Thursday, May 09, 2013

Soul Kadi - Breaking In, into the Real World

It’s surprising what PhD can do to one. One takes the best and most productive years of one’s life and shuts them away behind the closed doors of a laboratory, researching a topic one hopes would make a difference to the world some day. For grad students doing basic research, this translates into a really long wait wrought with innumerable frustrations, punctuated with fleeting ‘eureka’ moments of joy as they watch their ideas materialize into applications that can finally be put to some good use. But these moments of fulfillment and satisfaction are few and far between and often take more than the graduate life span. PhD life then mostly exists as a dull, monotonous routine of ‘Work- Eat- Sleep(?)– Work– and Work some more’.

Pardon me, but I am of the opinion that (higher) education is meant to enlighten and liberate, not turn one into a mechanical humanoid working day-in and day-out till the thesis is written and the manuscripts are published, and sometimes even after! Where does all the joy and inspiration go, the one with which we start out as fresh PhD students? It is lost somewhere down the line, in the black hole that consumes grad students across nationalities, across the globe. Since this is a universally observed phenomenon, is it right to assume that there is something terribly wrong with our current system of higher education? Some issues definitely need to be worked upon and the wrinkles ironed out from the rest. Or is it the lack of understanding, appreciation and recognition from peers, advisors and/or family that causes this depression? Does the fact of seeing the world racing by as one struggles at the work bench with no clear end in sight lead to all the misery? At the time when peers are settling down into secure, salaried jobs and starting families, PhD students are only just getting started on their dissertations. Or is it the uncertainty over the future that burdens PhD life? By the time the doctoral degree is awarded, grad students realize that they are way overqualified and will be underpaid for most jobs they apply for. That isn’t too bright a future to look forward to, is it?

Whatever the reason, going to grad school is a choice one makes knowingly, a decision to single-mindedly dedicate one’s most productive years in the pursuit of science, for science’s sake and for mankind’s sake (I sincerely hope this is the mind-set with which at least a few people join grad school! All is not lost then!) It is a decision one stands by till the very end – the happy(?) ending when one graduates with a doctoral degree and is ready to make a fresh start, taking the first few independent steps into the ‘real’ world. And that’s when the ‘PhD bubble’ actually bursts.

Life outside academia isn’t all hunky-dory. One dreams, one imagines of settling down, slowly yet surely, taking one step at a time, committing fewer mistakes.  But life has other plans. One crack of life’s formidable whip and all well-laid plans go for a toss! Rumble, crumble, slip, fall! The only alternative is to pick oneself up out of the rubble and get the act together again, not one-at-a-time (no time for that anymore!), but many, parallely. This is the first lesson life teaches. Lessons in life, from life, for life.

Life has its own way of wielding the whip - sometimes gentle, sometimes a little hurting, but most of the times, sheer deep painful. However, there definitely is a positive learning at the end of each whip crack, and looking back, I see that I have shaped up for the better from all the whipping – gentle and harsh alike.

Take for instance, the time when life gently goaded me to go clothes shopping. For a girl, who dislikes shopping (except of course for sarees, shoes, jewellery and farm-fresh fruits and veggies!), it was quite some task. I find it much easier to shop for others than for myself. And when it comes to clothes, God help me! The realization that my PhD wardrobe (read a couple of T-shirts with the institute logo and a pair of worn out jeans) is so totally unfit for the ‘prospective employee’ role I am currently playing, finally made me drag myself out to the stores. So here I am now – all shopped and suited-up, making a style statement of my own – simple, understated, yet elegant (I hope!). There’s scope for improvement I’m sure and I’ll learn on the way.

That’s about it about life’s gentle persuasions.

Life is more of an expert at dealing it out up close and personal. *Slap!* Crisp and tight, smack in the face, shaking you out of your delusional reverie, bringing you back onto hard, solid ground. This happened to me during a discussion about jobs, people and life styles outside academia. I had my set views on how the academic world is a lot more about altruism and working for common good than the big, bad corporate world would ever be; and on how one’s attitude makes all the difference in life. (The right attitude does matter! The Bhagavad Geeta says, one must perform one's duty sincerely, responsibly, and live life in accordance to one's means, position and status. And yet, one must remain detached from the fruits of one's labour, expecting nothing in return. This is the key to true happiness. Also, comparing oneself to others beyond a limit is extremely injurious as it leaves one unhappy and dissatisfied, always wanting some more. This hinders the path of progress to the great heights that one can reach in life. Please don't do that!). As I rattled away in the same vein, my exasperated friend suddenly pointed out that I had been behind closed doors in the research field for too long and was looking at the world outside from the very same keyhole all the while. Said my worthy friend unto me,

*Slap!* Silenced me at that word, it did! Hard though it was to accept this fact (oh, the egoistic “I” gets in the way!), I had definitely not looked at things from any other perspective than my own. Even more shameful because scientific training teaches that no single view be overlooked. I remained silent for the rest of the conversation, giving things a deep thinking-over. Although I still stand by what I said, I am looking at things from various angles now. I am no longer one of the three blind men describing the elephant, each from his own point of view, as the old story goes.

But that's not all there is to life. There are those extremely painful times when life punches one real hard; not once, not twice, but thrice, Hindi daily soap ishtyle! *Punch! Kick! Punch!* Life knocking the life out of you! This is especially true when one tries to get one’s own way in life: life punches back even harder. The only recourse then is to let life take its course.

Does that mean one gives in without a fight? Absolutely NOT! One does not give in! Fighting to get one’s way in life is indeed a very unique fight. Extremely difficult no doubt, but exhilarating to the very core. I quite enjoyed mine (but this is only in retrospect; back then it was very painful). One stands up for what it is one wants, puts up with a lot of resistance from all sides, learns to be soft, diplomatic and firm, all at the same time, trying best to ruffle as few feathers as possible as one treads on sensitive and delicate grounds. One keeps going despite all obstacles, keeping only the ultimate goal in mind. Hurdle after hurdle is leapt over, until the final hurdle is all that remains - the last bridge that separates one from one’s goal.

As one starts to walk across this bridge, one is forced to look back. For some, the road traversed holds very little, the future holds a lot of promise. And for some, it is a lonely route. Although the traversed road has let go of its obstacles, the road ahead doesn't reassure. There are no signs of welcome, no acknowledgements of the efforts put in, not even subtle hints... anywhere. One dips into the past and searches the present, but comes up empty-handed, both times. That is when one stops - and thinks - has it been worth all the effort? Realization dawns. The true path is chosen by the ability to love it, not suffer for it. In life, many-a-time, the hardest and the right decision are one and the same. One slowly turns and starts walking back. The fight ends.

Is one disappointed? Yes, naturally. Hurt? A lot, obviously. Regrets? None what-so-ever. When one gives one’s best shot and does all that can possibly be done, leaving no stone upturned, there are no regrets. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. One rests assured in the knowledge that one has at least tried.

Like they say, " Take risks.  If you win, you will be happy. If you lose, you will be wise."

Post Script: Life is like the ever-popular, much-loved Konkani appetizer ‘सोल कडी’ – आम्शे, तिक्शे, मिट्शे, गोड्शे – sour, spicy, salty and sweet - all at the same time. One must learn to accept, appreciate and enjoy it in its varying tastes and flavours; only then can one digest life’s offerings and let out a satisfied burp. This, I am learning to do.