PhDs and unemployment benefits: a tale of disappointment

Science is at the crux of human advancement – money is spent in millions by governments all over the world to enable radical betterment of the human society through scientific research. Scientists maybe considered the harbingers of hope, but in reality there is very little hope left for some researchers who have faced the harsh reality of science as a career.

As a Ph.D. student, one is frustrated almost on a daily basis. Experiments fail. Bouts of self-doubt and existential crisis plague the minds of once high-flying achievers. As an undergraduate or a postgraduate student, one is easily pulled into a fictitious romantic endeavour with science. The adventures entice you, the promises of grand achievements drive you beyond your wildest imaginations, and then reality hits you. It hits you so hard that you start to wonder what the purpose of a doctoral degree is. The highest academic degree that one can possibly obtain: A degree that does not even guarantee you a job. Forget about unemployment after receiving the degree. I know not a handful but, sadly, many who have been forced to go to the unemployment office even before finishing their thesis. It is not a rosy picture. Of course, there are people who, despite the hardships of PhD, come out successful and manage to survive in academia or find a job in the industry. But what about the other end of the spectrum? – the ones who were sent home unemployed even before finishing their degree, those sent out without any publications because of the ineptitude of their supervisors, the ones commonly referred to as the pity PhDs. These are not people who are incapable of performing scientific research; these are people who have been failed by an improperly monitored education system. For a few years now the faults in the PhD system have been openly recognized and widely discussed amongst the scientific community – I only wish they (universities, educational institutions, etc.) would make it clearer to the general public that it is not all that fine and dandy in the world of science. False advertisements spring hope in the hearts of students, who think that focused lab work and good grades will see them through to a career in academia, when in reality there are several other factors that come in to play. Science is no longer the romanticized haven for lab rats.  You need to have the social skills of a successful sales person, the tact of a politician, the writing/poetic skills on par with Shakespeare and Wordsworth. For some, however, the advice of having to redefine their personalities at the age of 28+ comes a little too late. Unemployment and a society that fails to comprehend their circumstances are what some disheartened researchers have to face.

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Thank you….

Oh my goodness, it has been more than a year since I last made any posts on my blog. Not a great loss to the world, but gee, quite shameful indeed. To be honest, I was caught up in finishing my PhD, etc.,etc. Nothing much has changed in the last months, besides the fact that I now have an extra degree to add onto my resume. I had dreamed about the moment I would get my doctoral degree, many a times during my doctoral ordeal. I would picture myself in the graduation ceremony, the centre of all attention – a content and happy Dr. who was figuratively flipping a bird to all the painful memories of student life. But when the day arrived, I wasn’t that elated – the frustrations of not having a postdoc or any other job offer escalated! I was feeling pretty lousy and annoyed at the whole ridiculousness – ha, a grand celebration for the practical joke of subjecting someone to extreme levels of misery just for an offer of a degree! Until, of course, I had to give my graduation talk. My true emotions did surface out – not my joy of holding a degree, but of having been loved and supported by family and strangers who became friends. It was all too overwhelming!!That day, at that spot, I realized how lucky I was to have, not a doctoral degree, but a unique and finite set of people who truly understood the hardships I had faced and celebrated the merit of my work. It did not matter to them that I did not have any publications. It did not matter to them that my PhD was just in microbiology. Oh, to have been born in a family that supports you through all  your whims and fantasies. To have made friends who would do anything to make you smile. Now that is what I treasured entirely that day. So here is a big thank you to my family and friends for being there for me. I have acknowledged you all in my thesis, but that surely is not enough 😉 🙂 I can never thank you guys enough!!!

P.S. I got the coolest graduation hat with the coolest doctor on it 🙂 🙂 Here is a picture of my hat – I had to censor it to avoid all the personal stuffs stuck on it 😛

The doctor for a doctor

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You’re no fun anymore…..

This gallery contains 11 photos.

