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

Jacinth Rajendra

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.

Welcome to the PhD Clan: perspective from a survivor
Welcome to the PhD Clan: perspective from a survivor 

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.

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