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Of doctors and quacks: Getting a PhD in Pakistan

Updated November 21, 2014

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I have observed an extraordinary aversion to learning critical thinking among my peers because of the ideological and moral panic which results from questioning social constructs and cultural stereotypes. —Reuters
I have observed an extraordinary aversion to learning critical thinking among my peers because of the ideological and moral panic which results from questioning social constructs and cultural stereotypes. —Reuters

As part of our doctoral course work, a few days ago, I was sitting in a lecture when one of the students said she did not agree with what a particular author had written.

Instead of asking her the reasons for her disagreement the professor, a middle-aged lady with a “doctorate,” asked sternly as to why she did not agree with the author, the subtext of which was, “How dare you disagree with the author?”

The tone of the professor was such that the student, feeling rather sheepish, retracted her disagreement immediately.

The professor wanted to proceed with the “discussion” when another lowly creature, this humble scribe, interjected and asked her that if we were not allowed to disagree, how would we ever be able to contribute fresh insights to the existing scholarship.

To this, the professor said that we could disagree as long as we could support our argument with “solid” reasoning.

While, apparently, the professor’s statement does provide a certain space for disagreement, the abovementioned exchange bears a testimony to the extent disagreement, if expressed, is tolerated.

I, then, asked the professor how we could disagree when we were not trained to do so; and instead we are pressured and forced to agree with whatever has been said or written earlier.

Cargo PhDs

In our academia, the pressure to conform and agree is not only exerted by the kind of parochial professors mentioned above, a vast majority of the student body is equally complicit in silencing disagreement.

On many an occasion, I have found my peers, who tend to think of themselves as “doctoral scholars,” asking me not to pose any questions to our professors as it would prolong our “discussions.”

Here, I must mention the kind of discussions which take place among us, the potential “doctors”.

A professor comes into the classroom and starts reading a certain passage from a book. After she has read verbatim a paragraph or two, during which she mispronounces several elementary words, she asks the students to “discuss.”

During this “discussion” one or two students regurgitate whatever she has just read. If one tries to initiate a debate, the professor gets worried that we are getting carried away and that we don’t have any time for digressions.

One must resist generalisations but the situation in most Pakistani universities is not any different. Some university professors in Pakistan, especially the ones teaching at the postgraduate level, don’t know the first thing about conducting academic research.

Also read: Sending Pakistan to Mars

Most of these professors have risen through the ranks solely on the basis of their seniority. For example, an individual is promoted as “assistant professor” after having spent a certain number of years as a “lecturer” no matter what. You stick in the system long enough and eventually you become a professor.

Looks good on paper

Most of these professors are pre-HEC era individuals, a time when there wasn’t much awareness about conducting or publishing research. With the invention called the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the focus suddenly shifted to research publications. Now, these professors, who couldn’t tell a research paper from a meteoroid were required to not only conduct research but also to get it published!

With this arrived the trend of self-publishing one’s “research” in substandard or even fake academic journals.

These journals would publish anything from your dog’s obituary to Sokalistic nonsense to Einstein’s theory of relativity (under your name) without any peer-review or even proofing, provided one pays their publication fees.

The HEC turns a blind eye to these “research publications,” as has been amply demonstrated by people like Q. Isa Daudpota, because if one were to exclude these “research publications” the swollen volume of “research output” as claimed by the HEC would deflate considerably.

Also read: Scourge of fake journals

The HEC often takes credit for producing hundreds of PhDs annually, however, the research produced by a vast majority of these scholars hardly gets published anywhere in the world.

Just go to the “Thesis Section” of a university library on any day of the week and you will find hundreds of documents immaculately bound in ornate covers and neatly shelved. However, if you browse through a couple of these documents you will come across elementary mistakes in terms of language, expression, methodology, and argument.

One of the major reasons for the poor quality of research is that Pakistani researchers don’t think critically.

They uncritically embrace social constructs, cultural stereotypes, linguistic binaries, political assumptions, and nationalist preconceptions as universal givens.

Also read: A memo to the HEC: Define 'nationalism' please

On one level, it is hardly their fault for they have been ideologically indoctrinated, thereby turning them into metaphorical microcephalics.

But, on another level, this shortcoming can, and should, be ascribed to them because most of them (this scribe included) are too lazy and stubborn to unlearn whatever has been taught to them in the name of education.

Academic research is not about finding answers. Instead, it is concerned with, especially in the social sciences, problematising and complicating a seemingly ordinary phenomenon.

The critical acumen required to conduct academic research is not something illusive or hereditary and can be acquired by anyone who is ready to learn it with patience, focus, and determination.

During the course of my studies, I have observed an extraordinary aversion to learning critical thinking among my peers because of the ideological and moral panic, which results from questioning social constructs and cultural stereotypes.

Academic Research 101

If Pakistani researchers want to stay relevant to, and abreast of, the latest developments in the world, and they should, they will have to let go of these constructs and preconceptions and put everything to question.

As far as facilitating potential scholars, the HEC has done a commendable job by establishing digital libraries in almost all the public sector universities across Pakistan. These digital libraries provide access to the latest research being done in the world and that too free of cost. It is really unfortunate that a majority of our researchers and potential scholars do not know about these facilities and are mostly not interested in them either.

Also read: The sorry state of research at our universities and how to fix it

As for our university professors and research supervisors, most of them seem to be forever struck in the labyrinths of office politics and have very little to contribute in way of research or supervision.

Potential researchers would do themselves a favor if they did not depend intellectually on these professors. Instead of depending on these figures, many of whom are only interested in drawing the supervision allowance; potential researchers can get in touch, via email, with leading experts and scholars in the world in their fields of interest. Contrary to popular assumptions, these experts and scholars are very helpful and forthcoming.

Before getting myself enrolled in the doctoral program, I used to think I was on my way to becoming a “doctor.” A year into the program, I have a growing feeling that after completing the “doctoral program”, what I would be, is a quack, just like some of my professors.