Contrary to whatever you have been hearing lately, No! We PhD students are not mentally deranged! Well, at least not to begin with. The nature of research and how academia is organized, however, could lead to students facing extreme professional pressures. But that’s just the proverbial ‘tip of the iceberg’. What is often forgotten is the human side of it all.
There is a common belief that genius induces madness. Cantor, Boltzmann, Nash are a few among many such examples. The line between the genius and crazy, is very fine and hazy, they say. It has been popularized further by shows like Big Bang Theory. However, these are just exceptional cases. Most of us in the scientific community are just trying to make our place. We are not all grappling with fundamental laws of the nature. Our struggles are much more real than that.
The most basic struggle faced by PhD students is the rapid depreciation of self-worth. The difference in the average intelligence between your research colleagues and those before PhD is understandably huge. This is the kind of environment where even a student graduated from IIT Kharagpur (reputed Indian institute with one of the toughest entrance tests in the world), and Stanford University can be considered « subpar ». The unrelenting scrutiny and one-upmanship of the scientific community in conferences and seminars, beats down even the best.
To further dent the self-worth, at this age, most of our friends are settling into family lives. While some PhD students do manage to have a family, it only adds to financial troubles and destroys work-life balance. This makes us feel like a professional, as well as a social, under-achiever. Social stereotyping and the supposed « uselessness » of our work just amplifies those feelings.
The final nail in the coffin of self-worth is the powerlessness of a PhD student vis-a-vis the PhD supervisor. Being a supervisor is a post of great responsibility and it is rightly given only to a selected few. However, this results in supervisors who are way ahead of students’ in terms of knowledge, experience and scientific standing. A PhD student therefore is almost a dispensable commodity for a professor. We are the minions. The responsibility of the supervisor, just like that of a teacher, is to not give up on the student. However, they have little punishment if they fail to do so. Of course, in most cases, its beneficial for the supervisor to not invest any of his time or resources on the student and concentrate them elsewhere. But this leaves the student vulnerable to abandonment by professor. I was lucky. I had an ideal professor, who helped me out of jams, and invested his time with me without thinking of returns. But many of my fellow PhD students were not..
You might say, hey, its the same everywhere. Everyone has a boss, and most of them are pricks. Unlike normal organizations, however, a PhD student cannot change his PhD midway. Its a contract which only ends after the PhD is defended, and the thesis supervisor has a big role to play in it. An abandoned student could thus be stuck in a limbo of self deprecation for a long time before being put out of misery. And it only gets worse as time passes.
There are no solutions to this. Its the natural equilibrium, because its efficient, at the expense of a few students. That’s the working model of the world! Thankfully we have PhD comics to let us know we are not alone.
As a society however, we need to cut some slack for PhD students. And please, stop calling us ‘mental’ just because we’ll kill for a PhD! It has nothing to do with our religion or origin as some trump supporters might like to believe.