Rejecting academia’s gilded mirror

in That Makes Sense by

Gilt: superficial or false appearance of excellence; glamour ; adjective : gilded

Sometimes I wonder whether we value our true selves. We repeatedly push our many fallibilities, the numerous chinks in the armour, and the wavering doubts behind our shiny projected visages. We love advertising our confident, competent personas, and every facet that dims the glow is made to hide deep within.

When one is initiated into academia, full of high hopes and lofty goals, scarcely does one comprehend the bumps in the route ahead. The myth of the model graduate student propagated since time immemorial, wafts around institutions and all the newcomers strive to attain perfection. Somewhere in the way, when the flurry of the courses is over, many start experiencing private dejection and isolation. Doing science is not easy. There is no manual that can dictate each and every step of the Ph.D. process. There is no secret recipe that would suit every graduate student. It is when the experiments start failing, the theories do not add up, and the lab hours become long and miserable, that the initial enthusiasm starts waning off and pessimism sets in.

In my (relatively) short academic career, I am yet to come across someone who has not gone through periods of intense self-doubt and diminishing self-esteem. Every graduate student falters at some point. But at the tipping point, there is little to cushion the fall. Academia thrives on almost monastic dedication and has little to offer to the vulnerable and confused. The circulating adage that ‘everyone else is doing fine, therefore I shouldn’t whine’ only adds to the burden of living up to the expectations of your advisor, your committee, the institute, the funding agencies, and mainly, your own self. Many bright students who had assumed that they would make good research scholars face a rude rejection when they go through the rough patches of doing science. The negativities are exacerbated by the fact that there is very little emotional exchange about this topic. It is considered normal to feel a little bruised—it happens to everybody! No need to make a big deal; slogging on is the call of the day…

try one                  Illustration : Ipsa Jain


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Thus, they suffer their private struggles of self-doubt alone, and in sets the feeling of ‘not being good enough’. Many recover from this intermediate stage, chipping on to finally carve a decent thesis. But for others, the struggle takes a toll, lowering their work productivity, and sometimes leading to serious mental health issues. A little sharing with peers will let one know that they are far from being alone in the pit. We look around and see achievers, and retreat away in shame and guilt of not doing enough. But if truth be told, each one of those achievers has their own tale of misery and desperate labour that we easily overlook. Every award has a trail of toil, every pedestal its share of falls.

We do no good by being so adept at hiding the hard, convoluted history towards academic success. While there may be institutional mechanisms in place to handle depressed students, few students actually reach out. The culture of shame for a struggler is still subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) present in most scenarios. Most will just internalize the feelings and try their hardest to trudge on without acknowledging any difficulty. In such a landscape, our constant endevour to present better, polished versions of ourselves does not help. Why not just break the image of false perfection and admit how much those onerously long hours, frustrated days, and hopeless months have been a part of the journey?

It will help some of us may feel a little less alone. Peer comfort is the most effective form of supportive therapy. Sometimes we spill the beans about our struggles to our closest friends, but why should this be taboo at all? Even the ‘model’ graduate student would have had his not-so-good-days, which lie hidden behind his many honours. This may do nothing for the next academic job, but if shared, may light up many a strained PhD student’s path. The solace in knowing that someone has been at this place and survived and is doing well is much more than any got from a professional pep talk. For they have shared our journeys and we are sharing theirs. How beautiful it would be if us all puny graduate students form a symbiotic network and work towards helping ourselves as well as our friends! Sharing the ups and downs of our journeys go a long way in motivating someone who is struggling in believing that the pains will end someday, and to never give up on oneself.

We do not need to be a living–and-breathing resume. Putting our best feet forward should perhaps be reserved for job interviews. Even if we are at the top of the game currently, the marvellous uncertainty of the path may lead to less lucrative pastures in future. For our own selves, for our friends who might have fallen tad behind, and for all the starry-eyed students yet to come, it is time we shed our gilded mirrors and be just as proud.


Debaleena Basu







About the author : Debaleena is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the Indian Institute of Science. She loves writing and has recently forayed into the domain of science writing.

About the illustrator

Ipsa is pursuing a Ph.D. at Indian Institute of Science. She loves to draw and paint. Biologist by training. Wants to gather and spread interestingness.


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I am currently pursuing Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the Indian Institute of Science, after having explored Physiology and Genetics for my B.Sc. and M.Sc. respectively. I love participating in science communication and have recently stepped into the world of science writing. I intend to stick around for a while!


  1. Excellent reality check article… In academia we have to keep mind that discussion generates idea. So ideally it does not belong to a sole person (Craig Mello stressed it many times). We must also celebrate/share the achievements (credit sharing) in a way that it goes to everyone in the path. That is not happening in many places. That brings more gloomy days in lab-life. To overcome this, we should extend our support to as many as possible.

  2. An excellent article (by one of my friend) that try to explain the feeling of a research student during his/her doctrate period, a reflection of the situations we feel during this, sometime feeling low, lonely, rejected and frustrated. But at the end I would like to say that time never remain the same and so is the life. Now I learnt that whatever the situation, I just try to work with calm and composed.

  3. Very well put! As a PhD candidate I can totally relate to it. Thankfully I have a group of very good friends with whom I can share and discuss.

    • Thank you Akshay! It is great that you have a good friends circle who can double up as your support team 🙂

  4. Hey Debaleena…Can’t believe I haven’t read this before. We have all had our ups and downs during our PhD life and for most people, the downs have been far more frequent. There have been days when I ended up in a dark bubble of frustration, and woke up to a feeling of “why am I waking up?”. Fortunately in my case, my adviser has been a strong source of support, but that may not be the case for everyone. Either way, I too think it’s good to bond with your peers, share your experiences and have that strong feeling of inclusiveness.

      • Absolutely. Specially when the only other person I used to vent out to was you 😛 But I have also had friends who (through no fault of their own) led me to feel worse actually. Must avoid that.

        • Yes, that is a very important point..I suppose we must actively build a support system around us by choosing people who help us being positive.
          Here’s to more years of venting out to each other! 🙂

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