Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Ten years at IISER Pune

It's a day for celebration and reflection. I officially complete a decade at IISER Pune. This marks another interesting milestone: this is the longest that I have ever lived anywhere. The previous record was spending 5 years at Queen's University in Kingston where I got my Master's and PhD. Other than that, I have never lived at any place for more than two years. 

The move to IISER Pune was an adventure, and happened in a rather sudden and unexpected manner. I have written about it here. Nonetheless, it turned out to be one of my best decisions, even though restarting a faculty position here was not without struggles and anxieties. 

1. 2013 - 2016. 

As I look back, I feel that the first three years, 2013-2016 were the most difficult: this was the phase when all sorts of challenges presented themselves in rapid succession, personal as well as professional. I experimented with new projects and many of them failed one after the other (or perhaps, I did not spend enough time on them due to an inherently anxious nature). As I now understand, this is an essential part of academic growth and happens to many early career scientists. But, at that time, it caused a good amount of grief and with every successive failure, I had recurring thoughts of self doubt. The healthy, non judgmental, non competitive peer support available during graduate school and postdoctoral training days had disappeared: I could no longer talk openly about my struggles with peers.  I felt stressed out and disempowered. There just did not seem to be any respite, and at one time I even wondered if I would always be unhappy, and left alone at the sidelines. [1]

2. 2016 - early 2020.

2016 was when things took a positive turn. This is the time that support systems around me (which I had only been vaguely aware of) kicked in through multiple channels. The first support system was at the level of mentorship at my institute. I spoke to a senior colleague who encouraged me to keep trying and not give up. Simply put, there is no denying these challenges: they are real and one has to put up a strong fight. I received some extremely helpful and empowering career advice at this stage: this was not a time to doubt one's abilities, but a time to put in concerted efforts. 

The second support system was at the level of my larger research community. I started writing to an expert in the topics that I was interested in: although he did not know me personally, he took time out to respond to my queries and generously shared his knowledge and ideas in great detail. His suggestions proved extremely valuable and helped take my work forward. This was also the phase when a project with my then PhD student, Neha Prabhu worked out beautifully. We had struck the surface of a beautiful theme at the interface of number theory and probability, namely central limit theorems in number theory, and received feedback from the reviewers and other experts that pointed to a bigger picture. It presented a wide variety of new questions to explore. This and other related questions that connect probability and number theory are now my main research interests. 2016 - 2019, therefore, was the phase when I gained clarity and confidence in my core research programme, and looked forward with hope. Nevertheless, some anxieties still simmered within, and I could not celebrate important milestones with much joy. 

3. March, 2020 - present.

In 2020, I feel that I entered a far more self-aware phase in my academic journey.  When the pandemic struck in early 2020, the solitude imposed by the lockdown forced many of us to look within with a keen eye. I noticed that I was vacillating between two contradictory feelings: the excitement presented by future research possibilities versus despondency and overwhelm that came with questions such as, "Is this it? Will I go further?" Why did I feel so low on energy and enthusiasm, I wondered. In this podcast with Dr. Hannah Roberts, a scientist-entrepreneur and career coach, I discuss this phase, and the work done to come out of it. Thanks to self-reflection and efforts, 2020 - 2022 has turned into THE most important and fulfilling phase in my academic journey at IISER Pune. 

I learnt to focus on a few chosen research projects related to my core interests, and to grow consistently through these projects, step by step. I gained control over my time and energy: a few hours of writing each day brings a lot of self-assurance, generates energy and gives me the motivation and time to serve the academic community in ways that I am equipped to, such as teaching, mentoring, editorial work and science communication. At the same time, I have to consciously work on bringing about a balance in all these activities. One of the most important skills I've learnt is to set healthy boundaries in professional life as well as in personal interactions. I've learnt to recognize and say no to tasks which I know I would not be able to handle. In the pandemic times, I prioritised providing a listening ear to those who reached out for conversations and support. But, I also learnt to back off when the other party crossed boundaries without any thought about how their words and actions can affect other people. I've learnt to deal with anxieties. I've learnt to value feedback from experts and mentors, but I've also learnt not to seek validation from anyone other than myself. I've learnt to recognize the strong "inner critic" as one among many voices in my head, and not the sole voice to debilitating effect. While learning all of this has happened over a period of 10 years at IISER (or even longer), I do feel that most of it happened at the proverbial "last moment", that is, in the last couple of years.

