“What is it like to pursue IITB-Monash Joint Ph.D. program” – R. Kailasham

I do not want to be a product of my environment; I want my environment to be a product of me.

    Frank Costello, The Departed

My immediate environment would probably have trace amounts of organic reaction products, as I sit on the fourth (or third, depending on which side of the Atlantic you lean towards) floor of the department. I used to sit, anyway, before the institute went into lockdown. I am currently working from home, where I derive equations that govern the motion of polymer molecules with internal friction and write computer code that would simulate these equations. A brief overview of my research work can be found here. The rest of this article is mostly drawn from subjective experience.

Hi there, I am R. Kailasham, a Ph.D. student at the IIT Bombay-Monash Research Academy, jointly supervised by Prof. Rajarshi Chakrabarti at IITB, and Prof. Ravi Jagadeeshan at Monash. I received my B. Tech degree in chemical engineering from Sardar Vallabhbhai National Institute of Technology (Surat) in 2013, and my MSE degree in chemical and biomolecular engineering from the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia) in 2015. I worked at Urjas Energy Solutions, a SINE-incubated startup, for about six months, before joining the Ph.D. program in July 2016.

As a part of my Ph.D. program, I get to spend one year in Monash University’s Clayton campus (near Melbourne) and the remainder in Mumbai. Soon after joining, I realized that I would have to clear the core credit requirements of the chemistry department and finish my coursework load with a CPI of 8 or above before I would be allowed to fly Down Under.

Coming from a chemical engineering background, a lot about the chemistry courses were new to me. When I finished the Thin Layer Chromatography and Column Chromatography experiment, I took a photo to commemorate the event. I received quizzical looks from my group mates, most of whom had been through this experience during their MSc days. “Celebrating the first TLC of your Ph.D.?”, the TA asked. “My first TLC ever”, was the reply.

After roughly a year of such horizon-widening experiences, I had put together enough of performance for my cumulative index to cross the threshold. It was six degrees Celsius below the freezing point when I landed in Melbourne. And I soon found out how far Clayton is from Melbourne. Let me put it this way: if you went to college in Clayton and lived in a hostel there, and your parents are based in Melbourne, you would be forgiven for feeling homesick. OK, I am joking. But only just.

Having to shop for groceries and tackling the challenge of converting those supplies into something edible was an added challenge. On the work front, there was not a lot of difference in the type of tasks that I had to do, and the transition from IITB to Monash was fairly smooth. Watching AR Rahman live in concert, attending the opening day of the Boxing Day Test at the MCG, and driving along the Great Ocean Road are a few highlights that stand out. Oh, and in case you were wondering: the best tea I have had in Melbourne? Toss up between Kailash Parbat (now permanently closed) and Raju Omlet Centre. The best hot chocolate? Koko Black on Collins Street. I returned to India in July 2018, took a three-week vacation to go home, and slotted back into the IITB lifestyle by August 2018.

Soaking up the Australian sun with friends. Picture courtesy : Vallabh Vasudevan

A few insights

At the heart of it, scientific writing is another form of storytelling. However, there is one telling difference that sets this discipline apart from the rest. While a typical novel/crime fiction would strive to keep the reader hooked until the very end, the research article must proclaim its central result right up front, in flashing neon lights, if possible. For example, if the murder of Roger Ackroyd were a research article, it would probably have been titled: “Who killed Roger Ackroyd?”, with the answer given in the abstract of the article. Spoilers are welcome, and last-paragraph cliffhangers not, when it comes to scientific writing. Before joining the Ph.D. program, I had mostly read fiction, and that had a deep impact on my writing style as well. Adding scientific writing to my skillset took a lot of research paper reading, and implementing the feedback given by my supervisors. 

While research, by definition, is performed to gain fundamental insight and/or create something new, the process in itself is grounded in method and discipline and is rarely ever flashy. I have realized that having a routine and sticking to it, helps one maintain a sense of control in a journey through (hopefully) uncharted territory. When you have followed the correct procedure, everything that you obtain is a result.

A friend once observed sagely, “No matter the specialization, it is called a doctorate in philosophy”. It is not just what you do or has done, it is how you approach challenges that will mark you out as a finished product.

To anyone looking to pursue a career in research, I would recommend the following books: The Hunt for Vulcan by Thomas Levenson, Chaos by James Gleick, and The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. I certainly wish I had read these books sooner: the first two books layout in rich detail the process, the anguish and joy that accompanies any research effort. The book by Taleb is a cautionary narrative, supplemented with a lot of examples, about the pitfalls of putting blind faith in black-box models.

The whole world is waiting to judge you and measure you against arbitrary standards. Be kind to yourself, and do not compare your journey with others’.

Captivating Australian seashore. Picture courtesy : Vallabh Vasudevan

I tweet here and blog here.

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