When I joined a PhD programme at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune, I was triumphant. That was in August 2010, and it was another highlight in an already happy year: a few months earlier, I got engaged to my boyfriend of seven years. Everything felt like it was in place. I chose my favourite PhD project, had long discussions with my supervisor, plotted aims, objectives and experiments and started my journey towards a doctoral degree.
But as days and months of hard work in the lab went by, small failures in my experiments hijacked my mental health — something I think many others are familiar with. Despite my great year — we were married in May 2011 — I started to sink into depression.
I would get easily discouraged if something did not work. Unusual results started bothering me. Later, this became so pronounced that I started blaming myself for every tiny thing that went wrong. Did I prepare my buffers correctly? Did I forget to add primers to my polymerase chain reactions? I started forgetting my past achievements, and began to belittle myself. I wasn’t sleeping properly. I was losing weight. In a nutshell, I was depressed. I could see more negatives than positives. Nothing interested me. I would cry over small things and nothing could make me smile.
My husband noticed this change in my behaviour and wanted to help. One evening, he wrote some lyrics and handed them over, encouraging me to compose something. He said he’d booked a slot for us to go on stage in a couple of months and perform a song.
I’ve played the harmonium since I was seven, but over the course of my PhD I’d lost interest in music. I didn’t immediately accept his offer, but he persisted, and I eventually picked up my harmonium and composed something that worked with his lyrics. We had a song! It was the first time I had felt satisfied with an accomplishment for over a year. Almost immediately, I was feeling better.
I never imagined that a hobby could be powerful enough to breathe enthusiasm and enjoyment back into my life (and for many people, it might not be — if depression persists, please seek professional help). My harmonium was sitting idle, and the daily grind of work at the bench had taken over everything else. Before I could realize that I was missing something important, my mental health had begun to deteriorate.
The challenge of going on stage and performing my own compositions fuelled my day-to-day life. I woke up fresh with a new aim and enthusiasm. I started planning my work efficiently so that I could get home in time and devote time to music. Every composition I made came with a neurological boost. My experiments started working, or, more accurately, the failures weighed upon me less. I started to see each unexpected result as a new question to explore, rather than as a roadblock in my own work. Two months later, we went on stage in front of a full house. My PhD supervisor and other scientists from the institute came to support us, which was a huge boost to my confidence. We had a great night together.
Music became the secret to my happiness, and I shared this with my peers. We created a band (called ‘Vadyankit’; literally ‘ornamented with instruments’) and started playing together. We performed on stage 11 times in our entire PhD tenure.
We have now all graduated. I’m working as a scientist for the National Centre for Cell Science here in Pune, India; our keyboardist is a medical writer; our percussionist is at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru; our guitarist is in South Africa for his postdoc. Music is still our true companion. We’re scattered post-PhD, but we’re all careful to support others struggling in the research environment, and to encourage colleagues to take up hobbies outside of work.
If you are also struggling with your emotional health, make sure that you spend a good amount of time doing the thing that you like the most. Be it music, painting, writing, reading, hiking or anything else. Remember what you enjoyed that you’re now missing out on. In my experience, a hobby that might at first seem like an indulgence helps to beat stress and to set the mind free.
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