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!

Climate change is real, let’s talk about solutions

Global warming and climate change have become an existential threat to humankind. In this article, Nanditha elucidates these ideas and explains how close we are to a global catastrophe if we do not act now. She also describes how India would be one of the worst-hit nations. 

Greta Thunberg’s rise to fame with the movement “School Strike for Climate Change”, which shone a light on the view that humanity is facing an existential threat due to human-made climate change. This reinvigorated the long-standing climate change debate: how much of a threat is it, and what are the best steps forward? Before we delve into debates, let’s take a quick look at what global warming is.

Global warming refers to the phenomenon of the increase in the Earth’s average temperature over a period of time. The Earth’s average temperature, which is 14.6 C, is increasing at a faster rate than usual.

Climate change refers to the more general changes happening to Earth, partly as a result of global warming. These adverse changes include shrinking mountains glaciers, melting ice caps (and rising sea levels), changes in flowering patterns, etc.

Global warming is caused by the “greenhouse effect”. CO2 and other air pollutants (methane, ethane, polychlorocarbons) get trapped in the atmosphere instead of escaping into space. These pollutants retain the heat from sunlight – like in a greenhouse, thereby increasing the global temperatures. There is sufficient data today to suggest that the causes of increased temperature started in the industrialization era, and aligns closely with the increase in demand and use of coal and other fossil fuels to generate electricity. The Climatic Research Unit, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA have all reported that the 20 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001, except for 1998. The warmest year on record was 2016.

Some of the most adverse effects of global warming may seem far away because they include imagery of melting ice caps, and polar bears losing their habitat in Antarctica. However, the effects are closer to home – it is predicted that South Asia, and particularly India will be one of the worst-hit nations in the world. India has the highest Social Cost of Carbon and thus, with a greater increase in the global temperature, the cumulative damage will increase. These consequences are represented as heatwaves, water shortage (already a threat in many regions of South India), sea-level rise, unpredictable precipitation patterns. Climate change is an intersectional problem. As we lose the power to predict harvest seasons, there will be a significant shift in the growth of important crops like rice. This could result in severe famine across the country and as much as a 9% decline in India’s GDP, due to reduction or stoppage of export. Increased sea levels pose a big threat to those who live in the coastal regions, with a legitimate possibility of destroying entire cities and towns, in a not so distant future. Without any surprise, the poor are the most vulnerable to these threats despite them contributing least to the problem.

With about 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agreeing on the man-made effects of rapid global warming, it is not a debate of whether there is climate change, but a debate on best solutions to go forward. Currently, the highest carbon emitter is China, contributing to 27% of the total CO2 emissions. The USA is a close second (15%), followed by the European Union (9%), and India (7%). But the per capita and total cumulative CO2 emissions are the highest in the USA (16%). Although India has increased coal demands due to rapid development, the per capita contribution has been low. Besides, India is also emerging as a leader in renewable energies. That majority of the new electricity generation capacity added in the past decade has been through renewable sources, offers hope. Despite a few countries’ efforts to strictly follow the Paris Climate Convention’s suggestion, USA has stepped back on provisions to curb greenhouse gases and pulled out of the Paris Accord1. These are extremely alarming and may set in motion a global scale of events that are detrimental to human lives as we know it.

The USA pulls out of the Paris Accord. Picture Source: https://thefederalistpapers.org/political-cartoon/trumps-message-to-the-world-by-pulling-out-of-paris-accords-cartoon


The Indian government has taken ambitious steps toward addressing climate change issues. For example, the usage of non-renewable sources to fuel India’s increasing energy demands is set to decline by 33% in the next ten years. This means that around 33% less non-renewable fuels will be used to generate the same amount of energy. This is just one of the many goals set forward by the country towards an energy-efficient, sustainable future. They look promising, given the previous achievements of the National Mission on Enhancing Energy Efficiency.

Such positive policies have also been adopted across the world. These measures are reassuring, but we have a long way to go. Perhaps Martin Luther King Jr’s words have never been more apt since his original speech, “Beyond Vietnam”: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there “is” such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

1 The Paris Agreement is a landmark environmental accord that was adopted by nearly every nation in 2015 to address climate change and its negative impacts. The deal aims to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels while pursuing means to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees”

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.