Our initial field experiences in college not only offer us a glimpse into our future but also give us the impetus to deal with the challenges in our career path with tenacity and vigor.

Sayantan Chakraborty, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher & Structural Geologist at IIT Kharagpur, studies fault zones by investigating deformations that occur in the east-west direction of the Himalayas.

Sayantan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about quitting a lucrative job as an Offshore Geologist and pursuing his doctoral studies at IIT Bombay, on a journey filled with numerous challenges and uncertainties.

For students, everyone has their own challenges, but when we start enjoying what we do, our challenges transform into goals that we want to achieve by going back to the drawing board and restrategizing!

Sayantan, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Uttarpara, a suburb about 10 kilometers north of Kolkata. I completed my entire schooling in the Hindmotor High School, which was funded by the trustees of the erstwhile Hindustan Motors. 

I come from a humble background; my father worked in the bank, and my mother was a home-maker, whose entire life centered around taking care of me, and my younger sister.

Growing up, I was engaged in a lot of sports, initially in cricket, and later in football. Apart from those, my mother was insistent on me taking swimming lessons, which in hindsight, proved to be a great boon.

My father, and extended family members were mostly employed in either government services or in the railways. So, my parents emphasized that I maintain a decent academic career, which would help me get a prosperous job. However, they never discouraged me from pursuing my own interests.  I was always inclined towards science, but never had any real career-goal. Initially, I was not driven, and did not have a foresight about different career opportunities. Like others, I also enrolled myself in different coaching classes to prepare for engineering, and medical entrances. I must confess that I did not enjoy those coaching classes, but I did enjoy learning about the different aspects of science. I was even on the verge of joining an engineering college after getting a mediocre result in the entrance examination.

During this time, I spent a lot of my time watching television. I was fascinated by three documentaries that aired on National Geographic: These were about the three volcanic eruptions in Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, Mt. Saint Helen in the USA, and Mt. Galeras in Colombia, which erupted in 1991, 1980, and 1993 respectively. This is when I first heard the term “Geologist”. I was interested in it, but at the moment did not foresee myself pursuing geology for my future studies.

My career in earth science started entirely by happenstance.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed my Bachelors in Geology (with Honors) along with Physics, and Mathematics as subsidiaries from the erstwhile Presidency College in Kolkata (now Presidency University). 

I then completed my Masters. in Applied Geology from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, followed by my doctoral studies in Structural Geology, and Tectonics from the same institute. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

Turning points: There were three key turning points, which led me to become an earth scientist:

(a) Enrolling for the undergraduate course: Like I mentioned, after having mediocre scores in the engineering entrances, I was poised to join a half-decent engineering college. However, I was also applying in other colleges to pursue a career in physics. My father insisted that I should apply for the undergraduate course in geology at the Presidency College. He had an idea that geologists are essential in mining sectors, oil industries, and nationalized agencies like Geological Survey of India, and therefore, it could be a prosperous career path. 

In those days, there were entrance examinations for these courses, and equal weightage was given to the intermediate results, as well as the marks you score in the entrance examination. I was shortlisted after the examination, and eventually joined the program on the insistence of Dr. Bhattacharya (our neighborhood pathologist), and our neighbor, late Mr. Goswami, who also advocated that geology can be a prosperous career path. However, in the initial days, I did not like the course much, as it was different in many ways from the conventional courses.

(b) Taking a liking for the course: I started to like the course only after our first field excursion in Ramtek, Maharashtra. This was the first-time I spent time away from my parents with my classmates, and our professors. We used to look at rocks, take measurements, and learn the basics of geological fieldwork. At that moment, I could relate to what was taught in the lectures with what I saw in nature. It was a fantastic experience, and I decided not to look back. 

(c) Trigger for doctoral studies: During my masters, I came to know a lot about the Himalaya, and got interested in its evolution. However, at the same time, I was also appearing for several campus interviews, and was selected in ION Geophysical, as an offshore field geophysicist. The job was financially lucrative, but was something that I did not foresee myself doing for the rest of my life. Then, I decided that I would pursue my doctoral studies on evolution of the Himalaya, and got enrolled in the doctoral program at IIT Bombay. The path to my doctoral degree was tough, and full of uncertainties, but by then, I was focused on what exactly I wanted from my life. I think that clear vision is very necessary. Some people have it from the beginning, whereas, others like me, take some time to find the real call.

Key influencers and mentors: My mother would be the first key influence in my life. She always made sure that I got the best education possible, and was also very supportive when I wanted to leave my job, and pursue my doctoral studies. In addition, she instilled all the life values. Similarly, my wife has been very supportive in all my endeavors.

Throughout my time in earth science, I have had several mentors, who have helped shape my thought process. My masters’ mentor, Prof. T.N. Singh, my other professors, Profs. Kanchan Pande, George Mathew, and Santanu Banerjee have been extremely supportive in all aspects of my life. My doctoral advisor, Prof. Malay Mukul encouraged me to think independently, and always emphasized on the importance of being articulate, and creating a niche for oneself. Also, I must mention my present postdoctoral mentor, Prof. Manish Mamtani, who is a wonderful and extremely supportive individual.

Apart from my professors, my seniors, Utpalendu Kuila, Vikram Vishal, Arpan Bandopadhyay, and Sharmistha De Sarkar have mentored me in different stages of my doctoral studies. Utpalendu, and Vikram, in particular, continue to provide their suggestions even today.    

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After completing my Bachelors program, I qualified for the JAM (Joint Admission Test for Masters) examination conducted by the IITs. I enrolled at IIT Bombay. This was the first time I moved to a hostel, and in the beginning found it to be quite distracting at times. However, I had some of the best classmates, and hostel-mates, who helped me get over that distracting phase.

