PhD heighlight series: Ms Anupa Pathak (#2)

The second interview with a PhD candidate in the PhD Superheroes series is on! This week we have our first physiotherapist, my dear friend and a great person: Ms Anupa Pathak.

Enjoy the read!

 Quick notes on Anupa:
NameMs. Anupa Pathak
Countries she has academic experiences fromNepal, New Zealand, USA (1-month research visit)
Anupa in keywordsCheerful, Learner, Introvert
Anupa as a scientist/researcher/academicBeginner, Curious, Motivated
Currently excited about21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari 
Anupa’s typical day:        Snooze the alarm multiple times, wake up, exercise (maybe), work from 9:30 am (lunch break and walk break), dinner, Netflix, go for a walk/bike ride, prepare meals for the next day, plan for the next day, sleep.
Contact Anupa at:email: anupa.pathak@postgrad.otago.ac.nz OR Pathak.anupa1@gmail.com
Twitter: Anupa_Pathak
Researchgate: Anupa Pathak
LinkedIn: Anupa Pathak

Hi Anupa! Could you introduce yourself briefly?

Hi, I am Anupa. I was born and brought up in Nepal. I trained as a physiotherapist in Nepal after which I moved to New Zealand in 2017 to be with my husband.

I worked as a research assistant for a while in New Zealand before starting my PhD in 2018. My PhD is focused on understanding factors that influence the use of outcome measures, more specifically in the Nepalese context.

What kind of student/pupil were you as a kid?

I was what my teachers would describe as “a good student”. I stayed out of trouble mostly and loved reading books. My parents always had high expectations of me as a student and my older brother would excel at his studies so it was a (healthy) competition of sort. I was, and still am, clumsy and shy, so I was never good at any sports but I was a member of the school’s Scout group.

Looking back, I do wish we had more opportunities for extracurricular activities, volunteering, and critical thinking during school. We used to have classes 6 days a week from 8:45 till 4 pm yet I feel like I never learnt how to read, how to extract information, how to critically analyse what I read, or how to communicate what I knew.

What did you study in your undergrad program?

I initially prepared to study medicine but because the cost for the course was so high, my uncle suggested I should try this new course that Kathmandu University was rolling out-it was an undergraduate physiotherapy degree.

Before this, I had never heard of physiotherapy in my life and I was skeptical. Long story short, I graduated as a physiotherapist after 4 and ½ years of training in 2017 with 18 other friends.  And today, I take pride in introducing myself as a physio.

I am so thankful to my teachers who have been instrumental in ensuring we practiced the latest evidence-based treatments in such a resource-limited setup (compared to  New Zealand). We did not have access to research databases, if I wanted to read an article, I had to email my teachers and ask them if they could download it for me.

We had maybe 3 to 4 copies of the very few books that were available – books which were mostly either donated or photocopied. We were never sure where we would have our class since we did not have a permanent classroom – I have countless memories of walking long distances, holding on to the entrance of a bus for dear life because the bus was full, but most fun of all getting lifts on the back of commercial trucks.

The upside was that I always got a minimum of 10,000 steps during my undergraduate years. Plus, I have memories I can use to lecture future children and grandchildren on their privileges.

Why and how did you decide to go into a PhD?

As I said, I moved to New Zealand to be with my husband who was doing his PhD. I then started working as a research assistant at the School of Physiotherapy in Dunedin, New Zealand. Naturally, everyone around me either had a PhD, was working towards a PhD, or wanted to get a PhD. And I started getting questions about if I was interested in doing a PhD myself.

For me, PhD was a dream, an ambition. So when people around me started saying “oh when will you do a PhD?” my response always was “I am interested but perhaps sometime in the future”. I did not feel ready to take on what I considered at that point “the terminal stage of learning” as if I had to have acquired knowledge of all things in life and science to have a PhD. I also wanted to practice as a physiotherapist.

Then the team of people around me convinced me otherwise. We had discussions around how PhD was about understanding and critically analysing information, learning, problem-solving, answering questions, and understanding yourself. It was all so intriguing that I decided to apply. I also worked on writing research papers. I then emailed potential supervisors asking for meetings, discussed research options, and finally decided to apply with my current supervisor. I consider myself very lucky to have been selected and been given a full scholarship.   

How is your PhD program structured?

The University of Otago rules state that you can only submit your thesis after a minimum of 3 years. We do not have to attend lectures as part of your PhD at Otago, it is largely research-based. If you are interested in joining any classes, it is a separate charge. If you have a scholarship as I do, you can appeal to the scholarship committee about why specific course work is pertinent to your PhD and they might cover the course for you. 

The departments across the university offer a wide variety of workshops every year for PhD candidates on biostatistics, software use, qualitative research, organizing your PhD, writing, literature review, preparing for jobs, and such.

These are mostly free to students and I would personally recommend doing all the workshops the university has to offer. Besides, you can directly contact members of the staff (e.g. librarian, biostatistician) if you need advice. There are also regular departmental seminars and student symposiums where you can learn a lot.

How would you describe your relationship with your supervisors?

Very friendly. I did not expect to experience the amount of comfort that I feel with my supervisors that I feel now. They have always believed in me, celebrated my achievements, accepted my meeting requests, and reminded me to take time to de-stress.

What is your overall PhD program experience like?

This PhD program has been the best learning experience of my life. I learn something new every day, either about myself or something related to research. I have developed skills to manage myself and also manage people I am working with.

