The Toxicity of Indian PhD Labs

I am a PhD scholar in one of the seven old Indian Institutes of Technologies (IITs). If you follow the news, you must have seen the extreme high cases of suicides and mental health disorders in the IITs.

Does it ever occur to you why?

Besides the fact that a PhD can be gruelling academically, extremely tough to get through when your scientific results do not show up despite repeated attempts, or the problems related to the age of the scholars and the associated social pressures, there is one issue that is hardly ever gets talked about – toxic lab environments. Here, I am not talking about the issues a scholar may face from a supervisor – that is a whole separate story (rather, a novel) all together.

I am talking about the serious toxicity amongst the fellow lab mates. From intentionally withholding necessary scientific information to excluding women from discussions, from malicious back biting to spreading personal gossip in front of the supervisor – you see it all.

Personally, entering the air-conditioned lab every morning engulfs me in a thick negative layer of clouds, leaving me gasping for breath. As I step inside those four walls of a room that is supposed to be the motivation for great scientific thoughts, no single person issues a greeting or a smile from their desk. As a junior, when I often asked my academic questions out loud, no body responded. Pin drop silence.

How long can a person last in such an environment? The culture in Indian labs is that if the seniors went through certain hurdles, it is made sure that the juniors face the same hurdles – or even more. Instead of using the experience of the senior scholars as a tool to soften the blow on the juniors, a manner of sadistic pleasure is derived from watching the fellow lab mates suffer.

Also read: Hit by Pandemic, PhD Scholars in India Want Research Tenures Extended

I have personally experienced being excluded from important lab discussions. I have been the subject of wagging tongues for wearing anything remotely fashionable. I have been personally asked not to let my colleague know that we are about to start an important experiment, to keep her unaware. Why? No reason but simple spite. The process of excluding this one lab member from the experiment involved more complicated steps and lies than the actual scientific experiment itself. I have seen lab members take credit of another’s work in front of the supervisor. As a first-year scholar I watched two of my seniors bond over, for the lack of a better word, bitching about another lab mate.

Do you now see what it takes for one to survive a PhD in an IIT?

I have first hand knowledge of incidents where lab mates gossip about the personal life and relationships of their colleagues in front of the supervisor. My friend from another lab told me how his lab senior went to their supervisor informing that my friend does not agree with the common political party they both supported. As I said before, supervisors usually base their academic judgement of the scholar based on such “teenage gossip”. The tales and ways of a PhD supervisor are unfathomable – and cannot be fit in one article, let alone unhealthy academic practices including tussles for authorship. Five years of all this drama and all the science that the brain can accommodate make up the chemical and physical components of a PhD scholar.

Such an environment of unfriendliness, unhealthy competition, information withholding, spitefulness and envy comes in the way of good research. It comes severely in the way of good mental health. For someone who is not used to fighting so many battles at one go, it can get really, really hard. Combine this to the lack of proper mental health infrastructure in India – the situation gets dangerous. The fact that these scholars go on to become faculty members and PhD supervisors in future ensure that the vicious cycle simply continues

But not all hope is lost. There definitely are labs where there is great camaraderie amongst the PhD scholars – though rare and far in between. There are labs where the lab mates become inseparable friends. There are labs where the supervisor takes the students on vacations. There are labs where the lab mates make reels together for Instagram.

But then, such labs are extremely  rare – rarer than the noble metals. With all these said, at the end of five years I think a PhD from an IIT makes you way more than an expert in your research topic – it makes you a very, very strong human being – provided you make it to the end.