REFERENCE: The title has been borrowed from one of Monty Python’s sketches. I do not want to be sued by any of the living pythons. Man, have I been watching way too much flying circus lately! All to get in level with … Continue reading

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What are we in this for??

Hmmm…. So here we go again. Another post filled with complaints and dissatisfaction . What more do you expect from someone who works >10 hours a day for a measly pay and a dish full of failures?  In keeping with  my somber attitude towards life and everything, something devastating happened in my personal life making it all the more difficult to carry on with my PhD (Don’t panic, I haven’t quit yet. I won’t do so…Not Yet!). Learning someone close to you has an incurable illness only makes you wonder what the fudge you are doing with your life, especially when one has been wasting three precious years of one’s life on one of the most futile task!

I wanted to become a scientist as a kid and somehow I thought the only possible route to it was a PhD. When I got my masters I had second thoughts, but considering I had no other options (who the hell is going to give a job to a person who has a master’s degree?? Note: this happens only in the case of biologists), I just went on board with the PhD program.  Considering the state of education system in my country (India), most people do not actually get hands on experience in the laboratory until they start doing a PhD. This was pretty much my case. In school, in college, in the university, all we ever did was learn facts- memorize and regurgitate them. There was always only one correct answer for the all the questions- the ones given in the text books. I was taught science as a discipline, as something that ought to be revered and followed mindlessly, something akin to religion.  Experiments were meant to be carried out in the precise way in which they were described. There was no room for creativity whatsoever.

This just made it initially difficult for me with my research. I knew where I could find the facts but I was just too scared to use them as a base and attempt a different approach to tackling a problem.  It took me two years to come to terms with the reality of science. Nothing ever works the way you want! You’re an idiot if you are not willing to take chances and actually experiment with the experiments. So it’s not like I have not learnt anything during my 3 years of research. I have learnt a lot, especially that the practical aspect of science is quite difficult. What bothers me right now is, how are the  technical skills ever going to help me. They are not life skills now, are they? The question of what to do after a PhD just drives me mad. I simply just see a haze when I think of my future. But this is just absolutely RIDICULOUS!!! Studying for one of the highest degrees of education should make you confident, should give you a sense of accomplishment and some self-worth for crying out loud!! Is it just me or is the concept of a PhD degree a failure??? Or am I simply not cut out for research at all?!!!

What is equally worse is, sometimes, I just feel that I have simply wasted tax payers’ money. Not everyone’s PhD thesis is going to produce a Nature/ Science paper.  (Btw, do not get me started off on the subject of publications, oh you will hear an earful!! Hmm….now to think of it, I shall write about that very soon!) And even if it did, it’s not going to cure cancer or abolish starvation. You get what I mean? Are we actually wasting money and the talents of young people on dead end research. Wouldn’t it be just better if we could all be working on problems that currently need attention? Isn’t that what we scientists are supposed to do?? I work with staphylococci, they are such a menace in the hospitals. Researching on this subject should essentially open up new ways to tackle the diseases that they cause. I can truthfully say, however, that my research topic though it feeds me and hopefully gives me a Dr. title (fingers crossed big time on that)… shall be of no use to  mankind or other animals in any way.

I am now at a point in my life where I have to decide what the eff am I going to do with my life. What do I do after a PhD? Do I just simply follow the crowd and do a post-doc, become an academician ?? Or better off, settle in for the cash and take up a job in the industry??  Are these really my only options?? I want to do passionate research, but  I do not the have money to fund my own research. I am way too scared to test my entrepreneurial skills.  I am totally lost. Well, I had better finish my PhD first before I go around searching for answers, right?

So that’s my story… why I got in to PhD and how I feel about it now. I really want to hear from others. What are you guys (PhD students) really in it for? What do you hope to get out of it?? If you see or don’t see passion in your future, kindly share it with me and others. I am really curious.

