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 News.com, but also Weather.com, 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.