The Do-Over

Wish I did my Ph.D. in the U.S.

Biswapriya Misra
By Biswapriya Misra
February 01, 2017

With an offer letter in my hand from one of the most prestigious education and research institutions in India, the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, I was excited. But the prospect of getting a doctorate degree from India also gave me the feeling of settling for less. That feeling was bolstered further when I arrived in the U.S. as a postdoctoral researcher.

The offer from IIT Kharagpur was enviable, at least to my fellow botanists, friends and family. I had a master’s degree from a top-notch university, but as it was a state institution, it didn’t have the same clout as IIT Kharagpur. My admission interview went nearly perfectly. My written examination scores were nice and strong. I had secured fellowships to support my research in plant biotechnology for more than five years. But I had to work with limited laboratory resources. I now realize why I had the feeling of settling for less: I didn’t do my Ph.D. in the most perfect place!

I’m comparing my experiences to what I see American students go through. I am startled by the amount of resources and technologies available to them. I feel that I did not get any of the things American graduate students get, such as access to resources, acquisition of skills, development of scientific street-smarts, opportunities to attend quality workshops and symposia, teaching experiences, and so on.

I feel I arrived late to many things they take for granted. I feel I have a lot to learn and assimilate.

For example, during class lectures in the U.S., I saw research manuscripts from journals, like Nature, the Journal of Biological Chemistry and Science, in the hands of undergraduate students. I did not have any access to any of those journals back in India. I hadn’t even heard their names until toward the end of my master’s degree! All I had were textbooks and the Machiavellian system of Indian education. In that system, I had to memorize passages prescribed in the syllabus, write a final exam at the end of one or two years, and come out with flying colors. I was completely unaware of the journals in which the research on which these textbooks were based was first reported! Seeing these undergraduates reading research articles, understanding them, summarizing the findings and writing reports astonished me. The college system was geared toward learning about research firsthand.

Another incident drove home how different my education was. During a postdoctoral stint at the University of Florida, Gainesville, my principal investigator got many applications from undergraduate students to do research for a few months. Much to my bewilderment, I was offered an undergraduate research assistant. I mentioned my confusion to my PI. I couldn’t understand how an undergraduate could be allowed to work on a project funded by the National Science Foundation by my side. Back in India, I was not allowed to touch an autoclave until I started my master’s degree, and I definitely was not allowed to touch a mass spectrometer at a core facility during my Ph.D.! I was surprised that an undergraduate student was getting the same opportunity on a project as me, who already had a Ph.D.

I realized two things. The first thing was that in the American academic system everyone has a right to learn. The second thing was that a Ph.D. isn’t a prerequisite to do serious research. I looked at undergraduates and, for that matter, lab managers and technicians with fresh eyes. They were immensely talented, highly successful and contributing in significant ways to the progress of science.

I wish I had done my Ph.D. at a top-notch school in the U.S. or the European Union. I probably would have been way ahead of where I am now. But the one thing I don’t regret about my Ph.D. is the mental and emotional strength I received by doing it. I survived my Ph.D. “catastrophe” because my PI was immensely supportive. I was strong to endure that five-year period of pain and train myself to secure an academic career in genomics and metabolomics. A faculty member at the university where I did my master’s degree once suggested that I go for another “good” doctorate degree in Germany or the U.S. But I politely declined. A Ph.D. is not worth doing twice!

 
Biswapriya Misra
Biswapriya Misra

Biswapriya Misra is a postdoctoral scientist at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute.

Join the ASBMB Today mailing list

Sign up to get updates on articles, interviews and events.

Latest in Opinions

Opinions highlights or most popular articles

Why we're not printing the April issue
Editor's Note

Why we're not printing the April issue

April 02, 2020

One of the strangest things we ever did when I was in the newspaper business was print papers nobody would receive.

Research on a budget
Essay

Research on a budget

March 30, 2020

As a professor at a small university, Peter Lyons has developed ways of reaching his research goals with limited funding, and he shares some of them here.

This week's staff picks
Stroopwafels

This week's staff picks

March 28, 2020

Lunchtime doodles, blind love, addressing inequities, yoga breathing and more. Here's what the ASBMB staff has been reading, watching, listening to — and doing.

Science Twitter: Personal boundaries on a professional platform
Social Media

Science Twitter: Personal boundaries on a professional platform

March 25, 2020

“Success on Twitter has a different definition for every user ... I felt I needed to find the perfect balance of personality: one that is professional, intelligent, and advocates on behalf of meaningful causes but is still likable and relatable.”

The surprising comfort of learning objectives
Education

The surprising comfort of learning objectives

March 24, 2020

As you work through the transition to remote learning for your class, let the learning objectives be your guide.

Science communication in action: COVID-19 edition
Science Communication

Science communication in action: COVID-19 edition

March 23, 2020

Our science writers selected 10 examples of solid scicomm about the novel coronavirus.