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October 08, 2003

Why a Ph.D.?
Hazhir Rahmandad  [info|posts]

phd2.jpg When I was applying for the U.S. universities in the fall of 1999, I had a set of reasons for applying and some criteria for selecting the programs. Having been in the academia for a few years, I now find my initial decision-making process to be potentially flawed, even though I am fairly happy with M.I.T. and what I am studying.

Going back to my application time, I am not sure why I decided to continue my studies abroad. For one thing, I had a couple of courses with Dr. Mashayekhi which changed the way I looked at the world and motivated me to learn system dynamics more deeply. Yet it is very likely that I would have stayed in Iran and continued for an MBA from Sharif if so many of my friends were not applying. In fact, it was kind of the next natural step: you take courses each semester and you know what comes up next, and for the 7th semester you know that you should go to Dubai (or somewhere else) to take TOEFL and GRE* and apply. In effect, I didn't need to think so much about the decision, just like I didn't think about going to high-school when I finished my junior high!

Deciding where to apply was a little more challenging. I knew about MITís program in System Dynamics, however, for the rest of my applications, I went through several of the ranking lists from US News and found the top schools that had something to do with Industrial Engineering and Management. I only applied for Ph.D.ís because I thought there was a higher chance of getting financial aid Ö and after all it was a Ph.D. (i.e. my grand mother can boast about it more than a M.Sc. or M.A.)!

Here in the U.S., the first time I was reminded of application process was when prospective applicants started contacting our professors and us to find out about the program, life in Boston, research interests and life of a Ph.D. student. Their questions were a little surprising to me, I never articulated my surprise consciously, but if I did, my thoughts would have been something like "You shouldnít ask these peripheral questions, you belong to a higher class if you do a Ph.D., so if you can, you should make it!". I was even more surprised when some senior students discouraged prospective applicants from applying in quiet a few cases! They highlighted the importance of being really dedicated to research and being ready to suffer a few poor and challenging years without that much of positive feedback. Moreover, they emphasized that getting a Ph.D. is worth it only if you want to stay in academia or do research for the rest of your life.

Comments of senior students didn't change my view on the criteria for selecting to do a Ph.D. however, the Bostonís cold winter did! At least by December I was persuaded that one should not only check US, but also, in comparing different schools! Then it took me a few more semesters and some social science courses to bitterly accept that science does not reveal the absolute truth, and scientists are not the modern saints who deserve special respect! Now after over three years, I can see and feel the challenges of doing good research, and the dedication and passion that it requires. Gradually I am learning to balance encouragement with cautionary comments when talking with prospective students—as my senior colleagues used to do—and I am learning that politics play as strong a role in academia as any other domain I have experienced!

In short, I have had a humbling experience in academia: I have found my criteria for selecting a Ph.D. program to be poor, my original way of looking at science to be naÔve, and my implicit ranking of people based on their education to be stupid! Nevertheless, I have also enjoyed this experience for many reasons, I have learnt a lot of other interesting things along these humbling points, have made a lot of good friends, and have broadened my worldview by experiencing a whole new culture and life style. For these reasons I usually encourage interested Iranian friends to try the experience of education in some other countries; however, now I tell them to first do a masters, or their undergrad** abroad and then make an informed decision if Ph.D. is what they really want to do.

* Because of the U.S. sanctions against Iran, these exams are not offered in Iran and one should go to another country for taking them.
** I still think the chances of getting financial aid is higher if one gets a Ph.D. admission, yet that chance is high enough for master programs that, in my mind, it is worth additional applications and effort. About undergraduate programs, interesting enough, there are more financial aid opportunities than most Iranian friends think. In fact most prominent undergrad programs have a quota for international students to keep the campus diversity high, and they give up to full financial support for those international students who can not afford the tuition and cost of living here.

