Saturday, January 26, 2013

Some light at the end of a tunnel vision

The latter part of this week has been significant in many ways, and overwhelming, to say the least. By Wednesday, I was told that I have passed my comprehensive exams, clearing the stage 3 in my 5-stage PhD. I was snowed in on Thursday, and I wrote my first page of dissertation sitting in my sunny kitchen. By Friday, I had already met with the adviser, finalized my dissertation research question, formed my PhD committee, and set up a date for my defense proposal. Knowing the bearings of academic life, I wouldn’t be surprised if all this took weeks, but ever since I have returned home from Calcutta, I have immersed myself with my hunger to analyze data and get my dissertation rolling. I have five conference presentations in the US and (possibly) Canada in the next eight months. I still do not have a job, but I have been prolific in my job search. Needless to say, things look very busy, but things look optimistic too.

When a friend called to congratulate me Wednesday night, I told her that passing the comprehensives was never an issue, that it was doing a stellar job that was the challenge. For one, my adviser would not let me take the exams if he did not think that I was ready. She said that was not the case everywhere. She had anecdotal stories of people she knew who got thrown out of the PhD program right after their comprehensives. There were no statistics to back up what she said, but things went wrong nevertheless, especially if you did not get along with your adviser, if your adviser was not tenured and was competing with you for publications, or if your adviser did not have your best interests in mind. So many anecdotal stories of advisers making you mow their lawns, care for their pets, and spend Sundays in lab make it into PhD tea table discussions. At the end of our conversation, I was left with a sense of gratitude for the person who has pushed me so far.

Bear no misconception that I have had it easy. It is an intense program, and this is my 29th month running. While the average guy dreams of getting out in 5 or 6 years, maybe 4, I am doing it in a few months short of 3 years. Does this mean I am doing half the work that someone in a 6-year PhD program does? No. On the contrary, I am doing the same work at double the speed. Does this mean I was exempt from taking courses, since I had two masters degree already? The answer is no again. Since I made a major shift in field from biological science to social science, I was required to take every course. In 4 semesters (2 years), I completed 54 credits of coursework that roughly translates to 18 courses, or 4.5 courses/semester. Most of these courses were hardcore, grueling methodological courses, statistical data analysis, qualitative data analysis, data management, you name it. Then there was research, there were conference presentations. There were papers written for publication, and the first one is in press after revisions. There was networking. I am even in charge of running a project as an administrator. And all this was made possible because of the right training.

I started looking for jobs right from the end of first year of my PhD. You would wonder why. I was looking, not applying. The requirements for these potential jobs gave me an idea of what potential employees are looking for. It helped me tailor my PhD to take the right courses, learn the right statistical software, and prepare myself for the job market. Of course I did not have this perspective, but my adviser did. And bear no misconception that he is the nicest man sitting in his office and advising lost people like me. He is extremely successful and hence busy, almost a grant churning machine, with seldom any patience for mistakes or stupidity, and is the last person who will sing praises of you. For me, there were disagreements, there were bitter conversations, there were tears, and self-doubt, and times when I wanted to give up. I did not know why he was so hard on me, why he would criticize my work, why he would make relentless academic demands. Of course I see the point now. There were times when he was not in the best of his mood, and it was an ordeal talking to him. I am still somewhat terrified of him, but now, I have enough of a research agenda to be able to move independently and not look up to him for his approval every time. The person who has been so critical of my work was the same person who was sitting amongst the audience when I made my first presentation at an international conference last year. Every time a person asked a question to prove how smart he is and how dumb I am, my adviser would jump to my rescue, leveling him down. He has been fiercely critical of me in office and fiercely protective of me outside. The point is, he cared, and he still does.

So back to my point, what little I have achieved is mostly attributed to my hard work, and to my adviser, who steered me in the right direction, who had the foresight of putting me in challenging situations, and most importantly, who had the vested interest to see me succeed, and graduate on time. Advising is somewhat of a parenting relationship, with the difference that we choose our advisers. However, we seldom know what we are getting into when we choose our universities, our programs, or our advisers. So there is no point in saying, choose wisely. However, it is critical that you pick up those little nuggets of wisdom people throw at you every now and then- your adviser, other professors, colleagues, seniors, and contemporaries. On this thought, I need to go and get some more work done.  

I took the picture this morning from the window by my study as I wrote this post. The snow and ice hasn't melted yet.


