Ph.D. Study in USA: A Letter to My Nephew

Basab Dasgupta

Dear Kalyan:

You have asked me a very simple question: whether I believe that coming to USA for your PhD study is a good idea. I will give you a very long and complicated answer which may help you or profoundly confuse you.  I hope that it is the former!

First I will give you some general observations and comments.  Then I will tell you my own personal perspective and experience.  Finally, I will tell you why the decision about doing PhD in USA is a major life altering decision and not just a decision about higher education or making money.

The Indians who come to USA for higher study (not just PhD, but also MBA, MD, MS etc) can be classified into three groups: i) those who complete their study and then go back to India; ii) those who settle down permanently or semi-permanently in USA whether or not they complete their original goal and iii) those who are not necessarily highly talented but have relatives in USA already, who support them by providing housing, money, emotional support etc.  They typically do not return to India either.  The first group used to be a rather small fraction of Indian immigrant population, but it has been steadily increasing over the past several years as more opportunities open up in India.  With your good grades, it would not be very difficult to get admission for PhD in most schools; the key is where you can get teaching assistantship or fellowship to cover your tuition as well as living expenses.  If you apply for financial assistance to a large number of schools, it is likely that you will get such help from some school; apart from your academic record, your score in GRE and recommendation letters are important factors in getting that.  It is fairly easy to get adjusted to the American way of life.  Two major issues are weather (depending on where you go) and necessity of a car (life without a car here is almost impossible).  Living so far away from family and friends can also be emotionally draining, depending on one’s personality.

What typically happens is that by the time one completes the advanced degree (which can take anywhere from three to six years), one is used to the comfort and convenience of American life and depending on one’s qualifications, job opportunities may arise which are hard to resist.  So many Indians apply for H-1 or similar visas that would allow them to work (student visas do not!) or try to get an immigration visa (the so-called green card) one way or another.  They say to themselves: “Oh, I will just work for three years, save a lot of money and then return to India to have a nice life”.  Then these three years turn to five and then to ten and then to indefinite stay (the only scenario that forces them to go back is if they cannot get the appropriate visa).  They get married (whether to Indians or other nationalities in US or going back to India for an arranged marriage), have kids and it becomes more and more difficult to uproot that life and go back.

The Indians who have close relatives (specially “blood” relatives) find it easier to live here and achieve their goals for obvious reasons.

Now let me tell you why I came to USA and decided to stay.  When I was in college I often used to imagine what an “ideal” society would be like that would be most compatible with my personality and interests.  It was very clear to me that the Indian society (and especially the Bengali society) was NOT it!  However, I did not have a clear vision of such a society.  I came to USA (in 1971) for two reasons: i) nearly all of my classmates from Presidency College were either already in USA or applying for PhD in USA.  So there was a peer pressure.  ii) As you probably know, I fell in love with a woman who was applying as well and whose brother was in USA already.  I really did not have a whole lot of knowledge or expectations about American way of life.  After I came, I realized within a relatively short period that in spite of many social problems, the American society was close enough to my “ideal” society.  As a result, although I did not tell this to my parents, I knew deep down inside that this was where I belonged and this was where I would live the rest of my life.  There has never been any thought on my part about going back!  When my mother passed away (in 1975) I felt that my umbilical cord with India was finally cut off.

Apart from the comfort and convenience there are many elements of the American life that appealed to me.  Some of them were freedom and flexibility, self-dependence, spirit of innovation, sense of humor, freedom of speech and expression, continuous evolution in the nature of relationship between men and women, concept of equity and fairness, justice system etc., etc.  I strongly feel that even though I am proud of my Indian heritage, I am an American first; I am very comfortable and at peace with myself with this conviction.

It was not an easy path for me to build my life here.  I had to fight hard to get my green card.  After I completed my PhD, I found it very difficult to get a decent job (mainly because discontinuation of the NASA space program had created an abundance of unemployed physicists and engineers).  I drifted from one temporary job to another for several years.  It took me many long years to advance in my career and associated compensation.  I lived in bitterly cold states (Wisconsin and Indiana) for almost 18 years. Frankly, I envy the Indians who come to USA these days with an IT job and a huge salary, but I know that I do not want to be like them because I love this country and it is not just a “source” of some education and money.

Of course, the society has many dark sides.  Use of drugs, racial hatreds, too much materialistic addictions, too many lawsuits all contribute to a cold, emotionless feeling.  I also regret the fact that I did not really take care of my parents (they passed away too young and before I was fully established) and I was not at their deathbeds.  The situation with my sister (which you may or may not know about) also complicated my life.

In any event I would like to really emphasize one point: if you decide to come to US for PhD you must recognize that it would change EVERYTHING about your life.  It is easy to understand the reasons.  Higher education is intimately linked with your career.  Getting a PhD in US will definitely open many more doors for you.  It would not just be a question of money, but also job satisfaction (i.e. where you can best apply your knowledge, where your performance is needed and appreciated most, etc.) as well as future career progression.  Coincidentally, the age for higher education is also the age for romance and possibly marriage.  You cannot control this!!  It is a biological phenomenon with hormones etc.  As soon as a woman is involved you will have a totally different perspective and you will have to include her opinion.  Apart from romance, this is also the age for other kinds of passion: helping mankind, starting your own business, pursuing exciting hobbies, learning new subjects and so on.  Once again this is the country where options and opportunities are limitless and you may be pulled towards a totally different path.  Most importantly, you have to be honest with yourself!  If you really want to just get a degree and then return then you have to remain focused on that goal and do everything in a way that is commensurate with that goal.  If at any point during your study you decide to stay here more permanently, you have to take actions accordingly (taking care of visa issues, for example).  Obligations to your parents will always be a source of major dilemma.  You have to think about that and establish priorities in your own mind and then discuss with your parents.

Should you come to USA for PhD?  My answer is: absolutely yes.  The entire graduate education system including PhD research is so different (and better) here that you have to come just to experience that.   Money and career are secondary.  Even though the education system in India covers a rather broad range of subjects, it emphasizes memorization.  In a PhD program in the USA, whether you are taking courses or defending your thesis, it always involves problem solving.  As a result, it makes you analytical, assertive, creative and more practical.  On the other hand if your main goal is to earn most money with shortest education, you can come just for an MS degree; having a PhD would allow you to start at a higher salary, but the opportunities would be much more limited in number.

I hope that my response helps you.

With blessings and best wishes,

Gora Mama

(Posted August 2, 2013)

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 Immigrant Bengalis