The Subtle Problem of Exclusion

My story is a collection of my experiences and some “subtle” issues that I faced during my PhD. I intentionally call these issues “subtle” because for a lot of people, the things which bothered me wouldn’t even be noticed. When I used to share these with people around me, the reactions I got were more like

“These are not real problems!”

“This happens to everybody, so it’s normal and you are supposed to face this!”

“You should ignore it!” 

“People face much bigger issues, compared to those your life is very good. You should appreciate that!” 

I do agree that some of these are valid points and some of these are probably an attempt to make me feel better but none of these helped me. Instead, they caused me more discomfort and self-doubt.

When I started as an Integrated PhD student, I didn’t have much idea about my current field and neither was it my first preference. Also, a large part of the core coursework was a repetition of what I had studied during my undergraduate degree and there were not many options for advanced courses, so it did not help much in furthering my knowledge about any particular field of research. 

An added disadvantage was that we were not allowed to take any reading courses. However, this issue was resolved for the subsequent batches after we brought it up to the department and the director. I wanted to work in a field closely related to my current field, which has only one faculty at our institute and he was not taking any students at that time. So, I chose the second-best option, according to me. Being an Integrated PhD student, I had the option to explore a particular field during my Master’s programme, and switch if I wanted to after that. I got really interested in my current field while working on my Master’s thesis and it became my first preference. I also enjoyed working with my advisor and decided to continue my PhD under his supervision.

My experience with my advisor completely changed after I joined him as a PhD student. The first project I did in my PhD started with a calculation which I knew nothing about. I was told nothing about the purpose of that calculation. When I asked “What are these variables in this equation?” my advisor said “You don’t need to know, just do this calculation”. At that point, I thought maybe it’s difficult for him to explain the problem to me because I am not familiar with the field and I’ll learn as I go along. I did that calculation and after that, all the discussions I had with my advisor were only about calculations. 

Those calculations were a continuation of a work which my advisor and my senior had been doing. I had been reading about their earlier works to get familiarised with the field but they never discussed with me what we were doing. At times when I asked, “What exactly are we trying to do?” my advisor would say “Even I don’t know,” and that would be the end of that conversation. The first time he gave a different answer to that question was during my graduate seminar, when a faculty from the audience asked “What is your current project?” after I finished my presentation. I did not have an answer to that. He then explained what his thoughts were behind the project to that faculty in the audience. I felt very bad about not being able to answer that question and that was, I guess, the very beginning of my confidence dripping down. But honestly, at that time, I thought this is how it works and it is completely my fault that I did not have an answer to that question. 

I thought I’ll get to know the gist of the work as I do the calculations and by the end of the project, I’ll get a complete picture. As I worked through the calculations and looked at various references in the process, I did get to know about bits and pieces but I never got the full picture. My question to my supervisor remained the same and so did his answer. It’s completely understandable to not have a well-defined problem, but there’s always a background story to what one is calculating. Surprisingly, my supervisor never realised the importance of discussing them with me.  

I thought this was all fine. It only started bothering me when, after a point, there was hardly any direct interaction between my advisor and me. He would assign me calculations through my senior wherein he would send personal messages to my senior while scheduling the discussions and sometimes my senior wouldn’t even inform me about them (which I figured out much later). No wonder I couldn’t do the calculations! During the discussions I would attend, I’ll be looking at the board at a random set of calculations and listening to their conversations, which I obviously would not understand. I became so clueless that I couldn’t figure out what I did not understand. I started feeling frustrated but, I could not express that to my advisor as we did not share that kind of relationship where I could talk to him openly about what I feel. 

I decided to change the way things were going and for the first time, dared to talk to him about this. He said that the reason I felt uninvolved was because I was a junior and did not have enough experience. He also said that your juniors will feel the same when you will be more involved than them. Guess what, that time has not come yet. Even in my final year, I feel as uninvolved as I felt during the first year.

One day, after spending more than three hours in a discussion, I broke down, I ran out of my advisor’s office crying but neither my supervisor nor my senior cared to talk about it to me. My senior approached me but to my surprise, it was about a new set of calculations. He could ignore everything to the extent that he told me what calculation to do next while I was crying. The projects that followed the first one were worse. Similar to the first one, he did not tell me anything about the problems, rather for a large part of the project I didn’t even know that I was a part of it. I came to know that I was included in it when the project was at its final stage. To that, his justification was: “I thought not to disturb you because you were reading other things (the things which he did not have an account of) and you are familiar with the things in this project.” Also, my peers didn’t help me in these sorts of situations. My seniors (a PhD and a postdoc) who were also my friends and collaborators in that project chose to keep it as a secret (I don’t understand why and how it even makes sense to do such a thing). Being fully aware of what was happening; even after explicitly telling them my concerns and the frustration caused due to that, they acted as if they were least bothered.

