With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility

by Anurag Srivastava

The hiring and firing of PhD students is not unusual in a graduate school. However, the power balance is skewed more towards the PhD guide/supervisor/mentor than the students. This is not just my philosophical hypothesis but a proven fact in my life. Years ago, I went through a traumatic experience of being fired from a PhD position in Israel. As much as I wanted to give up, I chose not to. Instead, I bounced back and secured myself another position in a reputable Italian university. I may not be the only person who has gone through such an experience. However, I might be one of the few who decided to share it with the wider scientific community.

With motivation to encourage budding researchers like myself, I decided to share my story with Science Working Life. I didn’t really expect them to accept my story, since in my opinion there was nothing unique and ground-breaking about my story. I didn’t receive a response from them for almost two weeks. This made me believe my convictions were true. Instead, I consoled myself for having the courage to at have least tried. However one day to my pleasant surprise, I received an email from the editor. He stated that the story had potential to be a Working Life essay.

With the kind and constant support of the Working Life team, I published the article last year on 24 January.

Not an ordinary day

24 January 2020 was not just another day in my life. Although it started with my usual morning chores before I headed to the lab to start my work. Yet that day, my heart was gleaming with joy and contentment. The joy came from the sense of accomplishment and fulfilment I felt after achieving one of my major life dreams.

I began my day by sharing this story of how failures don’t defines you on various social media platforms. To my surprise, by lunchtime my LinkedIn was flooded with new connection requests. Each connection request came with a congratulatory message applauding me for the courage I displayed in sharing this part of my life on a public forum. This amazed me because many of them were senior professors across the globe.

I was overwhelmed with the positive response on LinkedIn. I was also contacted by some of them on Facebook messenger. The best part was that these responses came from varied fields such as IT, Humanities, Mechanical Engineering etc. There were many students who also shared that they experienced something similar. Or, that they were struggling too and were looking to move on from such a setback.

“This story will resonate with many”

Once I started accepting their requests, many PhD students requested a personal interaction on a one-to-one basis. That is when I remembered the words of the editor: “This story will resonate with many”. I could see the unexpected impact it had made. People across the globe contacted me and I was more than willing to listen to their stories. One of the things that I longed for when I went through the setback, was guidance and support from someone who had already experienced this.

As I heard those heartbreaking stories, I could see for myself how helpless a PhD student can feel

Through my article, I was able to provide support and guidance to the ones who contacted me. I was reminded of the famous Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsbility”. As I heard those heartbreaking stories, I could see for myself how helpless a PhD student can feel. The power dynamic is skewed massively in favor of PIs that a student cannot do much even if he/she wants to.

One Latin American student shared that she had moved to a European country with the hope of being paid well whilst pursuing her PhD. However, to her dismay, they stopped the payment after one year of the fellowship. Yet, she was asked to continue working without payment. She worked as a teacher in her home country and had moved to Europe to make a good career for herself. Another student had suffered a similar fate to me. She was also Latin American who was fired in a single day without any prior notice. Many students shared how unappoachable and difficult to work with their PIs were.

‘I dearly felt for an extremely talented scholar’

I dearly felt for an extremely talented scholar, who came to Europe with a Marie Curie PhD Fellowship around six years ago. The project was going very well initially, but then a few instruments had issues and his project started running late. When his grant was about to end, he asked his PI for financial support. Yet, the PI said he was out of funds and could not pay him further, under the assumption that he had saved enough to finish his PhD without any grant.

We are never alone

In my opinion, the biggest mistake was when the student continued working in the lab without financial support from the PI. Somehow, he completed another year. However, he had several issues with the postdoc he was working with, which worked against him. The PI suggested that he should return to his home country and try to find a collaborator with whom he should complete the remaining work of the PhD.

He went back to his country and after much effort, finally found a collaborator. Then came a big news, the PI informed him that he got a new position in China and was moving his lab there. Once he settled down there, his PI would call him. After almost six months, his PI moved to China. The student was in constant touch with the professor and he was hopeful that somehow, he would finish the PhD. Yet one day, he received an email from his PI stating that he should resign from his PhD and search for other opportunities.

When I heard this story, I had tears in my eyes and felt deeply for the student. I advised him to write to the department to seek help, but unfortunately there was no one to help him out. I still feel sad for him since he gave almost 6-7 years for this degree without any gain.

The joy of being able to help

This article would be incomplete if I do not mention the most motivated student I have ever met. A student from Nigeria sent me a very well-articulated email asking for my time and suggestion to help him with a PhD application. I was already impressed and touched by his effort in finding my email address because its not easily available like Facebook or LinkedIn. A couple of days later, I responded to him and scheduled a Skype call for the forthcoming weekend.

It was the joy and contentment of being able to connect with so many people

I was super excited to meet this student as his CV was quite different yet impeccable. When the meeting started, I was in shock and awe. It turned out that I was speaking to a 55-year-old man who had just completed his master’s degree from a UK university. He had more than 20 years of experience working in various mechanical engineering sectors. He told me about the various projects he did in his master’s as well as in industry. I was amazed with his enthusiasm for research and how keen he was to pursue a doctoral degree.

During our discussion, I suggested a few places where he could apply. Also, I encouraged him that he should not worry about the age. This was because there are few people in their 60s from abroad doing PhDs at my university. I have never met them, but I had the knowledge. I suggested he could also apply for computational mechanics as it is a new emerging trend and given his vast experience, he would be a good asset for a lab.

Incidentally, I was able to refer him to a Professor of Computer Science with mechanical and civil engineering experience. The Professor said this person’s experience made him a good candidate and was open to connect with him via email. I was encouraged by this information and passed it to the motivated student from Nigeria. More than the excitement of publishing an article in a prestigious journal, it was the joy and contentment of being able to connect with so many people, hear their stories and be of some help to them.

No one is alone

The positive response I received overwhelmed me. I am incredibly grateful to everyone who thought that I could help them in some way. They made me realize that we are never alone. Whatever happens to us has already happened to many in the world. There is a beautiful message through famous Hindi song which when translated goes like this:

The whole world is full of sorrow and my sorrow is so little, when I saw the pain of others, I forgot about mine

About the author

I am a third year PhD student at the University of Turin, Italy. My research focuses on understanding the mechanism of the obesity paradox using bioinformatics. In my free time, I enjoy reading and coaching students in higher education. I am passionate about cooking, science communication and encouraging more empathy and compassion in science/academia/the field of science.

You can read his first article, My Ph.D. adviser fired me. Here’s how I moved on on The Cancer Researcher too.

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