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Umang Mehta is an IIT Bombay alumnus from the class of 2017. He is currently pursuing Ph.D in Theoretical physics at the University of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois).

Anyone who has ever owned a pair of earphones is familiar with the horrors of reaching into your pocket to bring them out and having to spend an eternity trying to untangle the millions of knots that conspire to obstruct your desire to listen to some sweet, sweet music. For the most part, grad school can be as convoluted and messy, but with some bite-sized breakthroughs every now and then that keep you going. Going into grad school, I was oblivious to how uncertain things can be outside the systematic environment of an undergraduate institution.

Being particularly fond of theoretical physics, I had decided early on in my undergrad that I wanted to continue studying in grad school after I graduated from IITB. Like every other grad school aspirant in their final year, I went through the mind-numbingly boring process of the PhD applications and got accepted by the University of Chicago among a few other universities. My decision to pick UChicago over the others was influenced by the usual factors of potential advisors and research output. At the same time was also somewhat arbitrary, since the most information anyone has about the researchers at any university is what’s displayed on their webpages, which are typically nearly empty. I had the advantage of having worked with an eminent physicist in my undergrad, who had connections across the globe. I largely relied on his advice to deduce who would be a suitable advisor.

It was only after I started school at UChicago that I found out about the harsh course requirements for the doctoral program. With a requirement of 13 courses in total, 6 of which could be tested out of, a part of me started to regret not taking into account the differences in course-load across the universities I had applied to. With weekly assignments for nearly every course, I had little or no time to concentrate on research. I realized early on that it was important to take into account that grades for grad level courses are nearly worthless as long as you don’t fail the course, which made it easier to bear the load.

As for research, working as a doctoral researcher in theoretical physics is a significantly different experience compared to working as an undergraduate researcher. Graduate level research is a lot more independent and one often finds oneself disoriented with no idea about how to make any progress. Doctoral advisors are advisors in the true sense and their job is to only nudge you towards what they think is the right path, while being uncertain about it themselves. Being at the boundary of collective human knowledge and having to shoot in the dark is both daunting as well as exhilarating, especially when you manage to hit something and extend the totality of what is known by the tiniest amount.

One of the most important aspects of surviving grad school is maintaining your motivation. Completing the PhD program takes a significantly long time and the only thing that keeps you going is your passion for whatever subject your research lies in. Losing that passion might seem nigh impossible but it does happen for various people. Those who do suffer this plague end up dropping out or wastefully continuing till they graduate. Either way, they regret having wasted so many years of their lives. For those who are passionate about it, research is a drug and when they overdose, their motivation burns out and they lose all interest. It is best to treat grad school as a job instead of a hobby. Organizing yourself is key to preventing a burnout and setting up approximate work hours for yourself helps. Having hobbies outside or work can be a major stress reliever.

While motivation is important for surviving grad school, succeeding requires a lot more. The purpose of any doctoral program is to train students to be able to do independent research without any help from their advisors. Being able to do so requires active inputs from both the student and the advisor throughout the course of the program. A healthy student-advisor relationship is essential to having a good grad school experience which makes picking the right advisor fundamental to succeeding as a doctoral student. Professors aren’t perfect people and students often get overworked or under-advised. Having an open line of communication with your advisor can help mitigate that. Being aware of your advisor’s expectations and making sure they’re aware of yours eliminates any potential for confusion.

Besides your motivation and your advisor, there are various other factors that affect your performance as a researcher. One of the most unexpected factors that I experienced was the winter in Chicago. The temperature fell significantly below freezing point in late December, January and February, and wavered around the freezing point before and after. The cold weather had a major impact on my will to accomplish anything and those months were the least productive I’ve had so far. The seven-hour short length of the day added to the cold and I found it hard to wake up in the dark morning and stay awake after sunset. When spring came much later in the middle of March, I was relieved to be rid of the winter and ecstatic to finally have the motivation to dive back into physics, only to be bogged down by the immense course-load of the coming quarter.
Academics and research aside, living independently in a different country is a marvel in itself. Exploring the local culture and adopting it as your own allows you to see the world through a new lens. American corporations have a way of embellishing goods and services through their advertisements, which are often so exaggerated they could compete with any Bollywood movie for the most impressive overkill. And the locals love it. Most people who aren’t fond of American football (or “hand-egg”, as some of my international friends would prefer) will nevertheless watch the annual championships, the Superbowl, only to get a glimpse of a the various ‘Superbowl commercials’ that are notorious for being fall-to-the-floor hilarious. I fell for the hype myself and decided to watch the game despite having no interest in the game itself and ended up enjoying every minute of the commercials.

Christmas and New year’s celebrations in the United States are on a separate tier of festivities. Cities are lit up throughout the night with decorations and fireworks and the gleaming faces of the denizens wandering about in myriad groups. Another festival that has a similar scale in Chicago is St. Patrick’s Day on the 17th of March, which is an Irish festival characterized by the colour green. Pedestrian traffic triples on this day, with everyone garnished in graceful green. Moreover, the Chicago river itself is dyed green using a vegetable-based dye, which is a feast for the eyes. Occasional events such as these are a much needed and much appreciated recess from the hardships of grad school.

While living abroad is largely sensational, it has a few downsides. Family is something everyone takes for granted while they’re close by. I lost my grandmother while I was away in the US and the emotional burden of not being there to support my parents pulled me into a phase of depression that lasted a few weeks before I was able to pull myself together. Besides such dramatic changes as sickness and death of loved ones, another potential downside of independent living is the responsibilities that come with it. It can take some time to get accustomed to having to fend for yourself and manage your own finances. The various little chores that come with living in an apartment by yourself or with roommates can easily eat up a large amount of time and before you know it you have no time left to do anything else.

Even so, once you get into gear it is easy to maintain the pace and keep going forward. Cheesy as it may sound, maintaining the balance between work, hobbies and responsibilities is the crux of enjoying life as a grad student.

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