Against a Science of Sacrifice

This reportage suggests that science academia in India is structured to put research scholars at risk of deteriorating mental health.
By | Published on Nov 1, 2019

Trigger Warning: This report discusses student suicides and mental health issues such as depression. In case you need support/relief, here’s a list of resources you can go through.

When mice are killed for an experiment, lab-notes officially record them as having been ‘sacrificed’. There’s a certain degree of detachment required to pursue the sciences. Interviews with science research scholars suggest that this detachment extends within the scientific community too. 

I spoke to 20 current and former science scholars from eight institutes — IIT Madras, IIT Bombay , NCBS, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS),  Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology (IIST) and Pondicherry University — to answer one question: 

What is it about Indian science today that leaves scholars unsupported and at risk of deteriorating mental health — contributing, in case of the worst outcome, to suicide?

Their accounts reveal a stressful, isolating, deeply hierarchical and unsupported academic environment, which seems almost designed to trigger mental illness, and completely at odds with the environment required to do innovative research —  an intrinsically creative pursuit. 

A long silence

With just a cursory look, it would seem that all science research scholars who decide to end their lives do so over ‘personal matters’ that have  “nothing to do with academia itself”. There’s a long tradition of vague silences all the way back to the suicide of Sunanda Bai, a brilliant graduate student in C.V Raman’s laboratory at IISc, back in 1945.

Five months ago NCBS lost one of its scholars to suicide. NCBS is a small, elite and relatively new institution. Although such incidents in academia are not new, no one expected it could happen here, in this small and liberal community. 

Namrata* and Rajesh* joined NCBS as PhD scholars around the same time, and were part of a close-knit group of friends. At an institute like NCBS, Rajesh told me, “everything revolves around your PhD. With stressful work hours and no boundaries, you spend most of your time on campus; your friend group and support system is largely within the campus and often with your own labmates.” So when things go wrong at work, it feels like a major disruption in your life.

Namrata was having a hard time coping in her first lab so she switched labs midway. This is rare but not unheard of.

Often older PIs tended to closely monitor research scholars in their labs to “motivate them”, as Rajesh had experienced. Supportive PIs, in contrast, he observed, look at mental illness like physical illness instead of fostering guilt for taking time off.

Namrata had a history of mental health issues but so did many others around her. “Almost every PhD student has self-doubt, like am I good enough to be here? When the PI’s statements mirror this, it just adds to the demons they’re already trying to fight,” Rajesh said.

Namrata had been seeing a therapist off-campus. She seemed to be doing better until she didn’t turn up for lab one day. Rajesh and a few others went to check on her at her residence close to campus, concerned that she wasn’t answering her phone.

Afterwards, he said, NCBS helped them talk to doctors and the police. An official email about the tragedy was sent out. Although there’s been talk of “changes that could be made,” Rajesh feels “nothing has really changed in the five months since”.

My request for comment to the communications office at NCBS was answered by Head of Academics, Mukund Thattai: “The campus has always offered free and confidential professional mental health counselling, provided by Parivartan. These services were immediately increased in the wake of the tragedy, as many students felt the need for support.”

“Professional grief counselling was provided one-on-one as well as in a group format, to all members of the campus community. All faculty members have attended sessions conducted by Parivartan that provided detailed instructions on mechanisms for supporting students dealing with mental health issues. A subset of students, faculty and staff have initiated a ‘Listening to campus’ program whose aim is to collect, catalogue and disseminate best practices to support all members of the campus community dealing with mental health and other issues,” he said, in response to the ‘nothing has changed’ comment.

What’s stress got to do with it?

In 2017, when the Mental Healthcare Act was passed, suicide was decriminalised on the assumption that no one would attempt it unless under excessive stress. Interviews with scholars showed that unreasonable expectations set by PIs, coupled with a lab-culture marked by fear of failure, long hours and isolation directly lead to poor mental health.

A former PhD scholar from IMSc described “a perpetual feeling of inadequacy” among postgraduate students including friends pursuing research elsewhere. “There’s a tendency to valourise a sacrificial approach — mental health, physical health, social life — all these things are supposed to take a backseat to science”.

This sentiment was unanimous among scholars across institutions I spoke to. “There are comments thrown around if they don’t see your face enough in the lab — even if your work hours differ,” a PhD scholar at IISc said. Soon after a bout of severe illness left her incapacitated, she started getting calls from the lab saying she “needed to come back immediately” while still in the hospital.

A former MSc student at NCBS who has since left academia said her anxiety skyrocketed, despite her lab being “less toxic than many others” she knew of. “Every time my PI would call me in, I’d get scared. Just the idea of going to the lab was distressing.”

A faculty member at IIT Bombay said that all of this, alongside the culture of “publish or perish” without much guidance, means that eventually “it’s not normal to really care about your work” or to take joy in it. He added that PIs themselves, having painstakingly survived this unforgiving system, are resistant to change, and under pressure to publish.

