Nivida Chandra is pursuing her doctorate in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IIT Delhi. A Fulbright Scholar, we talk to her about her experiences - from opening her online bookstore business to her unique mental health awareness platform - ‘The Shrinking Couch’- and the challenges of a PhD journey.
**************************************************** Q: When did you decide to get a PhD? A: I did my Bachelors in Applied Psychology from Gargi College and it was all about ‘I am going to be a clinical psychologist and work in big hospitals and diagnose people (laughs)’. But while working on my Masters' thesis, I realized that I didn’t want to follow in this system. My internships made me realize that the system is really messed up and the help that people need is not the help they are provided. That’s when I realized that I wanted to do research that can make help more accessible and is meaningful for millions of people because otherwise, what is the point of dedicating 5-6 years of your life to research?
Q: What is the focus of your research topic? A: Broadly, it’s the emotional neglect of children in India, which is not a popular concept in our culture. Particularly, it’s an idea called parentification, where the balance of care between the parents and the children is skewed, so the children have to forgo their needs and instead focus on their parents. This is a more permanent state of being than when you have to take care of your parents when they’re sick for brief periods of time. I have tried to present it such that everyone will be able to read and understand it (no jargon) so that it’s accessible to as many people as possible.
Q: What was the inspiration behind the research topic? A: In my Masters' thesis, I set out to study how psychologists separate their home lives with work - where they spend hours listening to the saddest pasts of their clients’ lives. As I talked to them, a pattern emerged. Psychologists are in some ways carers for their client, mothers almost. I found that they had all been caring for their parents from a young age, even as young as 4 or 5. As they grew up, it became a sort of automatic transition for them to choose this line of work. This is not the whole story of course but got me intrigued. One explanation for this was parentification, and I realized I wanted to study it deeper.
Q: How did you find your PhD supervisor? A: Right after my Masters, I started working with Professor Rukmini Bhaya Nair on a project in psycholinguistics and Darwinian emotions at IIT Delhi. I had been working with her for about a year and also thinking about getting a PhD. We talked a lot and realized we were a good fit. She was interested in my research topic herself and that is how we choose each other. I was lucky in this regard. She has been very supportive, and having this kind of relationship is perhaps one of the most important factors in successfully completing a PhD.
Q: How is your life at IIT? A: I am a part-time student and a big drawback of that is that I did not get to fully immerse myself in life on campus. I do sometimes regret this choice which I made because initially I was running my business and had a lot on my hands. Part-time students get 1 or 2 additional semesters to complete coursework and don’t get TA duties, which meant I could focus on my business and other activities.
Q: Tell us more about the bookstore you were running. What happened that you shut it down? A: My dad had run a bookstore in Connaught Place – The New Book Depot - ever since I was a child. I literally grew up in the middle of books. Somewhere along the line, Flipkart and Amazon happened which caused a lot of bookstores to shut shop, including my dad’s. I think my whole family’s heart broke. So I tried to open it up online for him and called it Page99 – they say that if you want to decide to read a book, read the 99th page. If you like that page, you’ll like the book. This fit well with me because I did not want to become a ‘bazaar’. We used to curate books and we had a very special selection from all over the world. We would recommend books to our customers all the time, had eco-friendly packaging and authors give talks with us – it was great fun! We woke up one morning and found out that the server on which our whole website was hosted burned down and for some reason, our tech person did not have sufficient backup. And it was just one of those bizarre things where you lose everything in a way you never expected. The cost to revive everything was too much so we took a business decision to shut it down.
Q: What prompted you to start your own mental health platform? A: I had been trying to find a therapist since 2010. I went to 7 or 8 different therapists around the city but had some very upsetting experiences with therapy. There was judgment and often a lack of empathy. Because I understand how therapy ‘should’ work, I knew the help I was getting was insufficient. It’s also very costly and time-intensive – that is a luxury many people cannot afford. It made me wonder yet again about the systems we have set up to give people health and if this is the way therapy works, then how can I encourage others to get help when I could not find it for myself? People who are unaware will end up taking whatever help is given to them and perhaps not benefit – the cycle of issues that starts from there is too lengthy and painful to discuss. So about 5 years ago, early in my PhD, I co-founded The Shrinking Couch. As the name suggests, I wanted to shrink the need for the proverbial therapist’s couch, and it was also a fun play on words. The aim was to empower people through expression - you write about your problems so that on one side when you write about it you gain clarity about your issues, and when others read about it they gain your clarity, and a dialogue begins. This way you can create a community of sharing and openness. It’s been a passion project for me; I’ve been running it by myself for about 4 years now.
Q: What does your typical workday look like? A: For a year and a half, ever since I came back from my Fulbright, morning, noon, and night, weekend, weekday - I don’t even know the difference anymore – it’s been work work work! For instance, COVID has had no effect on my daily routine! It's a terrible example of work-life balance. Not every day is productive. I have considered quitting many times in the past 2 years. Even when I was in New York I called up my professor and told her I could not take the pressure anymore. Of course, you push yourself through it with support and reminding yourself of why you got into it. I am almost done with my thesis now but you certainly take a hit, emotionally and psychologically. At least that has been my personal experience.
Q: A piece of advice to a prospective student A: Earning a PhD is a really challenging experience. So you really need to know why you are doing it - for the title, or perhaps you want to teach, or do you have a larger goal. It’s a pretty lonely journey. But if you prepare for it, you can circumvent it by creating a solid relationship with your supervisor and having a group of friends/colleagues who are like-minded. Personally, I don’t know anybody who has had a “great time” doing their PhD. Like any personal challenge, a PhD is a meditation on a particular topic. More than knowledge, you have to learn patience and perseverance. The fact that you commit to something for so long and with ardour is an achievement in itself. So know you’re doing it. Two, reflect on your resources – family, friends, loved ones – people who can see you through it. Third, make sure your prospective supervisor and you are compatible intellectually and personally. So please make sure you are well supported in your commitment to academia for 5-7 years, and you’ll do great!