Not so easy after a Ph.D.

I am back to blogging after a long time. It is not that I was not writing. In fact, I was writing a lot – wrote my thesis and defended it. Also wrote four research papers and published three of them. Well, the good news is that I have a doctorate now (the one that takes longer – Ph.D.) but the sad part is that I am not a student anymore. For someone as old as me (32), who has always been a student, not being a student is scary. Therefore, after I finished my doctorate, I thought that a victory lap would be a good idea; my bruised ego from constant criticism by my peers and senior scientists needed to bathe in some adulations from the members of the society who probably admired the amazing feat I had just achieved because I felt absolutely nothing special for days after my defence was over. So, I went back to India to attend my cousin’s wedding. The intention was to let people know that a doctor is in the house. Little did I know that the burden of admiration would make me sicker.

All my life I was told to put my head down and work hard because hard workers are always valued. I have put years into developing skills that I thought would increase my demand among recruiters. I understood that my domain knowledge, university gold medals in bachelor’s and master’s degree, and above 90% GPA in Ph.D. w20171116_102129.dng.jpgas not good enough for the real world. So, I invested in skills such as public speaking, academic writing, learning statistical and photography software. I took extra field projects and published more than 11 research articles in reputed international journals. I had served my time, and it was my turn to raise my head and look around where I was. I found myself standing on a raised platform in the middle of recruiters. With all the gold medals and trophies in my hand, I shouted, advertised, tried to sell myself hard. All I needed was one look from someone who would value not my achievements, but the symbolism behind them. Gold, once cast into a medal, does not represent a precious metal from the periodic table, but signifies the honor of its owner. I needed someone to appreciate that, approach me and understand that although I do not have any experience with a real job, I have what it takes to excel in the toughest conditions. A doctorate is not just a certificate of completion of a long research project, but it is a proof of mental determination to achieve excellence, and we need people outside academia to realize this. On the contrary, I found myself at my cousin’s wedding with ‘Dr.’ before my name, avoiding that one question after every customary Congratulation – “so when are you getting a job?”.


This is how I survived my Ph.D.

“Doctor” – a word that is linked not only to knowledge and respect but also to agony, frustration, and perseverance. If you have just started your Ph.D. programme or are planning to enroll yourself into one then this post is for you.

To understand what to expect from your journey as a Ph.D. student you must have read a lot of blogs and most articles have similar suggestions – be persistent, sincere, and consistent.  I can also say the same things because it is true that only a sincere student can obtain a Ph.D. with his/her honour and sanity intact – latter may not always be true. However, I have some additional suggestions; few things that I learned from my experience.

A common pitfall is to think that Ph.D. is nothing but a longer master’s degree. I know a person who thought the same and is now struggling. A master’s degree typically takes 2 to 3 years, which means that the research project is not exhaustive, has clear-cut goals, and you can actually see the end of the degree programme even before you start your research project. On the other hand, a Ph.D. project demands extreme level of commitment and is not for the light-hearted. Even though the Ph.D. research project may have well-defined objectives, very often the ways to address the objectives are open-ended and require creative methods and techniques to arrive at conclusions that are based on robust reasoning. Since a doctoral work has to be novel, most students work in uncharted territories; trying their hands on new techniques and developing novel and creative methods. And any Ph.D. student can tell you this that trying a new methodology begins with a very common problem – the crucial machine that you were going to use is out of order and the supervisor doesn’t have enough grant money to get it fixed immediately. Next problem – the methods that you read in a research paper and thought were easy do not work. As a result, you end up spending a lot of time just standardizing the experimental protocols which extend your timeline and the end of the tunnel is almost never in sight. Eventually, a Ph.D. turns out being not only about your domain knowledge but also about the test of your creativity – how you use a neglected syringe and a piece of PVC tubing to filter culture media when the vacuum pump was blown out. The toughest part of Ph.D. for me was to wake up every morning to work in the lab without the end of the degree in sight. My Ph.D. could have taken anywhere from 3 to 8 years, or maybe I would have never ended getting a Ph.D. if my hypothesis and reasoning were faulty. So how do you keep yourself functional without knowing if your efforts will bear fruit?

