The PhD Journey, so far: Rest of the story

I left off yesterday, having recounted my confused journey into IIT-Bombay.

Of the many things, the first semester there inspired me, was to learn. Even now, the “research-bug” is absent, but the “knowledge bug” is there. I feel, there is a subtle difference among the two, I love attending classes, and working out assignments and tests. The goal there is clear in front of me: to learn the concept. The bigger picture is also there, these concepts are useful in practice, there are companies out there, which use this knowledge to do what they do. But, when it comes to research, the bigger picture is on a much larger canvass, and I have failed to grasp it in totality.[1]

Research was a new thing, that I had never tried before, and I dived into it, in my 2nd semester at IIT. Alongside, with this new-found passion for “learning”, I spent a lot of time on the coursework, dissecting it and learning much more from it that was taught in the class.

The God of Confusion, was not too pleased with me, and decided to muddle me up again.

One of the positives out of RVCE that I took with me, was the fun and excitement and satisfaction I got, involving myself in organizing events. The placement coordinator work that Parry and I got to do, was perhaps the icing on the cake. Perhaps, the most satisfying moment in my life, was the night, after getting the job, when RP came and hugged me, and thanked me for my efforts that day.

Towards the end of the second-semester, I saw the notice for M.Tech Placement Nominee for IIT. On a whim, I applied. I had not given much thought to placements after coming to IIT, nor had I any idea about the placement scenes for Masters student in the campus. I had, no idea, about the enormity of the job either. Placement team work in RV, had given me some ideas about recruiting practices in India, and I thought, they would probably be useful in IIT aswell.

I almost forgot about the interiew as well. On the day of the interview, I was told to come to the placement office, and I did not know where it was. I asked a random student on campus and got to the interview. Somehow, I managed to impress the panel, even though, I hardly knew about the responsibilities that I would be getting into. Later that evening, when I came to know that I had actually gotten the job, I really drowned in the excitement. It was supposed to be one of the most important student jobs in the campus, I was in a position of extreme responsibility and had a chance to make a difference in the campus.

Over the summer, and slowly over the fall semester, placement work started taking the priority. I was occupied for long parts of the day, making calls to companies, speaking with alumni, HR, other contacts, meeting professors, making arrangements for pre-placement-talks, coordinating our team etc etc. It was becoming, nearly a full time job. More than one weeknights were also spent meeting with the team to discuss what to do, how to do etc. It was fun and I was immensly enjoying it.

During the free time that I had, I worked on research, and churned out a few ideas, wrote some code and did some analysis. It did not turn out to be top-grade research, but was much better than satisfactory. In hindsight, I think, the work was good, because, I dedicated a much lesser time to it, and concentrated only on research during that time. Now, that I have to be a researcher 24X7, my mind drifts to thousand other things, and I end up writing posts like this!

Listening to PPT’s of almost all companies that visit the campus, the efforts to plan, organize and coordinate a placement procedure for 1000 students, instilled a false confidence in me, that I will be very good in the corporate world. But, it was not to be, and for various reasons, I was not considered by around 5-6 companies that I applied to, during the first week of placements.

Sometime amidst this placement duties, my “interest” had drifted towards work again. I had taken a lot of math and statistics courses during my 2nd and 3rd semester, and I wanted to work for one of the statistics/math based companies. After the first week, interview fiasco, I decided to look for jobs in companies that have refused to come to campus, but was working in the general area that I was interested in. I needed references in my resume, and wanted to use a few contacts of my advisers in applying for some of the companies.

I approached them for this, after a pretty lengthy joint meeting, discussing the work. That started a 1 hour lecture session by Prof SCP and VP, urging me to take up PhD. Within an hour, they had decided the people I should look to work with in the US (and they are the biggest names in my research area here), and offered to write incredible reccommendations for me, and also decided to put up personal notes of reccommendation to the biggies in the US. I never had such confidence in myself, as my advisers had in my skills.

When people you respect the most in the world, give you advice, you do not discard it, and I was off to Belgaum to get my UG university transcripts in a week and apply for a PhD. The speed at which all this happend still amazes me. I met my advisers, probably on 10/12/06, and I was done with my applications by 25/12/06. Placements had a 10 day break in december, and in that window, I finished applying to grad school. Anyone who has applied can guess how quick that was!

Deja vu!!!

A year before, I had no coherent reason to join IIT. There was the instinct to take up masters after the interview. And in 12/06, the same instinct, peppered by my adviser’s advice.

The UW admit came in January, and the wheels were turning for my departure to grad school in the US.

The last semester in Madison, was pretty bad, and I saw myself recreating many “what-if” I had done that kind of questions. I could not put together long stretches of time at work, and began to question my instinctive decision again.

Twice, I had given up jobs to be in academics. Twice, I had decided in the last moment to get to graduate school. And after four years into grad school, at two different places, being advised by two really great people in the field that I am working in, I still do not know, if I made the wrong decision twice, or the correct one twice.

