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May 26, 2004

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

The second scenario put forward another imaginary case. Parisa is a first year female graduate student who studies in the Dr. Zaari's research group. Dr. Zaari and most of his students are from Zaarestan a fictional country. Parisa has noticed that Dr. Zaari spends more time in social activities with his other students, and he also pays them more attention with advice regarding their career future. Parisa suspects this could be because she is the only Iranian in the group.

Participants quickly found out that it was hard to assess the situation of Parisa just from reading the case. As a result, the discussion turned to the challenges that the Iranian students face in America. What happened to Parisa could have been just the result of her mental sensibility to the fact that she comes from a different place, and that mental image has prevented her from trying enough to change the nature of her relationship with the rest of the group. It was said that although we do not know how different are the Zaarestanis from Americans, but we know that in American culture, new comers are provided with enough opportunity to socialize with others. The first few months of getting to the new place recognized as an important period because that is the time which people try to estimate the new person in terms of friendship and socializing. Often, there are numbers of offers in the beginning weeks for joining the rest of the group in social activities. If someone refuses to join the rest of the group for various reasons, then it will become less likely that he or she receives future invitations.

Emad Z., a first-year graduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Inst. , believed that we should not wait for initiatives from other students for socializing, but we should take the lead. He told participants how he organized a major event in his department at the first month his arrival. Hazhir R., a graduate student in Management school of MIT, emphasized that the first semester is quite important. He said how norm formation literature shows that when we come to a completely new environment, we need to form new habits and norms which work in this new setting, and also this is the best time to consciously establish habits and norms which help us in future. As an example, he said it is quite important to find good friends especially from other departments since that is the time when students are more likely to see people from other departments and form new friendships. He also said that there are students who come from Iran with the mentality that taking courses and passing them is their only job here, pretty the same as their old way of doing work. Considering above mechanism, this will take away from them chances for establishing the norms of exploring new opportunities, finding new friends and learning about the new environment. In fact, what they need on their first semester is taking fewer courses and consciously focusing on building the habits needed for a better life here.

At the last part of this discussion, people mainly focused on the image of Iran and Iranians in the U.S. . It was said that existing negative streotyping toward Iranians should not damage our confidence in expressing and representing ourselves. As a short comment, Roya B., a student from Math Dept of MIT, told participants that this stereotyping is less in regard to Iranian women in America. She said it could be partly due to the fact that their work and success in academia is breaking many of those stereotyping which Iranian have been depicted by.

At panel part, four speakers talked about their own experiences. Reza Sadr, a Physics PhD from Boston Univ, who is working in a software company now, was the first person to talk. He believed that this workshop is a good start and just defining our problems could be a part of the solution. He mentioned number of problems for Iranian students: dealing with the new environment and culture, bearing the on going political problems of Iran, the difficulties of making trip to Iran, economical problems specially when they have a family, and difficulties in doing research. He talked about how we can learn while doing research, how to build a scientific network, and understanding the fact that research is a group work. Reza said how students should be looking for opportunities after graduation while they are in the school, finding out what are the hot topics, what kind of skills industry is looking for, and how they can present their skills in job market.

Payman pointed out the rarity of successful collaboration and cooperation among Iranian professionals, while collaboration is becoming increasingly essential in scientific endeavors even in fields such as mathematics, where now articles authored by several people are being published. The relevance is that a lot of recent progress is occurring at the borders of a number of well developed areas, where an individual may not realistically hope to master all the details and technicalities. He mentioned that the lack of ability for cooperation is a cultural issue, one aspect of which could be a lack of certain generosity that is required for teamwork.

He emphasized on the need for students to become insiders in their departments through interaction with other members in order to have access to information which they may not have otherwise. Finally he talked about the cultural lack of clarity in our ways of communication (even in professional circles) and the need to be more explicit and clearer in accordance with the American culture.

