A walk in a researcher’s shoe

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.


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!

The psychological price in pandemics

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, social distancing, lockdown, quarantine and isolation have become the norms of the day. The social animals that human beings are, this new lifestyle seems to be taking a toll on their mental health. In this article, Upasana discusses the importance of studying mental health during a pandemic, the psychological stressors involved, and the need for an appropriate support system.

The lockdown
Staying home Staying safe! Picture Courtesy- https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/this-is-the-psychological-side-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-that-were-ignoring/

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest word on our fingertips besides all the swear words is “quarantine”. A huge chunk of ongoing research is mainly focussed on the transmission and cure of the disease. But the disease currently being untreatable, people have been advised to practice social distancing. A tangential but costly effect of social distancing, either through quarantine or isolation, is seen on the mental well-being of people.

“Quarantine” was first used in Venice, Italy in 1127 in the leprosy outbreak followed by official implementation of the same in the UK in response to the plague. In the context of the recent outbreak of coronavirus, the nationwide lockdown has been implemented in many countries across the world due to its rapid transmission and fatal nature. While it is the most appropriate measure taken by any nation, we often forget to address its psychological impacts. There are very few reports discussing the repercussions of pandemics on mental health after quarantine and isolation were imposed in many countries during SARS, MERS and Ebola and H1N1 outbreaks.

Global evidence on mental health outcomes associated with such measures to prevent the spread of infection suggests that prolonged exposure to psychological stressors exerts disturbance in the mental health of not only common public but also in patients, healthcare workers and informal caregivers, the latter being the most affected. Psychological stressors are elements in our everyday life, physical or social, that challenge our mental balance – being separated from loved ones, financial loss, overthinking, etc. These could be as small as worrying about an exam, but we do have other options like being with a friend or family, taking a walk, etc. which help us in such instances.

The Everyday Stress
Challenges in our daily lives. Picture courtesy- https://www.cairo360.com/article/health-fitness/quick-tips-to-overcome-stress-and-anxiety-triggered-by-coronavirus-%E2%80%8E/

Depending on the mental state of an individual and the length of quarantine or isolation, there are impacts during the quarantine: short-term impacts (a few months post-quarantine) and long-term impacts (2-3 years post-quarantine). Common stressors during quarantine are fear of infection, frustration and boredom, shortage of supplies and inadequate information. No matter how prepared an individual is, with each passing day these anxieties grow. In the longer run, studies have shown that these fears become so overpowering that they could still be evident years later particularly in the healthcare officials directly involved in treatment or care of the infected patients. The constant fear of contagious diseases and the associated risks have led people to avoid public places and transport and ignore other people as such. This does not fare them well and ultimately leads to loss of employment and finances.

It might seem that leading the life of an introvert would be a fair shot here, given the impression of lying alone in a room with coffee and books, but it is not true. A remarkable thing about psychological disturbance is that we fail to realise when it seeps in and gets rooted in us till we finally show any symptoms.

A peaceful mind
Trying to keep the stressors down. Picture Courtesy- https://thriveglobal.com/stories/calmnivores-dilemma-tips-calm-reduce-stress/

Social distancing is currently the most effective way, albeit a little harsh on mental well being, in controlling any pandemic. Nevertheless, there are ways to alleviate the psychological stressors like keeping the quarantine duration as less as possible, although under unavoidable circumstances it has to be extended. Keeping the public informed and providing necessary supplies are required to maintain peace. Special attention and encouragement have to be given to people working in healthcare for their current efforts and also further to reduce the long term impacts post-quarantine. Providing emotional support and compassion towards everyone would help in the struggles associated with the crisis. Digital intervention has paved a better way not only for patients with a history of psychiatric illness but also for the general public. It is currently the best method to reduce boredom and anxiety – thanks to meme-makers and YouTubers!

Overall, there is a compromise on the psychological aspect made by everyone up to some extent during the quarantine. For the best we can do now is to try to keep our minds happy despite the limitations.