Friday, February 22, 2013

Navigating the PhD: beyond the science

Having finally some headway in my qualifying exam preparation, I decided to take a short breather and take stock of my PhD career so far.

Even having 2 first-author research papers, a couple of perspective/journalistic articles, and a few more co-author papers under my belt, I am still terribly unconvinced that I will be having a smooth qualifying examination, let alone a career that is so fraught with uncertainties. As much as I like the science, I can't lament enough over things beyond just pursuing knowledge - things like politics, people relationships, your own life etc. After a frustrating 1.5-month of scheduling, waiting and rejections, I have finally formed my qualifying committee. I have learnt a few things along the way about people and politics and PhD qualifying exam in general. I have particular thoughts on selecting professors.

1) Find people you know who share your interest by getting to know them early in your graduate career.
I have a very secluded personality, making this point very hard for me. I also have a very non-straightforward situation of having very few people in the entire institution that share my eclectic research interests and consequently my qualifying proposal. That's when I realize retrospectively while smaller, private graduate programs tend to have a diversity of faculty specializing in various fields, this can both be a pro and a con. The most obvious pro is the choices you have in choosing a lab/labs you like. But the downside is that you have very few potential mentors sharing the interest you have, especially when some of them would end up declining being on your qualifying committee, and you are left with nobody else that is marginally involved in your work. I don't have a direct advice here about how to circumvent this problem. Except to try to identify certain areas you are interested in early and clarify those goals, so that you can hook up with the right professors way before your qualifying exams. If not, look at (2).

2) Otherwise, you have to steel your skin and bulldoze your way.
Which is what I did. I consulted with my advisors (I have two) who gave me alternatives. Alternatives bring with them a whole slew of issues because they are typically very very remotely associated with your fields of interest. Some of them ended up rejecting to be on my committee on various grounds. I wouldn't mind, even if it was a terse 'no'. At least, there was a CONCRETE, relatively QUICK reply. I have the experience of waiting 1.5 months for a reply from a professor that showed keen interest but would never set a specific time until after 1.5 months (nearing 2 now). His timing would then uncannily coincide with the time, I thought he was uninterested and moved on to find another professor, who agreed to be on my committee. Consequently, I would have to form the committee without him and hope that he doesn't take offense... There is always this distaste in how all these things seem to time themselves to happen at almost exactly the same moment. (Ya, like aligning the same time with when your toilet clogs, deadlines of your papers and everything else that's life.)

3) Politics
Look out also for signs of discord between you and the stranger professors and/or between them and your own professors. That's why communicating with your advisors are extremely important because they will only tell you those they can work with. Write emails that ask for discussion to be on the committee, rather than asking them to be on your committee right off the email... Even though, sometimes, this might get glossed over. You might have to emphasize that. Meeting with these professors is a match-making for a mutual fit, that you feel comfortable with him as much as he feels so with you. 

4) Being a worrier.
And if you are a big worrier like me, you would freak out with such a confluence of uncertainties and situations. My friend calls it by a fancy name (defensive pessimist). Over the years, I have adopted an odd take on this, inspired by the autobiography of Ms Aung San Suu Kyi. The idea is that this worrying is periodic. I would then accelerate the process of allowing myself to be worried to the max, and there will be this nadir which I will hit. That's when I will tell myself 'enough is enough' and then resolutely start climbing out of that abyss... I know. it's a weird concept... The assumption, of course, is that you would not fall off the depression cliff. So don't try, if you are not confident.

My friends who have gone past the stage keep telling me that this is a rite of passage that every PhD student goes through. It is not a matter of life and death. I will look back in the future and mock at why I was so worried. Well, until that day comes, I will continue to worry, I guess.

People, politics and PhD. My enigmatic love for alliteration doesn't make me like that combination at all. Not one bit. 

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