Last week, I got the great news of passing my comprehensive exam for the Ph.D., which is required after completing coursework and before defense proposal and the dissertation writing phase. That is the case at least in the U.S. universities. It was a moment of great joy and pride.
I do not usually show pride in my accomplishments, perhaps because of my upbringing in a culture that celebrates humility over personal pride. But, as George Carlin said, “Pride should be reserved for something you achieve or obtain on your own, not something that happens by accident.” I am certain nothing in my case was by accident.
As a full-time Ph.D. student, the firs two years were testing because of the course-load, lack of funding, working multiple jobs and a general certainty of uncertainty in my life due to my immigration status. There were moments of existential crisis.
There were times when I did not have money to pay my rent; skipped the meal of the day or thought ten times before buying a cup of coffee. These moments were not only hurtful but scary as well. There is no wonder why many Ph.D. students go through severe mental health issues and some, sadly, even take their own lives.
Many graduate students in similar situations can surely relate to my experiences. This then must serve as a grim reminder for leaders and policy makers in the United States and in countries where the costs of living and basic needs such as education, health and affordable housing are rising, and where the gap between the rich and the poor widening and income inequalities raging more than ever before.
Anyway, despite these challenges, I recognized early on that I had to keep a positive attitude to survive the journey. I promised myself that I will get Ph.D. no matter what— of course not just for the sake of it but that is what I really wanted to do. I saw the purpose of my life in research and teaching.
My friends tell me I am good at keeping an optimistic attitude, which may be true but frankly it was not easy and it will not be. I have had my fair share of fear and panic in these two years. Just the thought of going through four to half a dozen years years, even under ideal circumstances, for getting Ph.D. is scary, let alone bearing economic hardships and associated worries along the way.
I believe my gratitude came from my past and my childhood experiences. I grew up in a small village on Pakistan’s periphery; a place where children were left to find ways to occupy themselves. We didn’t have TV, internet or video games. Some of my friends were shocked when I told them I had no idea of Tom and Jerry. We played outside, got creative, got dirty, explored our surroundings and worked really hard for everything we had.
As a teenager, I had a list of chores, such as herding, fetching water or wood forging, I needed to get done. There was no choice in performing these duties in my mother’s rulebook for the family. She was the family head after the sad demise of my father in a truck accident when I was two.
These times created ambitious, adventurous, creative and resilient children. I attended my elementary education in a makeshift school in the village and graduated from high school from there as well. I had a work ethic and an aspiration to think big and to succeed. It wasn’t my goal to leave behind the world that created me, but to reap the benefits it provided to me.
Coming to America for higher education was not even in my wildest imagination. At home, no one expected me to go to a large university and succeed, because none in the family had been to one before due to their own inauspicious life beginnings. I did it. I graduated with a master’s degree in Peace and Justice Studies from the University of San Diego in 2015 on Fulbright scholarship.
Where I came from and how I was raised translates to the person I am today. During these two years, I knew that there was no going back for me even though some moments seemed insurmountable. But I had to move on. As Rumi said, “As you start to walk on the way, the way appears.” The way did appear.
I found part-time jobs at the university –Rutgers University– where I go for my Ph.D. in Global affairs. I have taught as a Teaching Assistant and a Part-time Lecturer in the Political Science and English Departments for the last three years. Teaching has been incredibly rewarding
I have always had a drive and expectation from myself to grow intellectually and contribute to knowledge production. These past two years in the Ph.D. program have helped me getting nearer to the realization of this goal. Completing my courses in the program and spending time with excellent professors have broadened my vision and have provided me with new knowledge and tools to contribute to scholarship.
It has made me realize the need for more reading in topics as diverse as philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science and more because most aspects of the social and political worlds overlap. I believe a narrow focus on a single subject does not provide one with the necessary insights for understanding an issue.
What I have also realized over the past two years is that humility in scholarship is much more important than I understood before. I have learned to distance myself from making assumptions and unsubstantiated assertions about the world. The world and the phenomenon that are the focus of our study and research are much more complicated than meet the eye.
I have learned that accepting the fact that you do not know a certain thing than making up unfounded claims is the greatest virtue. I have learned, as Yuval Hariri in his book 21 Lessons for 21st Century says, “You know less than you think.” In the years left, I plan to read more, learn a little more, get a little more curious and try to become an excellent researcher.