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.


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 😛

Rambling thoughts on Darwin’s birthday

I live in Saskatoon (somewhere in Canada) where I have experienced temperatures as low as -450C and I am convinced that this is not the place where nature wanted humans to live: we are invaders from tropics. I am also convinced, from the stories that my parents tell me of my sickness as a child, that I am also not the nature’s favoured one to have seen last 29 winters. A lot of us are surviving today not because of our physical or genetic fitness, but because of mental capabilities of millions of scientists who have been developing medicine, heating/cooling systems, water filters and what not. Clearly, “survival of the fittest” does not apply only to an individual, but to a population that is ready to fight, physically and mentally, the challenges thrown by nature. I am stretching my thoughts and after enough elasticity I ask myself if mental advancement is the real means to long term survival of a race of biological species? Cockroaches have survived more than 300 million years with just about 1,000,000 brain cells in comparison to humans with about 1,000,000,000,000 cells who have been inhabiting this planet for only a fraction of that time.1 (Not to mention Katsaridaphobiafear of cockroaches in humans).

A normal population curve of naturally fit people (fig. 1) would tell us that the proportion of a population that is naturally fit to survive is very small. A large proportion of population falls under the mediocre category; such individuals may survive but are not the favoured ones as they may lack some characteristics that would eventually be their Achilles heel on the day of judgment. The same curve would also tell us that only a very small proportion of our population is smart enough to contribute to our collective wisdom that helps us to develop technologies for human survival. Therefore, we can say that while a very small proportion of population is fit enough to survive on its own, the rest of the humanity is simply riding on the wisdom of very few geniuses. In other harsher words, our human population primarily consists of weaker people like me who would have not survived had it not been for those very few smart guys.

While I was waiting to join my current lab as a PhD student I tried my hand with growing vegetables. What I figured out was that to make Earth produce food is a tough job and my arms were too weak for that. This simply translates to the fact that some of us would have died of hunger had it not been for some unknown farmers who are sweating it out for people like me. Now, I am not a believer of those apocalypse prophesies but I do believe that there will be a time when the fitness of our population will be tested. On that day humans will be pitched against many other species. Competition will be severe. But, I believe that human race will clip_image002survive because of those few fit people. I am already proud of them.




Fig. 1: The bell curve showing normal population frequency (Handmade!!!)

Biologists are usually good cooks


Few weeks back in my department we organised an event called “The Great Curry Cook Off”. For this people had to sign up to prepare curries that others paid to eat and at the end of the event people who had paid to eat would vote for the top 2 preparations. I decided to make chick peas. About a year and a half ago I didn’t even know how to boil rice and here I was cooking for a competition. Though I did not win, I knew that my curry was great. One big lesson was that biologists working in lab can be great cooks.


Let me explain.

If you are a biologist and work in a research lab then you definitely follow protocols that require long lists of ingredients. Some ingredients have to be prepared fresh while you are working on some other step of the protocol –  multitasking is important here. Few chemicals have to be protected from light and shock, and a lot of them have strict thermal requirements. Your time management skills are very important so that you add each ingredient at the perfect time to continue your reactions in a way that you want. I cannot emphasise the importance of your patience which a lot of us run out of. In short, as a biologist, you deal with a very complex cooking recipe which has to be served to a large number of audience in the form of peer reviewed journals and you better be good else the reviewers are always trying their best to kick your bu** hard.

Now, just like cooking a dish, where does a biologist get the recipe for experiments? They probably get it from senior lab mates or researchers (mothers and grandmothers in case of cooking). Lot of biologists take protocols from peer reviewed research papers (cookery books in case of cooking). In an ideal world, which a PhD student wished (s)he lived in, all these protocols and cooking recipe should work in the very first shot and give the desired results with no error bars; after all these protocols have worked for the rest of the world. However, we all are hit hard by the reality – protocols suck. Another reason why a biologist could be a better cook is that when they follow a protocol in lab they make sure that the function and importance of each step and ingredient is known – what if an external examiner decides to ask you a question on the importance of annealing temperature in a PCR reaction. Similarly, when a biologist is in kitchen (s)he knows the function and effect of each spice, ingredient and cooking conditions such as heat and stirring which leads to a better cooked dish.  Hence, it’s the intuition, time management skills, and most importantly patience that makes biologist a master chef. A biologist also knows that every time an experiment is repeated the error bars tighten up (Error α  1/n) and the same wisdom is applied in kitchen. Therefore, the skills that  biologists learns in lab helps them to make tastier food provided they are left with enough energy at the end of the day to cook and they supervisor pays them enough to buy proper monthly groceries.

