It is that time of the year. Universities in Pakistan are aggressively promoting higher-ed opportunities. Full-page advertisements in the newspapers are alerting potential applicants to the looming application deadlines.
If you are planning to pursue higher education in Pakistan, particularly at the doctoral level, you most probably are unaware of your rights and obligations as a doctoral student.
An aura of commercialism surrounds the advertisements for academic degrees that are showcased in the same space and light as are the ads for the new models of mobile phones. Theses 'education ads' read like promotion flyers from diploma mills; all sorts of degrees in all possible academic disciplines are available.
You must hurry before the “special offer” runs out.
The announcements for doctoral studies are no different. There is no mention of the “distinguished” faculty members or specialised research labs that should convince one to withdraw from the labour market in one’s productive years and embrace the life of a graduate student, which is punctuated with poverty and uncertainty.
Take a look: Enough PhD’s, thank you
Instead, a laundry list of academic disciplines offering admissions in doctoral studies is on display in the advertisements.
Some universities are inviting potential doctoral students to appear for interviews so that the universities may evaluate their admissibility.
Students, turn the tables on universities
I encourage students to use this opportunity to instead probe universities for why should one consider spending several years toiling as a low-income, and at times, no-income worker.
Even in urban areas, where literacy rates are progressively better than elsewhere, ordinary people seldom know of individuals who might have pursued research and scholarship at the doctoral level.
At least in cities, there is no shortage of highly-qualified personnel, for instance, engineers and doctors.
On almost every street corner, one can find a grocery store, a mosque and a clinic. But it is hard to find scholars in the same public space. This disadvantages those who would like to pursue doctoral studies, but they lack mentoring to know what to expect from the university and the research supervising committee.
What you should know before applying
Before you apply for doctoral studies at a university in Pakistan, you need to learn a little about the school, and a lot about yourself — you must have the temperament to persevere.
Doctoral-level research is not a team sport. For years, you will toil alone searching for answers that are usually hard to come by. Uncertainty is the name of the game. You might have your Eureka moment in a year, or if you are like most others, it could take up to five or more years. There is still no guarantee that you would ever finish.
Regardless of how much (or little) research funding you receive, it will not be sufficient to support you as an individual. If you have a family with children, think very hard before embarking doctoral studies. The financial stress during your studies could harm your health and relationships.
You must also determine if you are a good writer. Doctoral dissertations, with some exceptions, are written documents. The ability to document research is critical to your success.
Furthermore, academic writing differs from other forms of writing and follows strict norms and styles. For instance, bibliographies are most often generated in either APA or MLA style. There are hundreds, if not more, discipline-specific styles of academic referencing and writing.
Since you would have already completed studies at the Masters level, one expects the applicants in a doctoral programme to be proficient with the academic style of writing.
If you have already published your Masters level research in academic journals of good repute, your academic bonafides are established. If not, have you either submitted a paper to a journal or thought about it?
If you have not, I would suggest that you take a year pushing your already completed research to academic outlets. This experience alone will help you evaluate your prospects for doctoral studies.
Applicants, who have already published their research in academic outlets, are the most coveted ones. They are fought over by universities who try to woo these applicants with lavish funding and other perks.
Learning the art and craft of academic publishing, before you apply to doctoral studies, is in your financial interest as well.
Lastly, you should have a well-reasoned research proposal at the time of application.
Unlike the undergraduate admissions, where one shows up with a diploma from a high school, you must prepare a well-reasoned and detailed research proposal, identifying the original contribution you would like to make in your research.
If you show up empty-handed, be ready to be either denied admissions or to leave empty-handed five years henceforth.
What you should expect from the university
As a doctoral student, you are entitled to research funding, academic support, mentorship, research resources, scholarship, an environment conducive for research and free of intimidation.
Regrettably, there are hardly any universities in Pakistan that offer the bare minimum in what should be provided to doctoral students.
Before you apply, you should learn about the researchers in your intended field of study, and what they have accomplished. There is no point having a doctoral supervisor who does not work in the area you would like to specialise in.
In fact, the most important choice to make in doctoral studies is not about the institution, but about the individual. You must identify the professor, whose work you have read (and hopefully understand) and feel comfortable that his or her research interests for the next five to 10 years will be in congruence with yours.
You should also probe who else teaches in the same department or faculty that could be part of your supervisory committee. You need at least three other academics whose research interests intersect with your research proposal.
Together, your supervisory committee will provide the intellectual breadth and depth to help you steer your research.
Also read: Research culture in Pakistan — The ‘undisclosed’ moral decadence
Your thesis supervisor should be competent and available — you can judge a supervisor’s competence by reviewing their published research in international journals.
Start with Google Scholar to see if your supervisor of interest has published in quality journals that are ranked by Impact Factors.
Stay clear of those academics who publish in journals that do not have an Impact Factor or its equivalent. Additionally, avoid academics who publish different versions of the same paper in multiple publications.
A supervisor has to be available to mentor you. You are better off avoiding the one who is rarely on campus, takes long summer vacations abroad, fails to meet regularly (at least once a month, if not more), does not provide timely feedback on submitted materials and does not contribute to your overall intellectual growth.
You can only learn about this by speaking with the current doctoral students of your proposed supervisor. In fact, you should never select a doctoral supervisor before conversing with their graduate students.
As an applicant, you should ask the university about its procedures, resources, and strengths.
The university must share with you a copy of its academic policies that explicitly defines the roles, responsibilities, and obligations of those involved. The university must also offer you a substantial financial package, subject to your performance in order to sustain you during doctoral studies.
The commitment should be in writing, advising you of the amounts, their disbursement methods and schedules. In fact, the financial package should be guaranteed in a written letter to you. Furthermore, you must show the admission documents to a lawyer before you sign off on it.
The university must also guarantee the necessary lab space and resources so that you do not waste years waiting for the equipment to arrive. The university must also guarantee ready access to journals, books, and other resources needed for your research. All of this, you must ask about during your interview.
My biggest concern is about the intellectual environment at most universities where doctoral supervisors behave as dictators running academic fiefdoms, often exploiting those who work under them.
Just visit a university campus in Pakistan to see how doctoral supervisors treat graduate students as minions.
This culture of exploitation should change. Universities must produce charter of rights that the students and their supervisors should sign.
For instance, Ryerson University, where I teach, requires graduate students, professors, and supervisory committees to be mindful of their responsibilities. Their respective rights and obligations are enshrined in university policies.
Let your admission interview be the reverse interview where you interview the interviewers.
Show up prepared, armed with questions and seek information.
If you find your hosts getting irritated, you know they are not ready for you or for the doctoral programs they are trying to sell.