Living to tell the tale: I quit my PhD as a survival tactic
Posted On: 10-22-2019
The heady excitement of being admitted into a premier research institution built this PhD student for the best few months of her life. But somewhere along the way, things went downhill. Less than two years later, she decided to quit her PhD to give herself a new lease on life.
TRIGGER WARNING: This personal narrative discusses forms of emotional abuse, mental health issues and has a brief mention of suicides/suicidal thoughts. In case you need support/relief, here’s a list of resources you can go through.
In the essay titled ‘What ails Indian Science’, British biologist JBS Haldane, who worked in India, talks about “academic castes” – academic degrees restricting movement across fields, unprofessionalism and over-politeness in the Indian scientific community.
In comparison, he wrote, “In Europe, we are usually polite about the work of juniors, and highly critical of that of men and women of established reputation.”
In my view, while Indian academia continues to struggle to find professionalism, we have succeeded in abandoning politeness – which perhaps has made us freer to critique scientific work. But in this pursuit of shedding politeness, we have forgotten basic decency towards peers and trainees. Our academic culture today applauds verbal attack or emotional insensitivity as a form of criticism. As a result, attempts at improving science and expanding the horizons of knowledge are derailed.
Academic power struggles are vicious. The number of PhD enrolments continue to rise despite research job prospects being scarce. For many millennials taking up science, competing became a skill to be learned early on – whether they want to or not! Once they have a foot in the door, then come the arbitrary tight deadlines, the sky-high expectations, the inordinate bureaucratic delays, a looming student debt and a severe dearth of support.
Is an Indian PhD degree worth going through all of this? In this article, I will argue that it’s not.
I am the only science student from my family, and the only woman to have earned a master’s degree. Yet, I was no more accomplished than the average graduate student in India. I had no fancy degrees or prestigious recommendations to boast about – having graduated from a resource-starved state university. Sincere students at my college relied almost entirely on the capacity of a few good faculty members to learn. I myself did what I could – beg, borrow or steal – to gather knowledge and skills in these first five years of higher education. It came as no surprise to my university teachers that I cleared most scholarship exams without any difficulty.
Two years ago, I entered one of India’s premier research institutions as a PhD student. The selection procedures were gruelling, so I was surprised to find that I’d been accepted into not one, but five programmes. I chose to pursue a challenging PhD in neuroscience, a subject I knew almost nothing about. I immersed myself in coursework dutifully in the following months. It was the best year of my life! I was learning wonderful things every day and became heavily invested in the research-based coursework. For a while, I grew more confident about my chosen track.
I tried my best to be the ideal student – one that reads extensively, delivers on an unrealistic timeline and stays focused even when neck-deep in deadlines. Or so I thought, until I learnt what an ideal PhD student in the eyes of many academics was — a never-tiring creature that haunts the lab premises 24*7 and is seen lurking in the department on every weekend, national and cultural holiday alike!
Most Principal Investigators (PIs) have had no training in leading teams or dealing with people, and hence tend to fall at either extreme: either overly trusting, or overly paranoid. The latter are ever suspicious and are too hard on the students, allowing little to no freedom. Although working styles may differ among lab mates, or work timings may be forced upon the lab, very few academics seem to prioritise ethical and healthy work culture like regulated work hours and rest on weekends.
I noticed that many research advisors seem to have forgotten how tough the PhD ride can be and choose to preach the holy text “science requires blood and sacrifice”. Fortunately, my advisor was not one of them. He didn’t care about our schedules or work hours, as long as his expectations were being met. This allowed me to learn without needing to be whipped into action. However, it soon became apparent that this doesn’t count for much if the expectations are impractical or non-viable in the long term.
A friend contemplating graduate school offers once told me: “Choose a mentor who is a good person before they are a good scientist.” And today, I agree. If a research advisor ridicules or publicly humiliates their students for mistakes, then they do not deserve to lead. Research advisors get away with making personal jabs at students regularly, leaving them feeling guilty for having a life outside the lab.
In India, the power imbalance is unchecked to a degree that a faculty can get off scot-free despite being booked for unprofessional behaviour or even sexual harassment. After all, great men need not be nice. If the PI is bringing funds to the institute through grants, or publishing regularly, their misbehaviour is tolerated. In other words, they are above the ethics of professionalism.
What happened to the moral fibre of academia? When did we lose the innocence of scientific curiosity to cut-throat competition? Faculty members, administration and scientists all turn a deaf ear to the pain of research students. If students are not regular with attendance at classes or labs, shouldn’t they be asked why they are not coming to the lab, instead of being threatened, judged and punished?
Working hard was never a problem for me before depression laid its roots. The trauma in my life did not come as a singular irreversible incident, it was like a teaspoon of poison in my tea every day. It slowly drove me closer to death each day; but it did not alarm me enough to seek medical intervention. I had to be persistently coaxed by a friend into psychological therapy. Over time, without much support, my depression grew insidiously. I became less and less efficient over time, until one day the academicians around me were convinced that I was “no longer interested”. I was treated no different than a piece of equipment that had stopped working at optimal capacity.