I do not claim anything special in any of the above. Most of us learn these lessons at some point in our journeys: some, a little sooner than others. The reason I am mentioning all of this in a post on 10 years at IISER Pune is because I am grateful that my work place has provided me the space to learn these lessons, experiment, make mistakes and grow under its watchful (but not intrusive) gaze. The efficient administrative systems and the infrastructural framework at this institute act as enablers in every good way, and do their best to help people focus on science. As a glaring example, this was most evident in the pandemic phase when the institute administration kept us safe, healthy, and well-provided for in a city that remained a Covid hotspot for a long time.

What I am most grateful for is that over the last 10 years, IISER Pune has helped me become academically, professionally and personally independent in many ways, while also providing support networks at times when I needed them the most. From taking tottering steps in the beginning, I've learnt to take ownership of my journey. 

During evening walks, I often take the circular route in front of the main building. Sometimes, I simply stand and gaze at the building, and it seems to smile and say, "Keep going. I got you."

[1] I think I was the academic version of the protagonist in this famous Bollywood song in those days, forever searching for the elusive theorems.  The words "... another year later.." keep flashing on the screen as she looks increasingly morose.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Harivansh Rai Bachchan: an inspiring PhD story

We know Harivansh Rai Bachchan to be among the most distinguished and prolific poets in the 20th century.  Although he primarily wrote in Hindi, his formal academic training was in English literature, and he served as a faculty member in the Department of English at Allahabad University for several years.  He had a rich, multifaceted and eventful life, which he documents in his four-volume autobiography. The first volume describes his family, early life in Allahabad, his student days, and culminates in the passing away of his wife, Shyama ji, who succumbed to tuberculosis at a very young age.  In the second volume, he describes his further training and search for stability in his professional and personal life, meeting Teji Bachchan and starting a new life with her.  This volume essentially concludes with him getting a regular faculty position at the Allahabad University.  The third volume is the motivation behind this blog post: it covers the period in his life when he travels to Cambridge as a visiting student to pursue a deeper study of the poet William Butler Yeats, and stays on to obtain a PhD, becoming the second Indian (after Balachandra Rajan) to obtain a doctorate in English literature at Cambridge University [0]. In the fourth volume, he narrates his life after quitting academia, his move to Delhi to join the Ministry of External Affairs, and further developments as his children grow up. I am only a few pages into this volume, and have not been able to immerse myself fully into it.

A common theme in the first three volumes is that of the nearly continuous stream of struggles and upheavals in his life, and how he faced them with resilience and tremendous self-discipline.  He shares his emotional journey with candour, and does not hesitate in letting us see (and feel) his vulnerabilities as he deals with bereavement, career struggles, unexpected disappointments, rejections and failures. Poetry enthusiasts will appreciate his attempts to describe his creative thought process, and to explain some of his poems in the context of his life events at the time of composition.  

The third volume, "Basere Se Door" describes his PhD story, and offers us much to reflect upon and learn.  Many aspects of his journey mirror issues and situations that we think about and live through in academia.  This includes figuring out our academic goals (on our own, even if they are starkly different from that of our peers), taking steps to fulfil them (often involving life-changing decisions), staying focused on research while also dealing with anxieties due to not having job-certainty for long periods of time, balancing a feeling of contentment with a desire for growth in the phase when certainty arrives, the willingness to see oneself as a student all through our lives, and the mental flexibility to make tough choices if our perspective towards academia changes or if academia can no longer meet our needs. 

After finishing his Master's, he spent nearly 10 years holding temporary academic positions, including that of a high school teacher, research scholar and short term lecturer. After 10 years of uncertainty in his professional life, he obtained a regular position as a lecturer in the Department of English literature at Allahabad University in 1941.  Although he experienced a feeling of contentment after obtaining this position, he simultaneously encountered the common acquaintance of almost every academic: the impostor syndrome.  He was sensitive to gossip around him about a Hindi poet being at an English department [I suppose multidisciplinary skills weren't valued much in those days].  As was his usual tendency, in response, he devoted an unusually high amount of time and energy on his teaching assignments. [1]  


While he grew into his role as a teacher, he also observed the academic atmosphere in the university, and reflected upon what career progression meant to people there. Why is seniority relevant in the context of university, he wondered.  Can intellectual growth be measured by a wall calendar? The mind expands or shrinks according to the work that it engages in. He felt that research and self-study demonstrated in a concrete form through scholarly publications should be used as a parameter for progression as opposed to counting age, in order to prevent stagnation of the mind.  

