“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.