There are ups and downs. I have days of complete bliss but also many days where I think to myself what am I doing? I am not smart enough for this. Then there are those tedious days where you are preparing your data, learning how to analyse it, or repeating the same analysis, and some days even writing.

The trick is to keep going, keep working bit by bit, even if you add just a sentence to that manuscript today.

I have had numerous lovely coffee dates with other PhD students to grumble about life and came out of it feeling better.

My PhD supervisor recently said to me “there is no instant gratification in research”. But the satisfaction you do feel when you see your results, present your findings, or publish a paper or engage in discussion about the work you do is immense.

How is it to be studying abroad?

I am so grateful to be in New Zealand. I have had my fair share of cultural shocks, embarrassing moments, and I miss my friends and family back home. But from the first day in this country, I have experienced nothing but kindness, beauty, diversity, inclusiveness, humility, and above all respect — respect for people, different cultures, nature, and life as a whole. Not to mention the amazing learning resources and support they have, and the commitment to learn and improve. Having a partner/friends I can rely on has helped immensely.

My advice would be to say “yes” to opportunities that allow you to explore new contexts.  

How it is to do research in the similar area to your partner?

It is a double-edged sword. In many ways, he is like a mentor to me because he has a lot more experience. We both have the same core values when it comes to our goals. Our research fields are also similar so we have many stimulating discussions in our topic areas.  The downside is probably the lack of diversity perhaps. If we were involved in different fields, we would perhaps have more range of conversations, and find ways to collaborate in the two fields.

What advice would you give your younger self starting a PhD program?

So many! Things always take a much longer time so plan accordingly.

Record everything! Keep a separate notebook for each of your projects with your meeting notes/ideas/changes. Write down what you took away from each article you read.

Celebrate your daily wins and keep a record of what you have achieved each week.

Do a systematic review to help understand how to find and summarize literature.

Go to that workshop/conference and share your experience and research with others.

Take time off if you feel stressed; you will be much more productive afterwards.

Everybody else doing a PhD is likely doubting themselves too. Form strong relationships with those around you and just keep working.

What have you decided to do after your PhD and why?

After this PhD, I would like to get back to physiotherapy practice. I miss interactions with patients.

I have also recently learned that I enjoy teaching – it makes me anxious and nervous but I still go back to do it.

I also want to become a better researcher. I have learnt a lot during this PhD, but the biggest realization is that there is so much more to know.

So ideally, I guess I would love to be involved in a position that will allow me to pursue research while working part-time as a physiotherapist/ teacher.

What PhD has given you?

The biggest achievement for me has been self-awareness, discipline and confidence.

I have learnt how to manage myself, manage projects, and manage people I work with.

I have gained writing, reading, communication, and management skills. I have gained the confidence to say “yes” to tasks I find daunting. I have learnt it is okay to say “I don’t know” or “I need help” or “I need some time off”.

What are your other superpowers?

I wish I had superpowers. I am 27 and am learning how to ride a bike, how to swim, how to drive a car, how to handle my emotions and my husband :). 

What is the hardest in doing what you are doing and how do you deal with that?

The hardest part for me probably is to have the discipline to complete that pending work.

I have realised it is much easier to start something new than to finish that manuscript, or that book or online course. The solution to my problem is “discipline” again isn’t it?

I haven’t mastered it yet but setting deadlines and telling other people about it helps — e.g. telling my supervisor on the next meeting I will have a draft of my introduction ready. I also have a timetable that I regularly revisit.

What are you the proudest of?

My personal growth and the relationships I have built along this PhD process. It has been an amazing journey but not always an easy one.

Who was the most influential person in your science journey, and how so?

My husband, Saurab Sharma. He is the one who introduced me to the world of research and has consistently supported me to this day. The passion, dedication, and discipline he has inspired me every day. He is full of ideas (and he is only mildly upset when I reject them) and he pushes me to be more critical, curious, and open every day.

Who are your mentors or people you follow on social media and enjoy they content and why?

I follow different groups/people on social media for various interests.

For PhD related advice I follow Pat Thompson, Hugh Kearns, and writethatPhD on Twitter. They have many practical resources on planning and mostly writing.

I also follow journals/groups to keep up to date on what is happening in physiotherapy or outcome measurement sphere (e.g. JOSPT, @ISOQOL or @EQUATORNetwork).

To wind-down, I watch youtube videos by Sadia Badiei (Pick up limes) who produces these pleasing videos on mostly food. Or if I need to up my self-discipline I watch videos by Brendon Burchard, author of the bestselling books like High-Performance Habits.

Are there any tools, resources or software you are obsessed with at the moment?

I loved the book “How to write a lot” by Paul J Silvia. It is not necessarily a tool, but it is a resource I would recommend every PhD student to read.

The “iThinkWell” website has great planners, meeting note templates, and many more resources which I love using.

What are your future plans, upcoming projects, what is next?

I need to get my PhD wrapped up in the next 6 months and look for work opportunities.

My husband received a post-doctoral fellowship to work in Australia so we will be moving there soon-ish (depending on Covid restrictions). Exciting times ahead!

Is there anything you would like to add?

Say “yes” to new challenges. The best learning happens outside of your comfort zone.

This PhD is your journey, and you will have to take ownership of it. Give it your best and enjoy the ride.

Where people can find you?

I am more of a passive lurker than an active social media user but you can find me on Twitter, Researchgate, and LinkedIn.

Thank you!


If you want to read more about experiences of doing PhD abroad, you may want to read this interview too:

PhD highlight series: Mr Reuben Holmes (#1)

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