Racing to Beat the Cows

Introductory Note: You may or may not have been wondering why I have been relatively dormant lately. Well, a significant amount of work in addition to weak, intermittent internet connectivity have accounted for part of my inactivity in blogging. Also, my experiences lately have been largely static, so there hasn’t been anything particularly noteworthy to report. In light of this, I have decided to “downsize” my blog posts to make them more simple and direct, such that I will be able to update daily using only a few minutes of my time at work each day while I have high-speed Internet access. Now, over the coming days and weeks, let’s proceed to test how well that theory works in practice!

Now on to the good stuff (and the topic of this post)…

While hurtling down a narrow strip of road in an auto-rickshaw back in August, a group of cows was ambling its way toward the center, at which point it would be impossible to pass them without stopping, honking in frustration, and waiting for them to clear out of the way. The rickshaw driver eyed them, accelerated,and skillfully manoeuvred to avoid collision with the pack’s lead cow by a matter of mere centimeters. Every time, I marvel at how the risks are quickly calculated, or perhaps forsaken altogether, and the driver aims for the narrowing gap of space in the road. In this particular instance, I was reminded of my own ongoing “pre-upgrading” situation — so much work to do in preparation for this critical step in the PhD process, with relatively little or no time to spare. I was racing against time, throwing myself forward through my own gap on the road ahead, determined to beat the deadlines, much like that rickshaw driver was determined to beat the cows.

As a PhD student at the LSHTM, one goes through the process of upgrading, or moving beyond the MPhil registration status to obtain PhD candidacy. You may be wondering why, exactly, the upgrading process is so important, and why I found it so stressful. Individual experiences vary based on the type of research, whether a student is based at home or in the field (or, in some cases, at home in the field if the student is from the LMIC where they’re conducting the research), and the complexity of the project itself. Typically, upgrading materials include background research on one’s thesis topic in the form of both written and oral reports, requiring about 9-11 months’ time from initial registration or beginning research involvement in a project. I spent the entirety of June, July and August preparing for my upgrading at the end of September, which was merely the 5-month mark from the beginning of my involvement in this project back in April (I was in the field from my first day). Since then, I continued to work in the field, coordinated evaluation of the VISHRAM’s pilot study, and designed the evaluation component of the baseline pre-post community survey in addition to the standard document and literature reviews. Typically, an upgrading consists of a project proposal and background literature, whereas I already had results to present. I found myself having a lot of material to cram within a document with a 7,500 word limit!

After that trial, I can happily say that my project work has been approved, elevating me to the status of PhD registration, or candidacy. I spent the last week of September, immediately following my upgrading, in London for the LSHTM Annual Symposium and to present my ongoing research, in poster format, at the Centre for Global Mental Health Forum. I returned to India at the end of that week and spent October and part of November gearing up for the project’s baseline evaluation. From November 13-29, I traveled to Panjim, Goa to partake in the joint LSHTM and Sangath hosted Leadership in Mental Health course along with 45 colleagues from around the world (Australia, Mexico, Libya, China, India, Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Nepal, Nigeria and Sierra Leone to name a few), including professors, physicians, nurses, and assorted public health professionals. During this time, I lost one weekend of exploration and three course days to an acute viral infection going around our group that, unfortunately for me, resulted in cholecystitis and norovirus-type symptoms. I thus had an interesting foray into experiencing triage and treatment in general hospital-based emergency medical services in southern India. They are hard up for patient space, leading to either limited or a complete lack of patient privacy, and the medical stock rooms are typically chaotic, but one can request private accommodations, though at a higher billing cost.

At present, I am back at home in the US (first time in a year!) with my family, with whom I spent the winter holidays, and I will be returning to India this coming week to resume life as usual (within the context of my PhD, anyway). It’s absolutely essential to take some time for rest and recovery every now and then, and I have, alternating with period of working at a more leisurely pace. Given that I haven’t had the opportunity to truly relax in nearly two years, I’d say that this trip has provided me the invaluable opportunity to breathe a bit and to enjoy the comforts of home before diving back into the heart of India where a steady onslaught of deadlines awaits me.

Here are a few images to illustrate some recent experiences:

Roadside vendor packages coloured sand for Diwali.(Nagpur)

Lighting pyrotechnics to celebrate Diwali. (Nagpur)

A summary of Vidarbha region’s suicide problem as published in a local newspaper.

A couple snaps from the joint LSHTM and Sangath organised Leadership in Mental Health course in Panjim, Goa.


The view from a hillside terrace at dusk in Panjim, Goa.

Sunset on a Goan beach.

The Keppel Street wall map display of LSHTM’s global mental health programming activities. (London)

A peek inside a talk in the school’s John Snow lecture hall at the LSHTM’s 2013 Annual Symposium.

Poster presentation at the Centre for Global Mental Health’s 2013 Forum.

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