In today’s guest post, Anushika Bose, an alumna of the University of Delhi, shares her journey as a researcher in the area of renewable energy, and her unusual choice of a ‘professional doctorate’.
Anushika did a PhD from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany, while being associated as a visiting scholar at the Humboldt University of Berlin. What prompted her choice, what does such an association mean and how is it different from a doctorate in an academic University? Read on.
Science was not my first love
Frankly, I wasn’t interested in science or medicine to begin with. I wanted to study law and work as a corporate lawyer. But for my Bengali parents, the definition of education was simply “science”. They steered me into science but left me to get as creative as I could with the subject. I prepared to sit in the medical entrance examinations in India but got through dental sciences only. As I was aware of my pathetic practical hand, clubbed with the fear of not performing well (and keeping in mind the general well-being of humanity), I chose not to go ahead with it.
Despite the decision, the fascination of having the initial “Dr.” prefixed to my name lurked at the back of my mind.
I enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Delhi, where studying about the environment and its ordeals fascinated me. After a master’s in environment management, I got a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to do a PhD in Germany. I was 23. I knew it was too early, but I could not miss the chance. I felt a bit awkward amidst my fellow scholarship awardees, all of whom had previous research experience and publications in international journals.
Studying smart, eco-friendly energy
As a research scholar at Humboldt University in Berlin, I worked on environmentally smart and safe deployment of wind energy infrastructure across landscapes, specifically minimising the direct collision of birds with turbines, thereby keeping green energy as green as possible.
Well aware of the urgent utility of my research, I applied for recognition from the United Nations for a visiting PhD and simultaneously worked as a scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany.
It worked for me because of an existing system of cooperation between universities and research organisations in Germany. Scholars who join a research organisation for a PhD get associated to a professor (with a similar research background or interest) in a University. In such cases we serve the organisation and its projects. The scientific publication generated from these projects (authored by the scholars), published mostly in international peer-reviewed journals, is also compiled later to form a thesis. The scholar then defends his/her research by means of this thesis in the University and gets a doctoral degree from the University. The best part of such an association is that the years you spend doing research are counted as both work experience and academic record.
I came back to India to head the geospatial analytics wing of a renewable energy research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon, Haryana. We address the various technical, strategic and commercial challenges that the renewables industry faces, with a particular emphasis on risks and uncertainties at each stage of the value chain. We envision helping economies integrate renewable energy into their energy mix using our analytical platforms for a cleaner, sustainable and better tomorrow.
The German experience
At UFZ, I focused on environmentally safe and smart spatial planning of renewable energy infrastructures across the German landscape. My objective was to see how both the environment and people could benefit from sustainable use of wind energy.
UFZ’s approach of working with a global focus suited my career portfolio. Their research was through integration and synthesis of results on-ground, which was helpful when I later tried replicating the strategies in India. UFZ gives young environmental science researchers ample freedom and insight into integrative research, alongside preparing them for political and managerial careers.
I also liked the flexible, no-fuss, punctuality-driven work environment. I loved the ‘work hard, party harder’ culture, where weekend planning begins by 2 p. m. on Fridays. The segregation of private and work life – no calls, no emails on the weekends, no last minute hassles, nothing ad-hoc – is priceless.
The cultural learning was enriching too – from waiting at traffic lights patiently to sorting trash, from making grocery shopping lists to reading every line in an agreement document before signing. I was amazed at how much the Germans love Indian culture and traditions – they participate in Indian festivals held in major cities there, wearing the Indian attire, relishing our “spicy” food.
The language barrier was never an issue because DAAD made sure we were trained in Deutsch before pursuing research. As far as racism goes, I did hear cases against fellow Indians from time to time though personally I did not face any. Many people confused me as being from the Middle East. Middle Eastern women often came up to me to ask why I haven’t covered my head. There is a substantial Middle Eastern community in Berlin and Leipzig, which maybe the reason I never faced discrimination.
The one challenge I did face was being homesick — especially I lived with my parents all my life. I missed family, food and friends, strictly in that order, during my time outside the country.
Academic vs. professional doctorate
Another challenge was pursuing a professional doctorate from a research organisation instead of a university. In general, a doctorate prepares one for an academic career, while a professional doctorate is geared more towards a professional career. While professional doctorates may hold an adjunct or even regular faculty position at Universities, the reverse is not true. This was my primary motivation behind opting for professional doctorate. All doctoral programmes, however, require coursework and an individual research project. The one at the University requires comprehensive exams and may include residencies, which is mostly not the case at research organisations.
The primary difference between these two types of doctorates is the type of research. University doctorates have a guided set up with assistance from professors, postdocs and fellow PhDs. Professional doctorate students, on the other hand, are expected to expand and apply existing knowledge and research to existing problems in their professional fields, often not with much guidance. A professional doctorate is counted under both work experience and educational experience. It benefits both ways but comes with an enormous pressure to perform and publish just as fellow experienced scientist colleagues.
Ultimately, the decision to pursue any of these types of doctorates should be based on assessing one’s career goals and how one plans to use the degree to meet these goals.
A postdoc is an individual choice. My focus had always been more towards a professional career instead of purely academics. Though scholarships and positions for postdocs exist in Germany, they expect a brilliant publication record and an equally good PhD research experience. This is mostly possible if you have worked in the same lab or institution and under the same project, preferably under the same supervisor/professor. Therefore, it is a common practice to absorb a graduating PhD from a lab as a postdoc in the same lab.
I would suggest aspiring Indian students to look for collaborations with their institutes/organisations here and the desired organisations in Germany. India’s Department of Science and Technology and the German government promote such joint research initiatives, allowing institutes and collaborators to connect.
Back home now, my research is majorly into renewable energy development projects, primarily to guide India towards a renewable energy transition. The easy availability of technicalities from countries like Germany could facilitate India’s rapid energy transition into a future CO2 neutral economy in India.
Joint research initiatives could allow German institutes and collaborators to connect and utilise their expertise gathered over decades, monitor the results on a different soil, and gain international experience through collaborations with India.
My pursuit remains to stay well connected and incorporated with my work in both the countries.
[Anushika Bose can be contacted at email@example.com]