Author Stories: What a PhD teaches you
“Why do you want to pursue a PhD?” is a question worth asking yourself before you take the plunge into a doctoral programme. Your genuine interest, passion towards learning, and clarity of what you want to achieve are a given. And, seeking inspiration from others who have been on this journey would only help, right?
So, to all the aspiring (and current) PhD scholars, here is a little sneak peek into the lives of two PhD researchers—Jitendra Singh and Samayita Banerjee. Read on about their journey, their approach to research problems, the skills that PhD has taught them, how they connect and network with peers, how they unwind, and the lessons they have learnt and would like to pass on to aspiring young scholars.
Introducing Jitendra and Samayita
“It’s okay to not know everything. PhD is a part of your learning journey, and there’s no full stop to learning,” says Jitendra Singh, PhD scholar, Department of Economics, Ashoka University, when asked about his philosophy of the degree of doctor of philosophy. Coming from an engineering background, he pivoted to economics as he always wanted to work on real-world social issues, and his strong background in mathematical analysis proved to be a great boon for him.
Samayita Banerjee, PhD scholar, Department of History, Ashoka University, identifies herself as “a history-and-archaeology buff who likes forests, rivers, and material reveals of archaeology.” Her energy and enthusiasm are evident in the way she speaks and narrates stories. “My relatives do not understand why I pick up a piece of pottery and I can’t stop talking about it for two days—it’s a family joke now,” she chuckles.
When asked what their research is on, Samayita adds, “Recording the spatial history of a shifting fluvial landscape with the help of its material remains for early medieval times.” Jitendra says, “I work on examining how social identities, namely gender, caste, and religion, determine employment, occupation, and economic welfare in India.“
How they decide which research problem to work on
Reading and talking to people help expand your outlook and kindle different perspectives. “Reading newspapers and literature, looking at the data, finding a pattern that fascinates you, and then diving right into exploring it—I believe that’s the beauty of research,” quotes Jitendra.
Samayita resonates with the ideology of the beautiful exploratory nature of research. “There are so many things to work on. People work on the weirdest, most amazingly interesting, quirky topics—such as air pockets in the middle of a random forest, or how butterflies move around… Hearing them talk passionately about their work and interests feeds you with great food for thought!”
Interest in teaching
Teaching gives you confidence in your own understanding of concepts. As part of Ashoka’s PhD programme, scholars have mandatory teaching assistantships, called TA-ships, wherein they assist professors in lecturing undergrad students. Both Jitendra and Samayita have been doing TA-ships at Ashoka, and they have truly enjoyed their interactions with brilliant curious young minds. They both attribute their love for teaching to the great mentors and teachers they have had. In fact, both of them see themselves as researchers and teachers in the future.
Jitendra adds a good dash of his research experience when he teaches and thus connects well with his students. “I love experimenting with my teaching methods. I also like to diversify into new topics when I teach,” he says.
“I think the best thing I can do is make a person who does not like history, start liking history,” says Samayita with inspiring confidence, “People find history boring because it is not taught in the right way… I feel really good when I get through a grumpy kid who hates history—who ends up writing an excellent term paper at the end of the semester.”
Facilities provided by the university
Ashoka’s open culture and flexibility encourage scholars to explore new research areas. There is ample support available to scholars should they get stuck on their research problems. The mentorship and resources—for example, the library—are incredible here.
“The funding is great; stipends are good, and we have decent travel grants to attend conferences and workshops, so there’s really nothing to complain about,” says Jitendra. Samayita has a similar viewpoint about the university, “Coming from a low-maintenance lifestyle that scholars get used to at public universities, the situation here is quite different and comfortable.”
Living through the journey
Stress is bound to strike when you are into research because even if you are doing everything right, your expectations may not be aligned with the circumstances—Murphy’s law can come to surprise you anytime.
Samayita, in this conversation, recollects the dreaded old days of 2020, saying that the beginning of the covid pandemic hit really hard, “Imagine a student of archaeology not being able to go to the field.” In her words, “Know that this too shall pass… Just keep at it—find a way to work around the failures and go around the roadblocks.”
“A project could last for years, or you may get stuck in the middle of it,” says Jitendra. “Just do it—you need to learn to finish what you started!” he adds.
The PhD journey may be uncertain, but what’s certain is that you learn to persevere, juggle multiple projects at the same time, and meet deadlines—sometimes really tight ones. Plus, you learn to be really comfortable with yourself because there are long stretches of time when you’re your only friend, the only one motivating yourself. And, one must remember that there’s no shame in taking a break every once in a while—be kind to yourself!
Chilling with friends and colleagues, watching Netflix, Prime, and random YouTube videos, and traveling are some of the common ways to unwind for them. Jitendra likes attending social events in his free time. Samayita believes as long as her mobility needs are taken care of (which are, thanks to her career choice as an archeologist), she is happy. She enjoys organizing heritage walks to historical sites apart from going places—literally and metaphorically.
Approach to networking
Networking is crucial for personal as well as professional growth—expanding your friend circle or establishing contacts for collaborations.
“I take a genuine interest in what people do and reciprocate their enthusiasm when I talk to them—I am naturally curious. Mutual interest is what makes a conversation grows, and I believe it happens quite naturally for me,” says Samayita. “The funny thing is the world is a dot in academia. I know so many peers already—from Presidency, DU, and JNU. It doesn’t really feel that I’m meeting a new person,” she adds.
Jitendra enjoys connecting with people he meets at conferences and workshops and wherever he travels for leisure. “I have got friends who are researchers, administrators, and whatnot! Talking in terms of career, a strong network will only help you grow in your career.”
Lessons and advice to young scholars
“I am a statistics person—I believe in a good sized-sample space—that’s what I’d suggest you follow… Talk to as many people as you can—don’t form a perception based on the limited number of interactions,” says Jitendra. So, keep observing your surroundings and outgrow the box you are surrounded by—break the mold.
Samayita touched upon a different angle of PhD journey—it is not a 9-to-5 job; there are days when you are constantly working, and there are days when you are ruminating. “PhD requires a strong commitment, so you really have to like what you’re doing, otherwise it’s not worth it,” she says.