As a PhD student in India, I was in a relatively privileged situation. I was in one of the best institutes in the country, a department with good resources, a good lab and a decent project to work on. Nonetheless, you learn pretty fast in grad school that, no matter how good your situation may seem from the outside, PhD is and always will be a hard process on one level or the other. Not just a bad day or month but rather a phase that can last years for some. At such low points, social media doesn’t really help. I would see pictures of many of my college batch-mates who, unlike me, had managed to secure a PhD position abroad and seemed to spend a significant amount of time roaming around and having fun. Granted that social media, at best, gives you a highly rose-tinted and biased view of a person’s life. But knowing that, didn’t necessarily help keep away the pangs of jealousy. Lab seniors, now working abroad, would visit and tell stories of abundance to the point of wastage, kits that reduced work-time to half or less and the luxury of weekends off that you could rely on. From the point of view of a struggling grad student, who felt guilty taking even a Sunday off, this certainly did sound like paradise. I don’t know what did it, whether it was years of watching English movies or all the conditioning from others’ experiences, but I knew I wanted to work abroad at least for a while. Even when I was questioning research as my career path, one of the allures of a postdoc was the option of experiencing a life outside of India. It may not be the best way to make a decision, but I was and still am unashamed of my motivation.
Ever since I moved to the US, I’ve been really intrigued at getting to know the system here. As a postdoc as well as a potential teacher, I am really intrigued by the education system here and how it contrasts with India. It’s been a lot of fun quizzing people here about their system and I’ve learned a lot in the process. One of the first big surprises for me when I came here was the age factor. Back home, I was used to using a person’s academic level to calculate their age. The math is pretty simple. A biologist’s life graph is pretty predictable; Bachelor’s degree at 21, 23 at Masters, finish PhD by 29 and 5 years for postdoc. Then you frantically apply for faculty positions before the dreaded 35 hits and so on. If a faculty position in India is what you want, then that pretty much has to be your trajectory. And if you don’t want to be in academia, then what you do doesn’t really matter anyway (or so my PhD mentor would say)!! Which is why, it was a huge shock to me when I realized that my roommate, who is a final year PhD student, was 38!!! And it’s not a one off case. I know a number of people who are approaching 30 and are in the early phase of their grad school or sometimes even medical school!! I’ve heard some of their journeys from high school students to undergrad and finally grad school and each one of them is unique and remarkable. Whether it be economic hardship or just figuring out what subject truly interests them, each one of them has had to walk a road of self-discovery before entering grad school. And the beauty is, that they can! The system here seems to set no store by age whatsoever. All that seems to matter is that you really want to be here and that you have the ability to succeed. It makes me really wish our system in India was as open, that an unconventional path was cherished rather than looked down upon, that confusion and lack of clarity was met with patience and compassion rather than rejection. No doubt there are students here who follow the conventional path, or who join grad school because it seems like the easiest or best option. But every once in a while, you get grad students who’ve fought against the tide because this is really what they want to do. I bet there are people like that in India too and we should really open our arms and welcome them into science because they are so likely to want to make a real difference. It’s made me feel a lot more compassion for myself and my own confusion after seeing this.
What’s been rewarding in turn, has been the appreciation I feel (and also received from others) for the kind of training we went through as Phd students in India. And no this isn’t about our willingness to work long hours and work weekends. No doubt that, in many ways, research is made easier here by the availability of resources. Time is considered better spent doing work rather than preparing reagents. But corny as though it may seem, all those hardships and cutting of corners has given us an advantage. I personally feel that the quality of mentorship and training given to me by my lab seniors has been invaluable. Not only did we have to make everything from scratch, but also learn the why and how of everything as we made it. I remember my first 6 months in the lab, just being incessantly quizzed and grilled whenever I learnt something new. But that training pays off every time I have to trouble-shoot, every time I have to design an experiment. That is something working with kits could never have given me. The abundance is so taken for granted here that there just isn’t any need to learn the details. It also makes me really glad that I had the chance to train Masters students in grad school. It seemed absurd to me at the time, training students who were only a year or two younger than me. But I think I learnt more while I was mentoring them than I did as a student. Even something which seemed onerous like lab and department presentations has trained us so well for public speaking. It’s an invaluable asset and it’s surprisingly rare among the students and even postdocs here. We undervalue our own skills way too much.
One of the things I was most curious about when I came here, was the quality of mentorship. I had a pretty bleak view of mentorship in India, especially in the life sciences, and wondered how things operated here. In my limited time here, one thing I’ve come to realize is that good mentorship is rare no matter where you go. No doubt, the expected working hours tend to be much more reasonable here than in India. But even then, you continue to find PIs who micromanage their students or monitor their coming and goings, as if the number of hours spent in lab is an indicator of productivity. Fortunately, I have had the chance to work with two people who are excellent mentors and they have really made a huge impact on my life. It is truly heart-warming and rewarding to work with a boss who feels that their success is tied to your success, who feel like it is their responsibility to look out for your personal growth and enable you to reach your life goals. I must say that I am pretty much spoilt for life now. Such people can really change how you feel about your work. I find myself wanting to do better, not necessarily because I love my work that much, but because I want to help them succeed the same way they want me to succeed. No doubt the systems, both in India and in the US, are cut throat and you need to push the limits of yourself as well as your subordinates to survive and excel. I’m not saying that being nice and lenient and supportive gives you the same kind of success that a whiplash does. It may or may not. But it’s heartening to know that such people exist and that they can survive in the system. I know a lot of people who would rather be in a renowned but high pressure lab, because even though the life there is tough, it guarantees them the high profile papers they need to move ahead in life. If that is what you want and need, then by all means make that choice. But it’s important to know that you need not sentence yourself to that life for lack of other options. The rat race isn’t a bad thing, but it’s our choice whether we want to be a part of it or not.
It’s been a valuable lesson, learned the hard way but I am glad I got to where I am. It’s been eye-opening to talk to so many people and learn from them. There’s just so much out there if only we are willing to listen. Something as simple as reading university emails every morning has opened up avenues I didn’t even know existed. This is true no matter where you are and what you are doing. You don’t necessarily need to be in the “right” place for good things to happen to you. You just need to be in the right frame of mind to make the best of the opportunities that come your way.