Academia: A Glass Painting

All graduate students spend a significant amount of their life at grad schools, for me it has been a quarter of my life to be exact. This time significantly changed me and my thoughts on how academia (or at least a part of academia) works. When I joined graduate school I was jubilant to escape my undergraduate institute. The graduate school I am in is considered one of the premier institutes in India. If you are an outsider, the look of the institute itself is enough to convince you to join. I had read and heard stories of great scientists who were and are working here, the passion these great scientists have for science and the extraordinary intelligence they carried in their big brains. Eventually I started my work in a theoretical field. I had my ideas of what I am going to do, as every naive person has; how I was going to understand all the beautiful ideas that existed, how I would learn science beyond my stream, and how I was going to think about deep problems and come up with new ideas. It was a beautiful glass painting. This glass painting developed so many cracks over the years that I don’t recognise it any more. 

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Summer Internships, Academic Success, And My Self-Worth

I read the recent testimonial “The Mine Field” published by NOTA. It was an honest account of how most of the summer internships look like. It brought back memories of my own summer internships, the period where I struggled to understand what I did wrong, the frustration of not getting into a good institute, a great program, a reputed lab.

Before I elaborate my frustration and anger on the system, let me explain how summer internships work in elite institutes, like the one I studied in. Unlike the author writes in the earlier article, it was not an unwritten rule in my college. We had to do a summer internship to avail our scholarship for those three months.

We were also told that summer internships help us improve our research skills and know how research is done, and we believed summer internships are just that. However, what is kept hidden is that it is a resume-building endeavor – the better places we go to, the sooner we start, the higher are our chances of excelling in academia. But, how to get into those great places is left for us to figure out. And this is where I didn’t understand what the hell was going on.

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Breaking Away

I don’t remember the last time I sat down, with nothing to do, and stared blankly at the evening sky. I often find myself casting about for something to do, which is to say I often find myself without work, but this is not the strange part. And I do occasionally look up at the evening sky, but it hasn’t ever been this deliberate.

On my request, after a day spent isolated in my windowless studio apartment in [the city] – a room I felt I ought to leave on account of the irritatingly fine cement mist that buildings undergoing renovation shroud themselves in, and the fact that the silence I expected to enjoy during this isolation was frequently interrupted by the sound of pneumatic drills – the city municipal corporation promptly dispatched an ambulance that would drive me to the [local hospital], where I would begin a 10-day quarantine. You see, I had tested positive for COVID-19 just the day before. After a few routine tests were done, I was prescribed a course of medication. “Plenty of fluids, and plenty of rest,” advised the nurse from behind a face shield and baby blue scrubs, both a few sizes too large for her. I entered the room that was assigned to me at the hostel, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it had a small balcony with an old plastic chair.

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The Mine Field

Prologue:

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.”

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Critical Comments on the Mehta Affair

– The NotA Collective

Last week, the trustees of Ashoka University, a private liberal arts college in Sonipat, extracted a resignation from the political scientist and public intellectual Pratap Bhanu Mehta which, soon after, prompted the resignation of Arvind Subramanian, the economist and former Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India. Subramanian, who resigned in solidarity with Mehta, wrote that Ashoka University “can no longer provide a space for academic expression and freedom”. Mehta’s letter of resignation1 clarifies that his affiliation to Ashoka University was considered a “political liability” by the trustees. This was followed by student protests,2 which in turn prompted the authorities — along with Mehta and Subramanian — to release a statement about the whole affair.3

The discourse surrounding the Mehta Affair is fraught with confusion, so we at Notes on the Academy thought it would be worthwhile to jot down a few loosely related thoughts. Before we begin, we’d like to clarify: the purpose of this article is not to provide a defense of Mehta or his politics, which has been inconsistent4 to say the least and with which we have significant disagreement. Nor is the purpose of this article to rehabilitate the image of Ashoka University, which is no stranger to the accusation5 that the liberal ideals it champions do not reflect in the actual functioning of the university.

This is not an article about Mehta or Ashoka University — it is an article about everything in this episode but them.

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I Am Now the Perfect Academic

I’ve found myself spending a lot of time staring very closely at things recently. There’s a moment in the movie Blue, a lyrical piece about a woman coming to grips with the death of her husband, when she slowly dips a sugar cube into her coffee and she watches the coffee as it diffuses layer by layer into the cube, always getting ever so slightly higher in the cube than in the air.

My partner, my lover, she’s still alive, but I also am facing the prospect of losing her, even if only for a few years. She is trying to cheer me up, making funny faces and jumping around in a futile effort to make me look at my computer screen, where she takes care of me from the other end of the earth, and make me feel better about life. I cannot take my eyes off the muscle at the base of my thumb, watching in rapt fascination as the lines appear and merge and split and disappear as I slowly, ever so slowly, move my thumb. Or I watch each car as it passes by on the sliver of highway visible from my home. The object of my rapture is not important, it is an empty pitcher into which I blankly pour my brain so that it may take a different shape. Any shape but the shape it is in if I look at her and let myself feel.

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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.

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