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.



Badri said...

Congrats, hardwork definitely pays!

Biddu said...

Nice post...visited your blog after a long time. I so very much identify myself with this post...I guess successful advisors have a similar model to push students to their limits. Looking for jobs from 1st year to know what skills the prospective employers want is a great strategy! I should have done that...

Best of luck for your proposal defense!

Dipayan (DeepDiveR) said...

ekhon kothaye? ki korcho? mone pore?