About being a Doctor
It's my graduation day!
A day of celebration, reminiscence, hope, and anticipation of a successful future. Of course, like most other major events of 2020, this one is being held virtually. It didn't stop me from wearing my graduation robes though, albeit through a custom-built Snapchat filter that my university arranged for.
On this joyous day, I want to congratulate all the UBC graduates of 2020. Despite these extraordinary circumstances, we made it.
In this post, I have captured some of my thoughts about what being a Doctor means to me. I have also reminisced about the past 5.5 years of being in a Ph.D. program.
The Convocation That Couldn't Be:
How do I feel on my graduation day? For a second, I want to forget that the highest degree I will ever receive is being conferred in a virtual convocation. Instead, I want to let my imagination fly. In a parallel universe, I am inside the giant halls of the convocation centre, surrounded by bright smiles and fancy regalia. I am standing in line by the commencement stage and waiting for my name to be called out. Simultaneously, I am trying to spot my family members in a crowd of cheering loved ones. I close my eyes. I take a mental snapshot of this moment, a mere few seconds before I will officially be a Doctor.
It feels great in real life too though, reaching the milestone I have strived to reach for a long time. A pleasure to be welcomed into a distinguished club of members and share with them a title that symbolizes credibility, persistence, and curiosity. It's a huge responsibility to bear and an immense honour to wield.
It took a while:
This day takes me back to my first baby steps towards reaching this milestone. The time before I even arrived in Vancouver, starting with the following email from UBC.
Since that day, it has been quite a ride!
While I was busy figuring out the mechanism of carbohydrate digestion by human gut bacteria, humanity witnessed so many milestones: the world ground to a halt overcome by a deadly pandemic, Greta Thunberg and Boyan Slat inspired us with their passion, India became the lowest-cost producer of solar power, the Amazon rainforest burnt for weeks, and millions of women around the world stood together to say Me Too.
It was a long while, but well worth it.
Since the time I first glanced through the little window by my work desk, I have seen the building next to ours completely transform- it got evacuated, torn down, cleared of all debris, rebuilt, and re-inhabited into a research facility. All the while, my life as a graduate student went on, day-by-day.
Today, if I could appear in front of myself on day 1, I would tell myself- "fold up that to-do list and stick it in the drawer, you can never plan for what's about to come."
What was it all about?
When asked what my Ph.D. research topic was, I have to consciously stop myself from diving into the very niche topic of a very niche subject of a very niche discipline. It's amazing how much there is to learn, even after having spent three decades learning. To be honest, the more you learn, the more you know how much there is to learn.
To those curious about what exactly a Ph.D. program entailed for me, it had two distinct (yet equally impactful) aspects:
The technical aspects-
- Take up a topic I know nothing about
- Refine a set of questions that need to be answered
- Figure out the precise methods to answer them through incessant experimentation
- Achieve and replicate results
- Be able to clearly communicated (through written and oral media) the literature background, hypotheses, experimental details, results, and implications of my research.
- Write a 200-page dissertation to capture 5.5 years of work
The psychological aspects-
- Navigate through the crushing blows of Impostor syndrome
- Learn about other people's work and seek out collaborators
- Deal with bouts of writer's block
- Receive feedback and critiques ranging from helpful to decimating
- Maintain sanity despite working weekends and holidays (exceptions apply)
- Maintain intricate workmate relationships
- Come to terms with failed experiments and wasted time
Was it worth it? Maybe. Mostly. Yes.
Through backbreaking labour, this experience has humbled me in so many ways. It has taught me how to be curious and analytical, constantly question my own biases and assumptions, parse out true knowledge from popular rhetoric.
I grew as a person, estimating my true worth and not settling for anything less. The ability to solve problems by simultaneously focusing on the big picture and the minute details would be of lifelong use to me.
A couple of bankable skills graduate students walk away with after completing their doctoral theses are reading and writing. The hours upon hours of literature review, outlining, reference management, editing drafts, and formatting have truly been some of the most rewarding experiences of my graduate program.
Through the doctoral graduate program, I also experienced building a project from a blank Word file and producing original research work to the satisfaction of well-established academics. I found my creativity rising along with the challenges. Dealing with uncertainty has never been my strong suit, but after years of not knowing what I am doing, I am now confident of my ability to see things through to the end. I would definitely refer back to this experience when faced with seemingly unconquerable situations in the future.
I thoroughly enjoyed the academia bubble while I was in it. The flexible work hours, intellectual conversations, and subsidized services are all things I would miss. The experience of being a scientist will, I am certain, help me be a more compassionate member of my community as I take on leadership positions, share knowledge and facilitate change collectively.
This research program has been the longest relationship in my life so far. A deeply transformative one that has tested my patience years upon years, and to which I have invested countless hours, tending to its very fickle temperament. But unlike many actual challenging relationships, this one came through- for the lifetime.
You're Wrong About:
Contrary to popular belief, one does not necessarily need to fall into the "genius" category (whatever that means) of the population to be a Doctor of Philosophy. One does not even need to be particularly passionate about their research topic throughout their term (most Ph.D. students aren't, from what I have heard). All it takes is a lot of curiosity, patience, and luck.
The misconception around Ph.D. students and graduates being unsociable, standoffish nerds is also very misinformed. The wonderful colleagues I have come across in the last few years all have dynamic lives, varied interests, and complex personalities. In other words, we are dope!
There is so much more to being a Ph.D. student than is generally believed. Apart from classes, research, and teaching, there are on-campus opportunities to participate in your areas of interest. Joining student groups, speaking in conferences, collaborating with organizations across the globe are just a handful of examples.
We also do not all want to be professors. I have been very fortunate to interact with folks from various backgrounds that have crossed the boundaries of disciplines and taken on roles far from their academic specializations.
On this day of joy and celebration, I wish all the graduates a successful future filled with integrity and satisfaction. May we all work towards creating a better future for the leaders of tomorrow while serving our communities of today.
I, for one, would be wearing my virtual Doctor hat today, walking a nonexistent stage, and waving my imaginary degree certificate.
Cheers to knowledge, science, and a lifetime of being a Doctor!