Journey to My Academic Passion: The Quest for a PhD [Part 01]

Try to study “smart” during your freshman year

Though the exact origin of my desire to pursue a PhD remains shrouded in the mists of time, I recently embarked on a journey down my memory lane, and amidst the nostalgic reverie, an unexpected information emerged. It was a cricket match that resurfaced in my thoughts, serving as the unlikely catalyst that ignited the embers of academic ambition, later settling slowly deep within my conscious mind.

During my freshman year of undergraduate life, we found ourselves competing against master’s students from our department in a Cricket tournament. After we convincingly defeated them, one of the master’s students extended an invitation for us to join their circle, a quintessential part of the university culture in the Indian subcontinent.

Amidst that discussion, one of the master’s students inquired about our dreams and future plans. The responses from my fellow classmates were remarkably similar; most of us expressed a desire to pursue a PhD, despite having only a vague understanding of the significance of that acronym and lacking knowledge of its preparatory pathways, in my opinion. It was during that conversation that the acronym “PhD” resounded loudly for the first time in my life.

During my sophomore year of undergraduate life, while I was immersed in developmental biology classes, learning about bones and the signaling pathways through which they matured by reading peer-reviewed articles, I had an epiphany. It was then that I first thought, “I have to pursue a PhD.” The manner in which researchers construct their narratives, supported by robust evidence from various experiments, left me in awe of their conclusions and ignited a hunger within me to further contribute to these captivating stories. I must credit the teacher who guided us during that year for this inspiration.

Later, when I shared my decision with my parents, my mother took a thoughtful pause, seemingly contemplating the path I was about to embark on, and then she said, “You will do what you want. I am always right beside you.” My mother was aware that pursuing a PhD would require me to leave her and our homeland, which perhaps explained that brief moment of reflection.

In contrast, my father was a constant source of inspiration, providing me with the necessary encouragement. He said, “You can explore many countries when you go abroad for your PhD, and through your travels, you can gain a wealth of knowledge beyond your academic pursuits,” while patting me on the shoulder.

My younger sister, much like my father, always respected my decisions and served as a positive influence. She has been the “wow” factor in our family, consistently radiating positivity, offering mental support through her culinary creations, and brightening our lives with her vibrant and artistic paintings.

From that moment on, I began to take my academic life more seriously, elevating my commitment beyond what I had previously done. However, throughout my academic journey, particularly during my undergraduate years, I adhered to a straightforward rule: “I wouldn’t invest time in subjects or topics that failed to pique my interest, and I’d focus my efforts on learning what truly engaged me.”

Swiftly, I spotted a recurring pattern within my mind — certain subjects proved both uninteresting and challenging for me to delve into, such as Genetics & Breeding. This wasn’t due to a lack of appreciation for the concepts behind breeding and genetics, but rather the manner in which these subjects were presented and the design of their respective curricula.

Furthermore, at the start of each new academic year, I would obtain the academic syllabus and peruse the course offerings, examining them in detail. Subsequently, I would select 2 or 3 subjects to place on my “gold list” — a list representing my commitment to mastering them from the ground up, regardless of whether I received help from my course teachers. Additionally, I’d choose 3-4 subjects for my “bronze list,” signifying my intent to study them but confining my efforts to the content provided by the respective teachers. The remaining subjects found their place on my “ignore list,” indicating that I would study them merely to pass the exam while maintaining a commendable grade.

So, why do I engage in this small yet vital mental exercise? 

Well, It serves as a foundation for my focus, enabling me to prioritize essential tasks while relegating others to the background. By doing this, I free up mental space to hone my “soft skills” — advanced reading, writing, networking, and communication. Moreover, it grants me the time to nurture friendships and attend to my physical and mental well-being.

Now, you might wonder, “How can you maintain good grades with this approach?”

Well, I have some valuable advice for you. Regardless of your undergraduate major, try to study “smart” during your freshman year. By “smart,” I mean you don’t necessarily need to spend countless hours at your study desk. Instead, focus on grasping the fundamental concepts of each subject, even if your teacher’s assistance is limited. You can achieve this by conducting online research or consulting resources like YouTube. Create your own notebook, summarizing key concepts. Trust me, this investment will save you a significant amount of time throughout the rest of your undergraduate journey.

I personally followed this approach, enabling me to concentrate on subjects I genuinely wanted to master and found intriguing, all while confidently approaching subjects for which I knew my foundational knowledge was sufficient, even if I only revisited them shortly before the exam day.

Additionally, another crucial step to take during your freshman year is to build a strong circle of friends — individuals who are not only humorous but also knowledgeable and resilient. This will prove invaluable in various aspects of your life as you progress.

Now, returning to my lists —

Starting from my sophomore year, I directed my efforts toward delving deeply into the subjects on my “gold list,” concurrently acquainting myself with a range of research topics spanning different fields. This deliberate exposure was aimed at helping me discern which specific topic or niche area I genuinely wanted to invest my time in, particularly during my master’s program leading up to the PhD.

I distinctly recall my sophomore year, when I developed an interest in computational biology and drug discovery. I traveled to Chattagram, the bustling port city of Bangladesh, where I underwent training in computational drug design. While I undertook a small project, I ultimately came to the realization that this field wasn’t the right fit for me. I yearned to be more hands-on, engaging in experiments, working with cells, and interacting with microbes, even if it was through the protective barrier of gloves. My passion lay in unraveling the intricacies of cellular signaling mechanisms, exploring where no one had gone before, and combining these discoveries with computational analysis.

During my junior year, which was the third year of my undergraduate studies, a profusion of ideas began to flood my mind. Every afternoon, as I walking alone along the enchanting roads of Rajshahi University, specifically the route from Binodpur Gate to the Central Mosque via Ciclila restaurant, a multitude of ideas sprang forth, many of which continue to resonate with me to this day. Allow me to share one example.

While I walked through the streets of the University of Rajshahi, I frequently encountered teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. Upon closer inspection, I noticed a significant difference in this new generation (born between 2000-2005) compared to ours (born between 1995-1999). I found that this emerging generation is more straightforward, less shy, and less concerned about adhering to established social norms, even when some of these norms are erroneous. This backdrop piqued my curiosity about studying the epigenetic effects of the new millennium on the younger generation. I would love to explore how factors such as “parenting,” the “technological whirlwind,” and “access to vast information” have influenced their brain structure and function on a population level. To this day, I believe this idea is well worth investigating with a well-thought-out research design.

Adding to this intellectual mix, I was immersed in fiction at the time, reading works by authors such as Dan Brown, Paulo Coelho, Khaled Hosseini, and Jojo Moyes, which I believe had a significant impact on my chaotic thought process.

I was never certain which field truly piqued my interest for future pursuit, leading to a persistent dilemma about where to focus my efforts. Despite having different lists of priorities, I struggled to settle on a field that held my attention for an extended period. No particular field engaged me for more than two weeks at a stretch. At one point, I contemplated embarking on an entrepreneurial venture, envisioning a team dedicated to molecular farming. The plan was to establish a hydroponic system in the heart of Rajshahi city and engineer plants, such as carrots, and extract recombinant proteins from their roots.

Amidst this chaotic back-and-forth of ideas, I stumbled upon a summer vacation. I told this story before. But.. 

Continue…..

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