Ambadas Rode is an Assistant Professor at the Regional Center for Biotechnology (RCB), Faridabad. In this invited article, he talks about the many turns he took in his career path to reach his current position.
As in science, I believe that serendipity plays a key role in one’s life. It has not been a straightforward path arriving at where I am today. A cascade of events, sometimes fortuitous and sometimes planned, has allowed me to explore my own capabilities throughout my journey.
Last year I joined the Regional Centre for Biotechnology (RCB) as a Ramalingaswamy fellow and after a couple of months, I was offered the position of an Assistant Professor. It is an immense honour for me to be a member of RCB. Now, I am working towards setting up my own lab as an independent researcher. My whole journey to reach here has made me believe in the saying that “Sometimes, the only way to discover who you are and what life you should lead is to do less planning and more living.”
Here, I wish to share some of the incidents from my life where the inadvertent decisions I made shaped my career to be the way it is now.
Determining the goal of your life or deciding what you want to be is the most challenging, confusing and erratic situation which everyone faces at least once and I was no exception to this. I remember when I decided to do a Masters in chemistry despite being interested in biology just to make myself more eligible for jobs, considering the high ongoing demand for chemists in industries. I felt that going into academia would mean a long time to reach independence, which I did not want to wait for. So, I decided to jump on the bandwagon and landed in a multinational pharmaceutical company, focusing on the development of libraries of therapeutically active compounds.
Stumbling into Academia
Things were going well initially and I thought that I had made the correct decision and reached the right place where I could build my career. But my feeling of happiness was soon followed by the realization of being stuck at a point. I realized that having only a master’s degree was not enough to progress higher in the hierarchy. It was time for me to analyse what could I do in order to take my career to the next level. Taking everything into consideration, I ended up deciding to go for a PhD, being completely unaware at the time that this decision was going to cause a complete turnaround in my life.
But making this decision led to more confusion than action as the next question which came to my mind was which research area I should go for? My prior work experience in the synthesis of pharmaceutically important compounds while I was in industry somehow helped me navigate this decision and pick a research direction. After all, that was the only reason for me to go for a PhD at the time and eventually I got an opportunity to join “Kongju National University”, Republic of Korea.
Joining a PhD program in an overseas university/institute is fascinating, but this is only one side of the coin as every great package comes with its own terms and conditions. And doing PhD abroad also has its own “pros and cons”. While providing advanced, updated infrastructure and facilities for contemporary research, the competition here is often too high such that you have to either shape-up or ship-out. Other than this, since you have become used to a different working style, it really makes it hard to adapt the new system when you are back in your home country. And of course, the lack of networking also narrows your employment and collaboration options.
Choosing a path
There were some uncertainties in my mind initially as I wanted to go back to industry after completing my PhD. Over and above that, I got an industrial job offer at the same time, which made me even more bewildered. I was on the fence, where I had to choose between a ready job in my hand or job uncertainty as a post-doc. But my experiences as a research scholar working on several projects independently built confidence in me and also helped me get a clear picture of my interests. I made up my mind to continue my career as a researcher and completing PhD was just the first milestone towards the destination.
Now that I had made this decision, I knew that to pursue a career in academic research and to match your pace with contemporary science it requires more than just reaching a decision. It was during the transition phase from a PhD to a post-doc, when it was again time for me to carefully weigh my decision against its consequences. I was about to switch to a completely different area of research rather than carrying over my PhD legacy, in order to expand my career prospects.
Well, the transition ended up not being very smooth as I had to start from scratch and rather than balancing the equation I added more variables to it. But instead of being an obstruction, it often helped me explore new concepts and ideas which would not have been feasible if I had stuck to only one area.
Gradually the boundaries between the different disciplines blurred for me and I got the flavour of multidisciplinary research from organic synthesis to “in cellulo” studies. While working as a post-doc in Japan, I was awarded the prestigious “Japan society for the promotion of science (JSPS) fellowship”. Besides working on various multidisciplinary projects, I got several opportunities to attend international conferences, seminars, interactive sessions with eminent scientists, as well as to organize workshops and at the same time train young minds, which gave me close insight into research and academics.
From post-doc to PI
After almost six years of post-doctoral experience, it was time for me to search for a regular academic position. However, getting an academic position in India is tough. But both Ramalingaswamy Re- entry fellowship and Ramanujan Fellowship provided me the way to get back to my home country and join RCB.
Well, the shift from a post-doc where you get fully-established, equipped labs with all the advanced facilities to work with, to a PI where you have to start with a big empty room, which you can later call as lab, was not smooth. But yes, I consider myself lucky to have such a supportive and encouraging environment in RCB. My colleagues really supported me throughout, whether it be with setting up my lab or handling administrative responsibilities.
Now I am working towards the establishment of my independent lab, I am looking forward to welcoming our young zigzag travellers, so that I can provide them the same insight which I came across during my journey. There is a lot more to uncover and there is still a long way to go as this is just the beginning of my new chapter, this time as a PI.
The point that I am making is that while one can easily debate on the necessity of having a clear and predefined path for a successful career, it is not always necessary to have a set-in-stone career map in your hand. Sometimes your zigzag trails can also lead you to your destination.
What I learnt from my experiences is that one cannot judge any decision as being right or wrong at a particular instant, as you never know what may hit your instinct and make you change your way in the future. And merely making a decision is not enough, you need to believe in yourself and embrace all the challenges associated with the decision. Be open to changes and be ready to step out of your comfort zone, as life begins where it ends.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://indiabioscience.org/columns/journey-of-a-yi/a-zigzag-trail-to-a-career-in-science