“It was my best friend from high school who got me interested in psychology. When we had to choose between Maths and Psychology, she was the only one interested to take up the latter. It wasn’t possible for our school to allocate a class for just a single student but she was told if she managed to find one more student who would take up psychology, they would assign the class. Since choosing psychology meant I didn’t have to study math, I readily agreed. Our student counselor taught us and we had the fortune of getting real-life training sessions, which usually only Masters’ students get. It was also easy to score well in psychology because the subject is pure common-sense, it teaches you to be observant and kind to others. And the biggest attribute of a psychologist, that I learnt, is their ability to keep quiet.
But despite being good in academics and choosing academia as my obvious career path, I had actually envisioned myself doing until Master’s because in the field of psychology, there is very little you can do without a postgraduate degree. I chose to do my Master’s abroad at the University of Glasgow and recognized how difficult life is for an international student there. Additionally, the course I was in would not have let me practice psychology in the UK, and neither did I want to go towards that direction. So my only option was to stick to academia.
I went back to my college where I did my Bachelor’s from, as a teacher, after my Master’s. The first thing that I realized after returning was that nobody teaches anyone how to teach, especially in India, and that’s not just saddening but alarming too. You can’t teach university students like the way you would teach high school kids- the conventional spoon-feeding approach. Since I had already experienced the ways one is educated abroad, I deeply felt learning needed to be a student-centric pedagogy. But when I started teaching, I saw that students needed to be told what they had to read up on and how to score good grades, which in hindsight in an Indian context is fair, because doing classes from 9-to-5 leaves everyone exhausted and nobody really has time to use their brains to think something different or completely out of the box! To add to it, I taught mostly online because it was during the beginning of the pandemic. It was heartbreaking since it lacked the human component that teaching required. At the same time though, I loved how the system eventually adapted to not put too much stress on deadlines and asynchronous teaching was allowed. The discomfort and challenge that arose as being an educator made me certain that I loved teaching. To become a good teacher, I felt it was necessary for me to become a good researcher so that I could better understand alternative ways of making things work when they weren’t working out. Therefore, doing a PhD became my next step.
I spent three years applying for a PhD position both in India and abroad. It was the scariest period of my life. Every application required me to justify why I wanted to do this, and I discerned I genuinely do care about the questions that I was proposing, they might not be path breaking ideas but they were still the need of the hour. My PhD work entails climate change psychology where I am looking at how one can change human behavior towards climate in a more sustainable way. My university provides 8000 INR/month to full time PhD students, which isn’t a livable wage but in terms of the fee structure, the university is quite subsidized. So even though I don’t get a salary per se and doing my PhD for free, I still get quality education which matters the most to me.
Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement in how our education system functions. We must encourage building a community of researchers within universities who are open to sharing ideas and collaborating between cross-functional disciplines. People here are very singular and protective of their ideas which partly arise due to unethical practices by a certain few. But if we can’t make Science a joint effort project, I don’t think we are going to make progress. Not only natural sciences, but social sciences also require laboratory-centric environments where you talk about what you are working on and get respectful, constructive criticism on how to make the research better by multiple supervisors from different areas. Also I wish we create a flexibility of auditing courses outside of our field of research. The lack of crosstalk between different fields not only prevents us from becoming better researchers but also makes us bad citizens since we have so little respect for people belonging to different disciplines.
So for those who are willing to do a PhD in psychology, ensure that you understand why you are doing what you are doing. Nurture a more collaborative and a more ethical approach towards research and learn to communicate your work in a better way.”
-Aishwarya Iyer, PhD in Psychology, Christ University, Bangalore
Interviewed and written by Payel Das