Columns Conversations

On being a PhD student parent’: interview with Anand Osuri

Hari Sridhar

Anand Osuri studies the impacts of habitat fragmentation on tree communities, soils and ecosystem carbon storage of forest ecosystems at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS). A graduate student and father to two young children, he opens up about the challenges of juggling research, finances and childcare; and the critical role played by social and institutional support in sustaining the balance.

Balancing life and work
Balancing life and work  (Photo: Sharanya Soundararajan)

Your elder son, Vidur, was born in the first year of your PhD. Dhruv, was born in your 4th year. Yet, you managed to finish your PhD in good time and produced, what was, by all accounts, a first-rate dissertation. How did you do it? Did having kids help your PhD in some way?

Vidur was born a few months before I gave my qualifying exam and Dhruv was born around the time I was starting to finalise the initial chapters of my thesis. Vidur’s arrival was, obviously, a life changer for my wife Uttara and me, while we were more experienced and better prepared when Dhruv was born. I was able to finish my PhD in reasonably good time (five and a half years), but it took a serious team effort and was only made possibly by the excellent team that I worked with. Personally, it was a matter of handling variable and often unconventional working hours and a compulsion to prioritise tasks and become more efficient at work. I think of these as positives and believe I have become better at them thanks to the children. Being around the kids is also an excellent way to take a break from thinking about work, and I have often found this to be quite beneficial too!

Let’s talk a little more about efficiency. The lasting memory of my own PhD, is a feeling of unproductivity — many hours before the computer and nothing to show at the end of it. I am sure that is not something you could have afforded. How did you avoid that?

I certainly experienced similar seemingly unproductive stretches of work and it was very frustrating. But I think such phases are an important part of the overall process, and I do not have any solutions for it. What I meant in terms of improving work efficiency was trying to be more focused on the task at hand, which for me meant a concerted effort not to periodically check and respond to emails, nor to get too distracted with tangential reading, and especially not to read news articles and follow basketball scores while I was reading or writing.

What about decision-making? A PhD is a series of small and big decisions — should I use analysis technique X on my data?’; what should be the first sentence of my paper?’; should I present my results this way or that way’. Each of these can be paralysing, if one spends too much time ruminating, especially because there is no single right answer to any of them. Did you have a strategy for efficient decision-making? 

No, I do not think I had any noteworthy strategy for such decision-making and in fact, I spent a lot of time trying to find suitable ways to present and discuss my results. What I believe did help was that I began my writing fairly early on during the thesis (by year 3.5), which gave me a lot of time to go back-and-forth with my supervisor while figuring out these decisions.

What were the biggest challenges in being a PhD student-cum-father?

Parenting can place great demands on one’s time, especially in the case of infants and very young children, because even regular day-to-day tasks such as feeding, bathing and helping children sleep can be both exhausting and time consuming. These responsibilities also make it quite hard to maintain a regular work routine, and my biggest challenge was in trying to string together enough working hours to make a productive day, and to do so consistently to have productive weeks and months. I was successful at doing this on some occasions and not so on others, and I think this stop-start routine slowed my progress overall. Things got particularly tough when facing hard deadlines such as work review seminars or manuscript submission dates. It was also difficult, both logistically and emotionally, when I had to travel, as I often did for fieldwork.

At the same time, did fieldwork also provide an opportunity for long uninterrupted periods of thinking about your work?

Yes, I’ve always found time spent in the field to be very conducive for thinking about work, and doing fieldwork is a great stimulus for new ideas and insights.

What about finances- was it a challenge to run a household on a PhD stipend?

It definitely is a challenge, if not nearly impossible, to run a household on a single PhD stipend, especially when children are slightly older and school fees start to come into the equation. In our case, we were extremely lucky that Uttara was able to keep working, either full- or part-time, throughout my PhD, and so we were able to live comfortably and even save a bit. Of course, this was all made possible by the immense support we got from our parents, who have enabled us to work by helping raise the children, and helped out financially.

Does NCBS take any steps to help PhD students who have a family? 

NCBS is a very child friendly establishment and campus. There is an excellent crèche that is open to children of all staff and students. All the people that I worked with, and especially my supervisor, were very accommodating and supportive, and this enabled me to do good work alongside my parenting responsibilities. As I did not approach NCBS for any additional assistance, I cannot really comment on whether there are any specific policies in place to help students with children.

How much of a challenge was your PhD for your spouse?

I think it was challenging for Uttara in a number of ways. Mainly, she made a huge effort to enable me to work on my thesis with the least possible distraction. Uttara did this by taking the lead on several family responsibilities, ranging from day-to-day requirements of our children to thinking about vaccinations, schooling and finances. Amazingly, she did all this alongside her various professional commitments, which included helping set up an NGO and carrying out some research projects of her own. Needless to say, Uttara worked extremely hard in the limited time available to balance these various responsibilities. I am sure it was often exhausting and frustrating, and I admire her greatly for this achievement.

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