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May 21, 2004

Pitfalls of graduate school - Part I
Mehdi Yahyanejad  [info|posts]


I wrote this report more than two years ago. It hasn't been published before. I thought FToI is the best site to publish it because many of the audience are in graduate school.

Every year, a number of Iranian students leave Iran to continue their study in North American universities. As any other international student, they have to adapt to the new life style in North America. Here, they encounter a different educational system, a higher level of freedom and more options to choose from. They face new challenges as well. Some of these challenges are associated with making the transition from the undergraduate college to graduate school, and others are associated with going from one culture to another. At the MIT, a few Iranian students organized a workshop to discuss the general issues and problems that graduate students face with an emphasis on the role of Iranian culture in it. The workshop was organized by the Persian Association of MIT, and it was held at the MIT on October 6, 2001. Students from universities in the Boston area participated in the event.

The workshop was organized around discussion about two hypothetical senarios, which could happen in the life of a graduate student. The titles of the scenarios were "Your Supervisor's Recommendation for a Job" and "Learning a New Language". These were two case studies which the organizers borrowed from another similar workshop, but they tailored them to be more appropriate for the case of Iranian students. Participants started with finding solutions for students in these cases, but quickly the discussions went beyond the boundaries of the response to the scenarios. In the final part of the workshop, invited panelists talked about their viewpoints and their experience as graduate students.

Story of a recommendation
The first fictional scenario was about "Navid", a graduating student, who needs a recommendation from his supervisor. He has not been successful in the multiple avenues that "Dr. Smith" had suggested him to follow in his research. Navid is worried that his supervisor's recommendation will reflect only the recent setbacks in his research. Perhaps because Dr. Smith doesn't have a good impression of Navid's capabilities, he is asking him to aim low in his job applications.

Students participating in the workshop tried to identify with these kinds of problems. Facing serious problems at least at some point of graduate study is not unusual. Facing problems in research is normal as well because research means meeting the challenges in finding the truth and solving them. The process of research is not predictable either. Not only the students, but even the faculty do not know whether their way of approaching problems will work out. In the case of Navid, a serious issue was that he had been facing problems in his research, and he did not talk about them with his supervisor or other people. In a perfect situation, it would be nice to have a supervisor who was concerned about the progress of his students, but the reality is far from the perfect. Moreover, some supervisors believe that the student should take the primary role in evaluating his or her own progress.

In response to the question of how Navid could have found out about his own status, people recommended going to conferences, talking to other students, explaining his research and its importance to other members of the department, and trying to find groups who were working on the same subject of research in other parts of the country. Ali K., a second year electrical engineering student from MIT, mentioned that he found various research groups to be isolated from each other. In some groups, people do not know much about other projects in their own group. He believed having interaction with other research groups is essential in gaining a broad general knowledge. Payman K. , a current post doc at Brandeis University, said although these groups might be isolated from one another, it is our responsibility to overcome the communication barriers and make connections with other groups. He also added that networking will help bring your accomplishments into the attention of more senior members of your scientific community. This is particularly important in graduate school, as the results of the graduate work are not usually ground-breaking and will stand out more with respect to their relation with the mainstream research of senior scientists. This kind of recognition is very important in publishing papers or applying for jobs.

At this point, the discussion diverged from the first scenario, and participants started discussing the cultural differences which can hinder the interpersonal connections. Different interpretations of politeness in the two different cultures were partly blamed for making it difficult to have stronger connections. Parisa F., a third-year physics graduate student at Harvard, said that we, Iranians, think that we should have a full knowledge of a subject before approaching a lecturer after a seminar to talk to him or her about the subject of talk, but she has noticed how others courageously open discussions with speakers, although they might not have full knowledge about the subject. It was also mentioned that since in our educational system there has not been much attention to presentation, we have serious problems in presenting our ideas. The discussion about this issue was deferred to future events of this type.

Back to the case under study, it was mentioned that students should keep their direct supervisor on their side. What a supervisor thinks about a student is a critical element for their future. The trust between the supervisor and the student was said to be important throughout the graduate life. It was said that consultation with the supervisor is important, and problems should be discussed explicitly, but in a polite manner. Being persistent about a request which has been rejected is regarded very badly in American culture and should be avoided.

In explaining the supervisor's recommendation to Navid for aiming low in applying for a job, Reza S. said that it could be because of the fact that Navid's supervisor does not want to damage his own reputation by sending him to a good position if he believes Navid does not deserve the position.

You can find all the case studies here. You can also take a look at the steps for organizing this workshop here, even though it didn't happen exactly as it was stated in the proposal. I also have to thank Ali Khaki and Hazhir Rahmandad for their help in putting together the material and the workshop.

Hamid M. at May 22, 2004 04:52 PM [permalink]:

Thanks Mehdi for collecting the Pitfall meeting of the 2001, although at that time few Iranian attended, but it is nice to see it showed up itself one day. I just wanted to add to the Parisa F. main point that, our education in Iran is based on exam and scores(GPA!) not scientific discussions. The idea in Iran is if someone discuss/ask too much in/out class want to pretend that he/she is so knowledgable,it may or may not be true, but the point here is people here learn/publish by talk/discussions! Iranians come here with that culture, and try to evaluate everybody based on the scores, they try to study hard for scores and they don't get that much attention for their high marks as oppose to in Iran (take a look at CV's!) because the cultural attention in graduate school is discussions/talks. this is important to mention and take into acount for educational system in Iran, that although GPAs are important but its not really everything, specially after Graduate school!.

anon at May 23, 2004 02:14 PM [permalink]:

Have you ever heard of Office of Career developement, Alumni Society, Internships, fellowships and so on!!!!
One freaking recommendation doesn't determine a person's future.
To me the biggest problem that Iranian Fresh off the boat students have is that they get stuck in their own community and don't get around much to explore their options..
I have seen it over, over and over