Saturday, January 12, 2013

Day 7: Location

January 12th, 2013

As I have started applying for jobs, the two most important and only things that are governing my job search is, the kind of work and location. To me, location is very important. I prefer living in larger cities. If it is a small city, I prefer it being close to a large city. Then I want to live somewhere that is not snowed in most of the year. I hate being cold, having to spend 30 minutes heating up my car and scrapping off the ice before I take out the car every time. Then, I will prefer living along the coast, east or west. I would really prefer not to live in the middle of the country, amidst corn fields and all. Proximity to the mountain or the sea is an added plus. Talking about proximity, a local airport nearby is a real must. Ask me about the pain of asking people for airport rides, especially if they are more than an hour away. You will be amazed that as a professional, how much connectivity to other places is important. It helps if the place is pretty, and has a lot of history, rolling fields, and pretty locations nearby. Most importantly, I want to live in a place where I can connect to the people around me. Being a single woman in a foreign country, thousands of miles away from family, I take my location very seriously. You see, I am not really looking for an area flooded with Indians, people like me. I don’t crave for the bay area in California or Chicago for the same reason. But having an Indian grocery store nearby doesn’t hurt. Having a nearby place to be able to order Biryani doesn’t hurt either. It will be nice to live somewhere I can cultivate my hobbies, being able to have writing groups, photography clubs, or hiking groups. And having my favorite stores (Macy’s, Trader Joe’s, Ikea, etc.) at least 1-2 hours away may not hurt.

You must be wondering what is wrong with me. In this shitty economy, it is a blessing to have a job, and beggars should not be choosers. I agree. However, work is a part of my life, it is not my entire life. There are some 12-15 hours in my daily life when I do not work. To ensure that I am efficient at my job, it is very important that I am mentally happy during the rest of the day. I know that my class cohort is applying to every possible job, and will leave no stone unturned, willing to relocate anywhere. However, this is a risk I am willing to take. I have done it in the past, and I am doing it again. After all, you just need one acceptance offer at the end of the day. I did not go to Ann Arbor (being a top ranking school) because it is extremely cold in winters, and I did have an offer from another equally ranked school. A few years later, I did not go to Bloomington for the same reason. I have taken risks based on locations, and I have been lucky so far. Even now, I am not applying to places like Greeley, Pullman, and Murfreesboro (despite job openings) because I don’t see myself living in these places. Well, I wouldn’t say never because you never know, but given a choice, I would like to live in more well known and well connected places. Some of these places I haven’t even heard of. I don’t want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles away from my friends. It’s about safety, but it is also largely about mental well being. Taking anti-depressants will be the last thing on my agenda ever. Some of my friends think that I am crazy, but then, it is about me, and not about them.

In life, it is very important to know what is it that you want. And even if you don’t know that, it might be important to figure out what is it that you definitely don’t want. God, I just want some luck.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Day 6: Knowing it all

January 11, 2013

Sometime back, I was meeting a group of friends when something came up and one of them said, “What Bernie Madoff did was awful.” Honestly, I had never even heard of him before that day, let alone know what awful thing he had done. I don’t think anyone judged me for not having heard of him, but myself. When I came back and looked him up, I could only wonder why I hadn’t heard of him before. In fact, I didn’t even know how his name is spelled, and I struggled to look up the right person on the net. And then Wikipedia showed me the light.

Ever since, I have made it a point to ensure that I don’t look stupid in front of people. Sure, it is not possible for someone to know it all, but it is criminal not to stay abreast of the current affairs. Never again have I told anyone that I don’t like reading the news. It’s more important to know something about everything than know everything about something.

The problem is, I never grew up being encouraged to read news. My father religiously kept himself updated on the ongoing of the world and was stereotyped as “that guy who never shares the newspaper and spends hours reading it.” My mother on the other hand would scour the paper to look for information on movies, cookery, and fashion. And I heard this a lot from others, “I don’t even read the newspaper these days, the current state of the world depresses me.” However, how do you hang out with a group of smart, intelligent people when you cannot make a decent conversation with them? My evolution in this case was certainly need-based.

It is not just important to know it all, it is also important to have an opinion about things. Of course this comes with time and practice. But when there is so much to read about, how does one filter things? My areas of interest include literature, Bollywood, science, photography, scrabble, and solving puzzles, in no particular order. However, knowing a lot about your interest area is not enough, especially if you are targeting to launch yourself in the job market. You need to be able to make conversation with a wider audience. You might meet a group of people talking about Chanel perfumes, Bofors scandal, gun legislation, avocado salad recipes, and Pulitzer prize winners in the same room. How do you mingle with everyone if you do not know a little bit of everything?