"Admittedly, it is difficult to determine criteria to evaluate intellectual ability, but if universities don't make an effort to do this, who will?"

[Basere Se Door, Page 23, 2013 edition, Rajpal and Sons (The translation is mine, and I apologise for any deficiencies.  I don't have access to the English translation of his autobiography.)]

His observations proved to be prescient.  Despite being a meeting ground for intellectual giants in all fields in pre-independence and early independence days, Allahabad University lost its eminence over the next few decades (as did many of our older universities), mired in bureaucracy and unhelpful policies that did not nurture academic growth. 

Harivansh Rai Bachchan spent the next 11 years teaching at the university, and describes these years as those of good health, professional stability and personal contentment.  He raised his children, and spent time in study and creative writing, but stayed away from formal movements taking place in the Hindi poetry world. But, instead of settling down into complacency, his mind was agile, and open to opportunities to learn and grow. Therefore, at the end of 1951, when the British Council announced some travel support for faculty members to spend six months at a British university, he decided to apply.  He revived a research project that he had initiated several years ago on the work of William Butler Yeats.  Putting his plan into action was not easy: after receiving invitations to spend a few semesters at both Cambridge and Oxford and getting a sabbatical from AU, he had to arrange for finances for a 15-month stay in England.  This required negotiations with publishing houses who published his poetry, and dipping into family savings, but he received whole hearted support from his wife in his plans [2].  When he did not get any reply from the education ministry to his application for financial support, she encouraged him to write straight to the Prime Minister.  Pandit Nehru not only gave him an appointment, but also immediately approved the entire amount that was required.  Meanwhile, the British Council did not approve his application for traveling expenses, and he had to make those arrangements on his own.  Finally, in April 1952, at the age of 45, this professor with a permanent academic position left his secure establishment in Allahabad, and flew to England to become a student again.  I was personally quite inspired by this episode in his life, because it teaches us to not let age or complacency come in the way of our intellectual goals. 

At the time of his voyage, Mr. Bachchan had not made any plans for pursuing a doctorate. His plan was to explore some questions about the work of Yeats while spending six months in Cambridge, followed by nine months in Oxford.  At Cambridge, he met Professor Thomas Rice Henn, who agreed to supervise his work, and gave him access to all his collected books.  He writes about his daily schedule:

" I would go to the university library after breakfast, and study there until 1.30 pm.  After a light lunch, I would go to Mr. Henn's office, and study until 6 pm.  Often, he would drop in during that time, with questions and suggestions about my reading.  After dinner, I would either attend a seminar, take a walk, or enjoy theatre or cinema.  After that, I spent several hours reading anthologies of modern English poetry, making journal entries or writing letters before going to sleep."

In Henn, he found a hands-on advisor who provided him the necessary guidance and resources for his project.  Naturally, with the progress that he made on the project, he started to consider the possibility of staying on at Cambridge and expanding his work into a doctoral thesis.  He was encouraged by a friend, Vishwanath Dutt to follow this plan.  Henn enthusiastically agreed, but explained that since Bachchan had only two years, he would have to formally register for a Master's in Literature, and write a thesis: if the degree committee found the thesis and his performance in the viva strong enough (and this would be exceedingly hard), they would consider the thesis for the award of a Ph.D.  With the further support of his wife, therefore, he registered for an M. Litt. and started working on his thesis.  

His doctoral studies started full steam.  His description of Henn as an advisor is touching: Henn met and guided him regularly, kept his project goals on track, gave him feedback on his writing (this included approving thesis chapters which contained a point of view very different from that of Henn, as long as they were supported by literary evidence and proper analysis), and often invited him home for meals and long discussions.  He was also sensitive to Bachchan's mental anxieties on account of his family in India (especially the financial and other hardships that his wife was facing bravely on her own [3]).  

