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.

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?

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.

How I learned to make my first cup of coffee

What is that first thing you would like to have when you land at JFK International airport after a 21 hour long non-stop flight? If you are from Americas then your nose is probably trying to catch whiffs of coffee and if you are from Indian subcontinent, as I am, you would crave chai. Since JFK is in New York, in the United States of America (duh, even an illiterate who watches Hindi movies would know it), it would be easier to find a hot pot of coffee and that is what I chose to drink. But, seldom did I know that this craving for caffeine was about to lead me into struggle and embarrassment.

You see, ordering tea or coffee in India is a very simple affair. All you have to tell the waiter or chai wallah is that you would like tea or the type of coffee and they will make it for you. When I say “the type of coffee” I mean you just need to tell them if you need cappuccino or a regular coffee. Every coffee/tea house in the subcontinent has their own readymade coffee/tea recipe and customers are usually never asked for their preference. Customers also never ask for customisation unless someone is diabetic and needs to cut down sugar intake. Please mind that I am talking about an average Indian’s experience. Big hotels might still offer you some customisation but not your regular tea shop. Since I have always been a student (aka poor) I have never been to a big hotel to try tea Therefore, I am used to that “Indian” method of ordering beverages but America was going to teach me a lesson soon.

After landing at the JFK I exchanged a pile of Indian rupees for just a handful of US dollars and my first purchase was a coffee. I spotted a coffee kiosk with a girl, definitely of Indian origin, at the cash counter. I approached the girl with sleepy eyes and asked for a cup of coffee to which she said something that I did not catch. I learned my first lesson- your ears also sleep after a very long and tiring flight. I begged for her pardon and asked her to repeat what she had just said.

“What size coffee do you want?” she repeated with a stern look on her face.

Now that was a question completely absurd to me. In India even the size of your beverage is fixed with its recipe and here I was standing in front of a girl who was asking me the size of my coffee with a condescending look on her face. I gulped down my hesitation with some saliva and asked for my options.

“Small, medium, and large,” she replied as if it was obvious.

As a student of science I have always hated such generalisations (and LBS system) of measurements; how would I know how much coffee comes in small, medium or a large cup? I was the only person at kiosk and still the cashier seemed impatient dealing with a foreign customer. I measured my craving for caffeine in terms of small, medium or large and thought I should go with a large coffee.

“Llll-arge please,” I responded with hesitation.

Now I don’t remember how much it cost me but if I could measure it in terms of embarrassment, I would say it was expensive. I also remember myself remembering Einstein’s theory of relativity soon after that; because those few seconds, that I took to decide the size of my coffee, seemed like hours, especially because I was making a fool of myself in front of a beautiful girl.

Paying for coffee, in a currency that you have just been introduced to, was also not easy. If you have ever been to a new country and dealt with a new currency, you would know that identifying coins and their denominations is tough. I fumbled with coins in my hand to find the correct amount. Seeing the cashier’s impatience, I dropped all the coins I could find in my pocket on her desk. She quickly sorted the change, slid the ones she wanted into her cash drawer and asked me to take back the rest. At this moment she heaved a sigh of relief and showed me where the cups were so that I could get my coffee.

What? Now I have to make my coffee? How on earth does one do that? I had never done it before. What the hell was that girl there for? Just to charge for the raw materials? I assumed I had made a mistake and should have settled with bottled water but the cash was paid and I was standing before coffee cups stacked in three sizes – small, medium, and large. Good thing was that I was hidden behind the paraphernalia of coffee making and there was no one else seeing me, especially not the girl at the cash counter. I ran my eyes around and found large flask labelled hot water. I understood that the steps would be similar to preparing a tea from a tea bag. I poured cup full of hot-almost boiling water into my cup and as I moved further I saw a similar flask labelled coffee. I realised then that I had made a mistake. I had to throw water and pour coffee instead. But, I was hesitant to throw water – what if the girl saw me and charged me for taking large cup of water and wasting it. I looked around, made sure that no one was watching and quickly threw that cup with hot water in garbage bin. I clandestinely took another large cup and proceeded towards the coffee flask. I thought that there would be prepared coffee in the flask and I will just have to open the tap and get my coffee. So I opened that tap and saw black, tarry liquid dropping into my glass. It did smell like coffee. Since I had paid for a large coffee I filled the cup to its brim, covered it with a lid and walked towards my seat.

Finally, I was having my coffee. I pulled out some biscuits from my bag, took a bite, sipped my coffee and coughed it all out instantly. Never ever had I drank anything this bitter in my life. I know people drink black tea without sugar in India but that is only when they ask for it otherwise the standard tea or coffee has milk and sugar. My cough had drawn enough attention including of the girl in coffee kiosk. I pretended as if biscuit had choked me (as if people knew I had eaten a biscuit; genius). I wiped my mouth with a handkerchief, and acted as if everything was normal. I looked at my cup of coffee and thought that I, under no circumstances, would be able to drink an ocean full of bitter-black-hot water. But I could not even throw it because I had paid for it and the girl was still looking at me. So, I decided to take big bites of biscuits and gulp it down with coffee. I decided to do that until I felt that I have had enough biscuits to fill my syomach and there after I could throw the remaining coffee.

Few minutes would have passed and I had just managed to gulp one biscuit with few small sips of coffee when I saw a man, in a very shabby denim wear, purchase a large cup of coffee. He disappeared into the same corner where I had poured coffee. Few minutes later I saw him reappear on the other corner of the kiosk adding things to his coffee. Watching him I realised that I had missed few more steps to make my coffee. I let that man go and walked to the same corner and saw sachets of sugar and flask of cream and milk. Alright, I understood then that I had to add all these things to my coffee in a proportion to make my coffee drinkable. I quickly opened the lid of my coffee cup and saw there was hardly any space for anything in it. If I were to add stuff to it I would have to throw some coffee and make space.

If somebody sees me throw coffee they would think that I am an ignorant idiot and didn’t even know how to make my coffee. Okay, I accept that I was not bothered about anyone else watching me but the girl at the cash counter. However, before I could throw my coffee I met another predicament – how much should I throw? I didn’t know how much milk or cream would I need to make this coffee palatable. So now I kept waiting for someone to come and make their coffee so that I could see how much dairy I would need. Fortunately, a gentleman in a suit came soon. He tucked a folder he was carrying under his arms to free his hands. He just had 3/4th of his cup filled with coffee. I watched him add equal quantities of milk and crème but no sugar. I copied him with respect to milk and crème. Since I wasn’t sure of how much sugar would I need I started with 2 sachets. I realised that I would need at least 1 more and so I added. I stirred my coffee and found that I had prepared my first cup of lukewarm coffee to swallow my embarrassment. But, it was an experience I can never forget. Now I have my own coffee maker and I just love my blend.