So I make sure that I at least skim through the news headlines daily. Washington Post, Huffington Post, Drudge Report, The Chronicles of Higher Education, are some of the usual suspects. Then there is merit in knowing the best places in town to dine, wine, or go around (Yelp helps me with that). My adviser has an interesting theory about skimming through large chunks of information, he compares it to eating a bowl of rice. You need not chew your way through every morsel, every grain. It is enough to do some basic chewing. I really like his analogy.

So never shy away from knowing the world around you, because everything will affect you, directly or indirectly. Pay attention to what people are talking about, in cocktail parties, on Facebook, etc. And make Wikipedia your best friend. With all those resources the internet provides, there is no excuse, absolutely no excuse for being ignorant.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Day 6: A new office

January 10, 2013

I have a new office now, an off-campus one. And the best thing about it, other than having lots of space, sunshine, and the shopping mall with restaurant options nearby is, parking is free and I can drive to work. Don’t get me wrong, I have never hated taking the bus. In sunshine and cold and rain, I have waited for the bus for the last 2.5 years here, with my satchel and books and coat and food dabba. I have made acquaintances in the bus, and some of them take the same bus at the same time with the amazing predictability. These are people I nod and smile at everyday, without knowing who they are. But taking the car gives me a pseudo sense of happiness that this is my job life, and not my student life. I no longer have to wait for the bus. I can carry as many things as I want to without having to plan. So I set out in the mornings, throw my bags in the car, switch on some radio station, and drive away nodding my head to music. I used to do that when I worked in Seattle, I even sipped a cuppa mocha from Starbucks some days. Now I am trying to give up caffeine and save for the rainy day, hence the coffee is gone. Once there, I park my car, spring up to the lobby, take the elevator upstairs, and get to my office, all in a span of less than 10 minutes. It’s all new and exciting now, I am sure it will all fade with time. Earlier, my office was in the middle of the building, with no windows. Now, I have a big window overlooking the street, and I can look at the bare tree trunks and the winding roads in the winter. It’s amazing, how much thrill a little bit of change once in a while brings you.


Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Day 4: Aggression

January 8th, 2013

The incredible amount of aggression that drives people around me is just astounding. I see it not only in professors yearning to get tenure, but in students targeting to get that perfect grade, graduating students yearning to get that perfect job, fellow gym buddies targeting to lose those pounds and attain the perfect figure, and so on. An acquaintance recently told me that he applied for a hundred different jobs while he is completing his PhD. Even if he was exaggerating, I am sure the number was no less than fifty. Now how many jobs do you need at the end of the day? Just one.

What worries me about aggression is the fact that I don’t think I have enough of it in me. I mean, I am still doing the things that I wanted to, living independently, (still) getting an education, driving a car, traveling the world, applying for jobs, and trying to lose those extra pounds at the gym. However, I am only too happy to smell the roses, wake up to a carefree life, enjoy the sun and the breeze, take pictures, write a poem or two, and watch that favorite movie again and again. I try not to live life off a checklist- Visit Paris. Run a marathon. Shed 20 pounds before Christmas. Get a $125k/year job. You get the picture, right?

In life, it is very important to push oneself beyond one’s comfort zone. We would never have been what we are if we did not leave our comfort zones, pushed ourselves to excel, learned that new programming language, run that new statistical analysis, and so on. But how do we decide what is pushing oneself and what is being aggressive? Where do we draw the line? I am not assigning a value or a judgment to being aggressive. But I worry about what if it is not in me? What if being happy go lucky turns out to be intellectually fatal? I wonder if it is specifically a trait for people working in the US, or if my brethrens in other parts of the world feel the aggression building in them too. And while I mull over this, I know it is time to polish up that CV, publish another research paper, go to another conference, start networking aggressively, get a paid membership at LinkedIn, spend a fortune on formal clothes, anything to get myself a job here. Preferably a very high paying job.

And as usual, we run out of life as we struggle to make a living.


Friday, January 04, 2013

Day 3: The three ingredients- sunshine, food, and socializing

January 3rd, 2013

I rarely suffer from jetlag when I go back to India. However, for the last 2 days here in the US, I have been severely jetlagged. On day 1, I fell asleep at noon and woke up at midnight, after 12 straight hours. When I woke up, I seriously thought that I was dead, since I never ever remember getting sleeping uninterrupted for half a day. On day 2, I tried keeping myself awake for a while, went to work, did some grocery, and fell asleep by 7 pm. I woke up exactly at midnight and have been up ever since. On day 1, I did not even have the energy to do grocery, and on day 2, I had no energy to cook. This is surprising, given I faced no such problems in India. I landed in Calcutta in the evening, had a heavy dinner, and went to sleep. I woke up at 5 am, and throughout my stay, I kept waking up at 5 am every day, weekdays and weekends. Mine was a sleep regime I would love to emulate in the US. So what went wrong here? Here is my theory- the three basic ingredients that keep us happy and kicking.


