Experiences,  IIITD,  StudentGiri

Conversations with “PK”!!

Over the years, I have read many blogs of students who crossed paths with PK. I have read students express their gratitude, the joy of being in one of the finest research labs, surrounded by the finest students, and how much they appreciate it. What is mind-boggling is the way the students always come back, make time to visit the current students, exchange memories, and catch up in different nations. It’s almost like an extended family at this point! It’s safe to say it’s not just a lab but an emotion. With every blog I had ever read, I wondered how I would describe my journey. And finally, the day has come when I get to describe my journey with the most energetic person I have ever met – “PK”.

Hello,  I am Neha, a proud PhD student of PK. If being a PhD is living a high life, doing a PhD with PK is almost like living on steroids! With all the opportunities, exposure, and computation power available in your footsteps, he leaves absolutely nothing to complain about. You want something for research; name it; you want to start a conversation with a professor sitting in a different time zone, name it. The dedication PK shows for making your research successful is incredible and out of the world. 

I joined Ph.D. in January 2018, and as a PhD student, I have broken myself, picked myself up again, bent over backward, soared high in the sky, and fallen straight on the ground countless times. It’s an incredible and long journey, which is very difficult to summarize. The best way to describe this uphill battle of a Ph.D. journey for me is through the small 1-n-1 conversations I have had with PK over the years as his student. Looking back at the journey, it was these 1-n-1 interactions with PK that defined and shaped it! 

So here it goes…

“Is all set for the trip? Who all are available this Saturday?”:

Yup, you should expect the first conversation with your Ph.D. advisor as his [pk] student to be about your problem statement, his publication expectations, and anything other than what I had heard. We were all set to go on a trip, a bus full of students—an entire day filled with food, sports, activities, and casual interactions with juniors and seniors alike. I was overwhelmed, to say the least.

In the first week of my joining, I cut the Precog Birthday cake, met at least 5 alumni, and had the most fantastic trip. 

“We are all broken bricks, Neha, don’t you think?”

Getting up to speed with the students in Precog was more complex than I had thought. I am still amazed by the students who are part of Precog and the fantastic projects they drive. 

It was two months into my Ph.D., and I was all over the place. I was part of the most amazing Government-funded project, and I was struggling to wrap my head around it,

along with coursework.  In one of the 1-n-1 interactions with PK, I opened up about thinking I was not good enough and would never be. At this point, I was lost. Having gathered from the group that there was no harm in speaking up in front of PK about how you felt, I gathered up the courage and went to him. After listening to me compare myself to a building wreck, PK calmly rested at the back of his chair and said, “We are all broken bricks, Neha, don’t you think? We all have something to fight for, something to keep going, some regrets, and something we failed at. It’s life, and it’s fine not to have figured it out. If you knew, why would you be here?” 

PhD research scholars constantly go through the highs and lows in their PhD life. And to have an advisor who supports you trying to figure it out was astonishing to me. I felt the strong courage to keep going, which is what a PhD is all about. It’s hard to keep going at times, and the understanding at that moment with your advisor is everything.

“Pass to ho jayenge na?”

This was one of the most hilariously scary conversations that I had with PK. I took a very heavy course for my Python programming skills in my first semester. On the last day of the exam, my face was pale from the complexity of the paper I had just attempted. After the exam, I came to lab to see PK, and first thing he asked was how my exam went. I silently looked at him, thinking, “will he regret taking me for a student?” I had a lump in my throat and couldn’t answer his question. At this point, PK asked, “Pass to ho jayenge na?”. I nodded yes, but at the same time I was packing my bags in my head to leave for home and never come back. It’s not the question that he asked, but the concern in his voice about me being able to make it… let’s just say, in my mind, I had started unpacking again. I kept nodding, and he just nodded and left me be for the moment. 

Spoiler alert: I passed that damn test!!! So far, so good!

“I hope you make me proud someday!”

It was May 2018, and PK was preparing for his TED talk on “Saving Lives: How Many Likes Is Your Life Worth?” Before the real talk, PK had a mock presentation within our lab, and we all brutally gave our feedback to him. This again! addressed a first for me. In general, we are wired not to give that brutal feedback to our professors, but how he sought suggestions was something you don’t see every day. 

In the 1-n-1 conversation that followed that week, I told PK, how proud I felt to be his student about the amazing work he does. If out of syllabus had a face, it would probably look like all the other proud tasks PK picks us as a way of helping the students, for greater good. To my compliment, PK replied, “I hope “you” make me proud someday!

I felt highly motivated and thought maybe someday!

“You work with me, not under me.”

After my first semester, I remember PK had left for a sabbatical at IIIT Hyderabad. As soon as winter breaks started, I packed my bags and left for Hyderabad.  While introducing myself to the team at IIIT Hyderabad, I went like – “Hello, My name is Neha, I work under PK.” This led to the unfolding of PK’s fury, and let’s just say I received my first (*$##@@#@#: loosely translating to PK being very angry with you!!) at this statement. “You work with me. Never feel like you work under me.” 

