Thursday, February 17, 2011


I am almost* at the end of my PhD. So it is time that I should formulate my own version of the hardships I went through during this time. In my mom's (expert) opinion, no one remembers their PhD as a glorious time of their lives. Every time I whinge about something to her, she tops that with an exceedingly horrible narration from her own PhD. Some of her stories, for example, the one where she goes, "we did not even have computers back then", need some correction factors for the technological advancement over the years and its effect on mental hardships.

As a PhD student, you are used to your (evasive) milestones. However, there are a number of philosophical milestones that you need to cross in order to truly deserve your PhD. I am going to list some of those here so that my compatriots in various parts of the world feel good about themselves.

1. The first rejection

For all the stellar PhD candidates out there, who get their papers accepted in the first attempt ever, they should know that they are missing out. The first rejection is as important to a PhD as a first heart break is to a teenager. It validates your position in this world (as close to non-existent) so firmly, that without this important milestone, you may form a totally deluded view of life itself. Whether you are coming down from an impact factor (which by the way is not a realistic measure of journal performance) of 30 to 5, or from 5 to 3, the first rejection is essential to normalize your measurement of what your work stands for. It takes a while (and a good amount of alcohol) to get over it, but boy! does it build character!

2. The first peer review

Well, to put it in perspective, if the first rejection is to be compared to the pain of unrequited love, then the first peer review is like marriage. When someone rejects you, all you have to do is go to the nearest pub with your other rejected mates and try and forget it with some EtOH. However, when someone accepts you, you have to go through an agonizing, never ending self-improvement session to prove that you are worthy of them. It might sound crazy, but peer review is actually more painful than an outright rejection. There were many bright Sunday mornings, when just as I was putting some sunscreen on with a butter knife, I saw the dreaded email from the editor of the journal saying, "you now have two weeks to fix this. Otherwise your paper is going to be considered as a fresh submission". There are times when these reviews overlap with all your papers, together with the rather insulting Australian reviews you are getting from your own supervisor. In the end, it leaves you with only enough self-confidence that can exist in equilibrium with complete hopelessness.

3. Running out of scholarship

I don't this this is essential, but when it happens, it feels like a scene straight out of a sitcom. Just as you are letting out a satisfied sigh about exiting the lab for good and planting your bum in a chair for the final write up, you get an email from the student center telling you that your scholarship has been cut off. You go to the people responsible to renew it, armed with an entreating monologue and a pack of tissues and get only kind sympathy in return. One of the solutions offered to you is, "maybe you can request your parents to help", which is enough to make you cup your ears with your palms and run out of their office screaming at the top of your voice. Then you come back home and apply for jobs (and make dartboards out of the pictures of people who did not renew your scholarship). You are appointed (thankfully) as a research assistant in a project that requires an intensity of concentration that would put a 200mW laser to shame. You come home exhausted from the job and have to get back to writing. Your boss at work treats your job as a full time job and keeps sending you emails with attachments for your to read after work. As if that is not enough, you keep meeting other PhD students from work who have had their scholarship renewed for up to 4 years while yours was cut off in 3 years and 3 months.

4. The technology betrayal

I am hoping this is the last one of them. As soon as you sort out your employment, your visa and that ugly fight you had with your supervisor and sit in front of your computer, you realize that it is dead. It has to be out of warranty and you have to be broke in order for this milestone to work on your character. Sometimes I think all these inanimate things we depend on, actually have a life of their own. How else would you have your computer die in the most final stages of your thesis? I have to assume that it is to make the plot more riveting. Something similar to one of those guys who lose their job on the same day as their girlfriend of eight years dumps them. Fortunately, by this time you have learned that the whole Universe is against your PhD so you have backed up your data online. Somehow this philosophical F#$% you is unbearable for your computer and it declares that it will work only on the power outlet. Fair enough. :)

It reminds me of a quote by Saint Calvin,

"That's one of the remarkable things about life. It is never so bad that it cannot get worse."

There are silver linings too. Getting a job before graduation, having supportive friends who are always willing to help you out and cheer you up. Having people bring you your favorite drink when you are bawling away in your room. Being so tired every day that your mind is completely stripped of unreasonable fears and demands.
Most importantly, realizing the meaning of 'being grateful' all over again!

*contingent on numerous factors that are totally beyond my control.


rajeevelkunchwar said...

Funny and morose at the same time! do not loose your heart.
one of my teachers used to say..2 is one ph.d.
Also later on..if you are a fellow, you are no more than a mellow buffalo....

Your guides and peers must be better than that.

Saee said... actually the are not. :)
They could be worse. :D
Some of the things they say about my writing cannot be published. :P
Thanks for the comment.

Mukul Hinge said...

Amen to that!

Saee said...

Thanks. I don't know why but your name sounds familiar.
Thanks for dropping by!!

Manoj Gopalkrishnan said...

Each and every one of these happened to me when I was doing my Ph. D. :-) Good job Saee.

Desi Babu said...

Very nice post! I once knew a Ph.D. student who backed up his defense on a disc, USB stick and the internet. During his defense, his computer crashed, and internet was down. Thankfully, his defense was safe on his USB stick, but no one else bothered to bring a computer as a back-up.

If it makes you feel any better, he did defend. Successfully.

You will also go through a phase of identity crisis about being a "doctor" after you defend. I wrote a post on my travails some time ago..

Good luck!

Typical PhD student said...

Well written. But I believe getting the first paper rejected is not a pre-requisite for a PhD, nor one forms a 'deluded view of life' if it is accepted the first time....just as it is not necessary for a teenager to have his/her heart broken to understand true love :-)