I was three years into the PhD program in Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I had passed the qualifying exam and completed the coursework, so it was full-steam ahead with my dissertation research and writing. For someone who likes having a plan and ticking things off lists, it seemed there was little left to do before I could engrave, “Anushka Anand, PhD,” on my business card. But, the essence of research is that things do not necessarily proceed as planned.
The research idea I had passionately embarked on and spent two years investigating ultimately led to a dead end. There I was: crushed, disappointed and lost. I had worked hard with nothing tangible to show for it. While others were building up their publication records, I was lagging behind. Given my academic record and professors’ praise over the years, I should have been making excellent progress. What was wrong? Maybe I was just not smart enough for the research world.
Graduate school was not only an academic leap. I had moved halfway around the world, leaving behind a supportive family, to pursue “insane curiosity” (the prerequisite for seeking a PhD, according to a mentor). I had more expectations than just mine at stake. Changing research directions was daunting — it meant discarding all I knew about one field, plus learning an entirely new field on my own. What if the new direction also led to a dead end? Could I take the risk again? Could I trust myself to make the “right” decision that would lead to fruitful research? Could I lean in?
After weeks of negative spiraling, I sought help to shake off my self-doubt, look forward and chart a new research trajectory. I refocused by reminding myself why I wanted to do the PhD in the first place: I enjoyed learning new ideas, applying them to different problems and asking “why.” Even more, I had a dreamed about enabling research on a broader scale as a program director at the National Science Foundation (NSF) or, dare I say it, America’s CTO.
Engaging in more open communication about my frustrations, goals, and journey helped me discover that my issues were broadly shared among PhD students. Away from my family, I formed a new support network that helped re-energize me so that I could lean in.
Two years later, I was ready to defend my PhD. It was in a different field and the path was bumpy, but I made it. I should have been done within four years, but it took me six.
Beyond academic knowledge, I had gained new confidence in my abilities and an understanding of my strengths, weaknesses and needs. I learned the value of community and how what I “should” do can create unrealistic pressure. Today, I’m a researcher at a startup company doing what I love. I enjoy bouncing ideas off other smart minds, implementing them in a real product and knowing that my work directly empowers many people.