Wow, I have written a completely serious post. To ease off the seriousness, here’s something funny. One day I was sharing my frustrations with one of my lab mates. We were just talking about alternative careers and coming up with nonsensical solutions to our problems. Finally we thought that we would be better off  if we were to invest our money in the national lottery. Turns out, she was not kidding. She is currently  the owner of a pretty looking lotto ticket with a winning odd of a million to 1.  Would you believe it that she actually trusts the lotteries than PhD to secure her future? She is not wrong you know, I have actually asked for the lotto web link  so that I can by a ticket myself! 😉

 

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Crazy be thy name….

Despite the dullness of “doing science” routinely, I have to admit I do have my share of fun in the laboratory. Yeah, you heard it right. Yes, fun indeed. Fun in my opinion is: the moment when I completely forget about the seriousness of my career, block out deadlines,results, basically anything related to the near or distant future. Only for a fleeting moment though! If I may use a clever analogy here…one might say, it’s just like the temporary anesthesia for a wisdom tooth extraction. You bet the pain is all going to shoot back up once the anesthetic wears off. Darn diddly right! (for those who are shamelessly unaware of the Simpsons characters, I was just imitating Ned Flanders)

I so often wonder, why the hell should we researchers alone be cooped up in a lab that could easily serve as a torture cell in a prison, deprived of joy, when the rest of the world (war torn regions excluded) is having fun?  Receiving  nothing but a daily dose of depression and frustration (oh, that rhymes) after hours of work!! Life is pretty tough I say , and it’s not like we have a ‘PhD students work union’ or something  through which we can demand a pay for the additional hours we spend everyday. Either you work or you don’t; in the end you get paid only half the salary of a post-doc and you still hold the title of student at the age of 27+. Boy, do I sound like an angry dog!! I guess it’s the fact that it’s Friday night and I am spending it in my room trying to write a blog that most probably would soon be forgotten by the 14 or so readers, and eventually by the author herself. Oh chillax, it’s another one of my classic exaggerations. No, I don’t really have 14 readers!  Hold on a second….My brain’s sounding an alarm….

Ah, it’s just to remind me that I wanted to write about fun tonight.  Mood swings analysts can have easy test subjects in a laboratory filled with PhD students, believe me! For PhD wannabes,Craziness is the word of the day for a time unforeseeable! One of my lab mates once wondered out loud if we had all become crazy as a result of PhD, or if we were just outright mad and that the institution of science was merely the asylum that brought us all together. Pretty deep,right? We concluded that we were all loony to a certain extent before starting our doctoral study (why else choose to do a PhD in the first place?); the close proximity to madness  of all sorts only aggravated our cuckoo-ness!! This is sort of re-assuring in a weird way, because you know that you’re not the only one who’s apparently suffering from the cruelties (cruelty is a such strong word, but for emphasis I shall use it. Adds drama to PhD life) of just another form of education. Can anyone hear the lines from Pink Floyd’s another brick in the wall, ringing in you ear at this very moment? No? I have to improve my writing skills I guess then.

Anyways, it is not surprising to know that a cup of coffee, a bar of chocolate, free food, extra food  are all what it takes to pacify a PhD student. Under the influence of sugar/coco/caffeine and all other serotonin inducing food substances, our bad craziness (that prompts one to curse at one’s bacterial samples, or discard empty transformation plates  in to the bin with utmost strength to vent out one’s frustrations,etc.)  turns to good craziness which simply ends up giving us (and the onlookers, usually the technicians) a good laugh or just plainly disrupts work.  Add in a digital camera, it sure makes a wonderful memory that can be shared with the future generations, if any. Ha-ha, I am just imagining a scientist going, ” Look sweetheart, here’s mommy during her PhD days…Oh, don’t be scared child. I do look crazy but it was just the camera’s fault. And no, I am not pretending to be working. I was indeed working!”

Instead of just banging on about it I thought I would also upload some pictures that give a  rather candid sneak peek of my PhD life.  I hope you can appreciate the humour in the pictures. I don’t want people going, “Oh, that’s no good lab practice.” Kapish??

