Experiences,  Students

The Highs and the Lows: The (extra)ordinary journey!

As I sit down to pen this blog, there’s a flurry of emotions that run through my mind; happiness, sadness, nervousness, excitement, and anxiousness. Last couple of years have been a crucial part of my life starting 2014 when I began my adventurous and bumpy PhD ride. PhD isn’t easy and there will certainly be plenty of obstacles on the way to touching that shiny degree. Disclaimer in bold: I don’t plan to demotivate my reading audience, just putting words to my thoughts as they flow. Take all the bad and good things which you read with a pinch of salt. Trust me, its all worth it in the end(the degree ofcourse :D) It’s the up and down, the dim and bright that makes you value your degree even more.

The biggest learning has been that there’s a different journey planned for everyone: each to its own. No matter how much others advise you or how much you try learning from others’ mistakes, you’ve to learn to sail the HARD way! PhD is a roller coaster ride with the only option of picking yourself up rather than dying in case you fall. There are times when things appear cake-walk to the other end of the pole where nothing seems to work, just NOTHING! Perseverance and sincerity is what keeps you going (at-least kept me going). While its hard to sum up the entire journey in a couple of paragraphs, here’s the story in a nutshell.

When it all began!
Whilst the idea of pursuing PhD might scare some people, I had a similar notion a couple of years back when my goal in life was to happily take a job after Masters (that I did from IIITD itself in 2013) and do part-time PhD, if required. However, I consider myself lucky (with hindsight :D) that my advisor(PK) and his then current PhD students thought that I was a good fit as a PhD student and should definitely pursue a career in this direction. The idea of spending another long 5-6 years after earning a postgraduate degree wasn’t fascinating, but, the number of international travels PK’s PhD students had always intrigued me. The opportunity of having a direct admission to PhD based on Master’s merit was like icing on the cake. Long story short, with a series of discussions with PK and my family, I finally enrolled myself in the PhD program at IIIT-Delhi starting 2014. I had just completed my first international trip to the United States of America as a part of Masters stint (read the blog here) and I was all fluttered to start my new program; least did I know what was in store for the next couple of years!

The Honeymoon period!
I’d say the journey kickstarted pretty well, where I published a paper in a decent conference within the first 6 months. It was an extensive analysis based paper which made me think I was doing pretty okay as a researcher who was able to derive insights from a huge dataset. A couple of weeks later PK told me about my plausible visit to New York University, Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) for 6 months as a visiting researcher. It was a big opportunity since I was getting a chance to work with a renowned researcher, Prof. Mustaque Ahamad from Georgia Institute of Technology (who was then serving as the Director of Georgia Tech Information Security Center). I left for Abu Dhabi towards the end of 2014; the trip played a pivotal role in my PhD life. I was working with Mustaque and his post-doc, Dr. Payas Gupta (now a Data Scientist at Pindrop Technologies, Atlanta) on understanding the threat landscape of phone number abuse on mobile platforms. I was also associated with the CyberSecurity Centre at NYUAD where a bunch of diverse post-docs, PhDs, and Masters students worked together on several Computer Science problems. We had paper reading sessions, external researcher visits, presentation sessions which helped in honing my research skills, right from ingesting the problem, developing, and validating solutions. The base was laid during my Masters days because of my association with Precog, a research group headed by PK at IIITD. At NYUAD, the project that I was working on covered the entire spectrum of things; data collection using automated ways, analysing the data to derive insights, and validating through humans using surveys. The work was also accepted as a poster at NYUAD’s annual Computer Science event. Mustaque was happy with my progress and offered to extend my internship by another 3 months. We soon prepared a draft to submit in one of the prestigious Computer Science conferences as we received a lot of appreciation from fellow colleagues from NYUAD about the freshness and impact of the project. I still clearly remember the Skype chat with PK which read, “excellent draft, I am super happy with the outcome of your internship” that sound like golden words for a PhD student. An year and half into the PhD with a good internship project, and paper draft made life look peaceful and PhD easy. I thought to myself: this is not that hard, right? A PhD doesn’t seem to be as difficult as many have said! A few more papers and I should be able to wrap up things well in time. Boy oh boy, soon enough, the bubble busted and reality check hit hard.

The tunnel without light!
I was back to IIITD in mid 2015 when everything was great (in my head!) but nothing concrete (a publication!) — beginning of low tides. I was told that PhD is about highs and lows but somehow I was not ready to believe that I’d have to face the lows as well. Being an ambitious person, I was targeting all the competitive top-notch conferences in my domain and as a result didn’t have any new publication in 2 years. The fact that things didn’t turn out the way I wanted them to be just bothered me so much. The dream of having an A* paper was still alive and I was struggling hard each day to achieve that goal. That year, I started a couple of new projects, new collaborations that were adding new skills in my kitty. I had a good fortune to collaborate with some of the brightest minds (thanks to PK, ofcourse) — researchers from GaTech, MPI-SWS, NEU, and Microsoft; I learnt something from each of them. While I thought I was growing as a researcher, paper rejections were not validating it. Fast forward a few months: things had gone from chaos to chaos. Efforts were consistent, however, I wasn’t sure if they will see the light of the day. I was surprised how quickly the situation changed and became frustrating. I just couldn’t seem to pinpoint the problem. Though I had fairly figured out the broad thesis problem, things were not moving the way I thought, rather planned. On brighter side of the things, Mustaque, who was still an active collaborator, invited me to visit GaTech for the summer of 2016. I was hopeful that the new environment will bring things to perspective.