Even now, my personal relationship with my advisor is not a very comfortable one. If at all I interact with him about anything else (which includes academic issues) other than the work, his behavior completely depends on his mood. I have never felt free to initiate any conversation with him other than work. Most times when we run into each other somewhere on the campus, he completely ignores me as if we are strangers. He wouldn’t talk to me during conferences, group dinners, and wouldn’t respond if I said something. 

To emphasise the awkwardness of our personal relationship, I would like to mention the lowest point of my PhD. I lost my father during my PhD and just after ten days, when I went back to the Institute, my advisor didn’t even ask about my well-being. I’ll be honest and say that I expected at least a “How are you?” from him, which also he didn’t care to ask. Even when I had to talk about it, since I had to visit my home frequently, he was so ignorant of my situation that I felt forced to say sorry to him for going home. He didn’t mind and reacted as if I should be sorry. I thought he would be considerate of the fact that I might not be in my best mental state and that might affect my work a bit, but he wasn’t. 

All this might give an impression that my advisor is an introvert and maybe that’s how he behaves with everyone, but that’s not true. His behaviour has been completely different with my senior. Also, I have seen my advisor being concerned about the problems of other members of the group. He would repeatedly ask them to approach him for any kind of issue.

My relationship with my advisor has mostly been a boss-employee one. The “guidance” part was always missing. I have co-authored papers with him but he neither treated me as a collaborator nor as his PhD student. He wouldn’t mind if I don’t interact with him for weeks or sometimes, a month. He would neither care nor give any suggestions about my preparation towards any of the important academic activities (graduate seminar, JRF to SRF and other talks). At the same time, he has an intimidating behaviour that has always left me feeling pressured to be able to deliver up to his expectations, be it a weekend, a holiday, or even when I am not in good health. Since most of my interaction with my advisor was through my senior, the rare criticism (or rather disappointment) I have received is through my senior. My advisor gave him so much authority that after a point he started behaving as my boss, where he independently assigned me work and deadlines and sometimes, even showed his anger and frustration towards me. 

For the most part, I had not been able to strike a work-life balance because in the beginning, my advisor told me to forget about my personal life if I want to work in this field. Although he never directly told me to withdraw from non-academic activities, he never himself distinguishes between personal time and work time. He always says that there is no concept of weekdays and weekends for him and it has been apparent in his behaviour and work-culture of our group. We have discussions over weekends, we are expected to work with the same efficiency over the weekends and holidays. I must say that my advisor himself works equally on weekdays and weekends. He is not expecting something which he doesn’t do but that doesn’t mean that his expectations are justified.

For a long time, in our group, all the members (including faculties) except me, belonged to the same region and spoke the same native language and hence, I always felt left-out whenever I was with them. They never cared about me feeling excluded. In fact, when I expressed my disagreement with their behaviour, instead of being sorry, some of them made me feel their “we don’t care” attitude. They got so comfortable with my discomfort that they would discuss physics in their native language even in my presence. I have always felt very isolated from the group. 

Being in this sort of environment I have had mental health problems. I have used the in-house counselling as well as external medical help. I have been on medication for a few months and I still consult the counsellor regularly. My experience with our institute counsellor has been mostly positive. It helped me a lot during the course of my PhD especially when the people around me made it more difficult for me to deal with my problems. Most of the people around me were bothered more about the possibility of me becoming addicted to the medicines rather than my health. I would like to mention the responses I got from people around me. The responses were:

“You know you should not use medication. You might become addicted to the medicines.”

“Are you sure you need medication?”

“You know doctors use fancy terms like “anxiety disorder” to scare you. There’s nothing like that. Everybody has anxiety.”

“Why do you have anxiety? You mostly seem happy.”

Some of them even explained to me how people think that they are going through depression, just because this term has become very common nowadays while actually it’s nothing. But apart from those, there were a few people who were actually concerned about my well-being and really helped me at that time. 

Although I was not happy with the way my PhD was going, I did not consider switching advisors because it was very late when I realised that the problems I had with my advisor are “real” problems rather than my exaggeration of the situation. I have spent the whole of my PhD in self-doubt and holding myself accountable for the problems I’ve faced. I always thought that I am not putting efforts to resolve the issues while it was my advisor who was ignorant to those. Regarding working with other faculties, my advisor has neither encouraged nor discouraged me to do or not to do anything. The only thing that he took responsibility for as an advisor is to try and make sure that I finish my PhD on time but, in his way of doing that, I lost all my confidence to the extent that I started doubting if I belong in academia.

It took me more than two years to muster the courage and open up about my problems to my advisor; to make him realise that there are problems. I don’t know how much improvement will that make to my remaining experiences of this journey. Our work-related conversations have improved a little but everything else is more or less, the same.

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