I really appreciate my colleagues’ enthusiasm today when I told them I wanted some pictures for my blog. They were such a good sport.  Four of them  have bravely shown their faces. The photo shoot lasted for exactly 4 minutes with my directional skills being put to a great test. I felt like those photographers dealing with those contestants for America’s top models. With the camera in my hand, I said act crazy. Nothing happened. I said give me your best. Zilch. I begged them to show the camera their funny side. Nada!  I said act normal and then, EUREKA!  After that brilliant moment everyone got bored and left. Longing for more pictures, I raided the drawers of one of my friend and hit a gold mine there.  So, here’s more treat for your eyes; courtesy of some completely loca PhD students. Enjoy.

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CREDITS for the Scenes from It’s a wonderful life (In order of appearance)

The guy with the upturned schott bottle: Zymo Man

The girl trying to shoot with a pipette: Blondie

The Man in the plastic mask: Rapper Mike D

The runaway victim: Miss sleepy head.

Candy treasures was shot at miss DB’s personal drawer.

Ginormous Chuppa Chups: courtesy of the third floor office inmates.

The makers of this short sketch would like to thank the makers of chocolates and coffee across the globe. We salute you!

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The day after the weekend

Extreme pain has made me stay back at home today. It could mean only one thing, more gobbledygook on my blog. Hurrah, the audience go!!!No???Oh well, I shall still write on. Encouraged by the 12 or so readership (my friends, of course) , I had this idea to dedicate a section exclusively for PhD woes,”fun” anecdotes,etc. I have masterfully titled the section ‘PhD Life’. SMART,yeah!! So if ever you do read my blog to merely rejoice and poke fun at the misery that PhD students suffer in the hands of science, then you might find it very easy to navigate directly to the ‘PhD life’ category. I think that’s what the categories are for,right? We’ll find out sooner or later, won’t we?!Anyway…

Jorge Cham  uses art but I, my friends, am using words. I am about to pen down  the events of one of the most (universally)  hated days of the week. Any guesses? Come on now, you’re better than that. No clue? You’re a disappointment, I tell you! That’s pretty much what my brain tells me every morning, especially on Mondays. No prospects of a sunshine on the horizon. No prospects for a fruitful day. So, I wake up feeling blue. Blue as the sky – so they tell me. Where I live the sky is always grey. This a true fact, I am not kidding!  No matter how great the previous evening was, my brain is attuned to give me this crappy wake-up call every single day! Don’t give me that “awwwww…you need love and affection..and probably some psychological help too…also listen to me if you want to live life happily” nonsense. This is pretty much how every student struggling to get their doctorate degree feels like. There might be exceptions, we simply consider them  nutters or darn lucky!!

The only thing I look forward to   in the morning is my breakfast. A long time ago, a friend of mine told me that my EQ/IQ, it all lies in my stomach. She is right, you know. For two and a half years, all I did unfortunately was rush through my breakfast to get to the lab before 8:15 a.m. I still don’t know why the hell I used to do that. With a little adjustment to my attitude, I have started living on the edge. I watch television (on internet without any doubts) while breakfasting! Hell, Yeah!! My destination time now is between 8.30 and 9.00 a.m! Cereals and bread toasts are a constant reminder of what a great cook my mom is. I curse myself for having opted to live this rather lonely life in a foreign land with no access to my mom’s wonderful cooking.

  Watching cartoons like Shaun the sheep,Pingu, Oswald, Peppa Pig and the likes does help me get over my ” morning sickness”. Having a five year old niece means I get to learn about brand new cartoons very often, adding on to my  ‘to watch list’. I consider myself thus lucky!

A slow-mo bike ride is the next best thing to breakfast. I love my bike (as in bicycle), the one materialistic possession besides my computer that I am crazy about. There was this very funny yet courageous incidence relating to my bike which I will never ever forget in my life. I shall write about it soon. Where were we? Yes, bike. I enjoy my refreshing bike ride to my very own personal hell.

