When I Was Told ‘Doing PhD Will Take Away Your Fertile Years’… But I Persevered

It is hard to make family understand that experiments need their own time, and cannot be 'adjusted' for their needs. This is difficult for women who are caregivers or who are expected to sacrifice for the family.

“You will get through beta … Let us try”, my mom was pacifying me as soon as my medical entrance results were out.

I was sitting right next to the computer and already in tears looking at my rank in the exam. I was sure that my dream of becoming a doctor is shattered. I did not look behind and I knew my mother was standing just there consoling me. I knew she is struggling daily to meet our basic requirements and already taking on additional work after my father’s death. I knew that our family will not be left with any money if I try admission to a private medical college.

My grandparents and mother were ready to do anything they could and they knew I had the potential to excel in any field I will go.

The question of my ‘marriageable age’

Becoming a doctor was already in my bucket list, but I chose a different path. I decided to take up pure biological science as an undergraduate course and pursue a master’s and PhD, a path which no one in my family ever tried. They just knew that scientists are crazy, moreover, they only know male scientists like Newton and Einstein. Therefore they were skeptical about me performing any experiments and doing difficult calculations.

“BSc.. are you crazy? This doesn’t pay!” “Who will marry just a graduate who won’t have a job?” “What’s the future?”

These were the questions which started pouring from all friends and acquaintances. The common was “You also need to get married and have a family. Doing a PhD will take away all your fertile years.”

All these questions literally ruined my initial days in my college but my mom was very strong support during these times. I slowly regained my confidence and completed graduation with flying colors. I moved across cities for master’s and stayed in a hostel on my own. I was absolutely sure that the next stop is PhD and I worked hard to clear exams to secure admission in good research institutes.

I received a fellowship for the PhD and my research career began in a completely unknown city. My mother had to hear many comments for sending me so far away, however, she was amazingly strong to put her foot down and ask them not to interfere.

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Adjusting to the new environment was a challenge for a girl like me who came from a quaint village. The first setback I faced was the taboo of being a girl researcher. Most of the people around me were sure that I was doing a PhD just to ‘kill time’ before I find a ‘good match’.

Unfortunately, PhD in experimental biology lab required 5 years of experimental work and was a full time residence program. I started this journey when I was 23 years old.

Life in academia is designed for men and is extremely misogynist

Most of the girls get married about this time or during the course of PhD. The first indirect requirement for working in the lab was not to have any ‘commitments’ till the initial research years were over. While I was extremely sure of focussing on my work till I get tangible results, the perspectives of the people in male-dominated research areas started getting to me. I constantly faced raised eyebrows if any professor preferred me over other male researchers. I was always underrated in my approach as a scientist, and it was a long way struggle to prove that girls can also think about a problem scientifically. However, as a woman, I had learnt to be more patient and calm, therefore can receive obstacles in research better.

I realized that the entire research industry is male-dominated.

  • There are no chances given to a woman who wants to balance their work and life.
  • Women are not only paid less but also find it hard to avail of facilities such as maternity leave, returning from the break, or child care.
  • Five years is a long time and this commitment is difficult for many girls especially if their family doesn’t support them.

However, I was fortunate to complete my PhD before I got married.

We need better women-centric policies for women in academia

Unfortunately, PhD is not the end of any career but the beginning and it’s a struggle to let people know that research isn’t a clerical job that is over after office hours. Especially it is hard to make people understand that experiments are time bound and they do not see a calendar for their execution.

This is difficult for all women who still are primary caregivers at home. I was among the ‘lucky’ lot to have a supportive environment, and therefore I continue to work in the research field.

The field still requires more women-centric policies and fair payment to both genders. We need more options to continue research across multiple locations so that women don’t need to leave the mainstream research if they have to move with their families.

Above all this, I think the world needs to be sensitized for the job of researchers in general.

After the COVID pandemic, we already are aware that biological research is key. However, to include women in mainstream research, we need more girls to come to the field, and better models in front of them who have already worked as scientists without compromising any of their personal life.

I strongly believe that research is natural to all strata of science and art which do not specifically come to only one gender. Being firm about your decision and believing in your capabilities help stand apart in any career zone.

Image source: Getty Images Free for Canva Pro

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