best in any certain problem in your life and many other experiences certainly make me confirm, that indeed, I feel glad to be in IISER Kolkata, it is similar to like “Tedha hai par mera hai”.
For students who want to pursue a research career in future
So I was(/am) a person with big dreams and ambitions who joined IISER to get a step closer to my dream of becoming a researcher one day. Being in this institute made me learn a lot of things. The more years you spend studying science, you will slowly realize, that the concept of what research is, will slowly change and you will understand it is a lengthy task that requires a lot of dedication.
At the end of high school, we are merely around 18 years old, without much knowledge about reality. At such young age, we end up deciding our future with big and sometimes unrealistic expectations from our college life. Even if you were one of the toppers back in your school days, being a part of an institute like IISER would make you one in many such toppers, which might end up becoming a demotivating factor. An important thing which I would advise to everyone who is thinking of pursuing research is that be compassionate towards your own self. Often times when we see our peers performing better than us, we might end up thinking bad about our own abilities. There would be a lot of times when we would be depressed due to the huge course load and hectic schedule. There might be several times you would get results lower than your expectations and these incidents can make us question our own choices, and sometimes we end up punishing ourselves. Let me tell you, almost everyone around you is feeling the same, everyone is envious of every other guy doing ’better than them’. Try to forgive yourself, if you did not perform well in a test, try to take it as a motivating factor that you have the scope of improvement, and do not lose trust in your own self. It is a very long and Topsy-turvy road towards becoming a researcher, so along the journey, we must at least be good to our own selves.