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Jayabrata Das
Personal Growth,  Social

My Ph.D. Journey: A Reflection on What it has Taught Me.

What’s the first word that comes to your mind after hearing Ph.D.?

Maybe the highest degree, intelligent people, long years, hard journey, etc.

In fact, even in my Master’s, I did not have a good idea about Ph.D. which is very unlikely (I was not even interested to be honest).

People who think to pursue a Ph.D. plan it way before. By the time they do their postgraduate studies, they make up their mind about Ph.D.

Nonetheless, on 10th August 2022, I defended my Ph.D. thesis.

If someone would have told me 7-8 years back that I would get a doctorate degree one day, I definitely would not have believed him.

People say (especially the so-called internet gurus) to have 5 or 10-year plans in life.

For me, I never believed in 10-year plans.

How do I know what kind of person I will be after 10 years, what would be my aspirations, beliefs, or mindset?

The philosophy of ‘enjoy this day and make decisions with your heart‘ has served me well.

When I look back and think about why did even I decided to pursue Ph.D., I find not much rationale behind it, rather I just liked a research group and I plunged into it not worrying too much about the future.

To understand my statement, you have to know a little background about me.

I did my Master’s (in Chemistry) at a state University (not considered a top-tier institute in India).

IITs (Indian Institute of Technology), IISERs (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research), etc. are considered as most prestigious institutes in India to pursue Science at the highest level.

So, I was never really serious about a Ph.D. (until the last few months of master’s).

But I guess things do not always happen to you because you worked hard for it but also because it was meant to happen to you.

Sometimes the universe just conspires to make things happen in your life. For me, Ph.D. is perhaps one of these things.

So here I am, overcoming the journey of five years of Ph.D. wanna share my experience and lessons that might help you if you stumble upon a similar journey in life.

Below are some of the topics that I am going elaborate on from my experience.

1. What Prompted me to do a Ph.D. and why you should do it or should not do it
2. Expectations going into the PhD
3. Challenges I faced through the journey
4. Three most useful skills to navigate successfully through PhD
5. Three important life lessons I learned during my PhD
6. Conclusion

What Prompted me to do a Ph.D. and why you should do it or should not do it

I remember it was the last semester of my master’s and all my friends had a discussion with me about the future

Questions like “So what are you going to do next? What kind of job are you looking for? Are you thinking about PhD?’ were part of regular discussions.

When I joined my master’s, I began with a perception that doing a decent job is the best thing after my post-graduation.

By the time, I was in my last semester, I started enjoying the subject to some extent and perhaps wanted to explore more. It was then perhaps I started thinking Ph.D. as an option (of course some of my teachers did encourage me).

When you are in a normal state University in India, there is an environment of fear about Ph.D. which is not entirely wrong.

You don’t want to explore a field where your investment/return ratio is poor.

A Ph.D. requires long 5-6 years with a lot of hurdles in between. After investing so many precious years of life, if you think the returns are way poorer then it is natural to get scared.

I still preferred to pursue the doctorate not because I was confident about returns but because I just wanted to explore the subject a bit more.

To be frank, I got scared a lot of times while in my Ph.D. about my future.

What would I do after my Ph.D.? Will I be skilled enough to become valuable in the market? Can I lead a life of my choice after Ph.D.?’ used to roam in my mind sometimes.

However, the one thing which glued me to the doctorate program is my fascination to explore the subject of my choice.

So when people ask me why should I do a Ph.D.? My answers are-

  • Because you love your subject and wish to explore more
  • You find research fascinating/interesting
  • You wanna become a leader/expert in your subject area
  • You want to pursue a research-related career

Then why should I not do a PhD.?

  • You are obsessed to get Dr. before your name
  • You wish to become famous
  • You think Ph.D. could increase your earning potential
  • You want to pursue a research-related career
  • You think you are intelligent so you must pursue PhD

Expectations going into the PhD

It’s important to keep your focus on the process and not the outcome in any aspect of life. Ph.D. is also not an exception.

Some people join Ph.D. with a high expectation of becoming a well-known persona from the beginning. Nothing wrong with that but carrying a high expectation could create extra pressure on you.

A Ph.D. is a journey, not any milestone. In 4-6 years of this journey, a lot of things will change and so are your expectations.

At the end of your Ph.D., you may not like something that you used to like at the start.

