By Radhika Bhaumik, Ph.D. Student Biology
As an enthusiastic and curious child, I had always been very interested in studying biology and its different aspects. I was very clear on making it in life by studying the different living entities that make this beautiful world what it is. Thus, when I started majoring in Microbiology during my undergraduate, I knew I had to move to the United States of America, as this place would allow me to acquire the best education in my field, provide me with a world-class infrastructure, and platform to give back to society. I am intrinsically very research-oriented. Not only was I aspiring to pursue a Ph.D. but I worked to research everything that I professionally needed to know to start things smoothly. So, I made sure I had a fully funded 5-year Ph.D. course, I had the savings to fend for a month before my salary was deposited, and I had a teaching assistantship that would support me to live in the USA. But I was yet to know certain aspects about pursuing my higher education in this country that no person gets ready for until one has started living in the states.
- You are as good as any other student– As an international student in the USA, the perception about people here is that they are smarter beyond reach. Students generally start going through imposter syndrome. They think that they don’t belong here, or that they don’t deserve it. Some students cope with this by working extra hard or even tolerating toxic behavior from colleagues. They feel they have been chosen from a different country to prove their abilities and thus torture themselves to establish their worth. This affects their mental health and well-being and further plunges them into darkness. Something I learned from staying about one and half years in this country is that every person should be treated equally. They should never tolerate any condescending and patronizing attitude from anybody just because they are from a different country or otherwise. Every student here is equal and different in their special ways. It is their talent, that paved way for the opportunities to study in the USA and it is with their remarkable aptitude, zeal to collaborate, and passion to grow that they will embark on their journey towards success.
- Living life as a student metamorphosizes you as an independent individual– Being a graduate student itself brings in its set of challenges. One is in a hybrid state of being a student and an employee. We are trying to learn, understand, analyze, and discover whilst also taking courses, doing assignments, and teaching undergraduate students. Life is tough, and sometimes striking a balance can feel arduous. But it was with my experience living here did I realize that, apart from handling my professional life, taking care of myself was also a mammoth job to perform. Indian students generally live with their parents, until they go to college. Even then, most of their chore is taken care of. We have college pantries to feed us, helpers to take care of our laundry, and easily available public transportation to move around places. Staying here made me realize how important it is to not rely on anybody to do our work. I had to learn to cook from scratch, learn to do my dishes and my laundry, and get my driver’s license quickly to move around places in a car. It might feel overwhelming in the beginning, but eventually, it will make you stronger. Thus, starting to live here, molds one into a complete, confident individual that can face any fear head-on, a journey that is ever so gratifying.
- A student in the USA makes way for holistic growth– As I previously mentioned, living, and studying in the states develops an individual personally, it also makes way for other growth opportunities. As a human, and that too having certain privileges brings upon anyone the responsibility of giving back to society. We should always strive to learn how we can give back to people through our knowledge and help others out in every way possible. There are numerous volunteering opportunities here that one can be a part of, to associate with others. I was the treasurer of Women for Change (Women4Change) which advocates for the right of women’s engagement, women’s education, and women empowerment. I was the School of Science Multidisciplinary representative and worked together with the Biology Graduate Organization in my department to help biology graduate students, navigate through any professional hurdles, and organize fun events that could make them relax, and relieve stress. I am currently the student representative of the Indiana Branch of the American Society for Microbiology which makes me a liaison, addressing any concerns, of Microbiology students from different universities across Indiana to the authorities of the state branch. And there are ample organizations like these across campus that are waiting for eager students to join in and volunteer. It is something I did not come across in India, and therefore I highly recommend every student to get involved in making their student life a little more multifaceted than just books and assignments.
- Every result tells you a little secret– As Ph. D students we strive to present a thesis after 5 years that will be ground-breaking. A 3-chapter document that is hailed to be superlative research done, winning praises from every committee member. But in the real world, hardly that is the truth. Research feels like a never-ending journey comprised mostly of failures with sudden sparks of success. As I have habituated myself to this idea, people here have trained me to listen to the secrets of all my results. Just like my positive results reinforce the “might-be” story, my negative results also speak of a “different story”, an overlooked secret. It is important to think of why your experiment is failing, it is important to consider all the factors accountable and troubleshoot at every level. My PI made me repeat a PCR 15 times by changing 15 different factors to see which is failing me, just to reach my desired goal. Ph. D might be one of the few jobs that teach a person that “Failure is the best teacher”. Thus, rather than whining about experiments failing, patiently scrutinize them. It might shed the light on the unnoticed.
- Your PI is your colleague– As Indian students, we are normalized to treat anybody above us in rank to be our superiors. We have a hierarchy that we gladly maintain. We have our PIs that we regard and fear, who have the potential to make or break our careers. So, when I moved to the USA and met my PI, the biggest cultural shock to me was when he demanded I address him by his first name. Generally, PIs in the state do not wish to exert a hierarchical equation with their graduate students. They are very compassionate, they empathize with their students, high-five them on success, and sometimes also invite them over for dinner and drinks. They think of graduate students as their colleagues, going through a rigorous training phase to reach their position. Having said that they are extremely particular about getting result updates if and when required. So, the stress and worry stem more from juggling every aspect of graduate life rather than having a difficult boss.
In conclusion, a Ph.D. or Master’s life is multifarious. It is stressful on its own but beautiful when you gain so much in the end. It is also important amidst everything, to take care of your mental health and give yourself the necessary time every day. Remember, the motto of riding a Ph.D. journey is not to endure but enjoy to its last bit.