My Ph.D Journey: I Was Asked What Use It Was When I Would Be Making Rotis…

A man doing a PhD is rebuked for not earning well. A woman on other hand is constantly questioned why she's doing a PhD when she should have been married and raising kids.

Indians have an almost fanatic obsession with the salutation Dr. Even a child who barely understands the world around, when asked “what you want to become later in life?” usually blurts out a teacher or a doctor, as these are the professionals we first encounter early on in our lives.

I too, was fascinated with the white coat fascination alongside with the Dr tag, right from childhood. However, I did not score the marks required for getting into medical college, and my dream landed on the ground with a thud, and I went in for a graduation in sciences.

My graduation and post-graduation were a roller coaster ride and a second post-graduation which I pursued since I wanted to get into the academic career brought with itself a new perspective towards life. That year I shone like the brightest star and became the most meritorious student of the campus. I cleared my Net exam much before the post-graduation results were declared, and became a sort of sensation in the university.  One of my professors remarked, “So we see the next doctor in making now” when he congratulated me.

But I soon realised that a PhD wouldn’t be a cakewalk!

This was the déjà vu moment for me. Did I hear right? Doctor me… again.. Can it happen…. Will I get the doctor tag? Oh wow!

It looked like my wishes were going to be fulfilled, and I jumped into the world of research. My aim now was to gain a PhD degree and finally see the Dr in front of my name.

Hold it before you start swirling and whirling with me in this magnificent trance: I soon realized that a PhD was no joke.

First, unlike the other degrees where you always have a bunch of classmates to share your pain and of course the frustrations, anxieties and tensions related to the study part, in PhD you are on your own. Your PhD guide mentors you, but nothing is served on a platter. Every idea I had for my topic, which I thought was most unusual, novel and out of box, hit the dust soon as I stumbled upon innumerable brilliant and better conceptualizations of those ideas when I did a review of related literature.

The world expects you to earn while you research!

By the time I finally settled with the title of my research, my post-graduation classmates had completed probationary periods in their jobs and were coming with boxes of mithai. I was still taking pocket money from my parents and saving every penny to invest in my research.

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Doing a Ph.D without a scholarship is not something that is appreciated much. Once in a particular age bracket, not earning is unacceptable. The constant comparison and rebukes often compels the Ph.D scholars to desperately seek scholarships. This way one can sustain longer in the pursuit for research and most importantly escape the irk and ridicule of people gauging the Ph.D scholars on scale of  money earning capability.

Scholarships do not come easy and are restrictive in terms of age many a times. I was just a few months away from the cut-off age criteria for the scholarship I was vying for when I got the interview call for it.  The day of interview made me realize that a junior research fellowship with leading apex level bodies is a dream of all Ph.D scholars.

The competition is stiff with the other candidates contending seeming more knowledgeable than the other and looking desperate. My interactions with them hit hard the earlier shallow thinking about research in terms of the Dr tag.

The scholarship interviews are tough to crack, with a jury of almost 20 panellists. I braved all the questions which were shot by each one of them like the wounded hero of our films heroically facing all bullets and still remaining unscathed. An introspection and self-reflection post interview prompted me to go back and look for a job.  Destiny has its own twists and voila I got the scholarship. A feat in itself as I was amongst the very few who secured it. The money was good and the contingency attractive to keep the scholar motivated.

Some of the relatable struggles of all scholarship getting Ph.D. students is receiving the said amount on time. Scholarship grants on time are a rather unconventional phenomenon.  The paper work required to claim scholarships is quite comparable to a mini thesis. If research is not enough to burn one out, paper work for scholarship would definitely do the needful.

You are your only true friend!

Half way though a Ph.D. makes one philosophical enough to understand –You are your only true friend.  Life of Ph.D. scholar is quite lonesome as one has to enjoy one’s own company most times.

Long hours alone in the library with head dug deep into the journals or experimenting alone in a laboratory with instruments as the only company sums up how most days are spend. Frustrations surface often as some days the brain revolts and shut its doors on everything. Other days lady luck smiles as one gets the desired results or research articles more difficult to get than the Kohinoor diamond.