Outside the lab, conversations with my peers felt like a sick competition of who was doing the best job at sacrificing basic human needs (physical and emotional) for research. Who was better at putting off sleep for days on end, or who skipped most meals in the pursuit of quality science? Away from them, I would ask myself: what is all this for? Getting my name in an academic paper sooner than the others, or a longer publication record, or just to please an otherwise unappreciative boss (PI)?
As my second year at the institute began, I was diagnosed with depression and had to take a break for my mental health. The break helped but re-integrating into the lab wasn’t smooth. I was subject to constant reminders of lagging behind, and there was the threat of a qualifying exam looming close. At one point, noticing that I had to skip lab meetings due to the side-effects of my medicines (intense nausea, hypoglycaemia, low BP, dizziness, preceded often by insomnia or nightmares and sleep paralysis in the night), my advisor recommended I leave the institute. According to him, had I been interested in science and an academic career, I would have “worked through it”.
I recalled a senior psychiatrist telling me no medicine could save me if I continued to be in an abusive environment. I had been emotionally traumatised in the lab and needed physical distance from it if I were to recover. This was about six months after I started the first course of antidepressants. I’d already been on three different classes of antidepressants and six different regimes. We were going to run out of options soon. In a moment of complete idiocy, I went off meds to test the possibility that perhaps, anxiety and depression were a figment of my imagination. It made things worse. My anxiety got worse, and having to defend my decision of opting out to my parents was further agony.
When no other lab of my interest offered me a place, my introspection led me to finally pulling the plug. I went to my lab at 2:00 AM that very night and cleared out my shelf. I committed treason of the highest order known to academia – I quit. It was treason enough to deserve the nasty remarks from my advisor that followed. Many told me that I had wasted an opportunity and I would never get it back. My family mourned the death of my academic career without ever having understood an iota of what I went through as part of this toxic the research culture.
I don’t know how wrong or right my this choice of leaving was. I never will. Perhaps, my dam of mental strength would not have shattered in a different lab. In hindsight, I acknowledged that there was much I could learn from my peers in the lab and my advisor, but never will. But that’s okay for many reasons!
I saved myself the high mental and emotional cost of having to deal with a soured relationship with my thesis advisor for the next four to six years.
I saved myself the stress of outdated arbitrarily set goals that have not been revised to fit present-day PhD projects.
I saved myself the aftermath of fulfilling unjustified expectations from research students, in the name of ‘passion’ and a career in academia.
I saved myself the unpaid labour involved in continuing my research to a sixth year in case a personal or professional reason made it impossible to finish in time.
I saved my family the burden of incurring a large debt, since my scholarship was conditional on my performance and would not be granted if I chose to take time off to take care of my mental health.
I must emphasise that my decision to quit had nothing to do with my research interests. For months, I deliberated the pros and cons of quitting. I plotted the cost-benefit function of my PhD degree against the emotional and personal toll it took on me. Changing labs was no longer an option for me and the mental math confirmed that leaving was the only option that remained. Less than a month later, there were three people who committed suicide within my close academic circles. Not all of them were mentioned in the newspapers. All of them were around the same age as me. And I could not help but wonder, if they had left, would it have saved their lives? Or, rather, if I had stayed, would it have ended mine?
I would be remiss to not mention the masses of PhD students who survive without a regular salary because of unreliable and erratic disbursement of funds, and in the case of some private universities and colleges where they receive no stipend at all. The lack of regular pay forces many students to quit academia. Candidates have been known to quit even at the last stage because of the lack of financial support between thesis revision and its defence, a period that can last anywhere between a few months to two years.
Leaving the institute and giving up on everything I had worked for, the comfort of my surroundings and friends, was painful. I was harangued by almost everyone; heart-broken, when eyebrows were raised during interviews; and beaten down with every rejection, in the following months. But with some encouragement and doggedly circulating my CV to all my acquaintances, I found paid internships (part-time, short-term gigs) that kept me engaged in a positive manner. I was recommended by mental health practitioners to take it slow, but not sit idle, given my tenacity for doing something meaningful with my day.
I prevailed! The punch-line is that I won a grant shortly after quitting. Oh, I also attended a conference where I actively discussed my current work, opening it to constructive criticism and feedback. It was a stark contrast to the toxic lab environment and lack of support that resulted in my quitting the PhD programme. Will I regret this decision? Time will tell, but it seems unlikely, given my newfound perspective from working outside of academia. My self-worth no longer nests in a basket full of ungodly hours spent struggling, sleepless nights and and missed meals. And, will my mental health issues debilitate me in the long-term? My experiences over the past several months points to a clear and resounding NO.
If you are in a situation like mine, please know that I shared my story for you. Know that you are not alone. I may not see changes in the system in this lifetime, but I may be able to save a life. I’m not saying that quitting is the only option; your path would be different from mine. But please know that if you decide to walk out the door, there is a life full of wonderful experiences waiting for you. There is much more to science than what is made out to be in academia. And, it’s never too late to walk into a world of kindness and beauty out there that you can build your life around.
Illustration by Ipsa Jain. Title: Bloom Note from the artist: Quitting. Overcoming. Leaving adversity is a happy thing.