Identity is a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around. Think about your identity for a moment. Who are you? Does your answer reflect your citizenship, residential status, your job description, the relationship you have with others, your gender, your education, your sexual orientation? What do you choose to be a part of your identity?
I’ve been born and raised in Mumbai, India. While the suburbs are still large and heterogenous in this city, my identity was given to me clearly – by the family I was born into, the language I spoke, my religion, and the city I lived in. It was as defined as my identity could ever be, but it wasn’t defined by me.
As I entered university life in Mumbai, and eventually the U.K., I had to re-think a lot of the assumptions I grew up with. By then, I also had an educational identity – I was a psychologist, but not really a psychologist if I didn’t practice. Not really a researcher yet, because I didn’t have a PhD. As I started my PhD in Germany, I started learning German, got into the German work-culture and got a German residence status. Who was I now? More importantly, why was I those things?
The biggest confound in such a project is how people perceive you. The first thought to embrace is the connectedness of the human experience. Most expats will tell you they belong no-where and everywhere at the same time. I am Indian and I am German – like a beautifully spiced schnitzel. There are things I embrace from both cultures. There are things I reject from both cultures. My wardrobe, my kitchen and my accent are a fusion; so is the way I approach problems at work, my relationships and spirituality. Doing this is similar to what Marie Kondo teaches you to do with clothes – hold it close and ask yourself if it sparks enough joy. If it does, keep it.
The second thing to keep in mind is the diversity of human experience. Concepts can’t be defined in isolation. I had to re-think what being a woman meant, because after a point none of the ready definitions sparked joy. But, if I say assertiveness is as much a feminine trait as it is masculine, I also have to accept the woman who says assertiveness is a masculine trait, because she was taught to be subversive. These are different experiences contributing to the same concept.
While my cultural and gender identity feel like they were complex enough to deal with, a bigger problem right now seems to be my professional identity. Who am I when I finish my PhD? Can I use what I learnt in my previous evaluations of identity to solve my professional crisis? My experience is different from every other person that went through this path. Yet, it is similar in the sense that any two PhD candidates can talk about their problems and go, ‘I know what you mean!’ Can I use the connectedness and diversity of human experience to understand what being a researcher or a scientist means?
I think a professional identity during a PhD starts with two definitions. One, of what is expected from us by our supervisor, faculty and team; and the other of what we tell people outside academia. Throughout the PhD, both these definitions keep changing, based on different inputs at different times. PhD work is not an objective measure, so you may see people working more or less than you are. Doing a PhD is a confusing status – is a job or an education? You spend years learning different skills. Does that make you a master of something or a jack of all trades? What about ethics? Should you stand up for certain movements in your scientific field, or is it too early to start being political? What about after your PhD? Are you now a researcher, a scientist, a professor, a post-doc? Did you stay in academia or leave it, and what does that mean for who you identify as?
At this point, you may say, ‘it’s just a job, why do you have to make it a part of your identity? It doesn’t define you’. But I’m sure many of you fellow researchers out there will stand by me when I say, ‘it shouldn’t define me, but I’d be lying if I said my job did not directly correlate with how I feel in and about life’. So (maybe unfortunately) it does form a part of my identity. Here’s how I choose to solve my dilemma.
Some parts of my PhD definitely spark more joy than others. These are skills I’ve invested in more than I needed to, topics I read even if I didn’t have to, and problems that give me most satisfaction when solved. These, I keep. These, I can say I am an expert in.
There are also topics in science I feel strongly about. The ones I happily follow. The debates I think matter. The aspects of my field I would like to see change. Its ok then, to stop and think about what we are willing to do about these topics. It doesn’t have to be huge revolutions, but if you feel like standing up for someone, participating in a certain program, or catch yourself thinking ‘that’s cool, I’d like to be a part of it’, it is ok to take the plunge. I’ve started doing this for the last year or two, and it’s made me sure-er of my professional priorities. It gives my work a personality, and that’s important if you consider it a part of your identity.
Finally comes the question of how much your post-PhD job defines you. This is something I am still struggling with. Is your PhD a qualification that you earned and will stay with you forever? Or is it a job title that’ll go away if you no longer do science on a daily basis? Is scientific thinking just a way of life and the degree doesn’t really matter? I don’t know yet. I can see my next bit of identity quest starting, just as my PhD comes to an end.