PhD Q&A

// March 20th, 2008 // Blog

I started writing this in response to a question that I was asked on another thread. I thought it might be useful to other peeps looking to do a PhD, so I'm posting it as an entry (plus it was breaking the record for “longest comment ever”).

Q. As someone who is inshā’Allāh going to start PhD studies soon in chemistry, can you offer a few words of advice on what I should expect? Also, can you offer some advice on how to maintain and enrich an islamic identity through the process?

A. Jazakallah Qas, for your questions; I am honoured that you asked me for advice. I pray that I can be of service.

What to expect? Well, forgive me for my brutal honesty, but I think you deserve to know the truth…

Expect failure. Expect to have to repeat your experiments many, many times, before succeeding, or giving up entirely. Expect long days, weekends in the lab, and little-to-no social life.

I know it sounds tough… but it is tough! You cannot underestimate how challenging the next four years of your life will be. The annoying thing is, you can't really prepare yourself for it either: you just have to know that when it gets hard – which it will – you are not the first one to experience failure as a scientist-in-training, and you will not be the last. It happens to everyone – you just have to pick yourself up, and try again.

Make sure to have a support system in place, so you don't get sucked into depression. Family, friends – especially fellow PhD students or recent postdocs, who you can lament with – and of course, your faith! That is essential; to know that all good and bad comes from Allāh alone is sometimes the only thing that gets you through the day.

Also make sure to have a good relationship with your supervisor, and other lab members. If he/she is not providing enough help, then tell them, and if they ignore you (God forbid), look for it elsewhere… most of my supervision actually came from professors who weren't my official supervisor!

Although I studied Biology, Science is Science, so my experience should be applicable. One of the biggest problems I encountered during my project (which I only realized after I submitted my thesis) was that I often got so wrapped up in how to perform an experiment, that I completely forgot why I was performing it in the first place! So when a particular method failed to work, I ended up wasting a lot of time trying to fix it, rather than abandoning that method, and trying to answer the same question in another way. I guess it is typical 'student' mentality to think more about the methodology than the theory, especially when you are training, and don't really know how to plan experiments. If you find yourself in that position, I suggest you go speak to someone with more experience to avoid getting stuck in a rut.

Another problem that exacerbated the previous one, was that my supervisor wasn't really following my progress very well, which meant that he did not stop me wasting my time on useless things that were not working! So try to meet up with your supervisor on a weekly basis, and draw up a plan of action, including deadlines. Some supervisors will suggest this anyway… but if yours doesn't, then make them!

In fact, the quality of your supervisor can make or break your project. If you haven't already applied for a position, I suggest that you make sure your future supervisor is actually equipped, both financially, academically and err… socially? Not sure of an appropriate, last “-ally” word. Anyway, that they are ready to do their job, and do it well, inshā’Allāh, without making you jump through hoops to get their attention, or making you hide in the closet to escape their overbearing tendency to continuously monitor every move that you make (that also happens; just not to me). The following checklist may help:

* How many papers has your potential supervisor published on the subject the PhD studentship is based on, and how many other people in their group are also working on it? This will give you an idea of whether they are established in that field, or whether they are just starting out. Also, it will be much harder if you are the only person in the lab working on the field of interest.

* How well planned is the project? What are the milestones? Who is going to help you with the experimental techniques? How is it going to be funded? Are there any collaborators? Do you require access to specialised equipment, and will you have to travel to use it? Basically, the more you know about the project, the better.

* How long has the project manager been at the institution, and how many students have passed or failed since they started? The more students that have passed through their lab safely, the better. Also ask where the students have ended up afterwards. Are they still in research, or did they escape to greener pastures? If it's mostly the latter scenario, it suggests that the experience of the previous students was bad enough to put them off research.

I am sure there are more things to consider, but this is all I can think of for now. These are the questions that I wish I had asked before I started; I pray that they are useful to you, and anyone else reading.

Onto your second question of how to maintain an Islamic identity? Well, I guess that challenge is there with any job. The specific problem with the PhD is that it takes up so much of your mental energy, that you feel you don't have the time to attend gathering and activities that would normally boost your imaan. That was my experience, anyway. However, I was blessed enough to be surrounded by several practising sisters who were either doing PhDs themselves, or were working in the same institution, who befriended me, and whose company reminded me of the important things in life. As I said earlier, a good support system is essential.

If you do not have many Muslims working in your institution, then contact your university's Islamic Society, and/or turn to the online Ummah for support. I seriously don't know what I would have done without this blog, and the people who read it! (May Allāh bless you all, btw!).

Anyway, I hope my words have not been too off-putting. It's just that I never had anyone advise me before I started my PhD. To be honest, even if they had, I probably still would have done it! At the least you'll now know that the difficulties you will face are not unique, and are in fact survivable, with the help of Allāh. I pray that He grants you every success.

If you still have questions, feel free to ask (I hope I didn't make you regret asking the first time!). :)

***

P.S., I'd like to add something very important… ask yourself: “Why am I doing this PhD?”. Initially, I thought I wanted to do research as a career, and really, the only way to progress is by completing a PhD. However, I think it may have been more beneficial to have actually spent a year or two as a research assistant prior to starting the PhD, so I would have had more experience of real research, and would have discovered the potential pitfalls of this type of career early on.

In the end, after nearly quitting completely in my third year, what got me through was the fact that I had already spent a lot of time and energy on the project (yes, stubborness helps), and also, a PhD would open a lot of doors for me in terms of being an influential member of society; especially as I wish to use that influence to help humanity for the sake of Allāh, inshā’Allāh. I have to thank one of my dear sisters for reminding me of that fact – that advice has proven more precious than she ever realized!

So make sure your intentions are clear, and if in fact you think a PhD is not necessary for the career you want to pursue, it is better you avoid it, at least until you are more established, inshā’Allāh.

5 Responses to “PhD Q&A”

  1. Qas says:

    JazakaAllah khair for some amazing advice. I wanted some brutal honesty and you provided it. I’ll have the correct mindset when I start InshaAllah. It’s very hard sometimes to get a muslim perspective on things such as this and I jumped at the chance when I saw your post. Thank you again so much.

  2. Shahrzad says:

    Thank you for advices. Let me finish my Master first. Then i claim for PHD too. ;)

  3. iMuslim says:

    I am glad I could be of service, Qas… let me know how your PhD goes, insha’Allah. :)

    Shah… yes, one thing at a time! ;)

  4. Manas Shaikh says:

    “Also, it will be much harder if you are the only person in the lab working on the field of interest.”

    How do you know about my project? *starts searching for hidden cameras*

  5. Manas Shaikh says:

    Seriously tho, I can confirm your assertion. It’s a real pain when you are the only one working in your field in your lab. It gets worse when nobody worked in the same field before (i.e. nobody to help you with tit-bits. They (tit-bits) really speed up work and help your confidence.)

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