Flying eastward, I was usually in broad daylight most of the time. Whereas when flying westward, I started from Dubai at around midnight, and then saw darkness for 17 hours straight. As I looked at the world map projected on the screen, I realized that the sun chased me almost for the entire duration. Only when I was an hour away from landing in the US did I see some sunshine. Now my body is confused, because whenever I wake up, it is dark outside.


I never had to worry about procuring food in India. Home cooked, nutritious food was always available, and that too, the kind of food I loved. I would have 2 breakfasts everyday (not 2 courses). Since I woke up early, my first breakfast was at 6 am. The second one was when everyone was having their breakfast, around 10 am. I refused to eat anything I ate in the US on purpose. For example, breakfast would never be milk and cereals; it would always be freshly made roti and subzee. I never ate burgers and fries in India, it would always be the food I grew up eating- baingan ka bharta, saag, chicken curry, anything. My body was happy, and so was my mind. I had no issues digesting anything, and despite having my fair share of street food like paani puri and chaat, I never fell ill. But what’s happened here? I barely have the energy to do grocery and cook, and have been mostly living on the peas paranthe mom packed for me, with some fruits and sweets. I can hear my system screaming in pain. Sleep eludes me thus as I struggle to get my eating right.


No matter how much I hate nosy neighbors and pesky people in India, there is something valuable to learn about the socialization culture there. With my roommate gone, I end up not speaking to anyone for hours. It is too late to call anyone by the time I wake up at midnight. So I have been calling my mom and chatting up a lot. Even the routine sounds of the newspaper person outside, the vendors selling fruits and vegetables, the maid chitchatting with you, or the next door neighbor visiting with a bowl full of sweets is missing. People are busy here, period. No one had the time to catch up with you unless it is a weekend,. Even in lab, the guy hugged me and wished me a happy new year and went back to work. The only audible sound was the clicking of the keys as we typed furiously on our respective laptops. And then the adviser came and asked me to respond to a dozen emails, another form of silent communication. Suddenly, my daily life has become so quiet, I long to hear a human voice, even if it that annoying neighbor next door wanting to know why I have put on so much weight or am not moving back to India.

So that is my theory about the reasons why I am having difficulty coping with jet lag in the US and am suffering in silence, in darkness, and on an empty stomach. I think I would do much better sleep wise if I was giving myself good food, lots of sunshine, and lots of opportunities to talk and vent my heart out. And that is why I am awake at 4 in the morning, furiously writing blogs. When I was young and inexperienced, I had no qualms about abusing my body, by skipping meals, depending on caffeine, staying up all night and studying, never working out, and so on. Over the years, I realized the importance of nurturing my body with the right ingredients (not just food) so that I could do well in what I was doing, remain calm, and feel happy and emotionally connected with myself. Ironically, I seemed way in shape then than I am now, although now I put more effort into eating and sleeping right, working out, hiking, reading and doing the right stuff, cleansing the mind and body, and staying out of issues that disturb me. Although I am suffering due to this jetlag, I am more conscious of my suffering than I used to be before. And while people in India smirk and scoff about the ease of my life in the US, I realize the immense challenge and responsibility that is associated with living alone and committing yourself to a healthy lifestyle without the support of family, mom’s love, and home cooked meals that appear miraculously and free of cost on the table. It is almost like magic, only if you believe in magic.

On a different note, here is a picture I took during my trip to Qutub Minar this time.


