T like there and back again – or a very special PhD journey

“I like the constant feeling of being an imposter.” HITS researcher Madhura De is giving this interview despite having enough other things on her plate. She defended her PhD thesis in Heidelberg, Germany and has just moved to the U.S. for her first PostDoc position at Harvard Medical School, Boston. Getting to this point in life could have been like any other PhD story, except it has not. This article focusses on a very special PhD journey and will include many tips and tricks for other PhD students as well as mentors on how to maneuver difficult times.

But let us start at the beginning. Like many scientists, Madhura discovered her passion for science at a very young age. It is therefore not surprising that she studied Biology at the University of Calcutta, Kolkata, India, where she specialized in Biophysics.

Her Master’s thesis at Bose Institute, Kolkata was largely based on solving the structure of a small stretch of mismatched DNA using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. That involved lots of computer simulations. However, her PhD led her to a wet lab. In 2016, Madhura moved from India to Heidelberg (Germany) to pursue a PhD in single-molecule FRET spectroscopy at the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsches Krebsforschungszentrum, DKFZ). She started her PhD in November, but only half a year later her group leader Jörg Langowski died in a tragic accident. Thanks to his wife Katalin Tóth who gradually assumed leadership of the lab, Madhura could continue her PhD until the lab was finally closed in September 2019. Far away from home, in the middle of her PhD, Madhura had to find a way to continue her research. And she did.

In October 2019 she joined the Molecular and Cellular Modeling (MCM) group at HITS: “I was very lucky that Rebecca Wade let me continue my PhD in her lab, despite my PhD work being mainly conducted through experiments.” After her Master’s studies, which were focused mostly on computer simulations, and the first half of her PhD being conducted in a wet lab, she found herself again in a theoretical environment. “Thanks to my former education I was able to come up with simple models to finish my research work, but it was hard.” But this was not the end of it. Just when she overcame one obstacle, another hurdle came along the way. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Germany (and the rest of the world) when Madhura was in the critical phase of her PhD thesis. “Working from home to get my PhD done while living through a global pandemic was of course a big challenge.”

Embrace the imposter

So how did it feel to not only have to maneuver through external odds, but also focus on another research method in the middle of the PhD? “I never let the imposter syndrome get the better of me. I suggest that you embrace it. It’s essential and helps you learn more and grow. Look at it like going to a bookstore where all the titles are new to you. Isn’t that fun?” In her former wet lab at DKFZ, a phrase stuck on the door got her through very critical times: ‘If it were anything easier, you would not call it science’, “This taught me to love science as it is: a challenge! Often the more difficult the problem was at work, the easier the reality seemed to be. Science helped me through some pretty rough times and provided a healthy distraction. It had been a lifesaver.” What else did she learn from her PhD apart from keeping her cool? “I definitely learned that it’s alright to be bad. There are always things you might not know. There are ‘imposters’ everywhere. It’s just important to open your mind and learn!” That’s why in the following section, Madhura will share the lessons she learned during her PhD in the hope that it might help others that find themselves in a similar situation.

A hitchhiker’s guide:

“First of all, there is no rulebook for this. Being the best judge of what is good and what is bad for you, you will have to write one for yourself. Here are some useful methods and thought processes that worked for me:

1. In my own experience and countless conversations with mentees and friends, I had a feeling that students (including me at some point) spend an absurd amount of time thinking about how supervisors perceive them. Have an honest open relation with your supervisor. Concentrate on the work, and do not push yourself just to impress your supervisor. In my opinion, a vast majority of problems graduate students face: anxiety, depression, burnout, and later dishonesty: sugarcoating, even falsifying data, arise from the student’s need to prove themselves in the eyes of the supervisor. I think a possible solution to this global problem would be openness from both sides, an honest discussion about one’s abilities and limitations, mental health, negative results, etc.

2. Know your limitations, but also know about your strengths!

3. They say these days ‘it is ok to quit’: if it is ok, why do they call it ‘quitting’? See point 5: change your perspective.

4. This is specifically for those starting a degree program or thesis research: make a pen-and-paper doodle about broad research ideas that you would like to work on and create a path how you would like to reach the broad end-goal. I did this back during my Bachelor’s and this served as a roadmap, not only helping me to choose courses in my undergrads, but also helping me frame proposals that got me previous and current jobs. You need not stick to the original plan, but going back to it years later, it’s fun to see our trajectories.

5. The proverbial fox is all of us: we all read the story of how the fox, unable to reach the grapes proclaim that the ‘grapes are sour’. Decades after reading this parable as a child, and after weathering rejections and failures, I realized that the fox is indeed all of us. There should be a plan B for every plan A, a plan C for every plan B. Just in case nothing works, change your perspective: maybe the grapes are indeed sour! When you change your perspective about things, you will have erased the word ‘failure’.

6. Look around you and draw inspiration. It is normal to feel like you are all alone in a deep well when depressed. You need to climb out of it and realize that in this very moment countless people are making it through every single day despite similar obstacles. At times, books and documentaries about survivor stories got me through, at other times, it was my own family and friends who each had a story to tell that put my own situation into perspective.

7. Be a mentor. You do not need to be an expert to help solve other’s problems. Doing this will help you get a fresh perspective of how to solve yours. You will also get a high when somebody else benefits from your inputs. And that will sometimes help you get through the day and the week.

8. My PhD supervisors Rebecca Wade and Katalin Tóth always emphasized on the fact that ‘negative results are results’. This helped me look at data from an unbiased perspective. We should always value honesty rather than flawlessness. Reality is messy and let’s present it the way it is.

9. Dealing with stress and burnout: take up a hobby, it is a lifesaver. Keep at least one day off no matter how hard the deadlines are. But be your own judge: if you need it, great, if you don’t, great as well!

10. I read this somewhere on the internet and this helped me: start the day by making the bed, set small achievable goals through the day and end the day with a small reward (even if you do not achieve all the goals): a movie or cake or an extra hour of pursuing your hobby!”

After this very special PhD journey, Madhura is looking forward to her first PostDoc in which she will switch back again to a wet lab. Does she feel certain that things will turn out as planned? “I would love to continue working in science, but maybe I end up somewhere else. I honestly do not try to plan my entire future ahead, but in short time spans. That makes life and planning so much easier.”

This blog has been written jointly by Madhura De and Isabel Lacurie. We thank her very much for her honesty and for sharing her personal experience.

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Isabel Lacurie is a science communication enthusiast and worked in the HITS communications department from 2013 to 2022.

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