First thing – understand and accept that Ph.D. is a life in itself and needs strong commitment. Most marital relationships don’t even last as long as a Ph.D. degree programme. So, keep everything else secondary and commit yourself to your Ph.D. research for at least 5 years. But like every relationship, your matrimony with your research can develop strains and spicing it up may help. So develop a hobby. Teach yourself a new art. Get involved in a social activity that does not require serious time commitment because research is still your legally wedded wife and adultery is a sin in the eyes of the Ph.D. Gods. I could not get into a romantic relationship because of my research but I used to talk to my parents every day. Also, my best friend was always available to talk to me about random shit. In the 3rd year of my Ph.D. I taught myself photoshop and how to use a DSLR. It was perhaps the best decision of my Ph.D. life. I chose street photography. I am an introvert and going out on streets and taking pictures of random people was challenging for me. I forced myself out in the streets and overcame my hesitation with people. It has helped me even in my professional career – I am better at approaching people and as a result, I have collaborated with quite a few of them which has resulted in co-authored publications. Every time I would get overwhelmed with my research I would take pictures and make some creative changes to it in photoshop. I have a curated Instagram page (@jamwalankur) where I post my best work and words of appreciation from my followers or random visitors to my page have kept my spirits buoyed. I also look at how I have progressed with my photography skills over the time which makes me appreciate myself.

Apart from photography, I learned to read music sheets and play a bit of classical guitar. Music is a great way to overcome the worst of the days. Learning an instrument is not easy but your little progress can pull you out of your misery. I also traveled a lot. Now how can you travel while you are a student? Work hard in the lab, generate a lot of meaningful data and present it at foreign conferences. I always used to take 2 to 3 personal days after conferences. Since the travel to the site of conferences is usually sponsored by the supervisor, university, or the conference organizer, reaching and returning from the travel site is covered. While attending conferences I never stayed in a hotel and instead lived in hostels or rented a place through Airbnb. This allowed me to connect with more travelers and enjoy the secrets of the cities that the people living in fancy hotels do not know about. I was also lucky to travel to the Arctic because of a collaborative project and got some amazing photos (check them out on my Instagram page @jamwalankur).

In the end, when I look back at my journey towards earning a doctorate, I see my path dotted with beautiful experiences that always overpowered the trap of negativity that a Ph.D. project may bring with it sometimes. Oh yes, one more advice – avoid negative people. All Ph.D. students are under a lot of stress and I am more than happy to sit with another miserable student and make jokes about our miseries. However, I am not willing to let another student tell me about his/her miserable life and make me feel bad about my choice of doing a Ph.D. Be selfish and stay away from negative people. They need a therapist and it is not your responsibility to make them feel better. I had one such friend who would call me at random hours and tell me how Ph.D. sucks. At first, I thought that as a friend and a fellow Ph.D. student I should lend my ears to this poor chap but then I began realizing that he was making me sad and depressed. So I stopped taking his calls. I have heard that he is still miserable, rolled back from Ph.D. to a masters degree, had serious issues with his supervisor, has not finished his master’s degree even after 3.5 years, and continues to drive people out of his life. So I think it is better to leave such people in the hands of professional therapists. Rather enjoy your life towards earning a doctorate with pride and learn few more fun skills so that when you finally defend your thesis you know how to impress people with not just the powerpoint presentation of your data.

Thank you for your kindness people

Kindness is like a good piece of music; it spreads.

I love to travel but security checks at the airports are the worst. Some of the rudest people I have met have been the people doing the security checks at the airport immigration. One particular rude one was in Brussels; however, this story is not about him. This morning I woke up feeling good and thankful for the things that I have received from this world; especially the things that were unexpected and for the ones that I did not have to put any efforts. My story is about one such act of simple kindness where I was only a recipient.

I do not remember the date but it was an afternoon of early September in the year 2010. I had to leave my quarters at 9 o’clock in the morning to catch an early afternoon flight from Vishakhapatnam to Mumbai. It had rained during the night; however, the sky had cleared up and the Sun was all up and bright, making it a hot and humid day. Because of sweat, I had already had bathed twice by 9 o’clock. I was happy to be leaving the irritating weather of Vishakhapatnam and was waiting for my taxi to arrive which was now late by 45 minutes. This delay on a very irritating weather had already started to test my nerves. I also knew that airport was on the far end of the city and it would take time to reach there, and yes I was right – I got stuck in a very bad traffic jam. On reaching the airport, I hurriedly got into the gates and headed straight to the security check-in counters. I know it is their job but I really don’t like being patted and asked to open my bags for inspection – I pack my bags meticulously and opening them at airports makes it tough to arrange things back in order.

