Welcome to the PhD Clan: perspective from a just-graduated survivor - IndiaBioscience

This is the first article in our new column series focusing on the many unique aspects of the PhD journey. The articles in this series will be written by PhD students and for PhD students. In this post, Jacinth Rajendra, a graduate student at ACTREC, Mumbai, writes about the inevitable hurdles and obstacles that arise during a PhD, and the things that make it worth pursuing nevertheless.

Are you a passenger waiting to get on the train to PhD? To all the recently enrolled PhD students and aspiring young researchers out there, here is a philosophical map of your impending journey. Hopefully, this article will help prepare and equip you for traversing this road less travelled.

Reaching any destination requires a purpose-driven journey which begins with some initial steps of faith and confidence. The road to becoming a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) is much the same. A PhD brings with it a sense of pride and honour. Some of you may be the only one in your family or circle of friends to have taken up such a path in the midst of other ‘glamorous’ professions. However, there may be some unexpected hurdles along the way.

A PhD student in the field of biology inevitably becomes a clinical consultant in his/her family for every ailment that hits them. And if you fail to respond to their queries or even point out (rightly) that you are not medically qualified in any way, then be prepared to hear “What kind of a doctoral course are you doing?”

Being a PhD student at Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research and Education in Cancer (ACTREC), Tata Memorial Centre endorsed me as an “oncologist” amongst my family, friends and acquaintances. Quite often I am asked to interpret the biopsy reports of people and tell them how serious their condition could be. This often brings about a bout of the imposter system, and marks the only times when I wish I were a medical doctor after all.

Apart from being a pseudo-physician for the world, the society at large will applaud you only if you are working on a specific disease which will have a visible and beneficial outcome for the common man. The downside of this is that if your research is fundamental and not linked to a specific disease, you tend to get dismissed.

You may have second thoughts: That’s normal

In the initial stages of your PhD, it is likely that you will sometimes feel highly qualified and hence elated. But the ground reality of a PhD journey is that the more you walk down this road, the more you will realise how little qualified you actually are to understand the dynamics and complexity of the scientific problem you are facing. So, does that mean that this journey is not your cup of tea? No! Not at all. The more you realise that you don’t know what is happening with your cells or flies or enzymes, the more your PhD journey will drive you to explore deeper until you reach a logical answer.

Will there be disappointments and failures? Oh yes! In fact, there will be more failures than successes. Your first experiment which you set up today after reading this article may be a huge disaster. After spending a month in generating those puromycin-selected shRNA knockdown cells, you may be welcomed one morning by a heavily contaminated plate in your incubator. The 20cm X 16cm maxi gel that you had set up for running overnight stopped at midnight due to power failure. In spite of your meticulously precise adherence to the already published immunofluorescence protocol, your staining didn’t work because the antibody wasn’t working for some unknown reason.

These will be the moments which will make you wonder if you’re unsuited for this journey or unworthy of completing a PhD. Just as you are walking back home after developing a blank blot, your long-lost friend may call you to say that he/she got a job offer with amazing incentives and annual income. You might start thinking that the professions chosen by your friends are much more exciting or realistic or at least more easily achievable.

Well, after walking down this road for 6 long years, the one thing that stopped me from quitting when the days, weeks and months got tougher was the reason why I had started this quest for knowledge in the first place. The anticipation to unravel that mechanism which no one else has stumbled upon yet will drive you to overcome those failed moments and repeat every failed experiment till at least some of them succeed. I believe that for every passionate researcher, true satisfaction and joy comes when you finally see the truth of your postulated hypothesis become reality. No matter how many nights you spent crying (literally or metaphorically) and frustrated, that one moment when you face the result of a successful experiment will make you forget all those anxious nights.

A PhD not only trains you to be a scientifically sound researcher, but it inherently also builds you up to be a problem-solver in life with a zeal to never give up. As you develop an analytical and critical mindset, it also trains your mind to be creative and rational even in the basic realms of your life. It grooms you to be an independent thinker and executer, as well as a believer in unconventional ideas. A true seeker of knowledge and understanding in science will keep pushing the boundaries of their understanding, no matter how many hurdles come their way.

So young folks, as you dedicate the cream years of your youth to this road less traveled, know for yourself why you are here and only then will you know how to proceed further. Be ready to learn what you need to know and unlearn what you need to let go.

A few Do’s and Don’ts from my experience

  1. Don’t let your enthusiasm and passion for your work die.
  2. Be ready to go through dry moments when everything will seem to be in a lag phase.
  3. Don’t compare yourself with your peers and feel inferior. Each person takes a different amount of time to enter the exponential phase.
  4. Believe in your capabilities.
  5. Trust your PI as you trust yourself.
  6. Be modest while learning and proud while working.

