Far from Home: A travel for PhD

My life experiences have taught me one thing: always expect the unexpected. I am Anay Ajit Deshpande, pursuing my PhD in University of Padova, Italy. But this story is not about my time in Italy, it is about the moments leading up to it.

Scene 1: Scrawny Little Child

Born and raised slightly outside of city of Mumbai, India, I was never a kid who would be interested in sports per se (although I still watch a lot of football, tennis and cricket). Although I did play with my friends, it was mostly playing chess, carom and playing cards. But the one thing that defined my childhood was my eventual love for video games. My parents got me a console when I was 6 but there was a condition to play. I would only get to play on it during my summer and winter (Diwali) holidays. It was more about them wanting me to concentrate on my studies and dare I say, looking back, it worked perfectly. Despite never being competitive in sports, I was hella competitive in academics (crying for days if I got a B on a test). I started to like studies and became genuinely interested in going as further as possible in the curriculum.

Meanwhile, my love for video games was growing as well. By the age of 14 my parents allowed me to play games on our brand new PC with similar conditions as before. But this time there was a little more leeway in my PC usage for gaming, as I started to perform well in my academics.

This one time, (just for a background, in India, students do 2 years of pre-university studies after end of high school, i.e., 10th grade), after my pre-university exams (i.e., 12th grade exams) were over, my parents took me and my younger brother to our first international travel (which is a big deal for middle class families in India); a trip to Malaysia and Singapore. When we were touring in Singapore, we got to know that the 12th exam results are going to be declared. Funnily enough, we had two other guys in our touring group, who also received their results. The other two guys were nervous and didn’t want to see the results, so that it doesn’t impact their trip. On the other hand, for the first time in my life, I was super confident (and so was my father, but my mother wasn’t that confident). That was the first time when I vowed to myself, seeing that result, and processing the fact that I am going into university, that I will do and complete the PhD before I am out of university.

Scene 2: First, travelling across India

Fortunately, due to my good scores in the pre-university and subsequent university entrance exams, I was able to get in to one of the top 15 engineering schools in India, namely, Vellore Institute of Technology, Chennai, India.

I had other options available close to my home but I was adamant that I wanted to move away from my home. But at the age of 17 I was still a scrawny little kid. So, when I was traveling for the first time alone from Mumbai to Chennai (which is approx. 1300km), the flight crew assisted me in everything from check-in to security, to boarding at Mumbai, to deboarding at Chennai, to baggage collection (which they carried), to booking a taxi at the airport to my university dormitory as I didn’t speak Tamil at all (my mother tongue is Marathi). So, with this overwhelming experience I started my 4 Bachelor’s years in Chennai. It took me time to adjust to the new surroundings and people. Eventually, I started to enjoy the environment and people around me. My academic grades didn’t fall off and neither did my love for video games, which actually grew stronger as I got my first personal laptop. I still performed very well in academics except for one course, which I hilariously failed despite being the person who helped out my fellow classmates one night before the exams. But, that was an indication that I needed to work harder to achieve my eventual goal.

My resolve to eventually pursue further studies in PhD was put to a test multiple times, prominently during campus interview season. Just as a quick note, in India recruiters from different companies come to the university when you are in your final, i.e., 4th year of the Bachelor’s course. So, potentially you can have a job when you graduate from the university. As a result, all my friends had jobs lined up for them when we graduated. I, for one, had none, as I resolved that I wanted go for a Master’s. Additionally, my ambition was to do Master’s outside of India with the eventual goal to become a Doctorate.

Scene 3: Germany, here I come

Fortunately, I was admitted into Masters in TU Darmstadt, Germany. But even before I could depart for my first abroad experience alone, I had to face up with a ton of bureaucratic work, including visa application. I had to struggle from the last minute appointments and documents going missing to being able to receive my travel visa just 12 hours before my actual departure. It was a roller coaster of emotions, from getting ready to leave my family to excitement about a new chapter in life, to extreme stress connected with the travel. After a lot of struggles I was finally able to board my ride to a new world. Funnily enough, the roller coaster of emotions was quickly subsided when the airline informed me that I had been upgraded to business class, which meant I had a smooth ride to my new adventure.

