I am ‘Harsh; Just Harsh’: A Russian Economist

“Hindi Rusi Bhai Bhai” – These were among his first few words after moving in as my roommate.
Let me introduce Mikhail Safronov a very Russian, Russian indeed. Eats potatoes for 50% of his dietary needs and the other 50% are met by boiled spaghetti. Here to pursue a PhD in Economics, he is an extremely bright chap. A physicist who switched streams to Econ as his scientist father told him that as an Economist he can return to Russia, but as a physicist he’d rather stay in the US

Now here are a few things he has learnt about the States and the world outside Russia:
1. Barack Obama is some man who gave an extremely long and boring speech during his convocation from New Economic School in Moscow

2. Obesity is a problem in USA because the squirrels are so fat, compared to the squirrels in Russia .After confirming from me that squirrels in India are also thinner, this hypothesis is now a theory

3. Linguistic department at Northwestern is stupid as they refuse to give him an English proficiency stamp, even though he says “Once More” if you address a long question in English. ( Takes immense pride that he was admitted despite 300 in verbal GRE)

4. A South Park addict he learns about American cultural symbols from it, for instance about ‘Fags’ and ‘Hippies’

5. He asks every Indian he meets if they know what ‘Bhains Ki Aankh’ implies

However this takes the cake :

Earlier today I was trying to locate my phone in the house. I reached out for his cell and searched my number. Optimistic that he would have saved it, I found my number saved as ” Harsh Just Harsh” . Amused, I asked for an explanation behind this really innovative name entry. And the explanation instead of writing a last name he wanted to emphasise that “Harsh, Just Harsh” was enough!


Surviving grad school: tips for ‘foodies’

I had expected, like many of my readers (..funny how I continue to remain optimistic about this aspect) that my first couple of posts from a new land will be about some interesting cultural differences I observe! But going by the hierarchy of needs I choose to talk about a fundamental need for now – one reflective of a concern very integral to graduate student life – culture can wait after all, hunger can’t !

Let me begin by putting this strip from PhD comics which sets the tone for this post

This strip should clarify why our first meeting with department seniors was at a ‘free food’ event and also the most important insight gained was that a lot of free food is usually doing the rounds at various university events. I shall digress a bit into why ‘free food’ is so critical to survival as a grad student.

Most students who come to grad school, and I would venture to guess, even those in online master degree programs have near zero net worth, at least in monetary terms (intellectual worth is subject to debate but zero monetary worth is a proven reality). In fact, some even come with negative wealth ( for instance, if you take a 100K loan for your program). Those who have been in ‘real jobs’ for some years, blow away their savings even before they begin school. Receiving the quintessential admission letter from the dream university is reason enough to quit your job, often months in advance of joining school, and travelling to exotic locations, thus finishing up your money. Even those who come funded are here for PhD programs, which tend to take anything between 5-7 years to complete and sometimes even longer. Hence Grad students don’t have ( a lot of) money. Whatever little stipends they get, after tax deductions, go into housing, buying books, groceries and other practicalities of day to day living. Hence any kind of saving opportunity is welcome.

Housing is a sunk cost once you have signed the lease for a year , nothing much can be done! Now as far as food goes, eating out everyday is not a viable option in the little money that remains after housing. Cooking at home, taking packed lunch etc is the economical path, but one that requires takes time, effort and culinary skills. The last one is something that many graduate students lack, at least to begin with. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I say that boiling water in an electric kettle may be a first time for many.

That leaves them with only alternative – look for free food on campus! US universities have a sound understanding of the magnetic properties of ‘free food’ and hence serve it at every event that does not count for a grade. So all non popular events like guest lectures, library tours, student club meetings, talks by religious groups etc will come with the added attraction of free food. If a professor shifts his class timings to late evenings, it is customary upon him/her to offer free pizzas. However, people with special dietary needs ( veggies, those who think cows and pigs are holy etc) should make it on time/early as these options are limited and tend to get over very fast. If you are at fancier programs like business, you could even get free beer!

That said, it requires fair bit of effort to have high productivity levels at finding free food. I would say at 5 meals a week, one is quite productive and 3-4 isn’t doing too bad. So while choosing courses it may be a good idea to know which Professors offer free Pizzas post classes and which ones take you out for a happy hour! Sometimes making a google calender where one can regularly key in all free food events helps that one doesn’t miss out on any event. A shared calender which many like minded foodies can update will enhance your productivity even more!

Having given you all enough food for thought, I shall now scavenge my mailbox for the upcoming free food events and update them on my calender!

Hola America – Here I arrive!

I like telling stories.Though not an interesting storyteller, yet I always have a lot of stories to tell!

During my last few weeks in India ,the frequency at which this blog was being updated was quite high, at least by my own standards. I was confident that I had overcome the writers block that had killed my first blog jhola . That made it only natural that the handful of followers, that this blog has (perhaps this group is restricted to a circle of friends), did expect stories and anecdotes from me.

In that context,does it not just seem strange that in 21 days, not one story has been narrated ?

I just hope that the past three weeks of silence have not killed those expectations. And that there are no thoughts that like ‘Jhola’ this journal of mine is dying a premature death. Without going into the reasons of why I never posted anything so far, I would instead attempt to start posting with some regularity.( That’s being forward looking indeed!)

Well,this transition for me has a multitude of dimensions. It is not only moving into a new, remarkably different country and culture, but also moving from a comfortable and rewarding work life back to university, and that too for what I hope to be a not too long and yet successful haul at attaching a doctor of philosophy against my name.

Will these be tales about being struck by the awe and wonders that a transition to a posh neighborhood of a metropolis in a first world country brings with it? Will they be accounts of utter disgust at some of the realities that a transition as significant as this one has in store for most people? Will they be pedantic accounts of what Indian higher education institutions can learn from some rich upmarket universities that have succeeded in marketing themselves?

My stories should cover all this and much more as I begin my explorations into another part of this planet. While the subjects I may talk about are cliched, but I am sure my perspectives on them should be unique or at least interesting to the followers of my blog.
I shall end this ‘prologue’ with fond hope that the chapters of the main text would start appearing soon