My aims from the beginning were clear. Instead of thinking about what I want to become, I think in terms of what kind of life I wish you live and what sort of career will allow me to do that.

I tried my best to focus on skills would make me a valuable candidate.

Ph.D. is perhaps the best time to prepare yourself before entering the hard world. Utilize it to hone your skills instead of wandering about how much you would earn after your Ph.D.

It is wise to think step by step and focus on getting the most out of the experience (learning/research in Ph.D.) instead of being obsessed about a specific outcome that might change and add unnecessary pressure.

Challenges I faced through the journey

Accepting the new norms of life

Until my Ph.D., I was accustomed to the normal routine of 9-5 life (like most people). Go to college/University, take some classes, then return in the evening.

The work life of Ph.D. changed the routine. There is no 9-5 concept. You work as long as you want. In fact, make your own routine perhaps.

The beginning was a little tough and I assume that happens to most people. Adjusting to new life and trying to keep up with the requirements of Ph.D. life seems a little overwhelming in the beginning days.

Nonetheless, as I( or anyone) got used to new requirements, everything became normal. It’s important that you don’t start judging too much in the starting days. Things could seem difficult, unclear, or messy but it does get better with time.

How quickly you get comfortable depends on whether you could adjust to the culture/people of the lab you are working with. If you find the lab culture too toxic, leave it. Working in a toxic lab for long will harm almost every aspect of your life.

The supervisor and peers play a crucial role in Ph.D. Thus it is important that you chose the lab and supervisor wisely.

One dimensional life

I was always interested in pursuing things that I like. Curiosity is something that drives my life. I am a great admirer of Leonardo Da Vinci. I always believed that it is the indomitable curiosity of Da Vinci that enable him to lead a great life.

In the beginning years of my Ph.D., I felt locked in a certain situation. I was only supposed to reach the lab in the morning and work there till night. And this is pretty normal in Ph.D. people work long hours in the lab.

I had no problem with long hours but I find it difficult to not pursue even a small hobby during my Ph.D. The general perception of people also perhaps says that just focus on Ph.D. while in Ph.D., nothing else.

For me, it was becoming difficult to follow that philosophy. I wanted something else as well in my life, even if it was something small. I wanted to get out of my one-dimensional life which consist of just doing research in a small lab.

That’s when I started to write on the internet. I have been always a bookworm. But never really took writing seriously. Although, I had a knack for writing personal diaries in my childhood.

Eventually, I started enjoying my writing, I established my own blog and then my own newsletter.

Writing is perhaps my biggest self-discovery in my PhD journey.

I met so many interesting people, and heard so much from people just because of my writing.

Of course, good writing is a must-have skill in Ph.D. so in that way, my writing did help me in my Ph.D. as well.

Feeling stuck at times

My Ph.D. journey has not been smooth always (perhaps like most people). Perhaps most Ph.D. student goes through this feeling of being stuck during their Ph.D.

At times, I felt stuck on specific research projects because things were not improving, other times I felt stuck just because the future did not seem exciting.

This is where you actually need a good support system. You need a few people around you who can make you feel stronger.

This is why the supervisor and peers in the lab are so important. You must not be lonely in your Ph.D. journey. There must be some people with whom you can share your frustrations, your insecurities. Does not matter whether those people are from the lab or out of the lab.

Keeping your body and mind in the right shape also plays a significant role to deal with tough situations in Ph.D.

While feeling stuck, remember that everything is just a phase and it takes long years to finish a Ph.D. so that you learn the value of perseverance and resilience.

If you succeed every time in Ph.D. and there is almost no failure, then you have not earned a good Ph.D.

Three most useful skills to navigate successfully through Ph.D.

  1. Persuasion

Persuasion in general is a great skill to possess. But in Ph.D., it becomes necessary to have it. While in Ph.D. you have to deal with people from different backgrounds, whether it is your supervisor, your peers, your committee members or other people, you have to convince different people at different times.

It is critical that you know how to persuade people in your presentations, through your writing, or in general while having normal conversations.

If you could understand people and talk in their language, chances are your Ph.D. will go smoothly without many hiccups.

Learn the art of Persuasion.

2. Look at the broader picture

It’s important that you don’t get stuck in the day-to-day problems in Ph.D.

Your research may not improve, You might have a bad day with one of your lab mates, or something else.

It’s important to see the broader picture while in your Ph.D. Do not do anything foolish based on a silly incident that might affect your future. Keep your eyes and mind on the big picture.

