What my PhD taught me about life

In academia, there are no short cuts.

 |  7-minute read |   05-07-2016
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If there is anything I remember about my life with clinical clarity, it’s the days leading up to the submission of my PhD (in Public Health and Policy, specifically looking at introduction of new vaccines in India).

These were the days of heady mix of nostalgia (of the times spent writing it) and anxiety (of short term goal of submission and longer term goals of life).

Numerous typos seemed to have magically appeared and luxuriously spread themselves over my neatly typed pages. Large numbers of references seemed to have slipped into some wormholes, and made me regret my laziness of not having put the reference right away when vague description of a light blue book hardcover on the tenth shelf seemed unhelpful to the kind librarian in the last few weeks.

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The word count had burgeoned into an untameable monster and this seemed quite ironical considering the days I had spent looking at the blank document in front of me, wondering how I will ever fill those pages.

Each new day began with my frantic searching: was I was working on word document final1.docx, final3.docx, or finalcorrectionswithcomments.docx.

Thus, it was quite natural that when I finally got the PhD printed, I refused to look at it, even peek, since I was convinced that the moment I do so, I will find a glaring typo even on my title page.

The moment of submission was not marked by jubilation or even relief but of nervous trepidation.

pencilbd_070416083948.jpg Numerous typos seemed to have magically appeared and luxuriously spread themselves over my neatly typed pages.

My friend informed me that in the days to follow, I will actually miss the process of writing and researching my PhD, one of my significant long-term relationships. It is as if, she pointed out, you will suddenly have a lacuna in your life and will struggle to fill it unsuccessfully.

Submission (followed by completion through viva) of PhD does mark a step into the real world. PhD in many ways serves as a glorious cocoon, and even if it is marked by high stress, it is deliciously, intellectually self-indulgent.

PhD in that way is one’s own little project. Life after PhD has never allowed me the time or even the necessity of engaging with a question in such a detailed and intimate way. Yet the time spent writing the thesis, even though it involved many existential questions and much hand wringing, has taught me many life lessons to stay with me forever.

It has changed the way I approach problems and find solutions and imbued in me appreciation, nay even an essential requirement to value and understand multiplicity of viewpoints. And after few years of submission and viva and more anxiety, I have finally achieved the distance to look at the whole experience as an invaluable learning exercise.

Even though jokes in academia abound in portraying PhD as grown-up grad students with no real jobs, one of the most important lesson it taught me was one of independence and discipline.

Writing and research required me to chalk out a routine and stick to it in a disciplined manner. PhD supervision is no spoon feeding or hand holding, and while fortunate ones like me with extremely committed supervisors had the luxury of discussing and getting inputs on my fieldwork logistics, data collected and chapter outlines, more or less PhD writing is an independent undertaking.

As once my supervisor pointed out that purpose of this undertaking is to make albeit small, but completely original, dent in the vastness of academic knowledge.

Writing and researching for a PhD taught me how to write in a certain academic way. This style of writing was to an extent impersonal, dispassionate, critical, and balanced. Every sentence had to be researched and backed by data and evidence.

Personal prejudice had to be minimised and dedicated to questions of reflexivity, recognising my own positions and biases and how it could have influenced my data collection and subsequent analyses.

For instance, I was an in a curious position of being insider, "Indian" in the field as well as an outsider, "affiliated to a foreign university", so while it meant familiarity with language, I was mostly seen as non-aligned interest wise.

Moreover, as important as was data to my research, PhD also taught me to be critical of the same, to treat data and numbers and statistics and even qualitative research findings with close scrutiny.

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It made me realise that what is often presented as fact and data in academia, as well as real life, can be subjected to questioning and even debunked by data sets supporting a hypothesis at the opposite end of the spectrum. Things like position of the researcher, the research question, the sample size and even the funding for the project will determine answers.

For instance, manufacturers of the vaccine often overestimated the disease burden, and health workers often underestimated it. This idea of questioning may seem self-evident but a lot of times, numbers have been used to make and justify important policy and practical decisions without making room for dissent, whereas statistics should be used as a plank for opening more debates and not silencing the doubts.

Reflections about data made me realise that all knowledge is ultimately personal, that it cannot be separated from the "knower", that at least in social sciences, there are no self-evident truths, only interpretations, and in academia, as in life, subjectivity matters, it should be acknowledged and embraced.

It also made me recognise that knowledge is political and inextricably linked to power and that its production, its context, and its origin must be carefully scrutinised.

Appreciation of this fact will allow us to acknowledge the multiplicities of knowledge, especially recognise the knowledge being generated from the marginalised and the subaltern and use it to inform our understanding of our truths and our life.

For instance, the "most important public health issue" differed for donors, international organisation, national policy makers and people.

For instance, while international organisations placed a high priority on polio eradication, people in the village saw it as a minor disease and concentrated more on roads and electricity as development priorities.

I learned, while writing PhD, that to live and work alone is an essential skill in adult life. PhD writing is essentially a solitary exercise (especially in social sciences), and while one does share the support of fellow students, supervisors and guides, and silent space with strangers in libraries, ultimately one is on one’s own with one’s laptop and a music playlist, no matter how many lectures and seminars and conferences we might choose to attend.

Writing a PhD made me work towards not letting my solitary existence turn into an isolating or lonely experience. It made me learn to shape my solitary existence as a time and space for introspection and freedom. It also allowed me to gain new found gratitude for the support of family and friends.

Writing the thesis made me realise the importance of the virtue of patience. In PhD, as in life, there are no short cuts, and the rigour and standards required in PhD mean that most of the time is spent patiently writing and rewriting till the first drafts become unrecognisable, not to mention spending countless hours not doing any cutting-edge research but the painstaking (and essential) process of transcribing and translating the interviews, making reference library, sorting through fieldwork data (most of which remains unused) and long process of editing.

This brings me to my final big takeaway from my relationship with my PhD, and that is learning the value of responsibility, of taking up a project and completing it.

In this process one faces ups and downs, frustrations and rewards, hopes and disappointments and the final process of doing your best and then letting go.


Swati Saxena Swati Saxena @swatisaxena1231

The author is a researcher at a non profit. She is interested in politics, development, literature, and society. She holds a PhD in Public Health and MPhil in Development Studies.

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