Massoud Mohazzab, a PhD in Physics who is working in industry now, had a different perspective from two previous panelist. He has received his PhD from Iran. While doing his PhD in Iran, he spent part of his study as a visiting student in U.S. . He talked how he has experienced dishonesty and unethical treatment in his academic life. He warned the participants of being too open about the details of their research ideas. He said how there are people who can take advantage of you and not to give you any credit at the end. Also, he wasn't satisfied with the race relation in this country. He was shocked when he had heard a South Asian friend of him was told by a European supervisor that we are working together in the work environment, but we are separate in the society. He also encouraged students to have industry in mind. He said how the money limitations are much less in the industrial environment.

Ali Nayeri, a Astrophysics postdoctral fellow in MIT, was the last speaker. He believed if students what to stay in academia should have a professional view toward science. They should find out what are the important fields and what are the important questions. As other speakers, he emphasized on team work. He recommended that people should try to be volunteer for new activities.

At the end of workshop, people talked about possibility of having similar workshops in future. Hamid M. from Brandeis thought that such meetings could be very helpful in giving better awareness on graduate life to students who have come recently from Iran, and he believed there should be more gatherings for sharing our experiences as graduate students.

Wellesley Girl at May 26, 2004 03:08 PM [permalink]:
One major problem, the way I see it, is that Iranians sit around the room talk about what they should do without seeking any outside advice. I think sometimes people should see their problem from a completely anonymous perspective and then decide. This would certainly reduce the number of problems they have (read: think they have) and also make it easier to differentiate between their problems. ie: Your general lack of self confidence may not have to do with being in US, you were probably the same way in Iran, just less aggravated! Many of our problems are just an extension of our imagination. I think the main problem that we have here is that we want to have a problem so we see things more extreme than they are. If a professor doesn't answer my question saying he has to run, maybe because he has to go to the hospital to see his mother who had suffered from a stroke, and not necessarily because he doesn't like me! Let's see if I can make my point more succinct. Iranians are having problems, they hang out with other Iranians, not people who have passed the stage they are in or never had the issue, but Iranians who are facing the same problems, and they expect to be able to resolve their issues(!!!), which reminds me of a Farsi proverb that says a blind is leading another blind! Why do Iranians stick with Iranian friends? They probably think "I am not cool enough," "I can't speak english," and so forth, or the problem mentioned at the beginning of this article (mmm! Good question though! Why do they?). Many of us have had teachers who favored others, but that is far from being hated by your teacher! Also, if a teacher isn't taking the initiative to talk to you, well maybe you never talk to the prof either! Professors are under a lot of pressure here in US. If a student acts aloof and disinterested, they aren't going to go the extra mile to get to know you! Let me tell you one thing, if you are acting shy, which Iranians tend to be a lot, it wouldn't look shy, because shy doesn't mean much in the 21st century, it would look reserved and introvert. Which makes the professor assume that you are either disconcertingly condescending or know the subject better than him, specially in Grad school! Besides, profs are so busy and have so many problems of their own and also, the last thing ANY professor wants is to be dubbed to be hitting on students, stalking them, or just being weird! Bottom line: Talking to Iranians (specially the ones who are in the same boat), wouldn't really give you a full length view of your problems. If you are inside a ditch and have no idea how to get out, it's plausible to ask someone from outside to send down a rope, and this probably works faster than any other way! And then again we go back to "find out on your own" problem I mentioned last time: Iranians never want to go the extra way if they can get it easier (hanging around in the circle they are in), but they don't know what they are missing, so I might as well enlighten them: ask people of other nationalities (this includes americans) how the coped with the environment change, what they do for recreation, how they handle stress, or anxiety, and so forth. You can get involved in cool activities nonIranians do and I assure you you will have more fun that you have ever imagined. The issue I brought up last time about Iranians never getting involved in any activity other than studying is the direct result of hanging out with Iranians only! And one last thing ["Toooo long!" editors say, "Here: click to read the whole thing!"]
An Iranian Student (AIS) at May 26, 2004 03:42 PM [permalink]:

This might be only partly relevant, but there is a book I read that I found very insightful: "The Psychology of College Success" by Henry Lindgern (I hope that's how his name is spelled) , translated as "Ravanshenaye movafaqiyat dar tahsilate daneshgahi". (The translationj is not very good though).
I'm sure there are a lot of other books like that, this is just the one I know of.

