The Research Life – Tips from a Star Seeker

I am an Astrophysicist and I love what I do. When the going gets tough I always find myself asking if there is anything else I’d rather be doing and I always draw a blank.  That is how I reassure myself in my moments of doubt. This is the path I chose to walk and I shall keep walking till my legs fail me.

Blog by The Star Seeker

Image credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham www.phdcomics.com

Days blending into nights. Intermittent anxiety attacks fuelled by sleep deprivation. Excessive coffee and sugar intake. That was my first year of research. Now, a couple of years later, things are a bit different. At the very least, my coffee intake is less.

My research aspirations started during my Undergraduate course in Physics when my teachers gave me opportunities to explore different topics to present my seminars and projects on. I call this – “teaching done right”. This is when my affinity for Astronomy and Astrophysics began to grow. So I was adamant about my decision to pursue Astronomy for my postgraduate degree.

I hail from the beautiful town of Tripunithura in Kerala and I did my schooling in the same town. All I had to get to my Undergraduate course was taking a half hour bus ride to the city of Ernakulam. This was my comfort zone. However tiresome the day was I always got to come back home to my family and sleep in my own bed. Therefore when I decided to uproot my life and travel across state borders to pursue a Master’s degree in Astronomy, it was a big adjustment.

During this course, I visited many institutes in India and gathered a firsthand experience of what research is like in this field. What fascinated me most about Astronomy is the profound nature of the questions that scientists attempt to answer. From human beings who once thought the Earth was the centre of the Universe to now knowing that we are just a speck in the cosmos, we have come a long way. Astronomy humbles me by giving me context to my existence in the Universe. Fundamental questions like ‘How did the Universe originate ?’ was so profound that it made me see everything in a new light. As a young Research aspirant, the magnitude of this attempt to answer these questions started dawning on me around this time. This helped me decide I would take that next big step, the step that would take over the good part of the next decade of my life – a PhD.

 Astronomy humbles me by giving me context to my existence in the Universe. Fundamental questions like ‘How did the Universe originate ?’ was so profound that it made me see everything in a new light.

There was a lot of uncertainty at this stage – and this is what scares most people. What will the future hold? Will our work ever pan out?  These are questions that trouble me every other day. The fear comes from the fact that you spend the prime years of your life doing something you love although it doesn’t guarantee you even a job at the end of it.

The notorious well-wisher

Being a woman in a man’s world just adds more variables into this scary equation. Instead of showing curiosity about my work or my career plans, people ask me when I am planning to get married. I am frequently being reminded of my biological clock ticking away like a time bomb more. I have had people overtly suggest to me that if I wait for too long “nobody would want to marry me”. Old commodities don’t sell well in the market. I am 27, so  I am pretty stale already I suppose.

I understand that people and their mindsets are a product of hundreds of years of societal norms and patriarchy. But there is only so much you can say to people who think that it is irrelevant whether or not a woman is herself ready for marriage if there is a man ready and willing to take her home as his wife. I find it amusing when I am forced to explain to these “well-wishers” that I am a grown woman who knows what she wants and what she is doing.

 If I wait for too long “nobody would want to marry me”. Old commodities don’t sell well in the market. I am 27, so  I am pretty stale already I suppose.

There are still people out there who find it inconvenient to hire women because, according to them, women’s priorities will shift to her husband, or having kids, and maternity leave. They think that these factors will make them care less about their jobs. The audacity in such an attitude is difficult to comprehend, let alone explain.

The dropping out of women from science after their master’s degree is not surprising since a doctoral degree requires a woman to focus on herself for a change instead of agreeing to get married as this is the ‘right age’. Most Indian parents have this idea ingrained in their minds that their grown daughter needs to be protected and taken care of by a man and a marriage is the only way to make that happen.

Tuning out the background noise

But I am grateful that my workspace and family are immune to such misogyny. In my case, it is always the people who have nothing to do with me or have no place in my life that are keen to dish out suggestions about how I should live my life. This is an epidemic in India, especially since people tend to just always assume that women are clueless. If starting a family is not a woman’s priority now, then according to some people, there is definitely something wrong with her. To me, these people are background noises that I have mastered tuning out.

Gender stereotypes get planted in a person’s mind during childhood and go on to fuel misogynistic attitudes and undermine a woman’s role in the progress and development of a society. It is a difficult battle to fight and all you can do sometimes is to accept that there isn’t a need to convince every single person about why you do what you do.

The first step is to accept that there are deep-rooted underlying issues that need to be addressed. Then, policymakers and the citizens need to slowly begin to undo the wrongs that have been done for so long. It will take time, I’m sure, but it will be worth it – for women and for our world.

  If starting a family is not a woman’s priority now, then according to some people, there is definitely something wrong with her. To me, these people are background noises that I have mastered tuning out

I am a privileged person in the most fundamental respects. I have an amazing family. Parents who encourage me to do what I love, and encourage me to never give up in the face of trouble. My elder brother is my friend when I need someone to talk to, my guide when I am lost, my encyclopaedia when I have questions and my pillar of strength when I falter.  He assures me it is okay for me to be human in a world which I often find to be robotic.

With an amazing support system like this, it’s very hard to give up on myself. I encourage researchers out there to keep your support systems intact and to always be open to admitting that you need help when you actually do. Yet, I must stress that the research journey is a solo one and no one can take it for you.

I don’t have it all figured out yet, but I am trying. I often find myself reading ‘PhD comics’ (http://phdcomics.com/) and realising that the avalanche of fleeting emotions that I often feel is not so uncommon. Reading it makes me feel less alone in this world because, hey, misery does enjoy company. I find laughing at my weird predicaments very helpful. I read one comic strip recently and I am pretty convinced that I have the imposter syndrome. Yes, I know.

Some tips for new researchers

  1. Research is a very personal and intimate journey. It takes some time to get into the groove. And you have to do it your way, yours alone. It brings out the best and the worst in you. You learn more about yourself in these few years than you would have ever learnt before. It takes a lot out of you and brings a lot to you.
  2. Figure out the right questions, the rest will sort itself out. The lion’s share of the PhD term will be spent finding out what you like working on and what you don’t. You will equip yourself with the tools required to figure out answers to questions that quite possibly would have never been asked before. If you figure out the right questions to ask, finding their answers won’t be half as tough.
  3. Explore, stumble, get up, repeat. Research is all about exploring, treading uncharted territories, stumbling, falling and getting back up again. It is all-consuming but exhilarating. If this prospect doesn’t excite you, maybe you should think again about why you wish to pursue research.  
  4. Don’t be obsessed with the returns. It shouldn’t be something you do just because you think it makes your career prospects better. Trust me when I say that 4-5 years on a meagre amount of fellowship that barely covers your rent, food and bare necessities is not worth it if all you see is just a fancy job at the end of it. These are the years you want to soak up every bit of knowledge from anybody who is willing to teach you.
  5. Clarity is overrated. It’s quite normal to have doubts about why we do what we do. Well, I say clarity is overrated. You will figure things out as you get on with it and that’s the way it is supposed to be.
  6. Everyday misogyny is rampant. It is a difficult battle to fight and all you can do sometimes is to accept that there isn’t a need to convince every single person about why you do what you do.
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By thestarseeker | Published on Oct 5, 2017 in Voices

1 response to "The Research Life – Tips from a Star Seeker"

    Ramya says:

    Nice article.

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