As part of his thesis preparation, Bachchan also visited Ireland to meet Mrs. Yeats and other people associated with Yeats.  They met him graciously, and answered all his questions. He describes a heart-warming episode at the end of his stay in Ireland, when he invited Mrs. Yeats and some others for a farewell dinner.  After dinner, the hotel manager refused to accept any payment for the dinner gathering, because he was a guest of Ireland.  Bachchan suspected that Mrs. Yeats had secretly paid the hotel bill herself, so as not to strain the finances of a struggling PhD student. 

The book is full of such incidents and many others, which tell us about the importance of deep and regular work for a thesis, staying focused [4], good mentorship and a support network of peers from graduate school. His housemate was a statistics student by the name of Ranvir Singh Bawa, who taught him how to live with minimal expenditure, and supported him emotionally through good and bad times.  

One of the most exciting parts of the book is the period after his thesis submission in 1954. He prepared thoroughly for his viva.  Although Henn had advised him to focus on his research work and not get distracted by anxiety about results,  Bachchan was conscious of what was at stake.  He had heard scary dissertation stories.  Would they tear the thesis into bits during the viva, he wondered. Would he be able to answer all their questions? During the four-hour long viva, he desperately searched for hints about what the committee thought of his work, but all members maintained the proverbial British "stony face" during the proceedings.  Post viva, in which he thought he did well, he had to wait for a few weeks before the final decision of the committee.  Finally, on the day the results were declared, he walked with Bawa to the main office.  It was Bawa who had the first look at the notice board, and confirmed that the 47-year old Bachchan had indeed received a Ph.D.  His instant reaction was the same as that of his wife when she got the good news later, "Izzat Reh Gayi." [5]

Dr. Bachchan's life was full of interesting contradictions: on the one hand, he was unable to afford a gown for convocation.  On the other hand, when he returned to India, he was welcomed and hosted by the families of some of the richest industrialists of India.  He returned a happy, content and confident man to Allahabad, and rejoined the university with renewed hope.

But, the biggest "anti-climax" was yet to happen.  Instead of appreciation from his colleagues for his academic accomplishment, he had to face jealousy at the work place.  The university could no longer give him the work satisfaction and intellectual stimulation he was hoping for, and he was disappointed by the toxic reactions to him.  And so it was that one of India's greatest poets, and a knowledgeable English lecturer who had achieved a nearly impossible academic feat decided to quit academia.  He was invited by Pandit Nehru to join the Ministry of External Affairs as an expert who would supervise the translation of all documents and communication of MEA into Hindi, and to introduce new initiatives to promote the use of Hindi at the work place [6].  

It was with a heavy heart that he left Allahabad with his family, after having spent nearly all his life there.  After devoting years to scholarship and teaching, he moved into an entirely different sphere of bureaucrats.  This, he realized, was what would make him happy at that point of time, and he did not hesitate to change course.  This also makes us reflect upon the deterioration in the work culture at universities in India in those days, and how they lost several bright minds as a result. 

One final thought: it requires great integrity to accept and appreciate the academic accomplishments of others, and great clarity of vision to support and nurture such talent.

[0] There seems to be some ambiguity about this. Some online portals mention that Harivansh Rai Bachchan was the first Indian to obtain a PhD in English literature from Cambridge University.  But, in his book, Mr. Bachchan mentions that his friend who encouraged him to try and obtain a PhD gave him the example of B. Rajan as the only person from India until then to have obtained a PhD in this subject from Cambridge.

[1] He also consciously underplayed his identity as a poet in the university.  He insisted that his students address him as Mr. Harivansh Rai, and not Mr. Bachchan (or Bachchan ji).  He mentions his conscious efforts to dress, walk and behave "like a lecturer of English".   

[2] In the book, he expresses his gratitude to her on several occasions: she was a remarkable woman who braved anxiety and unpleasant situations in Allahabad in his absence, but provided unconditional support to him in all his academic plans.  

[3] He describes a rare occasion when Professor Henn flew into a temper.  One morning, Mr, Bachchan was excited to see a frozen lake for the first time, and walked over it to come to office.  When Henn heard this, he got extremely upset at this irresponsible and dangerous act, and questioned Bachchan about how his family would cope if something happened to him. Bachchan was grateful for the concern. 

[4] which is undoubtedly hard while also facing financial pressures.  Pandit Nehru, who had been generous in the beginning, refused his request for further support: apparently, some colleagues of Bachchan had spread malicious rumours about him. Bachchan had to further dig into family savings to finance his doctoral study.  Today, PhD students receive their fellowship as part of well structured schemes, but one cannot help thinking about students in India who routinely do not receive their fellowships on time, and battle disappointments and anxieties on this account. 

