Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Derek Lowe at 'In the Pipeline' recounts the typical woes of grad student life. also does it pretty well. Still, there's no substitute for actual experience. I am no ideal PhD. student, in fact far from it, but let me say this to prospective PhD. students; doing a PhD. is no easy ball game. And I am not saying this because it needs exemplary qualities that PhD. students usually have, but precisely because it needs exemplary qualities that they usually don't have and need to somehow procure out of their inner resources and out of thin air.

Most importantly, there are two companions, surely not mutually exclusive, that are going to be your constant fellow travellers for whatever time it takes for you to eke your way through research, committees, and defenses- frustration and repetition.
More than intelligence, what you seem to need for a PhD. is an ability to always be terribly interested in what may seem to be the most simple, inconsequential, tedious, and godforsaken activity. Put simply, this is called perseverance. But in a PhD., nothing is simple.
Even if what you are doing may be the most mundane thing which generations have worked on, you have to cling to it as if it were the most important thing in life. Now sometimes, there actually are things whose trite exterior hides some very interesting inside, but unfortunately and more often than not, you are faced with something that screams of banality and will do so forever. But astonishingly, it's these most boring and banal activites that turn out to be paramount for your end product. What a cruel game nature plays with us.

As Derek glumly puts it, and as I cannot say it any better:

"...The biggest factor was the work. It was a strain. I like variety up here in my head, and this was the first time I'd ever had to do the same thing, think about the same thing, day after day (and night after night). It brought on, eventually, the mental equivalent of a leg cramp - I know for sure that I was in a much crabbier mood during my grad school years than I was afterwards, and I'm sure that it was largely because I was venting off some of the pressure. My project had the usual twists and turns, which during one point just about had me tearing my hair in frustration, but the real problem was that there was no escape from it."

No escape from it. That's the punchline. He also says quite rightly, that in the first place, there is no holiday as such, and even when you are taking time off, you cannot help but keep thinking about that damned simulation which you have been spending the last three months on without any success. You don't even know if it's going to work in the next one month, one year, or ten years, and yet you are sure you don't want do become a cobweb mobbed PhD. veteran by hanging around for ten years. Desperate situation. Catch 22. What do you do??

As if this were not enough, your work environment and daily routine is replete with things that seem to be designed with the express purpose of plunging you into depression. As Derek says, the last thing you want to see at 3 a.m. after running an unsuccessful reaction for the 25th time, is a dimly lit medieval looking room called the 'student lounge'. We have one of those on the first floor. Except that I have never, ever, seen any student in it.

Why don't academic departments make their halls and classes and labs look more interesting? The prestigious Whitehead Institute at MIT was designed to make researchers feel cheerful, and more importantly, make them feel wanted. The Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge is also known to be constructed with its researchers' psyche in mind. Both places have been beehives of biological innovation, and have churned out Nobel laureates out of woodwork. I seriously feel that university officials sometimes forget that the denizens of their departments are ordinary human beings, and like the children in Darfur and Somalia, they too need love, appreciation, and food.

Make people feel that their efforts in tackling the recalcitrant, boring tedium which makes them cry, is actually appreciated and rewarded. How about a nice departmental cafeteria which serves different cuisines? How about a mini amusement park, where scientists can vent their frustration by climbing jungle jims? How about scooters or skateboards in the hallway, free for anyone to use and get from one place to another, thereby enlightening that everyday little ride to the NMR room/stockroom/seminar room? At the least, how about putting in more windows in labs and making the walls more colourful? Remember how those MRI machines for small children are decorated with stuffed toys and animal and star stickers? I want something like that around my desk.
All these simple changes will inject a sense of simple inspiration and cheer among students, and encourage interaction. Otherwise, the only time I meet people in my department is about four times a year, at those terrible annual departmental events where they serve raw barbeque chicken and carrot pieces with cheese dip.
I hear that Google in California is well known for providing such colourful environs. If the heftily paid Googlers are also pampered, then we lowly PhD. students, whose life is full of itsy bitsy stipends and uncertain research, deserve much more.

The most harrowing aspect of graduate school is the clockwork attrition. It is the sheer tedium of every daily activity, the constant repitition of reactions, simulations, and experiments that guarantee no results. Even the smells in the microwave room down the hallway have become so familiar to me, that fatigue engendred by boredom envelops me when I step into it. I understand that science does involve mostly clerical work fraught with no returns, sometimes for a lifetime, but the difference between simply agreeing to that and experiencing that first hand is like the difference between reading the description of a nuclear test and actually witnessing one live.

As Derek says, the best advice a graduate student can get is "Get out as soon as possible with a degree". But that's like telling someone, "Climb Mt. Everest as fast as you can, to avoid the vicissitudes of the weather".

Since daily scientific research promises no variety of life, the least that can be done, is to introduce variety in other aspects of student existence by doing something like the aforementioned things. Till then, it's the attitude that counts. Yeah, I know that...

I am glad I at least have the Mexican place across the road. No really.


Blogger Sumedha said...

I agree; graduate students really need a little more sunshine in their lives!
My lab is underground :(

10:29 AM  
Blogger Hirak said...

I would add 'distraction' to the list. Grad life or the university environment has generated more interesting things to see and do. What's the big hurry?

Of course, there is a constant feeling of guilt - 'You should be working'. Having said that, I should get back to work.

11:13 AM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

Sumedha: That's too bad! And I thought I was suffering.

Hirak: Yes, good you brought that up. Distraction galore obviously. Especially for people like me who are not doing benchwork, the simple distractions of music, blogs, books and the internet are blockbuster distractions.

7:47 AM  

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