By Debosree Pal, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, India
Why is a PhD called a Doctor of Philosophy? The term finds its origin way back in the 19th century in German faculties where it was introduced to incorporate arenas of research that were not encompassed under the regular disciplines of medicine, law or theology. As the world progressed and more areas of research in science were introduced, the term was retained. The question that arises is whether accomplishing a PhD has a deeper meaning or impact than just obtaining a degree. The reason I used the term ‘accomplishing’ is due to the reason that it does.
When we enroll for obtaining a PhD in our area of interest, we are expected to have an in-depth understanding of our subject which leads us to frame a problem, troubleshoot it at all levels and reach that eureka moment wherein we discover something that was unknown previously. Through my five years, I have learnt that PhD entails a lot more than just expanding and sharpening our knowledge on one particular area. It’s more of a journey to explore and re-invent oneself. The challenges that one faces in this career sometimes become more than one could have bargained for. With extra-long work hours, experimental failures on maybe a daily basis and not so bright employment prospects after graduation, PhD life can take a toll.
I started off my project to work on the role of a novel long non-coding RNA during neuronal differentiation of stem cells. After getting through the National Eligibility Test jointly conducted by CSIR and UGC, followed by two rounds of interviews, I was all starry-eyed for beginning this 5-year long venture. The work was quite a task for me as it was a new project and I had to start at the very beginning. The hurdles were countless, failures galore and the mental and physical strain were always on the rise. But looking back on the five years, I could not be happier to see myself now, having overcome all the difficulties, evolved intellectually as well as achieved immense personal growth. The underlying message is to have faith (a degree in philosophy after all!) and retain the aim of contributing to the greater cause of science. Some of the following points might help you guys swim your way through your PhD.
Planning: Proper planning of your experiments is one of the best ways to address the problem at hand swiftly. I have realized that as important as it is to plan a day before for the upcoming day’s experiments, it is equally necessary to frame your experiments a few months in advance. A good idea to achieve this is to read extensively along the lines of your work to realize the experiments that need to be done in order to prove your hypothesis. Also, it is advisable to approach an imminent problem through multiple ways rather than just relying on a single one. This will help you make your point stronger and if one experiment fails, you will always have a back up.
Be proactive: According to a very recent study in 2017 by Levecque et al, one in every two PhD students experience psychological distress, with the average number of students getting affected by psychological disorders being higher amongst PhDs than other disciplines of study. One of the methods to cope up with such intense stress is to realize the same and develop strategies that help you emerge from it. Focusing on your priorities and completing small but relevant tasks at hand can help you regain your confidence.
Communicate: In continuation with the above point, it is of utmost importance to communicate with your research supervisor. It could be sometimes tricky to build and maintain a healthy relationship with your mentor but it certainly does make the journey easier. Simultaneously, it’s a good idea to communicate with your colleagues and seniors for example, by presenting your work on various platforms. The more you share your knowledge, the more you gain too. Additionally, seeking help, professional or otherwise during times of mental stress is absolutely essential. No number of setbacks can imply the end of the world. As has been said by Thomas A. Edison ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Define your interests: While the common notion is that PhD has more of a narrow and streamlined job opening, the scenario around the world is fast changing. There are ample opportunities available in non-academic jobs. Do you have the knack for analyzing large information sets? Do you have good communication skills and enjoy teaching? Are you fond of scientific writing? Are you interested in intellectual property rights? While conducting your independent lab based research can be exciting, exploring alternative career choices is a good place to start off for those who think otherwise.
In the words of Acharya Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, “The true laboratory is the mind, where behind illusions we uncover the laws of truth.”
I am 5th year PhD student at the Molecular Biology and Genetics Unit, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, India. Designing problems and troubleshooting them to understand biological phenomena is what attracts me to the world of molecular biology.
You can find me on Twitter @crimson_deb.