Getting a PhD is tough..


This is my third year into my PhD. I still have a hard time believing it’s already been two years at Stanford. It just seems like I got here yesterday.

Lately I’ve been feeling the stress of this PhD business. So far, I’d been taking life easy. I’d run, bike etc. Not that I don’t do those activities now – it’s just that they’ve become part of the routine now – and not the main focus. I’ve been thinking of my PhD more and spending more time working/reading etc.

When I was back at IIT Madras, and was planning to go do a PhD, I would imagine the glorious days of problem solving, giving talks, doing experiments and writing papers. What my human mind didn’t imagine in the equation were the long days of frustrating failed experiments and the equally long nights of tossing and turning, trying to figure out why something wasn’t working. Which brings me to the my point – I had thought getting a PhD would be easy. Why not, I’d be at Stanford, I’d have a smart advisor, and I’d just breeze through my five or so years.

Turns out I was wrong.

As I progress through the years, and learn the ropes of this game, the more I realize how tough this is. Getting a PhD is not at all easy. I think I was very naïve to have believed that.

In some sense, I can draw analogy from my last week’s 100 mile bike ride. A week before the ride, PC and me were going through our strategy for the race. As we pored over the course map, we noticed that there was a smallish climb at mile 70. But it wasn’t unlike hills that we had climbed before. In fact, compared to the hills we had trained on, it was a climb which would have required one-third of the effort.

But when we actually came to the climb, it felt like we were climbing at an angle of 60 degrees. The tires wouldn’t move. No matter how much we stood up and pushed the pedals. At one point, both of us cramped over in pain, drooped over our handlebars, looked up at the looming hill above us and wondered how in the world, would we ever scale this beast. And more importantly, why did it feel so huge now, even though we knew it wasn’t as bad on paper.

The thing we had under estimated was how exhausted we’d have become after 70 miles of riding. And we had to trained to climb hills – but only fresh legs. Not weary legs.

Now, second year into my PhD, I notice the smallest setback hitting me like a rock in the face. It’s been two years in the making and I can feel the strain. The novelty has worn off. The blind optimism has given way to mild cynicism. And I don’t see any signs of it getting better.

But like the hill at the 70th mile, this is just another brick wall to climb over. After we had taken a break for a couple of mins and realized that there was no way to go back, PC and me looked at each other and nodded. We clipped our feet onto the pedals and our asses back on to the saddle. And pushed. In the dead silence of the hills, one could only hear the silent groaning of muscular men, pushing onto their beasts. Silently urging their will onto their minds. And moving forward. One wheel revolution at a time.

And revolution by revolution, we passed dozens of other men and women, who had gotten off their bikes and were painfully pushing their bikes up the hill. We passed another who was kneeling over, trying to catch his breath. Another who cursed silently as he punched his thighs to ease the tight muscle cramp that had formed.

As I pushed my head down and pushed on the pedals slowly, I felt drops of sweat trickle down my back and my face. I opened my mouth and let out a guttural sound.

I could not give up.

This was what I was born to do.

I gritted my teeth and closed my eyes and thought of her.

Wish you were here.

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2 Responses to “Getting a PhD is tough..”

  1. Swathi October 14, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

    Very nicely articulated Saad. I can totally connect to this. 3rd year seems very different from my 2nd year. Although its been less than a year since I joined my lab, I am beginning to realize the naivete in me when I thought ‘oh, i totally want to do a PhD and be a part of the amazing era of great discoveries’ as an undergrad excited about research. Although the goal remains the same, its now equipped with a sense of reality – of how hard it is and how all you gotta do is to keep pushing and a part of the joy lies in just this – pushing as much as you can and much more.

    • Saad Bhamla October 17, 2012 at 10:00 pm #

      True Swati – I’m glad i’m not the only one. Thanks for making me feels less alone in this state..