I seriously contemplated dropping off, and finally get that job, that I have been yearning for. But, I know, I will not be able to do it, because I am still stuck in-between. I will miss school and research in a job, and I will yearn for a real world job in school.

[1]I know that the trick is to understand that developments is the sum total of many researcher’s efforts. I know that the small simulations that I work with, will present a clearer insight into the problem, and somewhere down the line, the results will actually be used to do something practical and useful. Still, the fact that I am not working on a “real” world problem rankles me. At the same time, the “idea” driving my research project prods me, because, somewhere, far far away in time, there may be a practical implementation. This dichotomy, shows it’s nasty face, now and again, urging me to drop research and look for jobs in the industry using contemporary tools to solve today’s problems sometimes and urging me to invest my skills in developing novel tools to solve tomorrow’s problems some-other times. The sad part is, neither of the urges is the clear winner, giving me a creepy feeling that had I been working someplace now, I would have written a similar post.

  1. #1 by Vinay on February 11, 2009 - 11:08 am

    Welcome to the club of pensive PhDs. You have to experience this dilemma that you have mentioned towards the end of your blog. Else, you aren’t considered worth the degree.

    Have you seen the Cadbury Bournville advertisement? Their tagline is… You can’t just eat it, you have to earn it.
    That’s the same with the PhD. You can’t just get the degree, you have to earn it.

    Best wishes from a similarly troubled grad student.

  2. #2 by Ankur Gupta on February 15, 2009 - 3:47 am

    Nice post. I acknowledge that the possibility that one year from now, I end up writing similar posts is present in its absolute entirety. Nevertheless, I can say that I have felt a similar dichotomy in its various morphologies and realized that this world is not custom designed to suit one’s needs, and that this sense of having made a wrong decision would still be present if you made a different choice. Sooner or later you realize that this marauding feeling of a mistake may not necessarily be an expression of your intuition but could rather be plain old-fashioned self-doubt masquerading as one.

    And quite frankly someone who can express his own feelings this clear in writing ought to know this by now. I do not wish to attempt to discount your life experience till now, nor do I aim at establishing superiority of mine over yours. I do wish, however, to speak my mind, and if I didn’t know better I’d say that you like being in this state of un-decidedness.

    Now, if I write such a post one year from now, please don’t rub it in my face. πŸ™‚

  3. #3 by kaushik on February 15, 2009 - 7:19 am

    I had to read your comment twice to understand what you said, go easy with those words πŸ™‚

  4. #4 by Ammalu on February 15, 2009 - 8:24 am

    I enjoyed the post(the comment too).Hope u keep stumbling up on more interesting and profound things in life so that u can blog abt it…HeHeHe… i am such a jealous person πŸ˜‰

  5. #5 by kaushik on February 15, 2009 - 10:36 pm

    @vinay: you worked for a year before you joined PhD. I am sure that would have helped in making your choice.

    For me, having never worked, I have no other experiences to compare my PhD experience with. IMO this worsens the confusion at times.

    I think that spending some time in a workplace will help you appreciate grad school.

    @ankur: I guess you are fresh into grad school, and still are in the dreaming stage of a great, highly impactful PhD. For me to get out of this un-decided state is to experience a work-place. Hopefuly, my internship this summer will clear matters, one way or the other. Just for that reason, I sincerely hope that I get an internship.

    @ammalu: when you are bored, you self-reflect πŸ™‚ I also hope i have more stories coming out of such self reflection sessions.

  6. #6 by Ramsu on March 14, 2009 - 12:28 am

    Welcome to the club! I was a card carrying member not too long ago, now I’m an old coot looking back with fondness on a period that I wasn’t always fond of when I was going through it πŸ™‚

    A Prof I know told us this: Considering how a good number of us enter academia after the PhD and don’t get paid all that well, it’s like we have no clue about rational decision making. We give up present income and enter a PhD programme, in order to have the privilege of giving up future income as well.

    But you know what, looking back, it’s been worth it.

    When you’re done with your Masters, you have some idea of how to solve problems, and how to learn new techniques to solve them. Armed with that knowledge, you can actually do a lot in the industry, and do it well. What a PhD teaches you is how to find those problems to solve in the first place. It teaches you to slow down, in a sense. It’s a good skill to have. If slowing down appeals to you, that is πŸ™‚


    • #7 by Kaushik on March 14, 2009 - 3:24 am


      The last sentence about PhD was brilliant! Even in school, there are some good researchers and some bad ones, and the good ones almost always have the knack of finding the “correct” problem. I am amazed with my advisers problem selection. Almost every student graduated by him have advanced the knowledge in the field i work in by leaps and bounds…

      My worry presently is what if I never learn that trick. When your PhD asks questions at you…it asks you questions in torrent…

      Thanks for your comment!

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