Although you can't figure such things out by only reading books, a book like this can nevertheless be a good guide on ordinating your actions.
Just a thought anyway.

SG at May 26, 2004 07:56 PM [permalink]:

Dear Mehdi,

I appreciate your efforts in the direction of acculturization of Iranian students in the U.S. I trust such efforts must come from a sense of responsibility, a courage and a faith in that things don't have to be the way they are. That we can make a difference.

I may have fundamental disagreements with you about investing our best talents in studying certain subjects, but I believe you and those of your friends who have made such seminars possible do deserve a pat on the back, a genuine BAAREKALLAAH, a warm KHASTÉ NABAASHID.

I salute you all and wish you more success.

AmericanWoman at May 26, 2004 11:48 PM [permalink]:

When I was in Grad School, everything was done within the context of a team. There were no enclaves after the first few weeks.

I can tell you this, though. Employers, especially the large prestigious corporations, and even Universities, look at way more than your GPA. They want to know if you are the kind of person who can fit into their little society. They want to know what you do in your time off, interests, hobbies, that kind of thing. It looks very well if you have worked on specific projects, even if it was just as a volunteer, or as a student research assistent. Membership in certain Associations carries a lot of weight, things like Doctors Without Borders, or Kiwanis, basically service organizations. Also, having a good golf handicap can boost your resume up to the top of the pile, everything else being equal.

Even though they can't legally ask, they evaluate you based on age and marital status as well. If the job requires travel and long hours, they like you better if you are single. If they will have to make a big investment in training you before you will start making money for them, they like you married and burdened with debt, because it means you aren't going anywhere except to work every day.

They want to feel like you will get along with the people already working there. The thing to do is to start meeting people who are already working in your field of interest, find out what they do, what they like, and become their friend.

SG at May 27, 2004 11:03 AM [permalink]:

Thanks, AW, for enlightening remarks from the other side of the table. :-) I guess what makes it hard for members of another culture to fit in the new society has to do with the fact that in each culture a lot of things remains unsaid and the things that are explicitly said do not mean what they seem to mean on ther surface. In order to be able to read the *subtext* (for example when your boss says something to you and means something else that she cannot say openly, or she may get herself in trouble, and expects you to get what she means, and no matter how much she hints at it, you don't get it, because you're not trained to read the subtext) one has to be raised in a culture. Even second generation Iranians may easily find it difficult to fit in --as WG noted recently-- in the American mainstream culture.

I guess all I mean is one has to master the so-called "metalanguage", but nobody other than your parents seem to be willing to teach you that. :-)

Ordak D. Coward at May 27, 2004 12:24 PM [permalink]:

meta-language? I guess you mean common-sense, and dear SG, nobody is going to teach you that, as it would not be called common sense anymore.

SG at May 27, 2004 01:45 PM [permalink]:

No, Mr. Smart Ordaleck. I meant "meta-language", perhaps hyphenated, as you seem to prefer, and preferably in quotes. :-)

I feel the urge to comment a little bit on my previous comment by way of clarification. First off, I would like to replace the word "willing" in the last line of my last comment above by something else, like, "able" maybe?. You see, the implicit meanings (as opposed to literal ones) of what we utter are not always consciously formed. They're now part of us. They are *automatic*. I say something (for example, I say "fe") and if you and I are brought up in similar cultural atmospheres, you get it right away (for example, you hear "farahzaad"!) If, however, you're raised in another culture, then in certain situations no amount of explication is likely to help you "get" it.