The key to working with PK is to feel equal and be able to ask the dumbest question in the room without any hesitation. Over the years, I have learned these skills, and it has only changed my life for the better. I have learned to yield to the suggestions and remarks of all students, and they have led to success in my research. I haven’t said enough that brutal discussion on my research helped me get my paper accepted at major venues. I learned that if we don’t give brutal feedback to each other, the reviewers will, and then the paper sits with you for another cycle. 

“I am not convinced with your problem statement unless you yourself are”

The journey of self-growth alongside PK has been amazing. In the initial year, it felt like a complete overhaul—a process of unlearning and embracing new ways of thinking. Little did I know that the most significant lesson was yet to unfold. When working on my thesis with PK and Dr. Arun Balaji, I realized I had to be the pilot of my journey. To drive, fly, or maneuver through the problem statement, I needed more than just a passing interest; I needed to fall in love with it!

My first project as a Ph.D. student, a government-funded venture filled with visits and attention, seemed perfect at the time. However, PK and Arun (my advisors) collectively emphasized the short-lived nature of the project, leading me to the pursuit of finding a problem statement for my Ph.D. thesis. I proposed several problem statements subsequently, and each met with a similar response. Over the next year, the back-and-forth with finding the problem statement left me feeling desperate and on the brink of going nuts. I wanted to convince PK on a problem statement, but whenever I pitched one, he’d ask, “Are you sure? Do you see potential in this?” The self-doubt crept in, and I was in a relentless cycle of proposing, doubting, and searching for new problem statements. 

By October 2019, almost two years into my Ph.D. journey, I still hadn’t found a problem statement. Comparing myself to others became a nightly torment, despite knowing it was like comparing apples to oranges. The pressure to catch up was overwhelming.

Then, one morning, while reading papers and exploring trending hashtags, I had an Eureka moment!! I went to PK and explained what I wanted to do for PhD, anticipating the usual questions. But this time was different. I stood my ground, ready to fight for the problem statement. Instead of objections, PK smiled and said, “Okay, let’s do it. If you are convinced.”

Confusion swept over me, and I stood for a second…like what just happened? Wasn’t he going to point out potential pitfalls? So basically, in my quest to convince PK, I had forgotten to ask myself if I was genuinely excited, invested, and committed to the problem statement. 

All I needed to do was to fight for my problem statement and to be able to defend it. Choosing to study protests and campaigns on social media indeed was a problem statement that I stuck to for the coming years, and I genuinely was motivated and wanted to work on it.

“Neha, People will not remember what you did with them after 10 – 20 – 30 years, they will remember how you treated them…”

One of the most profound moments of support and wisdom I received was from PK during a pivotal juncture in my life. As I made the life-altering decision to get married at the end of my fourth year, I found myself in a period of significant change. With only one workshop paper to my name and no regular paper accepted, I was not in an ideal position as a fourth-year PhD student.

Amidst these transformations, I became somewhat MIA (Missing in Action), and even when present, my focus was often scattered. It took me a while to find my footing in this new chapter of life. During one of those challenging mornings, I woke up to an email from PK with a subject line that would echo in my mind: “No Excuse for Silence.”

This statement wasn’t just a reminder; it was a lifeline. It resonated deeply, cutting through the distractions and excuses. It served as a reminder that, despite the changes in my life, I owed it to my fellow students and collaborators to remain responsive and engaged.

“Is there a maybe?”

The season of paper rejection for me lasted longer than I anticipated. Every paper reject made me question my entire life. In one such journey, I got 3 accepts from reviewers, and meta review was still rejected. I have had desk rejects for missing ethical deadlines. The sweet success of having the paper accepted flooded only in the fifth year. This made me realize that the process of learning to be an independent researcher is slow, but once you have arrived, you start to realize the expectations and deliverables. The key is to hang in there and keep trying. Eventually, things start turning around. 

My last conference paper sailed through on its first attempt!!!  Without wasting a moment, I called PK, asking eagerly, “PK, are you proud of me?” PK’s laughter on the other end was infectious, responding, “What are my options? Is there a maybe?” 

I don’t have proof, but trust me, he said he was, indeed, proud of me!!!! 🙂 

For me, this achievement was like hitting a sixer on the last ball. More than the paper, I was happy to make my advisor proud in my capacity.

Emerging on the other side of this beautiful yet challenging journey, I recognize that these past 6 years have fundamentally altered my perspective. It’s been a transformative experience, molding me into a more patient individual and prompting me to view the world differently. Did it miraculously turn me into a better person? Perhaps not. Does it render my life smoother after enduring this rollercoaster of a journey? Definitely not. But has it instilled in me a greater acceptance of the inherent challenges in life? Undoubtedly, yes.

This brings me back to the very first question that PK ever asked me when he was interviewing me to join him for a Ph.D. 

Why do you want to do a Ph.D.?

That day I answered a perfect Google response.

Yet, truth be told, I didn’t know then, and I still don’t know now. Perhaps a sense of not knowing is an integral part of being a researcher—an acknowledgment that the pursuit of knowledge is endless and ever-evolving. It’s a tapestry woven with uncertainty, discovery, and growth moments. My heartfelt advice is to embrace and cherish every step of the journey because it’s the journey that makes a Ph.D. so rich, meaningful, and undeniably wholesome.

(Me with PK on my last day at IIITH, after the final paper submission.)

Hope you enjoyed my blog!


Kumari Neha

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