Somayeh S at October 8, 2003 02:33 PM [permalink]:

I probably went through a similar experience. I remember the day I last saw you at school, and you said "hope to see you abroad" and I said "never!". I really meant it, but just as a "natural" thing, I took Toefl and GRE in my 7th semester! I don't remember what exactly changed my mind, but I know that I don't regret it. But now, I am more considerate in deciding whether or not to do a ph.d., which before seemed a natural step after a Masters. I am learning that school is not everything, and that I may learn a lot more if I work for some time. I have also learnt that having a balanced personal life is important. But I do still urge Iranian students to come abroad, even if their only choice is to do a Ph.D. in a decipline they don't like. I think as long as doing a Ph.D. is your only way of living in another country for a few years, it is worth it, just because it provides you with the opportunity of exploring new lifestyles.

Hooman at October 8, 2003 06:02 PM [permalink]:

" original way of looking at science to be naÔve, and my implicit ranking of people based on their education to be stupid! "

You are a lucky guy and you should congradulate yourself on that. Not so many Iranians leaving the country to further their studies come with this conclusion.

Iman at October 8, 2003 06:32 PM [permalink]:

I believe even a short work experience helps a lot in achieving a better point of view in this issue.

AliS at October 8, 2003 07:24 PM [permalink]:

Again hard to comment an issue explained Hazhiristic way.
Hazhir I wonder if you were to choose again what criteria you might have used for your decision. I am not sure if there exists any better way than the way you refer to as poor and naive (considering the constraints one faces in Iran.)

Kaveh Kh. at October 9, 2003 08:52 AM [permalink]:

Speaking of weather... Toronto, Montreal, Buffalo, Halifax... and God created a cold place called North of North America.

Mehrad at October 9, 2003 02:34 PM [permalink]:

I know I wanna say something to you Hazh, but it simply doesn't come out right!!

Senior Grad at October 10, 2003 07:51 PM [permalink]:

Thanks for taking time to share the experience, Hazhir. It is always like that: you make a (long-term or short-term) commitment to something (or sometimes to someone) you naturally don't know enough about and then you've got to face the consequences. I say "naturally" because there is always unexpected surprises lurking in your path, and not all of them are pleasant (in your case, Boston's cold weather). You cannot gather ALL the information before making a choice. There seems to be always a certain amount of risk involved, but one way to reduce the painful and almost inevitable doubts and disappointments is what is known as make-believe. Do you think all the great figures that when interviewed say they would do the same thing, choose the same career, etc. if they started over mean it? I think they're either a bunch of liars or just great self-assured make-believers. :-)

Dinian at October 11, 2003 08:27 AM [permalink]:

Well sometimes you can worry about everything, analyse all the facts, study probabilities and choose the best possible course of action imaginable and not find the truth and sometimes you might just stumble into it. Give yourselves some time to make mistakes as that is the only way you can go the wrong way and find the right answers.

Senior Grad at October 11, 2003 10:45 AM [permalink]:

Thanks for the wise words, Dinian. (These could have well come from a young Dalai Lama!) Yes, I had forgotten about the role of the chance (or luck). I had also forgotten about the two big uncertain (as far as timing is concerned) fatal D's, Disease and Decease, that are certain to happen and affect our plans...

Anonymous at October 11, 2003 07:19 PM [permalink]:

Hazhir, as a person who has known you for a while, let me have a word with you. whatever decesion you make in this life, being it something to study, getting married, choosing a job, etc. try to understand AND appeciate the meaning of this sentence: "you must seize the chance". always expect something unplanned happening to you and try to embrace it. do not destroy it. it is going to make you proud some day. I promise you.


Sara at October 16, 2003 12:24 PM [permalink]:

Thanks for sharing experiences, Hazhir. As a 7th-semester student thinking about continuing studies abroad or not, I always look for others' opinion and experiences. Right now, my first encouraging fact of studying abroad is to "experience a whole new culture and life style". But steel I'm doutful, weather I can afford my living all independently or not.

