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Many Indian women now aspire to a PhD in their field. A chilling true story on what women doing a PhD need to be prepared for.
I belong to a small middle class family from Kolkata. I was good at studies, so my parents supported me in all possible ways to build my career. I have now been married for four years, to a very supportive husband. We stay in Bangalore and I work here as PhD scholar in the biggest Neuro-science institute of India.
Sounds great? The journey behind it was not as simple as it sounds in the last few lines. Women aspiring for a good career have to pay the cost in turn, in our society.
It was 2008. I had completed my M.Sc. I scored well in GATE 2009 and was willing to sign up for a PhD.
I joined in the Department of Pharm Tech at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, which is one of the most renowned universities in India. I started with small projects on animal studies and drug trials there. I was dedicated to my research. Perhaps the dedication turned out to be an issue with my research guide, who was too busy in marketing the drugs under trials in the lab and heading towards great profit.
Several times I had to give an entirely modified report from the trials, whereas the actual results were completely different. I started concentrating on my thesis work. My guide was satisfied with my work, research papers, presentations but not with the honest approach. I worked without a penny for 21 months taking a pledge that I will surely complete my research. But people were there to make profits and be famous in the clinical field effortlessly by paying the companies, and not by good quality research.
I knew he was wrong in each and every way, and yet I used to work hard, beg other labs for scientific help, wait outside his chamber for hours to discuss the experiment-results, while he was doing so called ‘time pass’, prepare tea for his guests, clean the lab, maintain computers, and what not. I did whatever writing or personal jobs he gave but never ever received the real guidance for research! His only answer to all my queries was “Google it”.
It was darkness in front of me. Once I started to raise my voice against the wrongs going on around me and ended up with arguments. According to him, these were the results of my mental frustration as I was an unmarried lady. I left the lab, and the work remained incomplete.
The effort and time I spent will never come back, but the lesson I learnt will remain with me. We should be careful of such people who will intentionally utilize you and your efforts if you want a degree from them.
The story does not end there. I accumulated all my patience; prepared for NET Life Sciences examination and qualified in Feb 2012 with a Government. fellowship. In all this, I shouldn’t miss mentioning that my spouse has supported me wholeheartedly. I got married to him in April 2012 and in the whole family, my husband was the only one who truly wanted me to join the PhD again.
Due to his job change we had to shift to Bangalore and another journey started. After we reached, my husband traveled to the US in 2 days. So, the whole responsibility of survival was upon me now. Although, language and the city was totally new, I managed to get a small flat and amenities for us to set up a ‘home’.
I searched for PhD positions in many research institutes and finally joined my institute. Again, life changed color. This guide could have given tough competition to my previous guide! Again I have seen how girls are utilized by the senior Professors. I worked hard, and he presented my data without acknowledging me. I was ordered not to visit home in Kolkata for more than 2/3 days in a year, whereas the Government has provided 30 leaves for that.
He was busy with everything else except research and could not finalize a PhD topic for me. He used to shout, humiliate, exploit, lie and accuse me of imaginary wrong, in spite of my doing whatever academic or non-academic jobs he assigned. He never respected women and used to taunt, insult, force, torture without reason. It was not physical harassment, but mental torture also counts as a crime.
Situation was intolerable, and my small family life was in trouble due to my distress. The day he taunted about my husband, I was quite sure what I needed to do. I have raised my voice against him and with the help of the higher authorities, I changed my guide to a lady Professor.
These phases of my life forced me to wonder whether I am incapable of adjusting. But actually capability is there in every human; they only need to meet the right person. My present guide and I are both happy with each other. My research is going on steadily as I am still the same dedicated student.
Now, I love my institute as it has taught me a lot of things. If women plan for a PhD in India I will suggest to think twice, increase your patience and tolerance. (Never assume that only male guides take advantage, as some female guides can be even more horrible.) So before you plunge into research, study the guides thoroughly.
A pathetic truth in India is that Government scholarships never get sanctioned on time. I received my first fellowship amount after 2 years of work, and the amount was for only 11 months. It feels very low, when you have to raise your hands in front of parents or your husband in spite of being well-educated. I could never be with my parents when they were in huge financial need due to this issue.
Apart from financial issues, family issues are even larger for women here. When you get married, expectations are different from you as the ‘daughter-in-law’. In our country, women are there to give birth and bring up kids, in any religion, race or community. So, the majority will not like you if you choose to build a career in research, where dedication and time is a must.