[5] Hard to share the sentiment in translation.  Roughly, they are both relieved at not having to "lose face".  

[6] This, in itself, was a difficult task, as he had to contend with contemptuous English-speaking civil servants.  His experience at the ministry, and later life is described in Volume 4.  

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Someone who will listen

I recently had three conversations: each was with an academic at different career stages. The first conversation was with someone who is contemplating whether to apply for a recently advertised research position. She was curious about several aspects of the position and wondered if one should have clear answers before sending in her application, ask these questions in the application itself or wait for the application to move forward before these discussions.

The second conversation was with someone who has applied for regular faculty positions and is waiting for an offer.  Over the last few years, she has built up a solid research profile, and has obtained several grants. In the wait for a regular position, she was trying to determine why she did not receive certain offers and what would be the outcome of her current applications. 

The third conversation was with a few colleagues and friends who are a few years into regular faculty positions, ranging from 1 - 10. Here, the discussion was mutual: we wondered about the correct approach towards receiving feedback, both at individual or departmental levels. This is an extremely important part of our career progression, but sometimes, one receives feedback which may conflict with how we have been trained to view research.  

All these conversations somehow brought a sense of deja vu:  until a few years ago, I was the younger person in each of these conversations reaching out to seniors for advice and discussion. I could almost hear myself in all of them.

Now, there is a lot to be said on each of these topics and they all deserve separate blog posts (perhaps, multiple posts).   But, the pertinent question is if anything that one says is of any help to the other person (especially if they are younger). First, if I share something from my point of view, would it make sense to someone in their position? When I say something like, "don't worry, just keep doing what you can", I genuinely mean to say that after all these years, I have found this to be the best way to cope. But, it may sound inane (or even facetious) to the listener.  It certainly would have sounded so to me in their position.

Second, the circumstances for each individual are different. The academic job scene in India when I was applying is completely different from the one today. What if my advice turns out to be wrong? What if I give positive assurances such as, "keep applying, something will work out" without any understanding of the field in which the other person works? What if I take the other approach and give them a long lecture about the current difficulties in an academic job search? Will this help at all? The situations in different fields are different: do I even know enough to say anything correct and meaningful to the other person?

But, most importantly, while reaching out, were these younger people looking for advice, even if they said so? All of them are sharp, independent, confident people: how much can one really say that they won't figure out on their own? Years ago, when I reached out to mentors or older colleagues about similar issues, was it really to get advice? Or was it to share thoughts and anxieties with someone who would simply listen with empathy? Of course, useful advice and inputs about specific concerns (in which the listener had significant expertise and experience) was always welcome, and helpful in taking important decisions.  But, in many conversations, the most positive aspect that I remember today is that the person shared their valuable time, and heard me out.  Occasionally, they asked a couple of questions which helped me gain more clarity about the issue at hand.  But mostly, they just listened.  

For example, while applying to positions in India in my final year of postdoc, most of my conversations with my PhD and postdoc advisors were on the lines of the first two conversations mentioned above.  My postdoc advisor told me honestly that she was not familiar with job search in India, but provided tremendous support by being a patient and willing listener.  My doctoral advisor has close connections with Indian academia and was able to provide concrete inputs over specific questions, but never forced his opinions. In these conversations, it was their supportive and patient listening (over comforting cups of coffee or hot chocolate, no less) that proved to be most invaluable.

Listening is a most underrated skill. Most of us think that giving advice to another person who has reached out to talk is the best way to help them. Perhaps, this comes more naturally to academics as a big chunk of our profession involves teaching and advising students.  But, it takes a far higher degree of sensitivity, self-awareness and emotional intelligence to stop and ask the following questions before giving advice.

Do you know enough about the situation and are you in a position to provide informed advice that would be of any value to the other person?  If you don't, can you open yourself up to the viewpoint and concerns of a person with different skills and experience without judgement (which is most probably what they are hoping for)?

Do your reactions or suggestions fit into the worldview and the current situation of the other person (which may be vastly different from what you encountered at their stage)? 

Do your words have the capacity to even mildly benefit another person? (Honestly, many people overrate this.) 

