Busting a few PhD Myths - IndiaBioscience


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Graduate studies in India mostly take the usual path: choose a laboratory/​supervisor, work for years sacrificing your personal life, party hard once a year, and when your fellowship is about to end, frantically try and get a publication that lets you submit your thesis. Whether we want to face this or not, this is the truth for a large number of graduate students, even in some of the most esteemed research institutes in India.

Here, I propose that one of the reasons behind this is the existence of various myths associated with graduate studies, heavily internalized by many graduate students and propagated by advisors. Some of these are:

  • A PhD is about solving one problem.
  • You must follow the ​‘trial and error’ method for a long time before stumbling upon the solution.
  • You have to sacrifice a lot of your personal life to do a good PhD. The more you sacrifice, the better.
  • You need to meet your advisor regularly, and if they happen to be very busy, then at any time of their preference, even outside regular work hours.

A PhD, first of all, is a learning process. It is a training in doing science, in objective thinking and experimentation that eventually leads us to find out something more about nature than what was already known. If we define the goal of a PhD to be learning how to do science independently (and that last word is very important), then the way the majority of Indian students approach their research will change drastically.

Currently, many graduate students focus on being a part of a project that their advisor has thought of or set up the laboratory for, and learning enough to do anything worthwhile with the acquired skill-set, regardless of whether or not it aligns with their own scientific interests. I suggest a change in this attitude.

First and foremost, a graduate student must realize that the PhD is an individual journey, that their dissertation will be examined by how significantly they have advanced scientific knowledge on their own. And that requires brainstorming, planning and execution of plans.

A PhD really is about solving many small scientific problems. One breaks down a broad idea into many small questions that may be linked to one another and tries to answer them one at a time. Not all at one go, but guided by regular assessments.

If the original plan fails, then reassessment, either by oneself or by sitting across the table with the advisor, is the way to go. That is what the advisor’s job is: to advise when the chips are down. Currently, many advisors supervise almost every little thing that their students do, often ending up micromanaging the laboratory or workplace. One needs to understand that this leads to many students becoming nothing but cheap scientific labour, sometimes advancing the laboratory’s work to the denigration of their personal development.

If the advisor happens to be extremely busy, that’s all the better! One can take this as an opportunity to think and do more things on their own. We learn more by investigating than by just following instructions. Investigation, and the ability to do it independently, is the crux of scientific research.

Communication is the key to success: one should take a formal communication setup extremely seriously. In quite a few places in India, graduate students do not have the opportunity to give even one annual open-institute seminar. This is a bug with the system that needs to change today. Why? Because the more a person speaks to an audience, the more they feel accountable for the ideas that they represent. For graduate students, this replaces grunt work with enthusiasm, makes them think carefully about the smaller questions that they are trying to address, but most importantly, it allows them to hear themselves speak.

And this is an extremely important aspect of doing science, because a scientist’s best critic is the scientist themself. Giving such presentations pushes one towards learning faster, asking deeper questions, coming up with more innovative solutions. When you have to force yourself to voice the exact reasons why a pre-assessed logical plan hasn’t worked, you will often come up with five possible solutions automatically, one of which is bound to lead somewhere.

Last but not least, it is extremely important to have a parallel, personal life. This includes socializing with people who are not in science because that gives you a bigger perspective of what you are trying to do. Learning a new skill or a new language or pursuing a hobby seriously can relax the mind as well as stretch the possibilities that it can reach. Taking some time out every day for just yourself is extremely important.

Taking one complete day’s break every week breaks the monotony, and re-energizes the mind. Maintaining a work-hobby balance makes one treat their own attention to the scientific exercise much more seriously because the limitation of time is paid heed to. This leads to much more productive research and increases efficiency in the long run. It may lead one to save months’ of work that may have amounted to nothing because they have taken the right decisions at the right time. Only a rested and healthy brain can ask good questions and make important judgements.

Curiosity, and the constant drive to generate new curiosity, requires practice, as well as a broadening of the mind that the grunt work required in trying to answer scientific questions does not facilitate. Hence, it is important to take time off to be involved in other activities – sports, cooking, music – anything.

A successful PhD student learns both in breadth and depth. But a lot of graduate students and advisors in India have not realized this yet. It is very common to see people working away for hours, weeks, months without a break, or without any personal life or completely neglecting their health, both physical and mental. We need to break these habits now. Only then can we evolve as individuals, and make more significant contributions to science.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://indiabioscience.org/columns/phd-cafe/busting-a-few-phd-myths