Research is not always about success or failure!

A Brief Flashback

On a frosty winter morning in 2009, I arrived in Grenoble brimming with optimism, leaving my 2 year old in India with my parents. Conservative environments and systems, where I lived for 30 years, tried their best to stereotype me with their negativity, and exiting that system was extremely difficult. When I was in high school in a rural setting, even science teachers didn’t know much about science, and one even said that Physics wasn’t for women. Two months after my marriage, I was accepted to a prestigious university to study MPhil. A married woman pursuing further education was really unwelcome in my conservative family.  Due to my pregnancy, pressure from the family, MPhil project completion and dissertation, I finished my MPhil at a very hectic pace, but my supervisor encouraged and supported me.  I was very inspired to continue my research journey after the defense day, even though I came there with my toddler. That spirit guided my search for a PhD position outside India.  However, after a few months of my PhD in Grenoble, I started feeling out of place. I had difficulty adjusting to a new environment because of cultural, educational, and methodological differences. Non-English working environments, preconceived notions about the inadequacies of women scientists, as well as language restrictions prevented proper training and inclusivity. Over time, the introverted me fell into isolation, and after 1.5 years I was unilaterally terminated from the PhD program. I was accused of being unqualified, incompetent, and unskilled to do a PhD.  Moreover, my supervisor strongly advised me to leave the scientific field and warned me that I would not receive any support in finding a new position anywhere. Even though I was devastated and even suffered depression, I was not ready to surrender.  A woman in their 30s with a discontinued PhD history had a hard time finding another PhD opportunity. After numerous unsuccessful attempts, I succeeded in obtaining another PhD opportunity in Singapore even though it meant leaving my child with my family once again.

 During those days, I was plagued by the bitterness of failure, which led to a downward spiral of negative self-talk, which was very hard to suppress.  I didn’t let anything distract me from my PhD pursuit, including my family. Due to my supervisor’s severe anger management issues and inability to display patience, there may be limited opportunities for meaningful guidance or constructive discussion.  Therefore, I sought out alternative options and reached out to several people to build a support system and network to help me complete my PhD program. I decided to pursue my PhD in a brand new hot area, one that had never been studied or explored before.  I achieved good experimental results and presented my findings at one of the most prestigious international conferences, but I was unable to provide solid rationales for my results.  My weaknesses in both theory and computational analysis caused me to struggle, to be criticized, and to be marginalized among people who excelled in both.

My mental health began to deteriorate further because of the destruction and bullying instead of guidance. Assisted by a colleague who was an excellent theorist, I successfully defended my PhD dissertation. However, I haven’t published anything, including a review or co-authored paper. Research in general is governed by the aphorism “Publish or Perish,” and I began to perish. My life was beset by unemployment, depression, constant rejection, imposter syndrome, social isolation, and even suicidal thoughts for years. Apparently, my supervisor emailed me that I should leave Science since I barely passed my PhD and had no knowledge of the topic.  It was his response to my request for references for some technical positions that I thought would help me advance and succeed, rather than research positions.  The email insulted the thesis I wrote alone, which was among the top 10% downloaded from the repository.  That was like mocking my sleepless PhD days, the sacrifices I made without seeing my daughter’s growth, and the weekends I spent in the lab.  It made me feel as if my career was being decided by someone who had no stake in it.  It took me ten years to accomplish something that could have easily been destroyed in two. A postdoctoral fellowship did not significantly alter my career, and I gradually realized that my interests and skill set differed from the norm. This realization struck me after I joined an industry in which I was properly encouraged, supported, and guided by colleagues and supervisors. For the first time in years, I had a platform to discuss, express, and grow.

Harsh Realities

This is the crux of the matter; traditionally, PhD success is determined by two factors. The first is publication, and the second is your relationship with your supervisor. Whether or not your supervisor has been trained as a mentor, guide, or referee, the relationship you have with them is crucial to your success. There is a high level of prejudice in research environments, with views based on gender, race, nationality, and socioeconomic status. It is also a fact that privilege is invisible to those who have it. In order to achieve something great with motivation, enthusiasm, and spirit, people from diverse backgrounds and cultures will exert different efforts. In retrospect, I discovered that the elite culture of academia was an unexpected surprise as an introverted woman from an underprivileged background. Where are the outcasts? the unspoken? defeated? What exactly does diversity in research mean? There were several complaints about racism and marginalisation of minorities in research. Most female laureates have spoken about discrimination they’ve experienced throughout their careers and there’re solid statistical evidence of under representation. There are several organisations and support systems designed to address diversity, gender parity, and minority representation. However, how effectively is it resolved so far? 

As someone who currently works in a position that is completely technical in a purely academic environment, I understand that scientists are not just the people who are publication factories and well-known professors.  There are scientists in technical sales, product design, technology development, technical writing, applications, you name it.  Nevertheless, the focus is solely on the professors who win assistant, associate, and professorship positions, regardless of how well they guide their group by effectively mentoring their students who trust them with their most valuable years in life. Universities have counselling centers and support services supervised by professors for the well-being of students at all levels. In the end, what do we accomplish, as there are several studies and surveys about the deteriorating mental health of research students. 