Why is reading a research journal better than reading a novel.

Okay, before we begin this I would like to clarify that if you are not a researcher, Fuck off!

Sorry, I am kidding. You are welcome to continue reading. All I wanted to say was that if you are not into research, you probably may not buy my arguments and give negative comments and people into research are already sick of getting counter arguments, negative comments from supervisors, journal editors and reviewers.

Last novel that I read was “Midnight’s Children” by Sulman Rushdie and the one before that was “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Both books were great. I especially liked Steinbeck’s and could not get over the feel of the book for next three days. But, both these books and many other great works like them are usually bulky. I started them, could not get real hang of things. Discontinued. Restarted and then could not keep them down till the last period. I love reading literary works but I would still prefer to read an research journal. Why? Here are my arguments:

I don’t have time (read I am lazy). I would usually take at least a week to read the whole book and to finally understand who fucked who. But, you take a research journal, begin with counting number of pages it has, then find out number of pages the references make, subtract count of pages with references from total number of pages and finally feel happy that you just read 2/3rd of the paper without actually reading a single word. Yay! what a progress. On the flip side, I would actually have to read the whole novel to be able to say that I actually read it.

There are no spoilers in scientific literature. In fact we love spoilers. Technically, a spoiler in scientific jargon is called an abstract of the paper. Sometimes the title itself narrates the whole story and we love it that way. On the other side, if someone tells you what a novel has in it you would swear to kill him right then. Also, titles of novels are just enticers and I have fallen for them many times only to realise that I was duped. The Grapes of Wrath is mentioned just once in the whole book and it forms the title of the book but it still doesn’t tell you that at the end….(Ha ha ha, I won’t tell you that. Don’t be lazy. Read it yourself).

Great literary works are usually not illustrated but you would rarely find a research journal article without a figure, chart, diagram or a table at least. In fact, highly rated journals prefer researchers provide them with fancy images. Fancier the images or more money it requires to get that image better are your chances being read. I sometimes don’t understand why does a research article need to have sentences when tables, illustrations and flowcharts say everything. After all, we are bu(la)sy.

Ever started a book and then wondered who the hell Joe was? A novel has so many characters that  I sometimes lose their track and have to go back to find out who they were. I would have read the first Harry Potter almost three times if you count number of times I had to go back and re-read the pages to understand if it was Dumbledore who had beard. But, if you are reading a research article chances are that you already know the characters in it. Why on earth would you read a paper on JNK or Heisenberg if you did not know who or what they were? And even if you did not know them it would be mentioned clearly somewhere in short ‘introduction’ or ‘materials and methods’ and you do not actually have to flip tens of pages to find out that fish.  Also, a research paper has very few characters so you would not loose track of them. For example, a paper on effects of metal contamination on fish would have two or three metals, a fish and three or four parameters. Scientists are usually too busy to meddle with more characters (you know what I mean).

You would usually read a book to enjoy it. But, you read a research paper to rip it apart. You are actually checking out what somebody else came up with, find a gap in knowledge and then you ride over his work to create your own with his last name within parenthesis in some line of some paragraph that most of your readers won’t even care to read unless they are really after that author. (Scientific papers usually would not have sentences as long as the one before this).

A research paper is the real explanation why a character in a novel or any other instrument would behave they way they behaved. A psychiatrist would tell you why John Grisham’s lawyer in The Street Lawyer gets into civil litigation and that would be discussed somewhere in some science journal. Umm, I take it that a scientist may not be able to justify the game of quidditch but science made it possible to film it in the movie. So, science wins.

If I need to read a book I might have to shell out at least $10 but to read a research paper all I need is to log on to my University account and download a copy. I don’t pay to read a research paper (I might be indirectly but it doesn’t hurt much).

Finally, if you shift your office or residence, you can easily burn all the printouts of research journals and feel the warmth of science or they might be occupying a tiny space left over by movies and episodes of The Big Bang Theory in your computer hard drive. But, I love to read real printed novels and they have an attached sentimental value. I cannot even see a small blemish or mark on my novels/books. So, read research papers instead and move on.

(N.B. Oh boy! what if you review literature novels? You have nothing to enjoy then. God help you.)