A Ph.D. life in perspective

[3650 words]

Recently, the tragic demise of a Ph.D. student in Kolkata has brought up the issues of a Ph.D. life into the limelight. Since I did not know the student or his guide personally, I refrain from jumping to a quick conclusion. Like any tragic incident, it is often easy to make an individual or a set of individuals the scapegoat. However, it is more important to understand the core of the issue and generate a discussion about whether there is anything we can do about it. Being a last-year Ph.D. student, I believe I could possibly add a few points.

A Ph.D. student is a person amongst emotionally the most vulnerable section of the population, going through a most vulnerable training process, for one of the most vulnerable career options, during the most vulnerable phase of his/her life.

Probably, it will not be wrong if we say: A Ph.D. student is a person amongst emotionally the most vulnerable section of the population, going through a most vulnerable training process, for one of the most vulnerable career options, during the most vulnerable phase of his/her life. In the following sections, I try to justify the overuse of the word “vulnerable”.  Though this does not explain a suicide (nor do I attempt to explain), it could cast some light on the life of a Ph.D. student from an Indian perspective.

Why is a Ph.D. student emotionally more vulnerable than other people in society?

It might seem a paradox when a student commits suicide even being quite bright with good publications. Statistics of suicide are indeed eye-opening. Contrary to our intuition, the numbers of suicides are often higher in the happy European countries compared to some of the poor African countries. It is thus very important to recognize the emotional vulnerability of Ph.D. students, even before looking at their life using the prism of a torturous relationship between a guide and a student.

Often, if not always, a Ph.D. student comes with an extremely bright educational background. It also means that he/she might have faced less serious failures in life. He was probably not the one who knew that in the next math exam he would get a zero and he had to find a life of carpentry for the rest of his life (no offense to any profession, though.). Or, she is probably not the one who knew that if she failed the next exam, her parents could be looking for a groom to marry her off even at a very young age. Anyway, the point is, even if a good student might have gone through extreme pressure of expectations, they often lack common skills in life — like how to cope if someone undermines them, how to react if someone scolds them. While a common student can just laugh off their numerous beatings from their beloved math teacher during their school, a Ph.D. student might simply find it hard when get scolded by someone (read the guide) for the first time in his/her life and cannot express to anyone other than crying inside.

A Ph. D. student, bright during his/her school life, suddenly finds one amongst the equals.

Secondly, the pressure of expectation does not cease to exist during a Ph.D., but it gets amplified. The parents and the relatives, often unaware of the actual conditions of academics, anticipate a lucrative job, while the reality is that the job prospect of a Ph.D. is as insecure and competitive as any other job, if not more.

On top of the lack of failures, and pressure of expectations, another thing that makes a Ph.D. student extremely vulnerable is his/her large self-esteem. Probably, he/she has been at the top in the class during school days. Possibly, wherever they go, be it a family function, or friends gathering, they are recognized as talented and used to lots of praise. However, when they land up in the pool of Ph.D. students, suddenly in their life they are now one amongst the equals. Everyone surrounding them carry their own local tags of talent, which was so far nice to enjoy, but now very hard to protect. It might be challenging for some to quickly recognize that they are entering into the reality of life, which with all its beauty is gruesome; where even a Doctorate degree will not help much, since they will be anyway surrounded by so many other doctors in their rest of the life.

Even a Doctorate degree will not help much, since they will be anyway surrounded by so many other doctors in their rest of the life.

Now think, if an otherwise bright student starts falling behind during the Ph.D. and slowly depression creeps in, where he/she could let it open? Parents? But they probably do not know the actual picture of a Ph.D. anyway – they still might have a rosy picture of their beloved child discovering or inventing some important science. How could they come to terms that he/she is actually “acquiring some training under a guide” (which, depending on the nature of the guide, could be translated into “working a job under a boss”)? Relatives? Often the relatives find, possibly to their amusement, that some X or Y is actually earning far more and has already secured a ‘settled life’ despite being less ‘bright’ than the Ph.D. one. Even before reaching out to parents or friends for help, a student might be very vulnerable to recognizing/accepting the shortcomings in his/her own mind.

