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PhD demands immense dedication, perseverance, and support. For women, the challenges amplify, especially when they are balancing familial responsibilities alongside rigorous research.
Dreams. I always dreamt about holding a high degree in a significant field of research and technology. The pursuit of a doctoral degree was a step towards my dream. PhD has definitely added values in my career, and life. And I realized the worth walking down the finishing line. Not that I had wanted it all in one swift go, and definitely not how I achieved it undergoing this roller coaster ride.
But as they say, “all is well that ends well”. So, if anyone asks me today how do I feel about it, I say fantastic, with conditions applied*.
The journey began by enrolling myself in PhD when I expected it the least. The constant hormonal and emotional challenges were oscillating between ‘yes’ over ‘no’. Carrying an infant and appearing for exams was awkward when I stepped in. It seemed embarrassing, feeding the baby during the breaks allowed in between exams. All I could think those days was, “it is for young people, they are staring, are they laughing, why even I am appearing. Run.” I remember walking many meters away to find an isolated place to feed my child.
My PhD journey had all these elements and has been no less than any drama at several stages. So, I stepped into it when motherhood knocked me off with its blues. Lunatic I had already turned into in between raising my child and household responsibilities. Added was my research work. Hulk I was from within, icing my furiousness.
Your hard work and knowledge never go waste. All the information and knowledge of the past helped me to get through the exams and interviews of this very renowned university in the city. During this admission process, there came a stage when the research fellow has to request/convince the faculty members of the department to be the guide for their research journey. Everyone turned me down, saying they are overloaded with work. Everyone.
Despite my impressive academic credentials and undeniable potential, no professor was willing to take me as a doctoral candidate. They looked past me at the problems I might encounter prioritizing my child over the work. They stared at me and my child sleeping over my shoulders. Every such pair of judging eyes gave me chills, questioning my abilities. Even I did not spare myself judging my decision, “what am I doing? Is it really the right time? I mean, he is so tiny! Do I really want to go through this?” And most of the time my brain cells demanded me to quit. Like quit and leave the campus.
But at the same time, these denials made me furious. They left me irritated. I cried at home.
I realize now, that all they saw was the uncertainty; will she take this research seriously. My being a mother to an infant terrified them. Eventually, all their doubts started playing my mind. It tricked me the most when I heard one professor scoffing as I walked out of his cabin. Outrage consumed me. I decided to withdraw.
Upon approaching the head of the department, he said, “It is my responsibility to assign you a guide. Do not let me down.”
Those were the kindest word I heard during that entire week. And finally, a guide was assigned against her will. Although I had hoped for a mentor to understand and accommodate my unique situation, I found myself with an advisor who appeared indifferent to my struggle. For an entire year.
No path is smooth and directed. We got to go through ours, wobbling through the obstacles. The primary one I faced during my early days was the lack of support and guidance. It robbed my confidence. Motherhood and research became overwhelming. Research took a backseat until that annual presentation.
It was the day to present the work I did that entire year. The presentation started on a rough patch. The follow up questionnaire was equally devastating. I answered less than half of the questions asked. And then one senior panelist said, “this project is not even worth the dustbin.”
It was humiliating. Shameful. I was given a month to reappear for the assessment which would decide my research journey. I passed myself a resolution that evening to back out. Sabbatical. And in the evening when I requested my guide to sign those papers of semester break, she said the kindest words to me without stepping on my vulnerability. “It is always difficult for women to embark a territory, no matter how small it is. You start small.” She did not sign the form. Today when I look back, I feel grateful. She rekindled hope and confidence that day. She became a Guru that day.
I realised my self-worth in the moments of my failure. Hope decided to smile upon me.
She became my mentor. Yes, there is a huge difference in between guide and mentor in real life. I walked down the delicate balance to reappear for my assessment with her help. Late night and early morning studies became the norm to squeeze out some precious hours ensuring my son received the attention and care he deserved. It was a constant juggling act. Oh, it does demand sacrifices and unwavering determination. In between being a mother and researcher, I barely knew how the world outside feels like.
The dreadful day came haunting my insecurities. My mentor and my partner stood by me. I was prepared this time.
As I finished presenting my work and analysis, the same set of people sang praises. The phoenix rose from its ashes. I stopped cribbing over demeaning words that questioned my abilities. I worked hard. Everyday. Some days at home, and some I dedicated at my work place. It taught me something significant, “setbacks never mean to stop you, it’s a pause, so that we can brood over the failures and identify the worth.”
We all have the set of people who make us feel safe, and motivated. All we need is to not hover around everyone else looking for their approval.
I discovered my set of supportive fellows and remained with them. My parents were always there when situations overwhelmed me. A few people I call friends motivated me during my failures. My mentor encouraged to keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel.
And at the end of every rough or bad day, my son unknowingly ensured that I do not lose my share of craziness around him.
I learnt to live one day at a time. I had my family.
My perseverance and resilience were tested on multiple occasions. Now, when I look back at the times when I prioritized my work over my child, I do not regret my decisions. But back at that time, years back I doubted every step of mine. There were moments when self-doubt crept in, and the weight of my responsibilities threatened to overwhelm. But I always have found ounces of courage enough to not let these obstacles define my journey. Each setback taught me to pick myself up, recalibrate my goals, and march forward.
After years of relentless dedication, I successfully defended my doctoral thesis. Smiling cheek to cheek with joy, gratitude, and passion. The resolution shone brightly as I presented the findings, leaving the academic community beaming with pride and contentment. The research society was proud of my achievements.
Reality struck me as I conveyed my gratitude towards them; my achievement lies in the knowledge I acquired during the half a decade of my life. Not the sufferings.
At the end, it is not about the blues of the journey, or the hurdles faced. It is the celebration of support and kindness received to mark a remarkable end. Pause, I would say. My experience made me ready enough to enter the same world with a varied prospective. As Dr. Shilpee Prasad.
Image source: a still from the film Mr and Mrs Iyer
A space tech lover, engineer, researcher, an advocate of equal rights, homemaker, mother, blogger, writer and an avid reader. I write to acknowledge my feelings.
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