Can your words have a negative impact on someone (even when offered with "the best of intentions")?

Most importantly, do you realize that the conversation is about the other person and not you? Does the other person even need you to say anything? Or do they want a sympathetic listener?

Every once in a while, there is a thread or post on social media which asks the question: "What would you say to your X year old self?" X is mostly 20, and occasionally 30. People then launch into long threads to answer this question, and many more join in with their comments.  I feel sorry for this metaphorical younger self, who has to digest all this advice. 

I would not say anything to my X year old self. I would just listen to her.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Where there is structure, there is victory

We all have been coping with several work-life balance issues during the pandemic. While people have to balance their professional and home responsibilities even in ordinary times, the pandemic created a situation where the latter skyrocketed with children having to be home schooled and domestic work having to be managed without any external support.  A colleague of mine once said with exasperation that in the midst of sweeping and mopping, the latest literature in his field had started evading him. The hours that many people typically spent doing their academic work had to be recalibrated as their children were no longer going to school. My former postdoc mentor, Matilde Lalin wrote this lovely article describing (in "real time") how mathematicians like her conducted their research during COVID times.

Some of us found ourselves away from our families for a long period of time due to the unexpected lockdown announcement. In my case, all other parameters were fine. I was in good health, safely placed inside the IISER campus and assured that my family members, though far away from me, were safe and healthy too. When the first lockdown was announced, the solitude promised to be a golden opportunity to concentrate on learning and writing. With no possibility of traveling in the upcoming days, I was all set to put the song "Mono Chalo Nija Niketane" (translation: "Let us go back once more, O Mind, to our own abode") into action [1]. I was only going to step out to get groceries from a store in my building and spend the rest of my time in "Nija Niketana" doing Mathematics. 

A few days down the line, I realized that my grand plan was failing: Nija Niketana was turning into Netflix Niketana and the monster was starting to occupy more space than bargained for. What exactly went wrong? I had lots of goals to work on and lots of time. Had I lost the ability to focus on research and writing? Was this the end of everything? 

Soon, I realized that I was not alone in this predicament. Several people in my situation were facing this challenge. In this context, I heard about an acquaintance, who was all set to go on a sabbatical when the pandemic struck and messed with his plans. Unable to travel, he had two options. One was to continue his sabbatical at home, work with collaborators online and not have to worry about teaching. The second was to cancel his sabbatical and get back to active university duties. He chose the second option and requested the university to let him get back to teaching that semester. He recognized at the outset that all alone in his apartment, in the event of not being able to make a research visit elsewhere, he needed the structure provided by a regular university schedule to function optimally. I was encouraged to hear this story and also got an idea of how to proceed: I had to build a structure around daily activities.

A large chunk of time in solitude is undoubtedly a golden opportunity to concentrate on learning and writing. But, it can also be a double edged sword: our teaching duties, seminars/colloquia, interaction with students and colleagues provide a structure around which we can organize our daily activities in a time bound manner. In reserving time blocks for these activities, we also end up reserving time blocks for research work. There is little leeway to move around the time blocks for activities like teaching, talking to collaborators/students and attending seminars (more generally, any activity which requires a commitment to another human being). We therefore stick with the research time blocks because we must. In other words, for many of us, to be able to make the most of research time, there needs to be a structure to the day that involves a healthy dose of other meaningful activities like teaching, seminars, regular workout sessions and pursuing hobbies.

Structure is also the best antidote to anxiety. I started working to incorporate a daily plan in a way as to not procrastinate during the day time and then, feel empty and anxious in the evening (which leads to another cycle of procrastination). Making a ``formal" commitment (even if to oneself) by writing to-do lists and following through on it by writing "got-done" lists goes a long way in making sure that we don't postpone something just because we can.  My efforts to avoid empty "got-done" lists were centred around three tiny principles. I had heard of these before, but was forced to implement them diligently upon realizing that the pandemic was, indeed, playing havoc with my mental world. 

The first principle is that of showing up. When pulling the mind out of inertia, it is important to avoid an all-or-none approach. For example, if unable to start some planned work at a certain time, it helps to "show up", as long as the time planned for that activity is still left. Consistently noting afterwards how much of the work could get done instead of writing, "I got nothing done" uplifts the mood like nothing else, and with each passing day, one starts showing up for more and more tasks at the allotted time. Here, I am referring to tasks that are most in danger of getting postponed: ones that do not require coordinating with another person and have no immediate deadline.

