A 2-Pager by Ajit Chaudhuri, March 2012
A consequence of enrolling in full time doctoral level education at my age is that one is inundated with variations of two questions. The first, in the beginning, is ‘why?’ This one is like being asked, when I was a kid, what I wanted to be when I grew up – I didn’t quite know, but I could spin a good yarn depending upon the audience. The second one, now that I am 9 months down, is ‘what’s it like?’ The short answer is ‘Great! All the day to read, lots of football, no day to day worries or distractions, and a wonderful library BUT wife and children far away, the rapid depletion of one’s life savings, and no combination of cold beer, cigarettes, kebabs, and gossip with old friends!’ And the less short answer, the subject of this note, is a little more nuanced.
I now know that doctoral level education is not an extension of post-graduation. It cannot be done in ‘project mode’, wherein you sit through eight semesters, submit your assignments, pass your exams, and hey presto, you have your degree. It is a lonely journey, a relationship between you, your supervisor, your subject, and the institution – a journey without a cohort of batch-mates to draw support from (and to peg yourself against). It is also a long journey, longer than graduation and post-graduation (and often longer than them combined), where the light at the end of the tunnel is both far away and dim. Signing up is not a ‘rational’ decision in economic terms, more so when one does not intend to go into full time academics. And nobody (except Saif-al-Islam Gaddafi) has got a genuine PhD without pain and sacrifice.
The first indication that I was going to be in over my head was while filling the application form, specifically the section requiring details of my guardian. I had to fill something, and there was no option like ‘I’m 47 years old – what the hell is a guardian?’ – so I nominated my wife of twenty years for the role. This is a bit dicey, with the possibility of her receiving letters from the institution beginning with “Dear Mrs. Chaudhuri, are you aware that your ward a) has failed, b) is short on attendance, c) has been drunk and disorderly, d) has not struck an appropriate balance between academic pursuits and cavorting with members of the opposite gender, etcetera” with a tick mark against one (or more) of the options. I still live in dread of the consequences of this one.
The doctoral programme of an academic institution is a form of public service for the institution. It gets no fees for the not inconsiderable effort that goes into converting an assortment of wasters and misfits (who also have to be paid a monthly stipend) into PhDs, and the gains accrue to academia as a whole (in the form of research and writing) and to other academic institutions (institutions don’t often recruit their own PhDs). As a consequence, the doctoral student is lowest in the caste hierarchy of an institution – well below the much more numerous (and fee-paying) Master’s students. If you come from a position of authority and responsibility, the move from one end of the food chain to the other takes getting used to. This is not entirely unpleasant – one discovers that no authority and few responsibilities is a lot better than one without the other, and often also better than the combination of plenty of both.
Sitting in class again turned out easier than I had expected. Some classes were with the Masters students, and in these one sat with a group of 45 or so 20 something’s, most of them engineers, all of them bright and ambitious. I had planned to replicate tactics of 25 years ago, of hitting the back row and being anonymous – unfortunately, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same – this row is still always full. I survived the gamut of quizzes (surprise and otherwise), 3-hour written exams, and having my marks up with everyone else’s, I contributed my mite to in-class discussions, and I obtained grades that did not necessitate packing up and going home. Doctoral level classes were very different – two or three of us to a class, with no way to hide inadequate preparation or a wandering mind, but also with a pace that is adjustable for one’s ability and capacity.
In this, I have been lucky in my professors (conflict of interest alert – some are on this reading list and are still grading my assignments), who have without exception been patient and encouraging. A professor is a category of person one does not meet in professional life – the nearest is an expert service provider (chartered accountant, development consultant, etcetera) without an obvious principal-agent relationship. I see it now as a position of considerable responsibility; a good professor, one with a passion for a subject, can enable it to unfold upon you and gradually take over your mind space. S/he is just as important at this stage as s/he was back in class VIII mathematics.
I have also been lucky in my fellow students. Despite being two generations apart (I’m a fag end baby boomer and they’re mostly Gen-Y – or, to put it in plain English, they haven’t heard Dylan sing, they haven’t seen Maradona play, and they think they’ve invented sex), they have made me comfortable around them and welcome in the students’ mess. I have observed some restraint myself – following my wife’s orders of being reasonably attired in the students’ areas (ensuring that her own memories of an unshaven slob in the late 1980s, clad in a torn vest and a shorts, are not inflicted on another bunch of delicate minds), and trying to veer towards the ‘good example’ rather than ‘horrible warning’ category of personality. I will leave them to figure out somewhere else, at another time, that age is not linked to respectability.
A major lifestyle change has been on the football field. In Delhi, I was playing once a week with a group that has made a mark or two over the years in the local amateur circuit. I now play almost every day, but a kinder, gentler, slower version in which I am forced to behave better. I miss the occasional crunching tackle, the feel of body on body vying for the ball, and sometimes letting my opponents know what I think of their mothers. And I worry that, when I return, I will have difficulty adjusting back to football with my old group.
What lies ahead? I don’t know! For me, it is a race between completing and going broke – whichever happens first gets me back into the job market (and the expected time of the latter is mid-2013). What sort of job does a broke 50-year-old get, or even compete for, with or without a PhD? Your guess is as good as mine. I’m just glad that eating in a students’ mess has led to some loss of weight – just in case I have to do something unconventional.
And finally, my advice to those of you contemplating doctoral level education yourselves and falling within a similar age category! This is a great time to study – one doesn’t have the same distractions and anxieties that one had in one’s 20s, one can focus much better, and one can connect academics with the real world that one has experience of – unlike the other doctoral scholars, for you there will be little that is abstract. Journeys into philosophy, mathematics and policy can be fascinating and addictive, as can having a library at one’s disposal, long discussions on a variety of esoteric topics, and the company of young people. But, you have to really (and I mean really, from deep within) want to! Because, as I have mentioned earlier, doing a late PhD is not ‘rational’! The effort to returns ratio is not good - it neither increases your market value (I assume here that you are not a complete loser) nor your ability on the job – if anything, it works in the other direction. And the mental conversion from a tax-paying citizen to a broke student can be traumatic.
If you do decide to go ahead, it is important (unless it’s Harvard) to find an institution and a supervisor you trust. Don’t be rigid in your choice of topic – this can change during the journey. And have your family on board. And yes, don’t be surprised that your children have grown up in between your visits, and your wife has taken over your cupboard space at home. All the very best!