I have seen relationships broken, and weddings get cancelled, as the girl is more educated than the engineer guy. Thus, find a good life partner, who will never be egoistic or jealous of you and will support you in all situations. Moreover, never get demoralized, when you have to tolerate taunts and comments from the family.
Others will not realize the happiness you find in your research and the value of time and cost you paid for it. So, don’t give explanations, just tolerate wrong attitudes. The best thing that happened to me ever is my husband and my love for education. They changed me entirely to become a strong, responsible human being. Educate yourself and the best thing you can give your child, if you have one, is ‘Education’.
image of female scientist via Shutterstock
I feel your pain and the years of frustration of wasting your potential. This is the same story for a lot of talented researchers who pursue a PHd from a government run university or institute. There are a few good and principled guides (both male and female) out there but our pathetic system with a rotten majority, corrupts so quickly that these good ones soon- either have their hands tied or are victimised to the point that they are pushed down or out of the hierarchy and have no say in most matters. Government funded research has thus sadly become a field that lags behind and often can be dubious too. I had a wonderful guide but due to motherhood I had to postpone completion of my phd. When I was able to return -the head of the department I was doing my scholarship under was so well known to be a misogynist and megalomaniac. I did not have the will to continue -knowing full well that despite having a supportive guide, I would face hurdles at every point. So I gave up my dream of doing a PHd.
Hii Really sad hearing your story. A large numbers of students who has potential to commence a good research and contribute the country give up due to these nasty politics in all Govt academic institutes. Some of them write GRE and run away from here. But some people like us who can not afford that suffer, and struggle. I have seen lot more like this. One of my cousin sister and her brother both had suffered with the issues with guides. In one case guide was supportive for all the work she did, but finally snatched all the data to publish in her own name. Shame on our system. You know here people don’t try to grow by themselves, and moreover try to prevent others than growing. They have eyes on what other faculty or scholar is doing. India would have reached in top 10 countries in research if the scientists would have concentrated in enriching their own skills. For my research when I needed some small helps I mailed some 10 investigators across our country hardly one of them bothered to reply as “NO”, and others never responded, whereas I have got better responses from foreign researchers…. this is our country!!!!
Try hard to give new turns to your dreams, not giving up, though i know it is truly all about luck, time and hard work. But should not repent later in your life.
Hi Shayanki! This is a well-written article, perfectly describing the plight of our education system. I highly appreciate your honesty, integrity and dedication to your PhD studies. Indeed the PhD journey itself is highly challenging and at many times can be extremely stressful. To make things worse, having an uncooperative guide will defenitely make life miserable.
Yes, I agree many PhD Supervisors in India lack research knowledge, ethical considerations and at times are insensitive to their students. However, it is the system that converts them like that, with the likelihood that they had PhD supervisors with the similar approach. Honest Supervisors are not valued, appreciated or encouraged in the system.
I think that Masters students should have a paper on research ethics and authorship included in their curriculum. Or it could be included in their Research Methodology paper. This will make them aware of their rights as a PhD student and give them a better voice. During my Masters Dissertation I was unaware of my rights, had no knowledge about Authorship, or about divided contribution to publication.
That was 2 years ago anyway, I am now in Auckland studying my PhD.
All the best Shayanki and keep up the great work!
Actually you are right this research concepts should be understood in Master degrees and then only they can be a proper researcher
A very true post, as I have heard and witnessed the plights of students trying to finish their Ph.d studies within the stipulated time( my cousins are doing their Ph.d – one has finished with her thesis and another cousin is still in the process). As you said, a lot of patience is required. The most frustrating part is the callous nature of the guides. They rarely help their students. A student in India requires a minimum of six years to complete P.hd whereas in abroad, one takes only 3 years. Your post is so true. All are aware of the discrepancies too yet we need to gulp it down.
I wish you well and all the very best dear.
Hi, I too have plans to enroll for phD. I am 38 years old and have a 3 year old kid. Reading this article makes more indecisive, whether or not to take the plunge.
That was a wonderful and honest story. I am sure many women will be able to connect with it. That’s for speaking up
With international experience, it is worth mentioning that these are unfortunately the harsh realities of PhD not only in India but anywhere in the world for an academic. The manifestation might differ from country to country but the essence is the same everywhere.
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