I passed through the metal detectors without any problems but the security personnel with X-ray scanners detected a short metallic rod in my bag. I knew it was the handle of my shaver, so I opened my bag and showed them that it was nothing. However, it was their protocol to register the description of any item that raised an alarm. I was taken to a corner by a security officer and he asked my name. As soon as I told him my surname he looked at me with a smile and asked me if I was from Himachal Pradesh. I told him that I was born and raised up in Himachal. The officer was so glad to hear it. He shook my hands and told me how happy he was to meet me. I was confused. The officer told me that he was once posted in Himachal Pradesh which was the best time of his job. I didn’t have to ask him for an explanation because most people like Himachal for its natural beauty and weather. But his reason was different. He told me how much he and his wife missed the people of Himachal. He went on and on about their polite nature. He told me that he was an ‘outsider’ there but was never cheated or disrespected. He also told me how his wife and neighbours cried when he had to leave Himachal because of his job transfer. Just because some people from Himachal were nice to this man, I was being treated with respect and politeness. The officer introduced me to his colleague as if I was a famous personality that they should know about and later offered to buy me a cup of tea. I would have loved to but I had a plane to catch shortly so I declined.

Strangely, the irritation from the weather, traffic, and delay at the security counter was gone. Later, after the passengers boarded the plane, we discovered that the airconditioning in the plane wasn’t working. Everyone was cursing the flight crew but not me – I had been reminded of how politeness can create a ripple effect. It was because of politeness of someone else to the security officer that I was treated with respect. Airconditioning was fixed in about half an hour and the plane took off. You see, repairing the air conditioners would have taken half an hour even if nobody had insulted the crew of the aircraft.


India’s banking system is failing the common you and me

India lost the finals of ICC Champion’s trophy; a cricket tournament that many believe is a mini World Cup. I don’t care much about India losing this tournament anymore. I loved cricket once. I loved it to such an extent that I would rather watch Sachin, Ganguly, and Dravid bat than study for my exams. However, later in my life I fell in love with fisheries sciences and began spending more time reading books, and gave less importance to sports that others played. The same education took me from shore-to-shore and I got to see a whole new world with my own eyes. In the year 2012, I received an international scholarship from Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) for a Ph.D. programme in Canada. I was excited. However, there was a catch – to obtain the scholarship I had to furnish a bank guarantee of U.S. $10,000 in favour of ICAR. This meant that I was required to deposit U.S. $10,000 in a bank, and sign a legal bond saying that if I failed to finish my Ph.D. the entire sum would be transferred from my account to ICAR. My father had just switched his business from electronics repair to selling bags, and we did not have that much money. I also needed money to obtain passport, VISA, study permit, English language proficiency certificate, warm clothes, and even more money to pay for my room rent and tuition fees because I would be receiving money from ICAR only after one month after reaching Canada (I also had to eat, so needed money to buy groceries). I was worried about losing the opportunity but my parents felt guilty of not being able to provide me enough for my education. I could have probably lived without a foreign degree but my father would have never. I decided to go from bank to bank and ask them for loan against whatever we had. My mother was ready to sell her gold but we did not even have enough of that either. We owned a house on a large patch of land that was clearly worth more than ten times the money we needed.

I took all the documents to show to the banks that we owned the house and we were willing to obtain a loan of only $10,000 against it. Every bank refused. It was the month of June – peak summers – and I walked, to every bank, far and near, begging for money. Even though we owned the house, I was made to feel as if I was begging like a peasant from a Premchand’s novel. Most banks thought it was too risky to put our house against the loan and they did not want the hassle of auctioning it in the event of my failure to meet the necessary requirements of the bond. Every bank wanted a 100% cash deposit that I did not have. A bank officer even said that there is no guarantee that I would finish my PhD degree, and that I might just fail one of the exams. I showed him all the gold medals I had received for being University topper in my bachelor’s and master’s degree to which he said, “what if happens to you (he meant I died), and not finish the degree”. I cried within. I really did not want my parents to be thrown out of their home. That would be too much for them to tolerate if I were to die.