Usually my Mondays are painfully dull. Yesterday was however, different. Something interesting did happen. Oh, this is so exciting. Do you want to know what happened? Really?? Well, here it goes. You know how we use enzymes to digest DNA fragments for cloning. Usually when you have to use two different enzymes, you end up doing a sequential digestion. This means you use enzyme A first, clean the DNA and then use B and clean again. Very laborious indeed. Biotech companies came up with an ingenious solution to this very problem.  They developed a ‘common’ buffer system that allows the use of all sorts of enzymes together in a single tube. Enough with science for dummies,NOW! So this is what happened to me. I go to the -20 freezer, right. I look deeply in the box for enzymes,right. I carry on looking,ok. And then, Bingo. La-di-da, I found compatible buffers for the enzymes I wanted to use. Saved two/three hours of my precious day. What a glorious discovery!! I celebrated it by not enjoying the brief spell of sunlight but by analyzing my real time data. Ka-ching! So for the entire day, all I had to do was: digest the DNA, purify it, run it on a gel to make sure I didn’t lose everything  I had,  and finally set up a ligation. While the enzymes did the work I  just sat at my computer and upgraded to new levels in the art procrastination.

In all the excitement of an opportunity to visit Lyon, I had signed up for a conference and decided to present a poster there. Way to ruin a potential vacation, sigh! Right now I have to analyze all my data and come up with a coherent way to present them on the poster. All the hard work (EXAGGERATION ALERT!!!) will only be looked at with condescension, I am pretty sure. And so I tried to come up with a hypothesis to explain all the results obtained. Listening to songs and staring hard at Google does not help, trust me! After essentially having warmed up my office chair, I was still left with no ideas. I decided then that it was the right time to leave. 18:30 p.m. it was. Early breakout,wohoooooo!! Determined to work at home though, I brought back some papers (scientific articles) which I must sadly confirm are still lying in my backpack. I enjoyed my evening watching Russell Howard “take the piss out of” the week’s news. I must admit I enjoy British humour to a very great extent.

To sum it up, this pretty much is my daily saga with the exceptions of the experiments I do – such rare anomalies do occur on certain blue moon days, and the songs I listen to while googling. Note: I usually end up repeating my  experiments since the results are annoyingly never the same …. adding on to the monotony that rocks my world…..ahhh, science!!

Having woken up with an aching back (I blame the office chair) and a sore mind, I can’t believe I spent an entire hour trying to make myself feel better by writing this post. I better get back to some serious resting and studying. And I want one of these at work 😀

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The day after the weekend

Extreme pain has made me stay back at home today. It could mean only one thing, more gobbledygook on my blog. Hurrah, the audience go!!!No???Oh well, I shall still write on. Encouraged by the 12 or so readership (my friends, of course) , I had this idea to dedicate a section exclusively for PhD woes,”fun” anecdotes,etc. I have masterfully titled the section ‘PhD Life’. SMART,yeah!! So if ever you do read my blog to merely rejoice and poke fun at the misery that PhD students suffer in the hands of science, then you might find it very easy to navigate directly to the ‘PhD life’ category. I think that’s what the categories are for,right? We’ll find out sooner or later, won’t we?!Anyway…

Jorge Cham  uses art but I, my friends, am using words. I am about to pen down  the events of one of the most (universally)  hated days of the week. Any guesses? Come on now, you’re better than that. No clue? You’re a disappointment, I tell you! That’s pretty much what my brain tells me every morning, especially on Mondays. No prospects of a sunshine on the horizon. No prospects for a fruitful day. So, I wake up feeling blue. Blue as the sky – so they tell me. Where I live the sky is always grey. This a true fact, I am not kidding!  No matter how great the previous evening was, my brain is attuned to give me this crappy wake-up call every single day! Don’t give me that “awwwww…you need love and affection..and probably some psychological help too…also listen to me if you want to live life happily” nonsense. This is pretty much how every student struggling to get their doctorate degree feels like. There might be exceptions, we simply consider them  nutters or darn lucky!!