In the second year of my Masters, I had adopted an open-minded approach. I was not sure whether I wanted to continue with higher education or to pursue a job in the industry, and therefore, continued appearing for campus interviews, as well as writing competitive examinations for doctoral programs. My classmates, particularly, Arijit Sahu, deserves a lot of credit, because he literally dragged me and forced me to appear for every exam. I managed to crack GATE (Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering), and National Eligibility Test (NET) exams conducted by MHRD (Ministry of Human and Resource Development) and CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research). I also managed to land the job of a Scientist at AMD (Atomic Minerals Directorate), and was selected as an offshore field geophysicist for ION Geophysical. I chose to pursue the latter because it was an opportunity to get exposure in an international organization. However, I quickly realized that I did not personally like the nature of the work, which primarily involved the quality control of acquired seismic data.

So, I enrolled into the doctoral program at IIT Bombay, where I focused on studying the evolution of the Himalaya. I used my NET rank to get a five-year fellowship from CSIR, followed by another nine months of fellowship from research-wing (IRCC) of IIT Bombay.

After completing Ph.D., I joined National Institute of Technology (NIT) Rourkela as an Ad-hoc faculty, where I was involved in teaching master’s students. Following my tenure at NIT Rourkela, I joined my present position at IIT Kharagpur as a postdoctoral researcher.     

How did you get your first break?

I chose to work on a controversial topic in my Ph.D., but I struggled to publish my initial findings in a scientific journal. So, my first publication—after a lot of rejections, gave me a lot of self-belief, and I consider it to be my first—and most important break in making a career in academia. After numerous rejections, I went back to the drawing board, analyzed my mistakes from scratch, and eventually published the results. 

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Selecting a topic for my doctoral thesis: In India, our education system is designed best for acquiring, and storing a lot of information. However, we are not that great when it comes to generating new ideas. So, I was quite daunted when my Ph.D. advisor insisted that I should do my entire work independently, and advised me to select a topic for my thesis during the formative years, in the shape of a proposal, mentioning the intellectual merit, methodology involved, and the possible outcomes of the study. For the first few months, I just kept reading a lot of literature, writing a lot of vague proposals, and spending sleepless nights. My advisor warned that it was a process, and would take time. Finally, after spending almost a year, I was able to produce a meaningful proposal. I found this part particularly challenging, because my mind was just hardwired into storing a lot of information, but to channelize those, and identifying new problems was a different proposition altogether.

Publishing my work in scientific journals: I struggled a lot with my first publication. I was working on a controversial topic, which made the challenge even harder. I struggled for two years; it was frustrating, disheartening, and led to a lot of self-doubt. The situation got so bad that my advisor said it was beyond his ability to help me get the work published, and I was on my own. At that moment, Utpalendu suggested the Stanford University online course “Writing in Sciences” by Kristin Sainani to me. I completed all the modules of the course, and followed the tips, and my writing improved significantly. I was able to publish 80% of my work in the last two years.  

Where do you work now? Can you tell us about your research?

At present, I work in the Department of Geology and Geophysics at IIT Kharagpur with Prof. Manish Mamtani, as a postdoctoral researcher. In my current position, I am investigating deformation that occurs in the east-west direction of the Himalaya, because the majority of the studies implicitly assume deformation occurs predominantly in the north-south direction. This work requires a knowledge in structural geology, anisotropy of magnetic susceptibility (AMS), and electron back-scattered diffraction (EBSD). I gained experience in working with structural geology during my doctoral research, whereas, I am learning about the use of AMS and EBSD at present.

In my doctoral thesis, I studied the major shear zones (zones along which the earth’s crust moves) in the Himalayas. I employed different techniques like geological mapping in the field, looking at thin-sections of the rocks under the microscope, and dating of minerals like micas, and apatite. Therefore, my work involves a field component, and a laboratory component.

In the field, a usual day starts early at 6.30 a.m. and continues till about 2 p.m. The evening is usually spent on analyzing the data collected in the field. When I am in the laboratory, my day starts at 9.30 a.m. and continues till about 10 p.m. with intermediate breaks.

I am interested in teaching, as well as research. The teaching component provides an opportunity to interact with young students, who mesmerize me with their bright and innovative ideas. The research component gives an opportunity to learn something new every day. These are the most important aspects that I like most about my job. 

How does your work benefit society? 

At present, my work does not have a direct tangible impact on the society. However, my work focuses on understanding processes involved in mountain building, which improves our understanding of earthquake generation, volcanic eruptions, and genesis of ore bodies. These in turn, affect human lives, and the economy.

In the near future, I want to focus on understanding why certain fault zones (zones along which the earth’s crust moves) generate earthquakes, while others do not.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I would say that the entire work done in my Ph.D. is quite close to me for two reasons: (a) The work was predominantly my own with limited inputs from my advisor, and (b) to a certain degree this work resolves a lot of unanswered and/or debated questions that had divided the geoscience community. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

-Always have an open mind, by questioning, and doubting everything. That is the essence of science.

-Be passionate, and ambitious, but do not become complacent.

-Persevere along the road that you have chosen. The less trodden paths are usually very difficult. Instant gratification is a myth.

-Take care of your mental health. When uncertainty looms, it is normal to have self-doubts, but be prepared to seek help, and talk about your problems. Nothing is more important than your well-being.

-Enjoy the journey you are on. It is more important than the destination.

Future Plans?

My immediate plan revolves on securing a permanent faculty position, and setting up my own lab and research group. I want to set up a lab where cutting edge research would be carried out on fault zones, and shear zones. My long-term goal is to develop the lab into a center for path-breaking research in structural geology. I also aim to liaise with government organizations in making students aware about earth science to increase their participation in the discipline.