The emotions I felt when I first moved to Chennai and when I moved to Darmstadt were eerily similar; excitement and nervousness at the same time were eating me. I was still a slightly scrawny kid at the age of 21, who engaged himself in academics and video games (this time with a new gaming laptop that my parents got me as a gift for completing my bachelors). Fortunately or unfortunately, the friends I made in Darmstadt, although really nice, didn’t fancy playing video games. Subsequently, playing online games with my friends from India, who were now in different parts of the world, (Canada, UK, Netherlands, India, Australia etc.) became my favourite way to pass the time outside academics. But, due to different time zones, it became really difficult to coordinate, play and have fun. I was becoming more reclusive and introverted. It took me some time to get used to living in a totally foreign environment, away from family and friends. I missed them a lot and in contrary to living in Chennai, where I could go home twice a year during the semester breaks, now I could allow myself going there only once a year, if finances aligned and academics permitted. My friends in Darmstadt did help me with that a lot.

Eventually, I started to enjoy the new version of myself. I started to roam around and visit places (such as Netherlands, Czechia, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal) solo or with friends. Additionally, I made sure that I didn’t slack off in my academic work, even during my personal down. Working on a good amount of research projects gave me not only a valuable experience for my Masters and, eventually, my PhD, but also the necessary support during the time of financial issues in my family. My friends also helped me out a lot during those times, which meant that I was able to complete my Masters with a good amount of research experience.

By that time, especially when I completed my Master Thesis, I was confident that I had done enough for a chance to pursue a PhD.

Scene 4: Joyous Italy

My quest to pursue a PhD was on the cusp of reality. I had graduated from my Masters in Darmstadt. During this time, the financial issues with my family back home were starting to rumble in my head. I was yearning for the moment when I would be in my PhD, but it seemed like I had to put it on hold. Due to my financial troubles I had to rely on my friends for support (and I will be forever grateful), which meant I was in mountains of debt that I had to take care of (on top of the education loan I got for my studies). This meant that I had to find a PhD that would not only pay me enough to survive, but would also allow pay off debts to everyone and support my family back home.

Initially, with no luck in my applications (getting rejected for different reasons), I almost gave up on the dream I was working on for the past 7 years. I started looking for full time jobs in companies, so that I can start earning and support myself and my family. But then a miracle happened.

Previously, I applied to a job position in one of the biggest companies in Germany, but I was rejected there. In the rejection letter the position was not valid for me due to my stay in Germany, as the funding that was linked to that job didn’t allow people to apply if they stayed in the same country of application. But in the same rejection there was personal ray of hope. The company mentioned that I can pursue other positions in the project and provided me with the details. Using that information I explored the job positions available and came across the PhD position in University of Padova, Italy.

The project and the position were supported by the Marie Curie funding, which at that time I had no clue about. I applied for the position simply because I liked the project. But, after being rejected so many times, I did not expect much. I actually completely forgot about it until a month and half later, when I got a mail from Prof. Andrea Zanella, who asked me for an interview for the position. I was so excited about it that I forgot about sleep and started preparing for a morning interview. It must have been a good interview for my future supervisor, because he asked me for a second interview just hours after the first. He also asked me to study some of his research papers for the second interview, which I worked hard on over the weekend until I was confident that I can answer any question. I wanted this chance, and I was so close to finally being able to do something that I have yearned for 7 years since I entered university. At that moment, none of the things bothered me (the financial troubles, the debt or anything). Fortunately, my future supervisor was happy with my interview and he gave me the chance I was looking for (which I would be always be grateful for).

My financial troubles still stayed with me until I saw the funding that had been granted to me for the PhD. I was given a chance to achieve my dream of being a Doctorate, while also being able to support myself and my family. That night was the first time I had a proper meal in a long time, (no more frozen pizzas for me) because I was finally able to rest with the feeling that I had achieved something.

So, here I am now, pursuing what I wanted to pursue since I was a kid and hopefully complete it with all my strength.

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September 12, 2021

Anay Deshpande

Anay is a PhD student at University of Padova, Italy, where he researches Anticipatory Techniques For Wireless Network Optimisation. He is currently working on predictive drone routing, predictive scheduling for real time systems and integration of RIS in drone assisted communication for green networks.

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