The second principle is to give precise instructions to ourselves. Showing up on time for a task, but without a clear idea of what is to be done is a recipe for not getting it done. So, goals like "typing" or "typing Section 2" got converted into goals like "Write Lemma 3", "outline the proof of Lemma 3", "arrange the index of notations" etc. Much to my surprise, in a project where I had been suffering from a serious writer's block for weeks on end, I saw progress to the tune of 15 pages in 6 days. It is, of course, not always possible to count the output of work done in terms of pages. It is also not easy to come up with precise goals when starting to explore a research project, which is why people end up procrastinating the most at this stage. But, it does help to isolate exactly what part of a problem or project one wants to explore and stay focused on that. 

The third principle is to get work done on the go.  At some point, we all make peace with the fact that we want to do (or need to do) much more than we have time for. It is not a moral defect, therefore, to allocate short bursts of time to activities that we enjoy or care for, but which get relegated to the background as we seek to fulfil more urgent responsibilities. These bursts of time can be snatched from other things that are happening around us. I have managed to read, for example, two volumes of Shri Harivansh Rai Bachchan's autobiography over the past few weeks while waiting for the geyser to heat the water. Occasionally, I have also planned some work within the time that the washing machine takes to complete a wash cycle [this puts a nice timer on the activity concerned as well]. Sometimes, the time period can be as short as the 2 minutes during which a meal is being heated up in the microwave. This blog post has been written in the last few days in similar situations. In fact, this particular paragraph is being written up as a friend, who joined me for coffee, has stepped out to take a phone call.

This would be a good place to conclude the blog post. After a wholesome Sunday spent reading, preparing for classes, reflecting on the importance of structure and finishing this post, it is time to lock all doors of my abode and truly go within.

I would love to learn more productivity/structure tips from readers.

[1] This song is famously recognized as the song which Swami Vivekananda sang when he visited Shri Ramakrishna for the first time.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Keeping the head down

Several years ago, I started my first faculty position. Like many others in this position, I faced a wide variety of situations for the first time: developing an independent research programme on my own, balancing research and teaching with service duties, being responsible for students as their advisor, juggling administrative committee work and learning to interact with colleagues (the nice ones as well as the not-so-nice ones). While navigating this new territory, I learnt a lot of things, made progress, but also slipped, faltered, took wrong turns, not infrequently. In sore need of an outlet to express and make sense of it all, I started writing this blog pseudonymously.  The blog found a handful of readers [mostly young postdocs in North America], who engaged regularly.  For a year or so, I don't think that anyone outside of this small group knew about it. My colleagues certainly had no idea.

Then, thanks to a rather kind post by Professor Abinandanan from IISc (the author of Nanopolitan, one of the most popular academic blogs in India), this blog suddenly saw an exponential increase in engagement by an Indian audience who could more easily relate to what I was writing about.  Blogging became an enjoyable activity amidst the isolation imposed by being at a temporary campus of a new institute in rural West Bengal.  I continued to document several experiences, including the move to IISER Pune and starting all over again.  By then, it no longer made sense to keep the blog "anonymous".   

The blog was updated for a few more years, but I started falling short of generating genuinely new posts. As I grappled with professional challenges that I was no longer comfortable talking about, this blog started turning into a repository for posts written for other portals as well as guest posts or links to posts by other academics on topics such as science communication, outreach etc. Occasionally, I resorted to writing Scoopwhoop type of posts as well. This was also a time when many people were gravitating towards Twitter for social media interaction and this seemed sufficient for my "self-expression" needs as well.  So, sometime in 2017, this blog was taken offline without much ado. This time seemed appropriate to simply "keep my head down" and focus completely (and silently) on professional goals and challenges.  

