Maze & PhD

Imagine you are somewhere in a maze. And it’s dark. And all directions look almost the same. That’s how things are initially when one starts PhD.

And then when we discuss with our advisor, who knows a lot of intricacies of the maze and the way around it, one of the directions seems better and we start exploring that with a bit more confidence.

After some time (or days) again all directions look more or less similar, we are lost and feel as if we don’t know the way around. A chat with our advisor again, and things seem better and we pursue a direction that looks promising.

This process repeats. Again and again.

And gradually, we ourselves start getting to know some of the intricacies of some parts of the maze. We are not as confused exploring the way around the maze as we initially were. We know some parts of the maze so well that we can literally move around with our eyes closed!

There can be different metrics of success in a maze. Sometimes it is about finding a path out from some region of the maze. At other times, it is about finding something cool and interesting on the way in the maze itself. Not all explorations result in success (actually most don’t)! Most explorations end up in a dead-end!

These results about the interesting things we find around the maze as well as the routes we explored are the things which we share with others at conferences, and in more detail in journals. It’s our way of giving back and sharing our experience of our journey around our region of the maze.

It is good to have friends and peers who are in different stages in the maze. We can share our experiences around our regions of the maze with each other. We can help and motivate others when they feel stuck on a route. Together we can be pillars of support for one another!

The maze itself is not fixed, it keeps changing dynamically over time. And experts like our advisors can mostly predict how it will evolve in the long run. And thus sometimes things which worked in the past might not work in the future; at the same time, things which didn’t work in the past might now work due to the changes in the maze!

A comprehensive exam tests if one knows the basics of the maze and is capable to explore it around. It also tests if one is resilient against failures and is strong-willed to try again with the lessons learnt from the past failures.

Similarly, the state of the art exam is where one looks at other people who have navigated around the maze, the actions they took, the routes they explored and the outcomes they got based on it. Based on these learnings, we build upon and answer some new questions regarding some other parts of the maze or even regarding some existing regions which have been explored previously but the maze has changed since then.

Different mazes have different levels of popularity. Some mazes are so popular that there is a lot of buzz and hustle-bustle around. In these mazes, many people are interested in the new results, however, it is hard to do some novel work. Also, in such mazes, there is a tendency of peer-pressure such that people are pulled in the direction which others are moving towards. On the other hand, some other mazes are not as crowded. There may not be as many people around who can appreciate new findings and results, but that doesn’t mean that these mazes should not be explored. After all, to each his own!

Different domains have different types of maze. Each has its own specifics and intricacies. Mostly we are free to choose the kind of maze we want to explore and try to become experts in. And accordingly, we choose an advisor who can help us in the process. Ideally, an advisor is not just someone who is an expert of a specific kind of maze but also someone whose personality gels with ours.

At the end of our PhD, we pen down the whole journey around the maze, with the experiences we had around the maze, the lessons we learnt, the successes (and failures) we experienced on the way, and that’s our thesis!

And we not just become an expert in some part of the maze, we also discover ourself and our own capabilities and strengths in the process. Once someone has a PhD, the person is expected to explore and find the way around any part of the maze. That’s because it’s not just about knowing the maze well enough, but the capability to navigate in any part of the maze!

Happy exploration around the maze!


One must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

When others are thinking of buying a house,
We think about the next big research idea!
When others are buying big flashy cars,
We prefer to cycle around in our green campus!
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

When others are going abroad for vacations,
We wonder where the next conference we present, would be!
When others have holidays, they take a break from work,
When we have holidays, we get more things done!
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

While others are busy with their 9-5 (rather 9-9) jobs,
We too are busy in our lab, but for as long as we want.
They are doing what they are told is to be done,
While we tinker around thinking what else can we do!
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

Others come back home, exhausted after the day,
Even we are tired after a hectic day (or night).
But they hit the bed, and immediately fall sleep,
While we keep on thinking before we finally sleep!
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

Others might have a well-defined plan of getting things done,
While we go around trying new stuff one-by-one.
While others can be successful, by heading the road more travelled,
We are expected to take the road less travelled.
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

Research requires a different kind of aptitude to life,
Where things that matter to us vs others, might be a contrast.
And that’s okay, as different people roll differently,
Anyway, life is not a rat race, although rats want it to be!
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

Being a researcher, is a lifestyle decision and choice,
It requires different values and preferences.
We cannot turn on and off being a researcher over the day,
It requires a constant hum in the background, in our brains.
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

Research requires a fire to know and find out more,
To think, reason and argue and then let our ideas roar!
To doubt what everyone believes to be true,
To innovate new stuff from endless brew!
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

We value innovation, over a fixed static technique,
We value uncertainty, over knowing how exactly things are going to be!
We value our freedom, over high-paying hierarchies,
We value exploration, over exploiting the known!
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

We face failures and rejections, every now and then,
The one experiment we present was a result after many that failed.
These successes and failures are a part of our usual routine,
We learn the knack to make progress, however hard things have been.
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

The role of a researcher is hard!
Sometimes, literally requiring our blood, sweat and tears!
At the same time, it is one of the most satisfying roles!
Where self-growth is one of the most!
Thus, one must be a lil’ crazy to be a Researcher!

PS – In the image above, researchers are like the few branches growing their own way as compared to all other branches of the bush!