A number of studies have confirmed the association between work-stress and impaired psychological well-being including the onset of depression. In addition, studies report that under conditions of high work-stress, the perceived stress associated with “home life” can also increase. 

The care gap

Disha*, an integrated-PhD research scholar at IISc, recalls visiting the campus-counsellor when she first joined and started having panic attacks. The counsellor, who has since left, dismissed her symptoms and suggested she might have anaemia. She was advised to “have Revital (a nutrient supplement) and eat pomegranates”.

She added that a committee of faculty asked her how she could have depression when they saw her “smiling and walking around the other day”.

Such an inadequate understanding of mental health appears to be pervasive across institutes, as is the poor infrastructure to deal with mental illness.

Reflecting the larger care gap in India, the IISc website currently lists one visiting psychiatrist and two psychologists for over 4,000 students in addition to postdoctoral fellows and faculty. The psychiatrist is available twice a week and there are also counsellors available on all days. Sadly, last summer two PhD scholars ended their lives at IISc.

A PhD scholar who wrapped up his engineering PhD at IIT Madras last year dealt with major depression between 2015-16. During his time there, he mentioned that the entire student population of over 5000 plus faculty relied on a single visiting psychiatrist alongside campus-counsellors.

The institute-sponsored psychiatrist visited once a week and didn’t have time to completely address issues. “They’re more interested in temporarily suppressing it so you don’t cause issues for the administration. So then there’s a trust deficit.”

He expressed his frustration at a widespread perception among his cohort and faculty, that if you “can’t cope up, you’re weak. You’re not masculine enough.” When he fell into a deep depression, unable to leave his hostel room for days at a stretch, no one came to check.

Social connectedness: a solution?

In January 2019, two individuals ended their lives at IIT Madras. One of these incidents took place in Roshni’s* hostel. Roshni, a PhD scholar in humanities, recalled: “What stayed with me was that nobody realised she had died for two whole days!”

“It’s the biggest example of how solitary this whole process [science training] is… how being solitary is so accepted. Everyone works at odd hours and has different schedules, so very often you don’t see anyone.”

From the perspective of administration at IIT Madras, they are trying to tackle the issue. M.S Sivakumar, the Dean of Students or DOST believes the problem lies both in the kind of students that come to IITs — high achieving, introverted — and the tremendous expectations foisted on them from home.

“We’re trying many ways,” he told me over a phone call. There’s also a “wellness-team including counsellors and a visiting psychiatrist both by appointment and on-call.” Some senior students and faculty volunteer to counsel others through the Mitr initiative.

“But the difficulty we face is getting the information — who has a problem,” he said regretfully.

While the Dean is in search of interventions, Roshni feels that more organic social ties are required. A growing body of research strengthens the link between a lack of social connectedness and depression.

A current PhD scholar at IIT-M who was part of Mitr in the past agreed that while the initiative has helped students, the isolation in the sciences is profound and equated to productivity — unlike in the humanities where there is more interaction and engagement with social and mental health issues.

No institute for accountability — or rights

Across institutions, scholars spoke about absolute hierarchy as well as a lack of accountability in case of abuse, harassment, unreasonable expectations or toxic behaviour by PIs or faculty.

“The PI isn’t answerable like that,” said Sakina*, who graduated from NCBS with an MSc in 2016. “Technically there’s the Head of Department and Ethics Committee above the PI but they’re all friends.”

Somewhat predictably, impunity marks how institutes deal with complaints against casteism, gendered harassment, and religious discrimination.

Aliza* who pursued computer science at G. Pulla Engineering College in Andhra Pradesh spoke to me about the gendered Islamophobia she experienced as a visibly Muslim woman, wearing a burqa nearly a decade ago. From being asked why she bothered with education since she was “anyway going to marry someone from Saudi” and comments about “f*cking Muslim women” to being bullied out of a tech society — the experience left her with lasting trauma.

At the time of writing, harassment of many scholars and students from minority communities continues. Over the past year, a Kashmiri Muslim PhD scholar at Pondicherry University has been facing harassment from his PI, who refused to provide any direction and would abuse him for entering his room. The HOD hasn’t helped.

“He was planning to approach the VC with other Kashmiri friends, but I advised him to take people from other states as well,” his peer, another Kashmiri scholar said. “Other people may have the independence to protest but we have to keep it to ourselves.”

At IISc too, harassment of minorities is ongoing. Dalit research scholars were recently denied mentorship; they have also been prevented from entering the lab on occasion. When I reached out, the scholars declined to comment, citing a new addition to the code of conduct for students — a ban on speaking with the media. This, coupled with an inactive minority protection cell leaves the tradition of upper-caste majority in academia intact.