After being turned away by all the banks, my father did what he would have never done – he asked his elder brother to loan us the money. My father knew that by doing this his brother would never miss an opportunity to make us realise that he ‘owned’ us and we were worthless. But he was ready to do that for my sake. Within a day the money was transferred to my account by my uncle. Now, all the banks were more than happy to prepare a bank guarantee for me. Some banks even wanted me to open a foreign currency account with them. I receive calls from such bank even now but I still have a plain savings bank account. I save a lot from my scholarship and when I look back I realise that had the banks allowed us a loan, I would have paid it back to them with interest in 18 months. But, the banks would have not wanted that. They want, in all the cases, to earn money. Pure bloodsuckers. Today I hate to even look at the banks.

So, when India was playing the ICC Champion’s trophy I was still not watching the game; however, I was intrigued by the presence of Vijay Mallya in the cricket stadium in England. Vijay had taken millions of dollars as loan from banks, defaulted on all of them, and fled India to escape being incarcerated. On one hand I am amused to see how people admire Vijay Mallya for fooling the banks, on the other hand I am angered to see that banks trusted a businessman, and lent him millions but each of those banks refused to loan me just $10,000 against a collateral that was far more valuable. As I said before, I am not interested in cricket but I have still not forgotten the humiliation I received from the banks.

Why the March for Science?

Sketch22616543.pngMarch for science is a way for the scientists to make themselves heard and perhaps, to make the general public realise that the independence of science is under threat. But, what has happened recently that is so wrong that the scientists had to leave their laboratories and field work to protest on the streets. Why is it that the general public is talking about issues such as terrorism, feminism, LGBTQ rights, freedom of expression but not the independence of science? The reason is that the scientific community has failed to create a face of its own to promote its achievements. Let me explain this further. We all eat food and thank the local grower, farmer, and even acknowledge the agro-companies for nature’s bounty. However, how many times do we, even the scientists, think about the efforts of grad students, science technicians, and principal investigators? I am writing this article on a laptop that has a beautiful 4K touchscreen and is running hundreds of processes in the background, and you are reading this on some kind of an electronic gadget that is equally awesome and far more capable than a typewriter. However, the manufacturers such as Apple, Dell, Samsung have become the face of this technology, and very little thought is given to the engineers working day-and-night to bring to us the technologies that are making our life easier. In fact, everything around us and beyond our sight, from a nano-bead in your face wash to a giant spaceship, has been made possible by the scientific community. I even know some scientists who model the properties of ceramic so that our coffee mugs have better design and strength. When everything around us is a gift of scientific research, then what has happened that scientists are on streets demanding the right to conduct better science without political interference? Probably we all have taken things for granted, and unless the scientists come up with something such as the discovery of gravitational waves, it does not make news headlines. Although, a common person may not even appreciate the importance of the discovery of gravitational waves.