Keeping one's head down has many advantages: there is an entire category of Yoga asanas called "Inversions" that emphasize on keeping your head down (more technically, keeping your head below the heart).  The "harder" inversions include shoulder stand, head stand, elbow stand and the hand stand.  Our Yoga instructor ensures that we perform some inversions in every class and also encourages us to incorporate them in our daily practice.  Apart from physical benefits such as improving balance and core strength, learning and practising these asanas also helps to strengthen concentration and mental stability (for obvious reasons: doing a head stand with a distracted mind is not recommended and an inversion can only be held as along as the mind is stable). When she started introducing these asanas in our classes, my first reaction was that of fear. But, we were taught to build our strength step by step. We started off by taking support from props (eg, for the head stand, one learns to position oneself in a door space or between two walls in a narrow corridor).  Then, as core stability improved and the fear reduced, we started requiring fewer and fewer props. Some of us can now do a complete head stand without any wall support, while some require a wall to position their heels. Each member of the class has had a unique learning curve and learning pace in this regard.  Some of us, who would feel dizzy at the very thought of placing the head down, can now hold a head stand for several minutes.  We got here by not giving up and by staying regular with our practice.  In moments of weakness, our instructor ensured that we did not give up. What's more, in this class of responsible adults, we learnt to focus on our individual asana practice without the need to diminish that of the others or comparing ourselves to others.

This has so many analogies with an academic journey.  An academic career (any career, really) is impossible without learning to "keep one's head down".  We build up our "core" research programmes by focusing on our own work and by pushing ourselves forward, one step at a time.  Proper administrative structures and peer support at the workplace provide us with the "props" to do so.  In moments of weakness, some of our colleagues inspire us to continue the journey by providing mentorship or in some cases, by simply lending an ear . With these in place, we just need to stick to our programmes quietly and for long enough without comparing ourselves to anyone else.  Then, we realize one day how far we have come and how much strength we have to move further ahead.  We learn to appreciate our own expertise without diminishing that of our colleagues. Anxieties and fears get replaced by a sense of balance. 

These are some lessons I have learnt in the last four years.  So, the blog is ready to go up again. What occasion better than our 75th Independence Day to do so?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Open days and open minds

[In a recent article, Prof. Janaki Nair (JNU) objects to open days for school students at research institutions like JNU. A guest post by Abhishek Banerjee in response:]

"But what if I don’t find anything?" 

It was the summer of 2001. For the last quarter of an hour, there were a bunch of us high school students listening intently to a senior scientist explain to us the thrills of innovation and discovery. We will call him the Professor.

But one of us had managed to pop the question that was at the back of our minds. We will call him the Kid.

"Well you try and try and try,'' the Professor replied, with a smile. Perhaps he didn't want to disappoint us right away.

"But, what if we try and try and try and still don't find anything?" The Kid persisted, with the frankness of someone who has nothing to lose. Others around had begun to laugh.

"That's the thrill of science.  Ultimately, it is about the unknown" the Professor finally let us have it straight.

The Indian Institute of Science. The Raman Research Institute. The Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow. The Bose Center in Kolkata. They threw their doors open to us. We bugged them, we peppered them with silly questions. We heard about NMR spectroscopy and orbiting telescopes and non-Newtonian fluids. We didn't understand a lot, but we caught the glint in their eye, we saw them thrive on the excitement of working with the unknown.

I was hooked. I still am. 

It is therefore with great pain and surprise that I read Prof. Janaki Nair's article in Scroll.in where she speaks thus about school students being invited to campus for one day to see how JNU academics work. 

A vice? 

Does an open day for school students really turn researchers into "observable lab animals"? Are possible interactions with school kids so degrading that a researcher should feel deprived of her/his humanity and turned into an animal? 

I really hope not. I hope that interacting with fresh young minds is an exercise that lifts us all up, instead of cutting us down, let alone to the level of a "lab animal". What's wrong with lab animals anyway? I'd love to be a fly on the wall where ideas are being thrown around. 

In a nation where we let untold quantities of human capital go waste, perhaps it would be better if the privileged few who have access to world class research platforms would be willing to share. Just a little. If we could break just a few barriers to higher learning, it will not cause bankruptcy. It will cause this land to run rich with ideas. 

With all humility, I think I will make an attempt to answer the question that the Professor was discussing all those years ago. 

If we don't know, we can try. If we still don't know, we can try harder. And if we still don't know, we could pass it on. Sometimes in research, it is even hard to know where to start. It could even be hard to know what the good questions are. But we could still pass on the sense of wonder and curiosity. 

A privileged research campus is like a flourishing garden of flowers. And we have to let the children in. They do not take away from the life of the campus, they are the life of campus. If there are giants on campus who want to build stone walls so high that the children cannot play here, spring shall not come to us. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016