Last week I was talking to a fellow graduate student. This particular graduate student and I do not meet very often. Yet we share the bonds and camaraderie of ones going through their PhD programs. During the conversation we both realized that we do not know too many details of one-another’s lives, yet we could safely assume that during the few years we been in our degree programs, we have all been through some of the worst phases of our lives. And we learnt to live through them.
I am close to the end of my program. In a PhD program, the end is not an event. The end is a process. And I am at the beginning of the end. I can share some reflections.
The graduate degree is not about the thesis or the manuscript you write. Nor is it only about the certificate that you get at the convocation ceremony. It is training for life. You learn to deal with expectations, colleagues, and superiors, manage work, and life. You learn about the ephemeral nature of it all. You grow, and each year you count the things you have done in the last year. You realize you have not done lots, but you made some unexpected advancements.
Each of us has been through a time frustrating phase. At least on one occasion it gets so hard, that you feel like giving up. There also are some unexpected achievements. There are unexpected failures too. And then there are lessons in learning how to handle both of them.
I have put myself through very awkward situations. There were times when I was asked to leave people’s offices. (OK, this needs explanation: my work revolves around tiger conservation in India, and that can be a touchy issue for some people. Worse, I use very unorthodox methods. Some people didn’t like it.) When people were showing me the door, I learnt to not let it bother me.
I learnt to stay afloat. I learnt to live in a strange country, as a foreigner, as a visible minority, in a small town, where I would not know how to handle an emergency. To begin my program, I had to leave behind all I had: my family, friends, a real job. I learnt to live without them, and they learnt to live without me. And then I adjusted to a new country. And then I left it to go back to a home country that was now almost alien to me. I lived out of bag. I stayed in strange places: once sharing a room with a stranger for nearly a month. This was close to a dense forest and there were often wild boars and leopards outside, and the door was broken and could not be locked. I stayed there quite long. I learnt to live there.
I often made friends. But for each friend I made, another would graduate and leave. It is a cruel time, that one. But I learnt to let go.
I picked up obsessions: exercise, music, friends, Facebook, sitcoms, dance. I also learnt to live without these obsessions.
I find myself 4-5 years older, with only a prospective degree to show for it. My contemporaries moved on long ago. They found real jobs, real things to do. They started families, became grown ups. I somehow stayed put, while they made real homes.
And yet, the experience has made me a stronger person. Somehow, my degree, coupled with all the other experiences, has made a different person. I traveled. I learnt to be more tolerant, less judgmental, more adaptive, less complaining, more compassionate, more stoic, more staid. Part of this growth could be attributed simply to age and maturity. But I understand my own self a little better.
At the end, it will have been worth it.