And the last but not the least, not necessarily a student has to find the academia difficult to reach into a phase of depression. He/she might actually be extremely talented and might feel that some situations or some individual(s) bar him/her to achieve what he/she actually deserves. This can lead to a very sad tragedy as well.

So it is important to recognize the delicacy of Ph.D. students’ minds.

Why is Ph.D. a vulnerable process?

Now let us focus on the inherent vulnerability in the Ph.D. process itself. The Ph.D. life has many problems, some of which are rooted in the very nature of “research”. Researchers can be picturized as a set of people, taking spades and shovels in their hands, digging soil for some hidden gem. While some educated guesses might help them (read talent), while some of them are more equipped to dig a larger section of soil (read hard work), the luck factor plays a significant role (if not the major one). All people care about is whether you have found the gem or not, how much soil you have dug out hardly matters. The agony of the failed soil diggers is further prolonged when the successful ones boost their talent or hard work for success — as if the under-achievers lack those. The problem lies not in the luck factor, but in the fact that the role of bad luck is often undermined.

Another problem, probably the most important one, is the extremely skewed power balance between a research guide and a Ph.D. student. The guide’s opinion sets the verdict on whether the student is talented enough, hardworking enough, or in essence capable enough to fit a research career. This makes a Ph.D. student extremely reliant on the guide with the student’s future hinging heavily on the guide’s recommendation. This gives an extreme power to the guide, which I suspect is true for only a few occupations.1 And if the guide is exploitive, Ph.D. students can hardly do anything about it.

One reason that the student cannot do anything about the guide is the weird equation of the job itself. The guide gets a share of his success. Why not? The guide might have chosen the research problem in the first place, figured out a plan for how to solve the problem, and gathered the resources and money required to solve the problem. So it is just fair that some credit will go to the guide. But when the research fails, often the guide is the last one to take the blame for. The responsibility for failure goes to the student only.2

A guide can easily waive off the responsibility of the failure for another reason. Of course, other “more talented” students have been successful in their research under the same guide. So, for the failed project, it is easy to blame the student who failed, not the project, or the guide.

The other students or colleagues in the group are not going to stand for you either. They are anyway part of this skewed equation themselves. Moreover, being proud of their own success they voluntarily (often unintentionally) help to certify the incapability of a failed Ph.D. student.

And if problems do occur between a guide and the student, coming to those committees does not help much either. Rarely do those committees include any representative of the students, forget about some students themselves. And when the actual event occurs, the committee’s members are just unable to recognize how their beloved and respected and successful, and talented professor friend can do any harm to a student by any stretch of their imagination. It is not to blame the committee – this is simply the human incapability; they are often good researchers, not necessarily trained in recognizing wrongdoings and delivering justice.

Finally, it is also important not to fall into the trap of blaming the higher authority (read, guide) for everything of one’s (read, student’s) problem. Often, the guides themselves are the victim of the grueling academic demands; they are also fighting to protect their tags of talent, for recognition as good researchers, and of course, for the accountability to the funding agencies. Unfortunately, all their problems eventually trickle down to the bottom of the pyramid — the Ph.D. students.

This section does not mean that the power always corrupts the guide. Most of the researchers I have known in my institute are highly intellectual and excellent at guiding their students. But the point is that the power equation has loopholes that can lead to some bad situations.

How are Ph.D. students in the vulnerable phase of life?

We have already discussed the possible role of emotional vulnerability of a Ph.D. student’s mind, and the hazard of an imbalanced professional relationship between a guide and a student. It is also important to understand the phase of the life that Ph.D. students are typically in. Ph.D. life is a very long phase in a life spanning 5-6 years and often longer. The length of this phase is further felt negatively if one considers the fast-changing life dynamics during this phase.

PhDs typically start after completing a graduate or post-graduate, when one enters his/her twenties. Probably, so far, he/she has been just a talented student, without worrying much about the other things in life. They come with a dream to do excellent research and a rosy picture of life after it. But slowly, during their Ph.D., they start recognizing that everything in life does not happen linearly. Good preparation does not automatically ensure good results anymore, as in the exams. Slowly, they realize the necessity of money. Probably their parents are retiring, and they need to be on their own. Probably their background is humbler, and they need to remit money to their parents. Maybe he has to build a house, marry his sister off, or take care of his aging parents. Let alone the financial responsibility, they gradually discern that they need to be “stable” in their life; they have to find a partner if not already. If they have already, they might be going through a rough patch and finding the art of balancing their personal life. Furthermore, the apprehension from job insecurity slowly creeps into their mind.

