Everything does pass, and we can endure and we can survive!! – Rahul Dravid
I have to inform the reader that these are musings of a graduate student in a typical U.S. university. When doing Ph.D. in Indian universities, one rarely has to teach while doing research. On the other hand, almost all students who have been in a science or mathematics Ph.D. program in U.S. typically teach one or several semesters while doing research rest of the time. The life of a graduate student then, comprises of being a teaching and research assistant. In the title of this section I have adopted the title ‘Piled Higher and Deeper’ from a popular series of comics aimed at the graduate student audience – ‘Ph.D.comics‘. The title conveys several things a student goes through – life in the university, life as a teaching assistant (TA), life as a researcher, life at home and one is ‘piled’ up all the way through in all of these aspects. I will recollect some of these aspects below.
Another article of mine reflected on my non-academic experiences in the U.S., and my musings on the american culture. To stop short of selling myself, I would encourage the reader to read that article to provide a complementary side of my stay in Madison!
I have to admit that the present reflections as a teaching assistant are mostly related to amusing incidents that have made my role more memorable. On a serious note, many will agree with me that one only learns a topic when they are able to teach it. Although I secured much ‘bookish’ knowledge in my Master’s degree, I realized that I had to start from the very basics in order to first understand a topic myself in order to be able to teach it. Apart from this, I faced other barriers in the initial part of my teaching experience. One was the intimidating feeling of standing in front of a group of people (popularly known as ‘stage fright’), another was the change of culture and learning to understand the accent (in spite of I being a Hollywood movie buff), a third was the prospect of grading a mountain of student homework, quizzes and exams. Typically once or twice a semester, the teaching assistant is evaluated by students in terms of how effectively the TA has taught, and whether he/she is approachable, punctual etc.
Interestingly enough, when my evaluation scores came during the first semester, I was amused to find that students found everything in me quite acceptable, except my grading style. They judged me to be a ‘harsh’ grader. What that means is that I have not given them credit for their effort, even if their final answers were wrong. I have to admit that that is entirely not my doing. For sixteen years of my life, the education system in India is such that the teacher typically crosses out an answer if the final answer is not correct, and if you are lucky, there will be few teachers who will fairly give you credit for the part of the answer that is correct. I had done so, but they were not satisfied that I had given them no credit for the ‘effort’ even if it landed in the wrong answer. Also they complained that I did not provide feedback to support my harsh grading style. I smiled to myself, and told myself that how I wish my teachers had given me feedback every time they crossed out even my partially right answers. I did change my grading style to a more lenient one, and one where I gave more feedback, and also spent more time with students on one-on-one basis. I enjoyed these sessions thoroughly and wished we have smaller classes in India to encourage such things.
Another amusing time was when I came to the TA office one day early morning at 8 am all ready, fresh and perked up for a discussion at 9.10 am. I had my notes prepared, and I was looking forward to a good discussion session. I also had an assignment due in one of my graduate courses that morning, and I had to complete a last bit of it. I did so by 8.30 or so, and for whatever earthly reason, completely blanked out about my teaching duties as I got absorbed in some problem in my course-work. Time passed by, and at 9.30 am, two of the students from the class dropped by my desk to enquire whether there was to be a discussion. Oh the horror of the lapse in my memory! I am certain that she saw my face go pale. I smile at this tragic memory loss of mine, but at the time, I nearly had a panic attack. That was the last time I decided to work on a problem close to an hour of teaching. Anecdotes aside, I have made very good friends with my batchmates, and I think the teaching experience enhanced interactions not only in teaching courses, but also in discussing our research.
Reflecting on my role as a research assistant, it was very different. I had to learn to be more independent, and incorporate some sort of discipline to carry out my research in parallel with my teaching duties. I had some experience doing research during my time at IISc, but managing it with teaching duties is a different ordeal altogether. A third part of your life has to do with managing domestic work, something again that is rare in an Indian university scenario, where typically students live in campus hostels and do not need to manage domestic work. An amusing side to doing research is how it trains you to coin technical terms for something that’s perfectly simple to say. The following comic in the Ph.D. comics series comes to my mind – The sentence “Workspace augmentation of photon impingement through impurities removal” that means to say “washing the laboratory’s windows”. The comic has a different message to it, portraying the graduate student as a slave to the supervisor, which however the reader need not care about.
Well, it is fun to do this sometimes to just tax your brain to say simple things in a stressfully sophisticated way. On a more serious note, being a research assistant is almost a privileged role, because he/she is being paid to learn. Graduate years are some of the most enjoyable years in one’s life, I think, for there is no other comparable time that is otherwise free of responsibility (apart from that you have towards your research), free of administrative duties (imagine how many things a professor takes care of), or free of social obligations (this depends on the research group, but ideally there are none). I personally think that the freedom and independence that comes with it are worth the frustrations that come with research. Research may sound frustrating, but usually life gets interesting only when things don’t act in an expected way. I learnt this attitude somewhat during the later years of my Ph.D., and it is not easy to see this in the first few months of starting research. With constant pressure to publish, graduate students these days don’t always have the proper mentorship that teaches them the pleasures of doing research. Often, the students have to see it for themselves as they gain experience.
What should a Ph.D. degree give you? What has it given me? Before I direct you to my case, I encourage visiting this link about depicting Ph.D. in pictures. As it is mentioned in the end, it is important to keep in mind, that doing science does not mean losing perspective on life. Science cannot explain everything, and Albert Einstein said, “It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” Certain things are only to be experienced; science may not be able to articulate them in a way that conveys the same meaning. I would say that Ph.D., without doubt, enhances your research skills such as asking meaningful questions, model-building capabilities, problem-solving skills, sense of constructive critique, appreciating the power of rational thought, and confidence to tackle a new problem. In my case, I feel that I have learnt a bit of each of these qualities.