Sara at October 16, 2003 12:25 PM [permalink]:

Thanks for sharing experiences, Hazhir. As a 7th-semester student thinking about continuing studies abroad or not, I always look for others' opinion and experiences. Right now, my first encouraging fact of studying abroad is to "experience a whole new culture and life style". But steel I'm doutful, weather I can afford my living all independently or not.

amir hossein at October 18, 2003 04:53 AM [permalink]:

As a person who has passed one year in a PhD program in US, I should agree in most parts with Hazhir.
I was always wondering if it's really worth spending 5 to 6 years for PhD and graduate in the age of 33 or it's better to have a good master degree and go to the job market quickly.
PhD really can't be used in job market, unless in academic jobs that I'm not so sure that I want to remain an academic person for whole my life.
But a master is more applied and helps you find more diversified jobs.
Amir Hossein.

nina at October 18, 2003 01:35 PM [permalink]:

Is it hopeless you mean?? Of course not. You go on and try to know life more and more Ö but I guess I know what you mean approximately. Although being this fact that a better decision never exists, there is some feeling that maybe something was wrong, maybe there was a better choose, maybeÖ . I mean such as a kind ofÖ change of heart maybe, or no, a light sorrowÖ

Writing this post is an attempt to be honest with yourself and it mentions to an ability to express your feeling about your not exactly true doing (in your opinion) , so it is valuable.

Somebody said: Understanding a wound is the first step to being recovered. But I think that your doubt maybe is only conclusion that you have it now but you donít want it completely at the present or you think you need some things differently.

A decision or a belief being in doubt is a harmful but harm is requisite of life! No way. We are not perfect.

N. Fazeli at October 20, 2003 05:58 PM [permalink]:

Dear Mr. Rahmandad,

Firstly, I envy you for your eloquent English writing and more importantly your Honesty.

Secondly, the concept of an academic degree is a social construction. We define and construct the meaning of PhD according to the social conditions we live in. Thus there are many concepts of PhD. In the US and Europe, education and academic degrees have, more or less, lost their traditional position, because of many social transformations that happened in those societies. In contrary, in Iran and many other non-western countries, still PhD is one of the most valued commodities that a person may get it. As you know, with a PhD I, as an Iranian person living in the country, can get a good job, my social status moves in the highest level, and it guaranties social security of me, my family and my children. In Iranian concept, PhD is a Social Symbol of being Lucky, Successful and Intelligent; though, in reality, may PhD holders are not. And it is, for most part of the society, the only way of being successful and lucky. Whereas, in the US you have many ways and opportunities for getting a lucky and successful life.

Thirdly, getting an Overseas PhD is a process and a way of life. Passing through this process and experiencing that way of life give us a new perspective and worldview. Culturally, Overseas PhD is quiet different from Home PhD. Overseas PhD is a cross cultural education, whereas Home PhD is mono cultural. We should not evaluate Overseas PhD only with such criteria as job opportunity, university quality and so forth. Overseas PhD is a unique and most valuable experience that our time has gifted us. I have written a book about my cultural experience during my PhD in SOAS-London University. I have entitled it Qesehaye Gharb and would be published in Tehran soon. I wish you get it and read it. In the I have tried to ethnographically demonstrate the unique experience and value of studying abroad.

Azad at December 8, 2003 08:41 PM [permalink]:

Speaking from one of the coldest climates in North America, I want to add some positive comments to Hazhirís nice post. I hate cold weathers, but I have a reason to be here :-)

I always quarreled with those of my friends who wished to continue their education in a 4-2-3 fashion, i.e., 4 years undergrad, 2 years Masterís, and 3 years PhD. Since I chose to work for one year in Iran after the Bachelorís degree to enhance my Engineering skills and was forced to work for another year due to the US visa saga both in a private company and a research institute, I fairly know what is going on in Iranian EE market and research institutes.

I had a PhD perspective as well before applying, though I am a Masterís student right now. My Iranian work experience is helping me a lot in the program. I am not trying to discredit Iranian companies and Universities research efforts, but I wouldnít be shy to say that I still have a strong motivation to apply for a PhD after observing the lack of advanced science in our research and industry. Getting a PhD needs patience, dedication, and is tough. I know that. If you are researchaholic, itís the very first degree that licenses you to do your own naive research and/or direct your own labs. Furthermore, itís only partly true that you wonít find pure science in a non-academic career. Look at the R&D personnel of some famous companies and you will agree with what I am trying to put. After all, most strategic industries have R&D sectors that are way ahead of academia, so even if you are not considering an academic career and you are majoring in science and engineering, you still have a chance to find a job although being ďover-qualifiedĒ.