These things are very common to the life of any person, as they enter into the youth, as the transition happens from the life of a student to a life of a grown-up man/woman. But the Ph.D. makes the phase particularly harder for several reasons.

The role of distorted picture of motivation:

One such reason is the elephant in the room, the big word — “motivation”.

At its face value, ‘motivation’ is love for doing something while sacrificing some ‘lesser’ things in life. What are those ‘lesser’ things? This varies from profession to profession. For example, for a singer, motivation could mean the ability to reject ice cream and start a strenuous alaap at dawn. For an athlete, motivation means discarding biriyani for the sake of fitness. For a prime minister, motivation could mean thinking about the country’s oil price while his/her spouse might be in a hospital. And for a soldier, motivation could mean forgetting about his own life and jumping in front of a canon.

So, the cost of motivation can range from a cup of ice cream to one’s life. Now let’s figure out what motivation means for a Ph.D. student. Obviously, on its face value, it is the love for research or science. But if you consider the implications, motivation could mean, for example, desisting the afternoon sports or extracurricular activities even on the weekends. A motivated student probably does not take care of one’s physical fitness by going to the gym regularly. A motivated student probably does not go home frequently to be with the parents during vacations or attend life ceremonies of relatives. A motivated student does not probably fall in love. To sum up, a motivated student does not ‘waste’ time by doing anything mundane in one’s life other than the research work – they are fighting an important war on the frontier of science!. 

Most of us will quickly recognize that the last paragraph overtly gives a misrepresentation of motivation. It is unfortunate that many researchers including guides and students do believe in those distorted pictures. Interestingly, professors do not necessarily employ these constraints explicitly. But the extreme power of the guide’s opinion means that the students often self-impose these to avoid any wrong impression. And all it does is to close the possible ways for the students to rejuvenate the energy that a job like Ph. D. demands.

A distorted picture of “motivation” closes the possible ways for the students to rejuvenate the energy that a job like Ph. D. demands.

I would like to argue if you want to be good at anything, you require motivation. It is not exclusively pertinent to a research career only. To be a Sachin Tendulkar in your cricket, you need some serious motivation, as much as you might need to be an Einstein in science. To be a hard-working rickshaw puller you need as much motivation as a doctor might need to be good at the occupation. If saving patients’ lives is the motivation for one, for the other, the motivation could be to feed his family and provide education to his children. Yes, motivation could be as simple as that!

The point here is that it is important not to unnecessarily raise the bar of motivation. Research is a profession, and like in any other profession, motivation could help one excel at it, possibly at the expense of other things in life. But overall, this is merely a profession, and one should take it professionally as it is. If I were good at singing, I would dream of being a singer. If I were good at biology and recognizing symptoms, I would try to be a doctor. If I am good at acquiring knowledge in a certain subject (read good student), maybe I could try to contribute to enlarging the boundary of that subject, i.e., become a researcher. As simple as that. It is important not to put every researcher, all of whom are not going to be our beloved Newton anyway, into a single bucket of “motivated researchers”.  Of course, like in any other profession, motivation could put one at the top. But there are singers, who are not Shreya Ghosal’s but sing to run their family. There are doctors, who are not selfless but do save patients and earn in return. And, there will be researchers, who are not willing to sacrifice everything else in their life but still can contribute a lot to the research. And, we need them.

Sadly, many thinking minds amongst us believe that the salary for Ph.D. students better remains low so that only “motivated” students come here. I suspect, those people come only from a creamy layer of the society and are ignorant of real financial crises often a student comes through. What do they think, those students should not join research even if they are otherwise capable? Even if the student is not that poor, what is wrong with looking for a good life on this earth as well as doing research? I am not sure if they would agree, that not only the Ph.D. students but also the professors and the scientists should be paid far less so that only the ‘motivated’ ones lead the research.3 I suspect that some cliché picture about a ‘true’ scientist might have jumped into some of our minds from some old days movie. But that kind of illusion should not put unnecessary demands on any profession, let alone the life of a Ph.D. student, any researcher, for that matter.

