Written by Tirth Vaishnav
The idea of being alone is not inherently scary for me. The idea of feeling alone, however, is an entirely different beast. Being the youngest in a joint family of seven and having grown up in Mumbai, one of the most crowded cities in the world, getting some alone time seemed like a blessing. I have always cherished solitude. Being by myself gives me a chance to think, have internal dialogue, ponder the deeper meaning of existence (no, seriously), or just be still. It replenishes my energy for another bout of human interactions. Solitude comes naturally to me, so I don’t often feel lonely in day-to-day life, regardless of whether I’m living alone in another country or at home with family. The kind of loneliness that I have experienced, however, is what I’m calling ‘career loneliness’.
My family is the artistic kind. Mom and dad encouraged us to take up various hobbies in our childhood. My siblings were extremely boisterous; they enjoyed dance classes, karate, drawing, sports. I was the shy one who did whatever they did, and so I didn’t stick with most of these hobbies (except dancing, through which I found my artistic expression). I was always more scientifically inclined but had no one to share my interests with growing up. As a result, I kept my love for the natural world to myself. I could have suggested trips to nature parks or safaris. But in order to fit in, I continued with the borrowed hobbies and got my fill of nature only from NatGeo and The Discovery Channel on TV. Come to think of it, my career loneliness began much earlier than I realize. I was living in a concrete bubble, having no exposure to the natural world (these were times of dial-up internet, so it wasn’t easy to make ‘connections’, pun intended). Most budding naturalists in high school would be enjoying backyard birding, nature trails, volunteer positions, amateur photography. Instead, I would resort to reading books about animals and nature and keeping checklists of various species off the internet. But I was struggling with trying to articulate where I wanted to go from there. The closest I got was in the 12th grade when I proudly declared to my family that I want to study “something related to animals”.
This came as somewhat of a surprise for my parents. Me who was creeped out by the gecko on our kitchen wall; me who had never expressed any interest in outdoor activities; me wanting to study animals, nature, the great outdoors! Naturally, they had to figure out if I was being serious, so they took us on a trip where we did all the things that I love. We went to the Madras Crocodile Park where I clicked pictures holding baby crocs and pythons, and for safari at the national park. My enthusiasm convinced them that I knew what I was talking about. But my seclusion from the academic world was such that I didn’t know what the next step was. I decided that I would pursue veterinary medicine, which seemed like the most obvious choice at the time. Having no local connections, and a desire to finally become my own person, I got admission for undergrad in Animal Biology at University of Guelph, Canada.
At Guelph, I was introduced to the wonderful world of research. I finally found a name for what I wanted to be called professionally, so I switched my major to Wildlife Biology. It was all well and good until I graduated and started looking for the next thing. Since I was fairly new to research, I didn’t feel confident enough to take up a masters’ degree immediately. My visa prohibited me from applying for most biology research positions that were restricted for citizens and permanent residents. I ended up doing (unpaid) internships in wildlife rehabilitation and reptile care. These positions did contribute to conservation in ancillary ways (local wildlife preservation and conservation education, respectively) but took me far away from my research roots.
I didn’t have a professional guide to help me sort out these feelings. All I wanted was to sit down with someone for a coffee and untangle my aspirations for the future. And of course, there were the unsolicited remarks by relatives asking if I’m ever going to stop studying and get a job, or just plainly advising me to change my field since there are no financial prospects in academia. Any Indian (or anyone else for that matter) in an off-beat profession would be able to relate to this. This was probably the time when I felt most lonely. I was living alone in a foreign country, broke, directionless, and dejected. It took a toll on my self-confidence and sowed the seeds of the dreaded imposter syndrome. I decided to reboot my life, so I returned home to India to fix the physical loneliness problem which would help me deal with my career loneliness. By this time, I felt like an outsider in my own country. The research scene had taken off in my absence; people were more connected and there were new post-graduate degrees being introduced for wildlife studies. I felt like a fool to think that I had any kind of advantage just because I had an undergrad degree from abroad. Cue intensification of imposter syndrome. I didn’t know where I belonged.
There were extenuating factors that resulted in a gap of 4 years between my bachelors’ and masters’ degree that I ended up pursuing in Mumbai itself. The curriculum was course-based but I was able to dig into my research roots and share that knowledge with my peers. I also learnt that there is a huge difference in the mindset in what ‘wildlife studies’ means in India than what I was used to. In Canada, my training was heavily focused on pure research and critical thinking. But because of the wildlife situation in India, with its high biodiversity and human-wildlife proximity, the approach was much more hands-on, conservation-focused, and inter-disciplinary. There wasn’t as much emphasis on scientific writing and literature review. My MSc dissertation research that took place in the most rural areas of Central India, in the fabled forests from The Jungle Book, was the first time ever that I felt like a true conservationist. It was my first true independent research experience, and I even got my first publication out of it (in press). There was a sense of fulfillment like I had never experienced before. Upon graduation, I started applying for PhD positions. It took many months and every ounce of patience to finally find the right fit… And then the pandemic hit! Along with the rest of the world, I went into survival mode and put everything else on the backburner. When I got the acceptance email, I didn’t know how to celebrate. I wasn’t sure if I will be able to follow through with the dream, but thankfully the world of online and offshore education opened up for students across the globe. I was able to start my PhD remotely from home. My supervisor and support staff at the university were exactly the professional mentors I was looking for in my entire student life.
But the career loneliness still rears its head from time to time. Having limited experience with independent field research, the idea of starting off a PhD sitting in my room in another country seemed ridiculously unfair. Knowing that there is an office desk and teaching assistant position with my name on it, waiting for the borders to open. Not being able to walk into my colleagues’ office to discuss their projects. Not being a part of the wider campus community, feeling like an imposter playing at ecology from the confines of home. I often feel insecure about not having done enough in my field as a researcher, but I don’t know what the yardstick is (is there even a yardstick?) Isn’t the fact that I’m doing a PhD in ecology proof that I have somehow paid my dues and navigated through this labyrinth? But in feeling these things, at last… I know I am not alone anymore. There are countless students around the world who are sailing in the same boat. I was fortunate enough to be able to commence my doctoral studies this way, many others may not have been. The pandemic has been a giant reminder to count our blessings and wait for things to fall into place. Even though my career has not been as straight-forward as others in the field, I am on my way. The connections I have been longing for are finally starting to form. The pandemic will end, students will be able to travel again. Nature WILL heal as it always does. And I WILL get over my career loneliness.
For more of Tirth, check out @tirthvaishnav on Instagram