In the end, don’t expect a standard protocol for your PhD journey. Brace for unexpected events! Just as science has constants and variables, so will your PhD journey. I wish you all the best for a journey which will contain many unpredictable results at the end of well-planned experiments, and hope that your work will help unfold an untold scientific story.

I would like to acknowledge my peer Saket Mishra, a 3rd year PhD student in my lab who helped in the shaping the composition of this article.

Did you enjoy this article? Let us know in the comments below.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://indiabioscience.org/columns/phd-cafe/welcome-to-the-phd-clan-perspective-from-a-graduating-survivor

What a beautiful article, Jacinth!
Did you ever feel that the field, which you worked on during PhD was growing at such a high rate that you are born too early and too late to discover something ground-breaking? With hundreds of articles on the field that a PhD student works being published every month, how did you manage to put yourself on a path that others working in the same field did not take? “But the ground reality of a PhD journey is that the more you walk down this road, the more you will realize how little qualified you actually are to understand the dynamics and complexity of the scientific problem you are facing.”
Does this mean that that the more facts we learn the less we understand the process we study?

Very Well written Jacinth!!
I have a concern about your DnD’s Point (5)…I hope you got the point what I mean to say…I have always a bit concern about the position of a superior (you name it as PI)…I get confuse what to NAME then PI/GUIDE/MENTOR/SCIENTIST/RESEARCHER…It’s always a concern point of a neophyte and even so called final year PhD STUDENT.

Thanks for appreciating the article Shubham. The field that we researchers work on is constantly evolving because life in itself is a dynamic process. I never thought that I was born too early or born too late in the timeline of universe because that is not in my hands to control. What is in control is what is given to me in my hand right now and that is the scientific problem to address at that particular moment of my existence. As a researcher we are given a scientific problem to address. I wouldn’t even call it a problem. I would say we are given an unanswered scientific question to address. As Albert Einstein rightly said " We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." So what is required of a researcher is not just an intellectual mind but also a creative mindset to think out of the box of knowledge which is kept in front of him/her. It’s a constant drive to push yourself to think and implement your ideas in a different way than the others.
Also, the more facts we learn does not mean that we understand the process less. Infact,the more deeper we go into the root of the basics clarifies and brings to light the loop holes we might have missed while addressing the issue. So PhD trains you to dive deeper into the basics of science. This in turn leads to the unraveling of newer concepts and understanding which wasn’t discovered before. It may not be ground-breaking but it will definitely be additive to the existing knowledge of science. Hope this answers your question.

Thanks Soni. When I say trust your PI as you trust yourself, we need to accept the fact that our PhD mentors are definitely there because of authentic experience and understanding. During my PhD I learnt that a good genuine scientist will never say that he/she knows it all. Because we can never know everything in science no matter how highly qualified we are. But we can definitely be willing to grow in our knowledge as we step up the ladder of success in the scientific field. A PhD student and mentor’s relationship is a two way process. I am saying this out of my personal experience with my Ph.D mentor, Dr. Shilpee Dutt who trained me to think beyond my boundaries to address a question. There were times in my PhD when I was stuck because nothing was working out. At that time, it wasn’t solely my wisdom or solely my mentor’s guidance that helped me come through it. It was collective effort which involved my trust on her and her trust on me. That’s what made me say " Trust your PI as you trust yourself". We trust ourselves irrespective of what the world thinks about us, Then why not trust our mentor who is sitting on that seat of guidance after going through years of rigorous training and experience. We can call them PI/GUIDE/MENTOR/SCIENTIST/RESEARCHER. The name tag doesn’t matter. What ultimately matters is our perspective to perceive their thoughts and ideas to shape our PhD projects.

Thanks Jacinth!
Yes, your reply answers the questions!
Will you be writing more on this website?

Thanks for Justifying the authentic experience and understanding nature of scientist and position as PI/GUIDE/MENTOR/SCIENTIST/RESEARCHER and Yes…it’s absolutely true that it’s the perspective of perception and experience.

Very very well written!

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I saw this page only today when alerted by the monthly newsletter. I thank IndiaBioscience to start this page with such a well-written and articulated piece by Jacinth. I am sure this and the other articles that follow would help the young PhD aspirants. The feelings of frustration and elation were not much different 60 years ago when I was working for my PhD!

I like the statement “The anticipation to unravel that mechanism which no one else has stumbled upon yet will drive you to overcome those failed moments and repeat every failed experiment till at least some of them succeed.” This is indeed a unique privilege of a researcher! Whether the experiments/analyses confirms your hypothesis or lets you reject your pet hypothesis does not matter - in either case, the researcher is the first and the only person at the moment of ‘eureka’ who knows something that no one else has yet known! This is a great feeling indeed.
Best wishes to Jacinth and all other PhD aspirants.

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A really motivating piece. needed in this hour.