A PhD life is unlike any other. It’s hectic and uncertain in ways that many people can’t relate with. In this piece, Upasana gives a glimpse of the PhD life.

“HELLO! YES, I AM LEAVING TO LAB. YES, I HAD BREAKFAST, MA! YES, I HAVE KEPT LUNCH”

Every morning starts with a typical four-line conversation with a loved one, just in case we forgot to have food. Because skipping a meal is not unusual in grad life – happens pretty much every day. 

One is lucky who lives closest to their place of work. The anxiety is short lived. Be it a walk, a drive, or a bus ride, your mind gets cluttered with thoughts of discussion with your advisor. Will the experiment I set up last night work? Will I get some free food today? These are few of the many recurring thoughts which pop up at the beginning of the day. 

Perspectives on a clueless life. Picture Source: crossleylab.wordpress.com

After being in research for a couple of years, I have realized I have two types of people in my life. Those who understand what PhD life is like and others who don’t. It becomes a lot harder to deal with the people who don’t understand how the life is and requires much patience. It goes the other way around too. 

Many a times we are asked, especially in a country like India, where every next month is a festive season, “Isn’t it off today? Why are you going to lab?” Really? Is there an off? Well, explain that to my ongoing experiment that I have to monitor at five different time points. It might be a sad reality, but there is no concept of dedicated ‘holidays’. Yes, we are physically free at times, but being mentally free to participate in other activities of life is rare. We do take breaks – much needed ones – after a series of failed experiments or a significant piece of work. Unplanned trips are the best ones to cool off the steam.

More often than not people fail to understand that the amount of time and efforts we invest or have to invest in earning a PhD is far greater than any other course of study preceding that. It’s not just another degree that we earn at the end of four years or after successful completion of a project. It is that learning phase of our lives, which determines the course of our academic career. And, tangentially, our personality too. A good PhD is not only doing a good thesis work and publishing papers but also a reflection of how well balanced it was. We tend to get attached to our PhD work and, hence, stressful PhDs often leave a taste of an unfathomable dissatisfaction in our lives. 

The box of thoughts – struggle to think out of the box while uncertainties weigh you down. Picture Source: Unsplash

I am not saying other ‘jobs’ are not stressful, but PhD life is a whole another level of uncertainty. Did I forget to add an important parameter in my experiment? Will I receive my stipend this month? Isn’t that group from Europe working on similar line? Scoop alert! The dynamic nature of research is scary in itself. There is a constant fear of lagging behind if you are not updated on the latest works – especially those of your direct competitors, and tools and techniques to address your research questions. To make it worse, it’s quite disheartening to hear your advisor say, “People have shown this already. Please read the papers!”

So, when the non-PhD folks ask me, “Hey, your PhD will get over in three years, right? What are you planning to do after this? What about settling down? Why do you have to go to lab in the middle of the night?” I have no idea what to say, except for the last one – it’s a timepoint, dear! It’s not even fair to ask these questions sometimes because we have no idea how tomorrow (literally the next day) is going to be. We would let you know when we have the answers. People in our lives need to normalize this uncertainty. We already have plenty of unanswered questions on our plate with timely reminders from our guides that we are not doing enough.

Why do we do what we do, then, given it’s so stressful. Well, that’s a question for another day. But very few of us choose this path because we were driven by a question and an enthusiastic quest to answer it. And these are the kinds of people who are the most resilient ones in the field. It takes a lot of perseverance to survive this, and we do it for the passion towards our work. 

We are often misunderstood by our close ones as being insensitive and selfish. It could be true for some, no doubt, but at the end of the day, I think we just seek comfort and encouragement from our loved ones. Especially on the days we are down with a lot and it’s overwhelming us. 

Academics is tough, or rather, it has been made tough over the years. Toxic lab cultures, mental breakdowns and total disregard for personal interests and hobbies have made it even more difficult to survive it. But we still do, for the greater good. So, motivate us for a better future. Or ask better questions, like Would you like some Ice-cream? I know it sounds silly. But it’s a lot more comforting to us after a tiring day!

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