Over at IIT Madras, since 2018 persons from the ‘Vigilance’ department have been searching student’s rooms without notice. Meanwhile, a PhD scholar who asked to be anonymous reported that a recently leaked thread of emails among staff/faculty showed intent to deter students from having privacy in their rooms — suggesting if they wanted privacy that badly, “they should go to the loo”. Although male students are allowed to have female students in their room until 9 pm, the pattern of searches suggests that if a female student’s name turns up in the register of the hostel, the rooms are turned completely inside out.

Fined items have included kettles, condoms and cigarette butts. Why this bigoted attitude is being imposed on adults who must live in a residential set-up is anyone’s guess. “Some of my classmates have children!” the scholar said. “When you wouldn’t do this to faculty, why this hypocrisy with us? Do we not have rights?”

‘What shocked me was the demand for privacy…’ – Part of the leaked email thread between members of the student affairs’ team at IIT Madras.

What then?

“Mental health is not going to improve just because you add an extracurricular sport on campus or bring a counsellor once a week,” one of the many research scholars I interviewed told me. There is a need to alter our very image of what the pure sciences should look like. 

Over at the IITs and IISc, sources say there’s a discussion brewing about discontinuing stipends for Masters and Integrated-PhD scholars. Heading towards an embrace of increasing privatisation, burgeoning student debt and uncertain futures as in the US and UK is not going to help the already terrible mental health of science scholars in India. 

Academia itself draws from the upper classes. For example, If you come from a low-income family in Andhra Pradesh to IIST for a Master’s degree, you need to stay above a certain CGPA for your education to be free and have access to the dream — a placement at ISRO upon graduation. If you fall below the required CGPA, you have to pay up to Rs. 48,000 for a semester. You can get by on a starting stipend of 32,000 as a PhD scholar but as time goes on it gets harder. If you add a family to support or money to be sent home to the mix, the education system has no imagination about what to do with you.

Mental health does not exist in a vacuum. How individuals respond to work-stress is mediated by several factors — including genetics, socioeconomic conditions and social relationships. However ignoring the relationship between psychosocial factors like isolated high-pressure work environments and poor mental health — without seriously changing the system on which academia is built, is at best misguided, and at worst a willful insistence on viewing suicide-deaths in Indian science as ‘aberrations’. 

“This entire system of incentives for graduate research and structures of power need to be different,” one graduate student told me. “As long as academia is structured the way it is, we’re not going to be able to tackle mental health.”

Namrata’s death five months ago in NCBS did not make it to the news. Peers who weren’t close to her remarked at least the situation was “better here than at IISc”. 

Namrata was not a statistic. It’s easy to forget that in an article like this. “Tell me something about Namrata that has nothing to do with her death.” I texted Rajesh, her friend and colleague. He replied hours later, swamped with work.

“She was one of the kindest people I’ve met. She put others before herself, often to a fault. She was really into creating art — paper quilling in particular. She did her master’s in bioinformatics so she was our go-to when we had questions about coding and bioinformatics software. She also hated fruit desserts. Absolutely HATED them. No blueberry danish or mango yoghurt or sitaphal ice cream. She was unwilling to even taste them. Most importantly, she was someone you could count on.”


Author Bio: Riddhi Dastidar is a Delhi-based poet and journalist. She is a post-graduate student of MA Gender Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. You can follow her @gaachburi to see more of her work, her cats or her nerdy love of gender-theory.

Editor’s note: Names marked with an asterisk (*) have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.
(Those in distress or those having suicidal tendencies can call Arogya Sahayavani 104 for help – Karnataka)

Helpline numbers are also available here


This piece is part of a series supported by India Alliance.

About the author(s)
Riddhi Dastidar

Riddhi Dastidar is a Delhi-based poet and journalist. She is a post-graduate student of MA Gender Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. You can follow her @gaachburi to see more of her work, her cats or her nerdy love of gender-theory.

4 responses to "Against a Science of Sacrifice"

    S Deb says:

    Captured a lot of areas perfectly well. What needs to change is the absolute power that a PI holds, which in many cases is misused. A system that is able to pick up any misuse of power needs not a ‘let’s it hush it down to avoid an administrative mess’ but rather a intervention that helps the person victimised. Academia itself by nature comes with a lot of pressure, but what can be definitely avoided is the stress of working with a bad PI. People don’t quit their lives or jobs, they quit the lab culture or the PIs they work with.

    rithumoni says:

    Hi… First of all Thank u for sharing this article.i have a lot of doubts in PhD research paper.
    just now i read this blog.My doubts are clarrified.Once again thank u for posting this article and keep posting regularly.

    http://www.aristocratresearch.com/

    AJ says:

    How is noone talking about these privacy issues… yes there is a generation gap, i fear the previous generation will always tend to their ways rather than think logically about how privacy is a right irrespective of whether it is a PhD, post doc or professor

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