Here, I would love to mention a story that I heard from a leading father figure in my research field. He joined the physics department only because the physics department was in front of the biology department, where someone was there whom he fell in love with. This was his motivation to join physics, and eventually, he became a renowned scientist!

Can we do anything about it?

Every profession has its problem — the problems with Ph. D. life is particularly intricate without any easy solutions. But it is important to recognize a few aspects of the problem.

Firstly, we should check and balance the asymmetric power distribution between a guide and the students. A guide is a human being with all his/her faults and shortcomings, and no human being should be handed such a power that could be exploited to destroy a student’s career!

Secondly, we should stop promoting our distorted picture of “motivated researchers”. We should recognize a Ph.D. student as a human being, before projecting him as our beloved next Nobel laureate. And like any other human being, the student needs to strengthen his/her mental and physical fitness. Ph.D. is a demanding job, and let’s keep the channel open to vent out one’s frustration and exhaustion. Nothing is more precious than one’s one and only life.

Many in academia go through grueling Ph. D. experiences and almost reach the brink. Once they come back, they often wear that period as a badge of honor and continue the vicious cycle by establishing unrealistic expectations. No, there is nothing to boast about going through hardship, if it is unnecessary. If the life of Ph. D. students can be improved, every effort should be put to improve it.

Moreover, it is important to see Ph.D. or research as a profession; you do it because you are good at it. The glamour of being considered a talent is enjoyable for some, but for others, it closes the door to recognizing that there might be other professions that suit them better. Considering a profession professionally enables one to assess situations on practical terms.

We often talk about the requirement of counseling etc. for a student going through depression. But it is also crucial for the guides to learn how to properly lead others. A part of the problem is that the guides are trained in research, not man-management. But to be a good guide, you often need better management skills. Hence, the guides require undergoing some form of additional training or regular workshops as well.

The fact remains that most people require some push to move forward. Indeed, a guide’s professional responsibility demands that he/she should push his/her students. And a guide can often find themselves in a tricky situation. The truth is, however you improve the system, increase awareness about the vulnerabilities of human minds, there will be outliers, who as a guide will fail to recognize the boundary between pushing and the mental torture, or as a student fail to recognize the professional responsibility of his/her guide to push him/her. So unfortunate incident will unfold. But it is paramount that we talk about these things, not leave them in a corner.

Finally, it is also important to recognize the relationship between a student and a guide in terms of human relationships. There is no shortcut to a good relationship between two lovers, between two spouses. Possibly, there is not a simple manual for the relationship between a guide and a student either. But the key is to understand the delicacy and the vulnerabilities in the relationship and keep an eye on them.

Few last words:

I am a Ph.D. student and on the verge of finishing in a few months. Being a part of a very good research group led by a very much capable leader (not limited to the research capability only) I am very fortunate personally to have almost overcome a Ph.D. life which could be otherwise very bad. Probably the clichéd norms and expectations dictate that on this Sunday afternoon I should be focused on writing my thesis only. However, I thought it would be nice if I could help to give some perspectives. I should clarify if it is not clear already that I do not wish to put all the blame on professors at all. Ph.D. is a complicated life for many reasons. I should also clarify that this piece of writing is neither to demotivate any future Ph.D. students. But it is also essential to unveil the illusionary world before they break into it. That is probably the first step to preventing another tragic event in the future.

The final word, a two-word-long term – “bright student”- can be very limited in its capability to describe an individual. Let’s start appreciating that someone could be a “bright student while looking for a good career opportunity after the end of a long phase of life, while his girlfriend is waiting to reunite, or her parents are asking probing questions about her life plans, while his/her parents are looking forward to him/her for financial support, while…” It is important to understand a Ph.D. life in the context of all these social circumstances where problems inherent to the Ph.D. process can further complicate the situation. And we do not wish to lose any student for any of those reasons.

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