The global minima!
Another year, another draft was ready which was going through submission cycles. You know when people usually say bad luck happens all at once? Well, it seems like this theory applies to me. The draft pile was building up; with each rejection, the confidence was going down. I was back in IIITD in the late 2016 when the pressure started building out of proportion. I had done sufficient work to give my comprehensive exam well before time. The committee was happy with my domain knowledge and the PhD problem, but something was not working. The pressure of not having a publication was building up. Until now, all the conversations I had with PK were extremely positive but 2017 marked the lowest phase of PhD journey when he thought that things were a bit out of control and I should start putting serious thoughts into improving things. It was then I made a conscious decision of working on multiple projects and submit to decent (non A*) conferences to sustain the journey. The tumultuous ride of generating lots and lots of content started when I was literally burning myself 20 hours a day, giving my 200% in a hope that something would work. Reaching lab by 8 AM and leaving at midnight seemed like a regular routine. If I’m being totally honest, there was time that I felt absolutely exhausted. It was not a nice feeling when you know you have put all your effort and time into something and got back empty handed. That feeling of disappointment was the probably the worst feeling one PhD student can experience. Some projects got scraped off, some resulted in more paper drafts. Even then, NOTHING seemed to work and that’s the time I thought maybe I chose a wrong career. Perhaps I wasn’t capable enough of pursuing PhD, should have taken a job right after Masters instead. I was going to my own shell with confidence at global minimum. Trust me, accepting the failures and challenges that come with a PhD can be easier-said-than-done. From being called a “STAR” student in my postgraduate and early PhD years, I felt like luck has betrayed me. But as they say, light follows darkness!

The year of glory!
Time really flies and I was already standing in 2017, 3 years into PhD with three average publications that I wasn’t really proud of. The dream of having an A* publication was still bugging my head. Usually it takes 5-6 years for a PhD student to complete at IIITD, I was extremely keen on finishing it a bit early; I realized all these ambitions were making life really hard! Anyhow, the year started with 2 new problems I picked that were closely related to the previous publications I had. It was THE perfect time for me to reflect back what I have learnt and to use those learnings as I work to take back control of my PhD. There was no looking back; I knew I couldn’t and wouldn’t give up! Not after I had made this far to fulfilling the dream I nurtured a couple of years back. The routine was the same — burning myself 18-20 hours a day. I remember preparing 2 drafts at a time for the same conference. In the vortex of negativity, there was a breath of fresh air. And voila, how?! I got my first A* publication in the premier conference of my domain (WWW or WebConf). It was definitely big; there were a handful of PhDs (back then!) who could crack an A* publication. I shared the news with family and friends. All my near and dear ones were ecstatic. I can’t forget the look on my parent’s face, it still gives me goosebumps: they were proud and happier that I could achive my dream. Post-that, there was no looking back; I had a series of publication in my kitty. Every draft that I wrote turned into a publication and it was an immensely satisfying feeling. After a while, my uncertainty and pain waned as I bore the fruits of my hardwork. Life was pretty sorted. After my WWW acceptance, I had started preparing for job interviews. Now this was a bigger deal — I had never appeared in interviews before as I was studying back-to-back: Undergrad, postgrad, and finally PhD. I was clueless from where to start and where to end. Observing my fellow colleagues, finding a good job was an year experience and it kind of fitted well in my timeline. Within 2 months, I was associated with a start-up as a Data Scientist where I was leading a team of 5-6 people. I took the job as a part-time investment while I was still preparing for the right job and was mostly done with my PhD requirement. Fast forward a couple of months and I landed up getting a job at American Express as a Research Scientist. Now getting a job at such prestigious company as an initial kickstart was like hitting the bull’s eye. I couldn’t have asked for more. PhD journey was coming to a conclusion and real world was waiting. All’s well that ends well. Happy ending.

I consider myself lucky enough to be associated with some extremely fun-loving, smart students in my PhD life. The list in pretty long, there can be a separate blog for this 😀 A big heartfelt thanks to each and everyone who has been around; your support made it all a bit easier. I would like to give a special mention to PK for always encouraging, believing, and supporting me. During conflicts with self, your motivating words kept me going. Thanks a lot, PK. Another big shout out to my fellow PhD colleagues in the lab who encouraged and motivated me throughout the journey. Their words of wisdom really helped me sail through tough times. Thanks a lot guys. Above all, I would like to thank my family who lived (literally, in all sense!) this journey with me. Words cannot express how grateful I am to them for all the sacrifices they have made on my behalf. All their blessings and prayers has helped me sustain so far. I thank them for supporting me in the countless moments when there was no one to answer my queries. I would never be able to pay back the selfless love and care you gave me all these years.

So, to everyone who is thinking about a PhD: just remember that you need to get up and be the captain of your own boat. You’ll eventually learn how to sail through. There will be people around to support you both emotionally and practically. All you need is to stay resilient, ask and help will come!

MT11012 and PhD1136 signing off.

Dr. Srishti Gupta
B. Tech., M. Tech., Ph. D. (Hell yea!)

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