Thursday, January 03, 2013

Day 2: Feeling Driven

January 2nd, 2013
            As I landed to the familiar sights and smells of the US, the only question nagging me was, would I be able to drive after a 5 week long hiatus? In these 5 weeks, I had seen my share of rash driving in India, wondering how people drove without lanes, never bothered to check their blind spots, and rarely wore seat belts. I took a cab to where my car was parked, and as usual, got into a conversation with the cab driver. He summarized his life history in about 3 minutes, and asked me every possible question that I have ever been asked by a cab driver. Am I a student? Will I be a (medical) doctor? Did I get a full scholarship? Why was I single and living far away from home? The guy from Afghanistan had 7 more siblings back home, and never went back ever since he moved here years ago (I never ask why). And then he told me how he would drive the same route everyday, for 5 months, because his son was getting a heart surgery. He woke up at 4 am, drove 5-6 hours round trip, visiting his son at the hospital every day. He told me he decided against a heart transplant for Jamal. I told him it must be hard being a parent, watching your children suffer. I told him that I would never understand what he must have gone through. He told me that you learn to respect your parents more the day you have your children. And then I saw his eyes glitter as he dug the picture of Jamal on his iphone. I had expected him to be older, but Jamal had celebrated his first birthday 2 days ago. He looked like a bonny baby, a cute little bundle of smiles, the last person you would think needs a heart transplant. It’s amazing how everyone is coping in their life, including a 1 year old.

“Is Jamal your only son?”, I asked.

            The cab driver smiled sheepishly, and told me how you are not considered a man until you have a big family. Jamal was the third one. The fourth one is on his way in 2 weeks.

            He dropped me off to my car and left. I walked up to my car nervously, loaded my suitcases, and prayed that the engine had not died due to the cold weather. It took me about 20-30 minutes to feel normal on the roads again, while I drove slowly and nervously, got honked at a couple of times, and realized that I had forgotten I had to step on the gas and speed up. I was consistently driving 10-15 mph below the speed limit.

            Once I got comfortable behind the wheels, I started to admire the landscape and the freedom I had left behind. Despite many plusses that India is, low cab fares, being able to afford a driver, and so on, I always lived with a feeling of dependence in India, depending on someone else to drive me around. Sometimes the cab drivers refused to go where you wanted do, fleeced you, and argued. Even when hiring a car and being driven around, the fun of being behind the wheels was gone.

            I turned left on a highway at a certain point when I saw the car from the opposite flick his high beam lights at me. In the next 2 seconds, a flurry of thoughts crossed my mind. Did I forget to turn my headlights on? (It was broad daylight). Was the guy checking his own headlights? Was I speeding? Within 2 seconds, I spotted a cop car hidden in the bushes. I grinned from ear to ear, now realizing what the driver was trying to warn me about. Talk about skillful communication. Perhaps I should return the favor to someone someday.

            I reached home after 2.5 hours of traffic free driving. After putting away the food in the fridge, I switched off my phone and slept for 10 hours straight. I don’t really remember the last time I had slept this long.

            For the last two days, I haven’t been able to get the song “Matru ki bijlee ka mandola” out of my head. Seems like it is time to burn a new CD for my long drives.


Day 1: Bye Bye Dubai

January 1st, 2013

            When I finally reached the hotel room after seemingly hours of paperwork, waiting in lines, and figuring my way out, I had the choice of either crashing for the next few hours, or going outside hunting for some city exploration opportunities. With all the exhaustion from the previous flight, time differences, jet lag, and the overwhelming feeling of figuring things out, I was tempted to sink in the bed and go off to sleep. However, it felt like a crime to be in a new country for a few hours and not see it. So after what seemed like a long and torturing lunch buffet (torturing because it was the first meal I have had in a long time that was not home cooked), I went off to say hi to the lady at the kiosk selling tickets for the city tour. $30 did not seem bad at all for a four hour long trip; the real issue was compromising with sleep and rest.
            As the sun went down over the Persian Gulf, I stared at all the affluence, the impressive hotels, the gold and the glitter that Dubai was. The humongous roads, expensive cars, and exit signs had an unmistakable resemblance with the US. But here I was closer to India than I was to the US. This trip had been emotionally exhausting for more reasons than one, and unlike other times, I vaguely looked at the buildings and tourist points without much registering in. The physical pain that came from the exhaustion and sleeplessness was palpable. After four never ending long hours, I was only too happy to get back to my room, take a long shower, and sink into the bed. I had exactly one hour before I had to wake up and leave for the airport. I was deep asleep even before I knew.
            That was how the first day of 2013 happened to me. I should have been happy about visiting a new country, the 11th one for me. But nothing relieves me more than the prospect of hopping on to that long flight and going back home. Despite long hours of contemplation and reflection, I am unable to find that inner peace, that calm and composure that assures me that everything is in control. Something in me is at war, at a constant internal conflict. Something in me is dying every day, and I am clueless about what it is.
            (Scribbled in haste and in a dark mood from the Dubai airport. And the new year resolution is to pen down my thoughts more frequently. This blog is dying, and I hate to see it that way. Happy new year everyone).