The only thing I look forward to   in the morning is my breakfast. A long time ago, a friend of mine told me that my EQ/IQ, it all lies in my stomach. She is right, you know. For two and a half years, all I did unfortunately was rush through my breakfast to get to the lab before 8:15 a.m. I still don’t know why the hell I used to do that. With a little adjustment to my attitude, I have started living on the edge. I watch television (on internet without any doubts) while breakfasting! Hell, Yeah!! My destination time now is between 8.30 and 9.00 a.m! Cereals and bread toasts are a constant reminder of what a great cook my mom is. I curse myself for having opted to live this rather lonely life in a foreign land with no access to my mom’s wonderful cooking.

  Watching cartoons like Shaun the sheep,Pingu, Oswald, Peppa Pig and the likes does help me get over my ” morning sickness”. Having a five year old niece means I get to learn about brand new cartoons very often, adding on to my  ‘to watch list’. I consider myself thus lucky!

A slow-mo bike ride is the next best thing to breakfast. I love my bike (as in bicycle), the one materialistic possession besides my computer that I am crazy about. There was this very funny yet courageous incidence relating to my bike which I will never ever forget in my life. I shall write about it soon. Where were we? Yes, bike. I enjoy my refreshing bike ride to my very own personal hell.

Usually my Mondays are painfully dull. Yesterday was however, different. Something interesting did happen. Oh, this is so exciting. Do you want to know what happened? Really?? Well, here it goes. You know how we use enzymes to digest DNA fragments for cloning. Usually when you have to use two different enzymes, you end up doing a sequential digestion. This means you use enzyme A first, clean the DNA and then use B and clean again. Very laborious indeed. Biotech companies came up with an ingenious solution to this very problem.  They developed a ‘common’ buffer system that allows the use of all sorts of enzymes together in a single tube. Enough with science for dummies,NOW! So this is what happened to me. I go to the -20 freezer, right. I look deeply in the box for enzymes,right. I carry on looking,ok. And then, Bingo. La-di-da, I found compatible buffers for the enzymes I wanted to use. Saved two/three hours of my precious day. What a glorious discovery!! I celebrated it by not enjoying the brief spell of sunlight but by analyzing my real time data. Ka-ching! So for the entire day, all I had to do was: digest the DNA, purify it, run it on a gel to make sure I didn’t lose everything  I had,  and finally set up a ligation. While the enzymes did the work I  just sat at my computer and upgraded to new levels in the art procrastination.

In all the excitement of an opportunity to visit Lyon, I had signed up for a conference and decided to present a poster there. Way to ruin a potential vacation, sigh! Right now I have to analyze all my data and come up with a coherent way to present them on the poster. All the hard work (EXAGGERATION ALERT!!!) will only be looked at with condescension, I am pretty sure. And so I tried to come up with a hypothesis to explain all the results obtained. Listening to songs and staring hard at Google does not help, trust me! After essentially having warmed up my office chair, I was still left with no ideas. I decided then that it was the right time to leave. 18:30 p.m. it was. Early breakout,wohoooooo!! Determined to work at home though, I brought back some papers (scientific articles) which I must sadly confirm are still lying in my backpack. I enjoyed my evening watching Russell Howard “take the piss out of” the week’s news. I must admit I enjoy British humour to a very great extent.

To sum it up, this pretty much is my daily saga with the exceptions of the experiments I do – such rare anomalies do occur on certain blue moon days, and the songs I listen to while googling. Note: I usually end up repeating my  experiments since the results are annoyingly never the same …. adding on to the monotony that rocks my world…..ahhh, science!!

Having woken up with an aching back (I blame the office chair) and a sore mind, I can’t believe I spent an entire hour trying to make myself feel better by writing this post. I better get back to some serious resting and studying. And I want one of these at work 😀

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