It was a very hot summer. As part of the unwritten curriculum, we undergraduate students were expected to do summer internships, for the long period of 3 months, outside our parent institute. As a naive second year, who hadn’t done an internship in the first year, I eagerly sent mails to many professors all over the country. Amidst the pile of rejection emails, a positive reply set my spirit high, and I committed the first mistake in ‘Mistakes in Academia 101’— stepping into the lion’s den without noticing the pile of bones behind the rock, i.e., choosing my professor without approaching people who had already worked under them. In my defense, they had no doctoral fellows or postdocs, not that I would have done that.
Let the first professor be ‘Prof. X’. Prof. X did all the formalities for me to be accommodated in their institute. And thus I set out, to a far off land, a place where the heat can claim you. We met, and they were put off since I seemed inadequate as I hadn’t had the relevant courses so that they could pose a problem and expect me to solve it. So they said, let it be a reading project, and suggested a book. After reading the portions they had suggested, they gave me another topic to read. This continued for quite some time-the changing of topics-they had no clue as to what I should be doing, and kept giving me random topics. Then they went away for an academic conference.
No guide, no friends. The people there spoke a different tongue. I was lost. During my brief stay there, another Professor there, who took interest in me, since we spoke the same language, suggested a book. So, I decided to settle on the book, read, and make a report about what I read from the book. Since I knew MATLAB, I made graphs of surfaces and curves, and added them to the report. I sent Prof. X an email, telling them that I was reading that book. Days passed, and I had to leave. My guide hadn’t returned yet, so I sent another email, asking when they would come back.
This is the reply I got:
“U take the sign of (another Prof) and leave the (institute) today itself. In case u r not doing any work and just gossiping around.
I don’t have time to answer your nonsense emails which are driven by other influences.”
So my schedule over there continued-wake up, eat, be the first person to go to the library, eat, library, eat, library, eat, library, and sleep in the room. And also, when I’m writing this, I know I have had depression, and have been diagnosed with panic disorder as well as generalised anxiety. Even then I was the same person, but I did not know what to call it then.
I was scared. Confused. I broke down. I sent them an email asking for forgiveness, and attached the half baked report. They said in the email that followed, “well done, you’ve done a good job. I’ll be back in a week”.
So I decided to not go to other institutes for internships, and do it from my own institute. Enter Prof. Y…
“It is all your fault.”
It stings every time my mother throws this remark at me. “My fault” was choosing to work with a very harsh project advisor. “My fault” was not being up to the standards he expected.
My depression is eager to put all the blame, of whatever that goes wrong, on me. (Like the planet is dying because you excrete carbon dioxide!”). With my mother and depression within my earshot, it is very hard to write this.
He was working on the same topic that I had wished to learn. Plus, I had been doing summer internships under him. Though they were hectic, I managed to get through them. He taught core subjects throughout my major year classes. He was rigorous and hardworking.
So, I chose to work under Prof. Y. When I asked him if I could work under him, I was welcomed with a red flag (the race began even before the whistle blew).
“I don’t usually take in female students. I would shout and they might cry.”
Before I could process the statement, he talked about the projects that could be done, and chose a topic he thought would be good for me. I agreed.
In the earlier days of the project, when he talked terribly about his previous student, I pondered, is this how he’d talk about me in the future?
He put forward a strict routine: I should be at my working place by 9 am and could only leave by 5 pm. I tried to stick to it as much as I could. During the discussions, he was evidently dissatisfied with my progress, though he wouldn’t say that outright. But he’d slip in comments on how lazy I was how incompetent I was, how I could not do maths, as it could be only done by the talented few.
I took them in, the criticisms, and tried to work harder. But at the back of my mind, the voice whispered,
“You can’t do this.”
Trouble started brewing when he saw me having food with my friends. He told me during our discussions about how my friends are possibly keeping me from doing work. I didn’t question him. I told my friends of my position, after which we’d be on a look-out to avoid getting caught during our meetings.
My cubicle was visible to those who passed through the corridors. I knew he’d check if I’m in my place, and alone. I was scared to go out to the washroom, for twice he “caught” me, he looked at me with scorn. And he shouted at me during the evening discussions. I limited my water intake, I’d look for his car to make sure I could walk without the fear of two eyes piercing two holes through me.
Life was going on, when one day, I had a panic attack and collapsed during a discussion session. He was shocked. In order to help me out, he took me out for a walk, and finally showed me a video of some “Swamiji” preaching the strength and perseverance of the human mind.
Having a panic attack meant that the stress had started acting out. And since I’m team diarrhoea while stressed, and also had ulcers and fissures, the situation quickly escalated to a medical emergency. In short my health—mental and physical—deteriorated as if they were competing between themselves. It was towards the end of the semester and work was piling up. I told him of my condition, and went for treatment. I missed about two weeks. And after the whole ordeal, when I went to meet him, he was acting cold and indifferent towards me. Though it suggested hell brewing within, I chose to see the bright side—no shouting!
I finished the report as soon as I could and sent him for correction. He completely ignored my mail for a few days. And when the final date for submission was announced, I went to see him. He told me he didn’t have time, and asked me to submit the report directly for evaluation. Before I left he told,
“There are two important Hs in life”
I searched through my mental directory, and could only come up with an H which was physically similar to enthalpy, and thus a functional, which was close to what I was reading. Finally, he said,
“Honesty and hard work”
I nodded and did as he had told me. The final showdown was during the mid-year presentations. In front of the whole committee, my own guide started pestering me with questions after questions, until I admitted that I didn’t know the answers. He scorned me after the presentation, and I smelled trouble (finally) and went to his office. I had my fine share of shout outs and abuses he had been hoarding during the time he was being indifferent. He told me to stay back during the vacation and work hard, and that he shouldn’t see me with my friends.
Again I went back. I tried to work, but my depression had relapsed while on medication. The work was piling up, and the discussions were turning into nightmares. I told him that I was not able to comprehend the material he gave me. I was staring at letters which stared back at me. It was difficult to ignore depression when all I could think about was the many different ways to hurt and kill myself. I was taken to the doctor, who confirmed the expected “severe depression” diagnosis. I informed him of the “progress” via email. As soon as the medication started working (which was very fast: within a week) I reported to Prof Y.
This time also, he surprised me with his demeanour. He suggested that I put my health above academics, and got philosophical about the importance of life. Among the many things, he suggested I stop the medications, as allopathic medicines are “poisons”, and to stay away from my friends, as they are a bad influence.
He gave me a book to read. He suggested he could change the book or topic, if I find this material difficult. He warned me to progress slowly, as the material is advanced. In the coming months, I found the answers to the questions he pestered me with during the mid-year presentations.
The pandemic sent me home, and I had to do the final presentation and submission online. I’ve not met him, nor has he replied to the mails I sent after the presentation.
I was sick before I interacted with them, and not at any point do I blame them for it. These diseases are not isolated within academia (well, this could be anyone at any time). But this doesn’t mean ‘I deserved this treatment’. Writing these experiences, and viewing it as a third person, is cathartic.