We employ school teachers who can handle a child’s social, psychological, and professional needs in addition to their subject expertise. But why don’t we apply the same standard in higher education which shapes young students for a lifetime? Today’s highly competitive world challenges young talent to aim high, to set big goals, as well as to work hard and succeed. With the passing of time, the PhD degree has undergone many changes. However, it is still considered a research degree that can be used to gain employment in research-related fields within the academic bubble, which has limited opportunities and low pay.  From a broad perspective, scientific PhD positions must prepare individuals to become entrepreneurs, product designers, leaders in the research and development sector, and also in technical lead positions.  Yet, I wonder why students who don’t follow a typical academic path are outcast? There are several opportunities or may be more opportunities outside that bubble where they can excel and be successful. At least, we could keep their ardent spirit alive by not blindly dismissing those possibilities.

It is unlikely that a student will enroll in a 3-4 year PhD program if they are not interested in research. If they do so, they will not even finish the first year and that’s why universities keep confirmation practices or qualifying examinations. There are still failed PhD students who wasted four years without getting a degree.  Although the knowledge is still valid, what we purposefully ignored was their state of mind after failing their PhD, their difficulty explaining those four years in an interview, and their psychological trauma after the defense. Personally, I’ve known several failed PhD students and cases of suicide caused by their supervisors. As a community, we need to take responsibility for this. The success of the thesis can be indirectly credited to the PhD supervisors, even if some of them did not merit credit. Then why do the failures fall solely on students? An insulted, harassed, and bullied postdoc cannot provide guidance to a PhD student who is suffering from a toxic environment.  You cannot complain about your professor to his colleagues who either support or take advantage of the situation. So the most effective solution would be for professors to become guides and mentors rather than bosses by learning and understanding their students’ personal and professional situations. It is necessary for professors to be properly trained psychologically, pedagogically, and methodologically. Even a small percentage of people working in such a way can make a big difference. Research is not the place to experiment with the lives of research students; if you do so, you are not only ruining the careers of your students but also contaminating science in general. How can science be distinguished from politics in this century if we continue to cheat and take advantage of others? What distinguishes us as “scholars”?

Reflections and Recommendations

As a mid-career researcher, there is not much hope for the changes mentioned above to occur in the near future as there are socio-political factors at play. Here is my advice to those who wish to devote three to five valuable years of their careers to pursuing their passions to become a researcher/scientist.

  1. Before starting your PhD: Are you sure why you need a PhD?  Ask yourself what interests you. Can you feel any spirit or passion or is it just an obsession to get a doctorate? Remember that obtaining a PhD takes some years of independent research as compared to a bachelor’s or master’s degree.
  2. Set several plans before you begin your PhD journey. Prepare yourself for both personal and professional challenges.
  3. During the journey: sketch your graph and study its trajectory. Make sure you have a backup plan for each year, both in research and career.  Keep a worst-case scenario in mind at all times.
  4. Ensure that you are not much reliant on your supervisor. Engage in more networking across all platforms, including social media. You need to build a supportive network yourself with both industry and academia, which will be beneficial to your career and research. Introverted researchers might find this difficult.  However, professional social networks do not require much interaction.
  5. Make sure you stay in touch with people who are doing similar research and keep up to date about the progress in your research area. If you plan to transition into industry after your PhD, be sure to keep an eye out for job opportunities in your field. This will enable you to acquire the necessary skills for industry jobs at the same time as you are completing your PhD.
  6. Make sure your mental health is in good shape.  Getting counselling if necessary should not be a last resort.
  7. Consistently track your development, start thinking about publication from the first month of your PhD.
  8. Learn to work alone but do not be afraid to discuss with your peers and train your juniors which will increase your confidence and energy.
  9. Your future direction should be clear, and you need to be prepared for the challenges ahead.  Academia and industry require different skill sets. Fortunately, you’ve already acquired most of the industry-relevant soft skills during your PhD. Your academic environment, however, made you feel otherwise.  Due to the inevitable failures you faced during your PhD, you may experience imposter syndrome, and sometimes you may receive destructive criticism. Nothing of this really matters in the long run since a PhD makes you smarter academically and mentally than you can possibly comprehend.  Therefore, industry transition does not require additional training.
  10. Consider a doctoral degree as an opportunity to gain experience in research and dig deeper into a specific topic. There are countless possibilities outside academia. Always be open to opportunities instead of listening to negative self-talk and criticisms, which may have some personal motives. It’s common to feel overwhelmed if you’re about to fail a PhD, but don’t let your mind drown in thoughts; try to find other opportunities instead of staying stuck in the rut.

Though the PhD is just a part of life, it can affect dreams, careers, mental health, and even personal growth, as it did for me. In order to be successful in our careers, we must develop an EQ that is proportional to our IQ.  It is completely understandable that bad PhD experiences can cause trauma, depression, and distress. You must seek alternatives and opportunities to move forward rather than surrender to the system and accept failure.  This is not a win-lose situation. Our focus must be on growth rather than destruction.