A fourth year PhD student discusses how she made her PhD a more productive and satisfying experience
A long time ago, people who sacrificed their sleep, family, food, laughter and other joys of life were called SAINTS, now they are called PhD STUDENTS,” said a humorous post that I came across on social media. Like all good humour, there is perhaps an element of truth in the statement, as most PhD students would tell you. A PhD requires sacrifice. But it can also be an enriching, even delightful, experience, as I have come to discover during my time as a PhD student at IISc. In this piece, I trace my journey from questioning my decision of joining a PhD programme to reclaiming faith in my resolution, to illustrate what I have learnt from my experience.
Research about research
Before joining the PhD programme, I was passionate about science, and dreamt of becoming a professor. What better place to start my research career than IISc? But I was unaware of the exceptionally rigorous standards of education and research here, as I am sure would be the case in other eminent research institutes as well. I was thoroughly unprepared for the challenges in my path. By the end of the first semester, I felt overburdened and troubling thoughts about job offers I gave up to pursue research started to surface in my mind.
Making the right choices
I realised the importance of being more communicative about my issues and how to deal with them.
Stuck in this quagmire of negative thoughts, I decided to share my concerns with a professor and a senior PhD student in my department. Their remarkable guidance taught me how to mould my PhD experience to suit my style of working and temperament. I also realised the importance of being more communicative about my issues and how to deal with them. Yet another significant lesson I learnt back then was about the art of choosing: I chose to seek help when it was required and I chose the right people to talk to. I practiced the skill of choosing wisely again when it was time to select the lab for my PhD. I made a well-informed decision this time, going around all labs in the department, discussing the quality of professional and personal life the students experienced. I then made a list of factors that were important to me and finally chose my mentor based on my research. I can proudly say today that for me it turned out to be a perfect match.
In my lab, we have activities like regular individual meetings with our professor, group meetings and a journal club. This has provided me and my labmates with opportunities to grow professionally – improve our communication skills, expand our knowledge base and learn to understand and critique various fields of research. It also helped me understand the value of having mentors who are open to the idea of letting their students explore, both about their field of research and themselves. This, I believe, helps students find their own niche and in the process contribute to the growth of the research group as well. An encouraging and understanding mentor can go a long way in nurturing budding researchers. I have been exploring both commercial and academic research worlds because I have been blessed with a very supportive mentor.
Owning my PhD
I have also come to realise that ownership of one’s choices is as essential as making the right choices. My time at IISc made me more sensitive to the significance of asking my own questions. It took me quite some time to hone the skill of solving problems independently and this continues to be a work in progress. These experiences are making me more prepared to manage stress and anxiety, both of which are an integral part of the life of a PhD student.
Exploring the world outside
Research students spend a major chunk of their day, and sometimes night, working in their labs and life can become quite monotonous. Fortunately, I found a few interesting ways to spice up the PhD life. This allowed me to break the taxing routine, feel happier and more satisfied. On the professional front, I made – and I continue to make – efforts to take my research outside the lab. I explain my research to family and friends, participate in technical conferences, business competitions, attend workshops and write about my research. Two very interesting experiences on this front have been participating in the ‘United Nations Winter Youth Assembly 2018’ at the UN headquarters in New York City, and presenting a tech pitch on my research at Falling Walls Labs India 2019.
The UN Youth Assembly was a gathering of enthusiastic, young leaders from all over the world dedicated to achieving Sustainable Development Goals 2030. This opportunity provided me with a platform to interact with people my age from around the world, understand the challenges of their worlds and explain to them the challenges in my country. I was inspired by the efforts people were making in their own small ways to improve the lives of those around them. Like the story of a girl who travelled through water bodies in different cities, raising awareness about water conservation. Or the story of another young woman who was building a self-sustaining jewellery startup for indigenous people of her community.
The experience at Falling Walls India was even more enriching as I developed skills to present my research to a diverse audience. The participants were asked to present their research using two slides in exactly two and a half minutes. This challenge made me think deeper about how to put across my ideas in a crisp manner while incorporating all the major details of my work. Listening to the other participants also helped me build perspective about the existing technologies and markets in different fields of research.
On the personal front, I make sure I spend time outside my lab every week on hobbies and activities not directly related to my work, allowing me to feel more relaxed. I dance, write, cook, and socialise with family and friends. More recently, I have discovered yoga, which helps me to rejuvenate. Learning these new skills every now and then boosts my confidence and provides a sense of accomplishment. There is no denying that the life of a PhD student is filled with challenges. But it can also be the most rewarding phase of one’s life. I can vouch for that.
Navjot Kaur is a PhD student in the Department of Chemical Engineering, IISc.