When your PhD research funding unexpectedly dries

The news came when I was in the lab. I had started a series of experiments looking at how bacteria broke down pharmaceuticals in wastewater. I was living my dream; studying in the US, a happy and healthy family, and a loving community of people supporting me. What could go wrong?

“I’m sorry, Edmond. I won’t be able to support you during the summer.” It was my boss. I never had the opportunity to respond because he immediately left the room. He probably had more important things to do. I was terrified but I didn’t know how to react. Should I scream or should I cry? I smiled and mumbled, “Thank you.”

Summer was three months away, graduation was two months away, and the deadline for submitting dissertations was also two months away. Since I was a foreign student, no funding in summer simply meant I had to get a job fast or packing my bags and catch the earliest flight home.

But that was not all; I had to write my dissertation, send a completed draft to my dissertation committee members in less than a month, and agree with them on the appropriate date for my defense. Not only that, I had only one published paper, which my supervisor made abundantly clear that it wasn’t adequate for me to pass my defense.

I don’t blame my supervisor for his decision. After all, I was the least productive member of his group. Everyone else around me had at least four papers in four years. Who would honestly want to keep around a researcher who publishes one paper in four years?

Being in a biological sciences program coming from a chemistry background meant I had to spend two years taking biology classes. And being the only one studying chiral pollutants, meant I had to figure out everything by myself. There was no developed method for my studies, through trial and error, I developed my own methods and became good at it. But the academic world measures productivity in number of publications and not faithfulness and commitment to work.

My chances of passing my defense were slim but my chances of getting a job were slimmer. As I continued with my experiment, I imagined what people would say if I went back to Zimbabwe without a PhD or a job at a local university. People would laugh at me and even call me names. My family would be the joke of the community.

At that moment, I realized why suicide rate was high among graduate students. I know some supervisors might not be aware of this, so let me say it: Graduate students are actually people with dreams, visions, struggles, and fears. I repeat, graduate students are actually people with dreams, visions, struggles, and fears.

One day, while setting up my experiments, I received a call that my sister had attempted suicide. Another time, I had two quickly wrap up my experiments because my wife was giving birth. There were many competing thoughts in the brain I used to design experiments and write papers. I was a husband, father, and brother besides being a graduate student researcher.

A year earlier, a friend of mine told me a story of a guy from Senegal who lost his mind after his PhD supervisor told him there was no more funding for his studies. The Senegalese didn’t have time to complete his dissertation, so he failed to get his PhD. After hearing the story, I began writing my dissertation. When I finished writing the first draft, I sent it to my friends who did or where doing a PhD.

The day my supervisor came to tell me he no longer had funding for me, I had revised my dissertation at least three times. And in the next few days, I revised it again and again. At the end of that week, I sent him my complete dissertation. A few weeks later, I had my second paper accepted in Environmental Pollution. Two months later, I had my defense and passed.

But I failed to secure a job in time. So, my family and I went back to Zimbabwe. At least I got my PhD. And my family didn’t break apart from the stress and financial torture we endured for five years. You can find my story in Science.

Image by Kap Jasa

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Edmond Sanganyado

Edmond Sanganyado (PhD, University of California) is a postdoc in China. He is interested in the effect of organic pollutants in aquatic environments. His work has been featured at Publons, The Good Men Project, and University of California Riverside's Gradsuccess blog.

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