Similarly, don’t get carried away by the failure or success of your lab mates or peers. You need to trust yourself and keep on doing what you feel is good for you.

Don’t start copying others just because something (a research work or strategy) has worked for them. Remember your Ph.D. is supposed to be original in every aspect.

For that to happen, you have to be original first. Develop a research vision. Read the problems associated with your field and how can you contribute to solving those.

Chose your projects wisely and stick to them. Sooner or later you will get the rewards.

3. Perseverance

When someone enrolls in a Ph.D. program, he/she is supposed to generate original knowledge which is not been reported before.

This means one needs to try and see numerous things to know what works and what does not.

My experience is that Ph.D. is more about failures than success.

At the end of a Ph.D., one should be able to tell more about what does not work than what work.

Learning the art of failure and having the perseverance to deal with failure is perhaps the most important skill one must develop during Ph.D.

In the face of uncertainty, in the face of rejection, and in the face of frustration, perseverance is your protector.

Three important life lessons I learned during my PhD

  1. Ph.D. presents the opportunity to self-discover yourself

The ultimate joy in life is when you discover something in yourself.

Being in a Ph.D. is a unique time that accelerates your chances of discovering yourself.

Why I am saying that?

You have to think harder, you are supposed to do a lot of brainstorming, you will fail a lot, you will be frustrated at times, you will see success, failure everything in a quick time in a Ph.D.

In normal routine life, you don’t see these many things going on in your life. But a Ph.D. in a way forces you to think harder about your research and about your life.

This means you are expected to better understand yourself. About what you like, what you don’t like, what kind of skills you possess, what you need to improve, etc.

In a nutshell, You perhaps would know yourself better after doing a Ph.D.

For me, I realized what kind of life I wish to live, and what are the things that make me happy (so I will pursue them lifelong).

I discovered interesting people in my Ph.D. whom I wish to remain in touch with, I discovered my interest in writing, I discovered my style of work, etc.

It’s not just about getting the degree, it’s also about your personal development so that you could live a fulfilled life.

2. Good communication is the most underrated skill

You could improve your life so much if only you could have good communication ability.

When you talk, it is not just about getting the message transferred to the other person. It’s also about how you make the other person feel.

“It’s not what you say but it’s how you make them feel that people remember”

Unfortunately, people do not talk much about having clear and crisp communication abilities. The general belief is that some people are naturally good in conversations and some are not.

That’s really a myth.

The ability to talk effectively could be developed with some effort.

You can’t overlook your communication ability in a Ph.D. or in life.

Everything good that would happen to you is because somebody will present you with opportunities. And if you cannot make others feel good through effective conversations, chances are you will not get many opportunities.

3. Embrace Uncertainty

Most people do not like uncertainty. It makes people uncomfortable.

Our brain craves patterns in everything. We feel in control when we could predict what’s gonna happen next. However, life does not often present us with predictability.

In the face of uncertainty, we feel scared.

If anything, Ph.D. is all about facing uncertainty. You don’t know what will happen to your research project, you are not sure what you will be doing after Ph.D., you don’t know how life will throw challenges while in PhD., etc.

In the hindsight, when I look back I think uncertainty can give you scope for growth in life. If you are certain about everything in life, then there is hardly any scope for growth.

More than success or failure what’s more important is whether you can accept it wholeheartedly and move forward.

In the end, both success or failure is temporary. True growth or development comes after your acceptance of the situation.

Be humble when you succeed and be strong when you fail. As the saying goes-

“This too shall pass”

Embrace uncertainty, because if you can then whether you succeed or fail but you will surely grow in life.

Conclusion

I think a Ph.D. is like a training ground where you prepare yourself for the challenges life is going to throw. If you love what you do in your Ph.D. then nothing is better than this.

Immerse yourself in the research that you always find interesting, discover new knowledge, and enjoy your time in your Ph.D.

At the same time, remember Ph.D. is a part of your life (maybe an important one), not your whole life. Take care of your body, mind, and soul. Pursue a hobby if you have one, be a part of a community, and talk to your parents, all these will eventually help you to increase the quality of your Ph.D. as well as your life.

I certainly had a rich experience in my Ph.D. and wish you all the best in your journey.

To know about my research visit jayabratadas.com

You could always get in touch with me. To read more of my writings, you could subscribe to my newsletter.

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