Churning out rotis versus a Ph.D

Ph.D has its own share of pressures on account of gender differences in our society.

A man is constantly rebuked for not earning well and whiling away time doing research. The world doesn’t understand most times and hardly cares what contribution the research is going to make. For most, a research scholar is sitting idle twiddling thumbs and aiming for nothingness. A woman on other hand is constantly questioned why she’s doing a Ph.D at a stage she should have been married and raising kids.

My parents though supportive had to answer a barrage of questions from people regarding my marriage. The biggest objection of society was that with a Ph.D. degree the ‘groom finding mission’ would have limited choices. I kept hearing remarks like what’s the use of Ph.D. as ultimately you will be churning out rotis.

There were also times when my ‘reproductive age’ would be commented on. At this age you should have been a mother and planning for a second one.  A woman is associated only in terms of her eggs and ovary and how she has to prioritize them over anything else. Many times I wanted to scream loud saying I will freeze my eggs and have lot of research evidence supporting this venture.

The gender of your guide in Ph.D

Gender of the guide is another cause of concern. Society spares a women Ph.D scholar who has a female guide. The ones with a male guide are under scrutiny. Any successful academic accomplishments of theirs have to pass the acid test as their successes are attributed to the ‘wiles’ of their gender.

I was spared by the society on account of having a female guide. I could work late in the nights in the lab or visit my guide at unearthly hours without raising eyebrows.

A road full of hurdles – no one understands you; even less your in-laws

Research road is full of frustrations and anxious moments especially at times when the data analysis leads one to stumble upon an unanticipated findings or an outlier. Harsh fact is that nobody understands the nuances of your research as well as you do, and can just offer occasional shoulder to cry on.

I got married post my data analysis phase. My chapters readied had to just get assembled in the thesis. The euphoria of the initial phases of marriage and the overindulgence in household responsibility somehow managed to comatose the researcher in me. One year passed and my thesis was not submitted though it required only assembling the chapters.

Finally I went for a month to my parents’ house to complete my thesis. I realised how different it is to be in your parents’ house as a woman. I realised that for a woman, parental support to accomplish anything in life is most crucial. I shudder to think how married women cope with research. Unfortunately in our country very few women get the right encouragement and backing post marriage to pursue studies, research and even job. Once you get children the struggles multiply.

Eventually the time of Viva and open defence is another milestone in the life of a Ph.D scholar. The focus here is not only on the research presentations but also on kind of refreshments to be given to the attendees and the gifts to be bestowed on the external referee.

Another harsh fact – people would remember more the refreshments than your research work.

The Dr tag is a salutation to be respected

Finally the day came when the Dr salutation was in front of my name and yes by this time I had learnt that it’s not simply a salutation but holds tremendous value.

Of course to be very frank I realised that a Dr earned with a Ph.D should not be equated with a Dr before your name earned in medical college. There is a vast difference as a Ph.D. cannot save a life at a crucial point. Since then I have been sceptical regarding the use of Dr as my salutation. Something that I craved all my life, I now never put it there on my own. The official documents mention me as a Dr but I shy away from putting it myself.

An incident where my salutation led helpless relatives of someone in a plane to approach me to give urgent medical attention left me shaken. I decided to respect the salutations but not use it indiscreetly.

Women multitask while doing Ph.D

When I look back at my journey towards attaining a Ph.D., I realise that I was amongst the very few women who got the support to pursue their dreams.

Whenever now I meet a women doing a Ph.D. or has done one, I congratulate them a couple of times. For I know that the journey, on account of their gender, must have been a very tough one. To reach the pinnacle, women multitask and hence their achievements are much to be celebrated.

To sum it all up – a Ph.D journey for me helped in my own awakening. It made me proud of myself and love myself to the core. This feeling has not left me since then, and contributes tremendously to make me feel better whenever my self-esteem receives a blow.

Image source: the author

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About the Author

Dr Pooja Birwatkar

I am a post doctorate in social sciences, specializing in education and a professor at Somaiya Vidyavihar University. My areas of expertise are Research , Life skills and Management of Education. I am a voracious reader read more...

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