You who live in this side of the globe may have noticed that beside their *verbal* language and all the confusing intricacies that it offers, Americans have a very rich body language and learning to correctly interpret the "sentences" of this language can take years--literally. Like, I don't know next time I'm in Iran, if I roll my eyes, just to give you an example, when I find something weird, unbelievable, outrageous (or any other reactions that rolling the eyes conveys in America), how what the reaction of my Iranian friends could be; most probably, confusion.

So while a dictionary of Iranian body language signs may barely fill half a page (just try to remember a few Iranian gestures beside the dismissive "khaak too saresh" hand waving), anybody who has watched an American sitcom, let's say Seinfeld, knows very well how thick a dictionary of American body language would be.

Back to Mehdi's subject and its connection to my blabbering here: You want to write a letter to a prospective employer. Or, what the heck, some guy in the workplace. How do you start it? "Hello"? "Hello James"? "Hi,"? "Dear James"? And how do you end it? "Regards"? "Respectfully yours"? "Yours sincerely"? See, each of these have its own sphere of meaning. Each connotes a different mood. If you use the wrong terms, your letter will sound ridiculous.

This I said as an example. There is a lot more, as far as the "metalanguage" is concerned, that can be helpful to your progress in your career or cause setbacks. And how do we learn them? Time! Although the fact of the matter is we, like other immigrants, never completely learn these things. The second generation will do slightly better, and so on, until your offspring do not consider themselves Iranian anymore. (And here lies the irony in endeavors of this kind that try to help the Iranian-American community...)

Let me end with an anecdote. Some American Peace Corps volunteers who had spent two years in a European part of the former Soviet Union were telling me how strange it was for them in the beginning to see nobody smiles on the streets of that country. (Almost like in Iran, where you're supposed to look somber and even kinda akhmoo, unless you're walking with friends, in which case loud laughters are also allowed.) What was worst, they later realized that the American automatic habit of smiling to strangers without any apparent reason was deemed by the local people as weird, to say the least, and that it could be misinterpreted as ...

AmericanWoman at May 27, 2004 10:08 PM [permalink]:

Dear Sr. Grad:
There are so many books about how to write various types of letters, templates, if you will, for all occasions from returning merchandise to condolences for a death. Judith Martin, who writes a column for the Post called "Dear Miss Manners" has written two or three big books on what to do, say, write for every possible occasion. She is kind of funny, too. I think you would like her style.
Anyway, my response to this article is that there is a fundamental difference in the way Iran (and almost all other countries, come to think of it) and the US view education. In the US, being a student, whether it is a Grad Student or an elementary student, is considered merely a preliminary or preparation for "real life." In fact, if you have multiple PhD's it starts to seem suspicious, like you are trying to get out of working for an honest living. Therefore, excelling in your studies, i.e. does not garner the respect and status it does in other countries.

What is respected in the US is the result of all that education: papers published, job secured, organisations started, patents approved, your first million before the age of 25. It goes without saying (in the meta dimension) that if you can produce great results without the bother and investment of education, why so much the better!
Even in circles where the ability to produce a beautiful paradigm, or write an airtight treatise iis admired, skills at "getting along" and "being one of the gang" are almost equally valued. "Well-rounded" is the operative buzzword here. People want to talk to you about something besides work. As they say back in the mother land, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."

SG at May 29, 2004 03:07 PM [permalink]:

I appreciate the info, AmericanWoman.

Seeking at June 25, 2004 02:51 AM [permalink]:

Dear all

I have just visited this forum after recommendation of one of my friends here. I will move to Waterloo next year to begin my masters program. I appreciate Mr.Yahyanejad's thoughtful essay regarding graduate school. I believe that one problem is that the scietific community of Iranians is not very well organized(please correct me if I am wrong). Althought there are great Iranian scientists in virtually every scientific discipline but there is no structured organization to look after the interest of the Iranian academics abroad (and inside Iran).
I would really love to see something like "Iranian Academics Without Border" that has a lobbying power and ability to organize scientific and social workshops regarding the condition of the graduate students inside and outside Iran.
Thanks for your time