The “Backstage” of a PhD

Written by Chandrima Home

A PhD is a memorable journey in many ways – a motley mix of experiences ranging from the excitement of doing field work to the frustration of data analyses, and endless tedium of formatting your thesis, especially if you are technologically challenged! All these experiences and choices we make are often woven with detailed backstories, which often never get told. These stories could be about field situations, how a collaborative paper came into existence or even about what made one consider a certain topic for research.

After a depressing phase of not being able to work on my earlier PhD topic, circumstances took me to Spiti in the winter of 2011.  As stories of a “dog problem” started pouring in from the local people, it gave me a new set of ideas to explore in the mountains. On returning home in January 2012, I came up with a concept note,in which I planned to study the interactions between red foxes and dogs; the trade-offs between resource use and threats in the Trans-Himalayan landscape (Upper Spiti). The work was exciting and I was looking forward to studying foxes again.

But as they say Man (or rather Woman) proposes and God disposes! The news that I was expecting a baby in mid-February brought mixed emotions. The fact that I was going to be a mom was overwhelming; I was elated but I was also bothered by the fact that I had a “PhD” ahead of me. I considered if I should call it quits! The decision to take time off for a year seemed a more plausible option as it would give me some time to contemplate! My daughter (Kuhu) was born in August and the first three months whizzed past in mom duties with hardly any time to read or think. By early 2013, amidst many internal battles, emotional mood swings and confusion I decided to get back to my PhD. I had no clue how I would pull it off, but I believed that somehow I would make my way through! A research grant in the midst of my maternity leave also motivated me to get back to my research.

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Our first snow together, PC: Ajay Bijoor

When I glanced at my 2012 concept note after many months, what I proposed seemed a far flung target, definitely not something that I could achieve with a baby in field! This meant that my objectives had to change to something more accomplishable. The idea of using online surveys as a method for collecting data to address my first objective (to understand the impacts of domestic dog on wildlife in India) popped up when I was doing a weekly baby development survey on the BabyCenter website! The objective would serve a dual function: it would,of course, generate crucial data on domestic dog attacks on wildlife in India in a systematic manner, but it also meant reducing some of the field-based component of my PhD! With regards to my field work in Spiti, a village-based study seemed to fit better than spending days and weeks inside tents in mountains scanning red fox scat or setting camera traps! Any field work I undertook would have to be broken into shorter stints to keep up with my daughter’s vaccination deadlines.

I was apprehensive about the logistics, which I would have to deal with once I stepped foot in the harsh Spiti landscape, such as finding someone to look after Kuhu during my fieldwork, immediate medical help in case of emergencies, and spending part of the winter at -15˚C. Months of field work had to be planned well,given all the anticipated days or weeks of minimum or no work due to a plethora of reasons (Kuhu’s health, weather, field logistics, village festivities, and agricultural harvest).

Eventually, from an initial focus on resource use trade-offs by red foxes,domestic dogs and their interactions with people became the forefront of my research.In retrospect, the transition was exciting and extremely challenging when we were in field, but those days were also the most memorable ones for both of us.

 

About the Author:

Chandrima Home joined the ATREE PhD programme in 2009. Her PhD research aims to understand the ecological and social dimensions of threats by free-ranging dogs in the Trans-Himalaya. Other than her keen interest in ecology, she loves baking, reading and travelling.

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