March for science is not in response to the latest developments only, but it is an outburst of scientists who have been tolerating wrong science policies since a long time. For a large part, the scientific fraternity is responsible for the current situation. Scientists, for some reason, have lived with the belief that the only way to serve science is by working tirelessly. They have distanced themselves from the political and corporate labels which are the most effective vehicles of public outreach. Strangely, the scientists are also expected to be non-believers or atheists. This is probably because scientific discoveries have usually contradicted the orthodox religious beliefs and the orthodox, religious society has felt threatened by the logical thinking. Since the political system and working of the political class of the western hemisphere have been influenced by the religious movements, the mistrust between politicians and scientists has continued to exist even today. Moreover, most scientists believe that getting into politics is dirty and requires losing moral values. The scriptures from ancient India tell us that scientific research was a big part of their civilization. However, only the famous scientific philosophers (sages/rishis), or the philosophers inducted in the royal advisory group received funding from the ruling emperor; rest of the rishis had to send their students to ask for donations (bheeksha) from the citizens. Fortunately, the philosophers and their students were revered in ancient India and donating to them was considered a pious job. In return, the ancient philosophers kept themselves detached from worldly pleasures so that the public did not blame them for enjoying on the public donations. Unfortunately, the public still expects the scientists to remain detached from the pleasures of the world, politics, and religion. In many countries, the professors are not well paid, and all they receive from the society is respect. Even the scientists have complied to this public notion and have remained detached from interfering in political decisions and governance. This means that the scientists lack the lobby to influence our lawmakers. For example, a company that manufactures nuclear reactors will have a lobby to influence the lawmakers; whereas, the nuclear scientists are expected to wear white coats and work tirelessly in the R&D facility. If the nuclear scientists need a pay hike, they will have to request the business heads, who will then find out a way to influence the government to loosen their purses. Universities and educational institutes are the largest employers of scientists and science teachers. Who lobbies for them? If a province or a state’s budget is in the red, the university budget is the first to be reduced. The administrators of the universities then pass on the budget cuts to the departments conducting engineering and basic science research. Consequently, we are in a situation where a scientist is expected to wait for the breadcrumbs that the corporates and politicians throw at them. The society does not care much because scientists do not strap bombs on their chests or shoot people to attract attention to their cause. Instead, the scientists work day and night in silence to make everybody’s life better. Also, the scientists will never take up violent means to get themselves heard because their analytical skills are better and they understand that violence brings no good. However, the time has come when the scientists will need to walk on the streets and make the public aware of the importance of scientific research and that it needs money. Scientists will also have to do a better job of communicating the importance of research in basic science. The public usually does not have access to science magazines and journals; they read blogs, newspapers and tabloids. Social networking websites will have to be used in a much better way to reach the masses. The scientific community will have to stop pleasing the politicians and corporates and will have to come to the streets to justify the cost of expensive instruments and facilities such as the Large Hadron Collider. Above all, the scientists will have to come forward to join politics because they know things better. A march for science is a step forward in that direction but the scientists will have to be more aggressive in putting forward their agenda and letting people know that scientific system has a rigorous system of peer review to weed off pseudoscience, and therefore they can be trusted.

N.B. the comments and thoughts are welcome. I am a student of science and believe that this article can only be improved through a peer review process.

To that second reviewer: please tone down your harsh comments 😛

Are we documenting our lives better than our ancestors?

Never ever have humans recorded their life the way they do it today. One falls sick, there is a status update on Facebook. Whether it is first birthday or inconsequential 26th, celebrations are shared with everyone over social media. If it is a new guitar or just a bad haircut, there is a record of it somewhere as pictures. When photography was invented, it was a great tool to immortalize an event, art or a person’s achievement. Today, with advent of camera phones, everyone is saving innumerable events every year. However, a pertinent question is – why are we immortalizing ourselves duck-faced? But the more important question is if we are actually immortalizing our moments? Are we really going to preserve the snapshots of our lives? Do you even remember where are the pictures that you took three months ago?

When I was doing my bachelor’s degree, I owned a Canon point-and-shoot camera. I loved taking picture with it and saved them all in DVDs. By the time I finished my degree, I probably had 5 DVDs. I did not print of any of those because all the moments were dear to me and I simply did not have enough money to document them in tangible form. Today, 5 years later, I miss those moments but cannot find the DVDs. I think I lost them or they broke. I clearly remember that 2 DVDs would just not work because they got scratched. When I moved to Canada from India three years ago, I copied all the photos to my computer so that I could see them when I missed my old days. But three days ago my hard disk crashed and I lost everything that I had saved on my computer. More interestingly, I was not even bothered about those pictures when my computer died; I was more worried about the data from my PhD research and all the references that I had collected over the years. Moreover, just because I considered that research data was important, I had it saved it on cloud and was able to retrieve it as soon as I fixed my computer. Why did I not backup my images? It is because I had so many of them that it would have cost me a lot to buy cloud space. Also, I don’t even remember the pictures that I had taken with my smart phone and where I saved them. Although I do remember buying my current phone because of its great camera and ability to take good photos even in low light. But now I wonder if my phone’s camera quality actually mattered to me when I have lost all the pictures that I had taken? In fact, 90% of the pictures that I take with my phone end up being deleted because those moments do not seem to matter much after few hours.

Our ancestors immortalized their moments, tales, events, and stories through tangible and durable records such as monuments, statues, cave paintings, terracotta art etc. In contrast, we are trying to encode our life in magnetic fields and binary numbers. I am forced to think that when the future civilizations will discover silicon and plastic debris, what will they think of us? If our civilization is wiped off and the future humans have to develop everything again, will they be able to develop devices fast enough to see how I celebrated my 30th birthday before my silicon records are decomposed? Finally, are we really documenting our lives better than our ancestors?