Aslam's Writing Lab

Think, read, write, create


We are often more interested in the destination than the journey to get somewhere. Many of us pay less attention to how one makes a successful career —as a blogger, writer, politician, professor, etc.—than their current position. But here is the thing: Unless you understand what it takes to succeed in your career, getting to the desired destination would be very challenging.

It is important to know this because life for many of us, especially students, can be rough. Economic hardships and lack of time deprive many young men and women of their dreams. It is difficult to devote your time to something you love to do when you have to work to survive.

This is why it is important to understand what identity capital is. To define it simply, it is the things that we do to invest in ourselves. Put another way; it is the tools, skills and knowledge you collect over time so that you can use them to land your dream job, start your own business or pursue a degree in higher education.

Having the gift of genius like Srinivasa Ramanujan’s is rare.

So, if you are a twentysomething college student or just anyone broke and disappointed and in search of your next best move, here is how you can build your identity capital, one thing at a time.

1. Read books: Read books relevant to your field and expertise to get new insights and knowledge. Be a specialist in an area of your interest. However, it is also important to diversify your reading interests. A basic understanding of psychology, philosophy, sociology, culture, politics and other everyday phenomena is a big plus. If you are going through hardships of life, adding books on positive psychology to your library would be beneficial.

Check out Man’s Search for Meaning, Meditations and The Four Agreements. I am sure you can find plenty of other books. In life, nothing is more powerful than awareness of your predicament and finding a way to reconcile with it. A persistent interest and habit of reading great books do that precisely.

2. Get practical experience: Reading alone is not enough, of course. Get some practical experience in a relevant field. If you want to be a writer, find a writing internship or tutoring at a writing center. If possible, find a volunteer position at a local newspaper. If you are interested in politics, get a paid or an unpaid position with the Mayor or Senator of your constituency. Unfortunately, these positions are usually unpaid but they are worth your time.

I know you may find plenty of unpaid or low-paid opportunities but it is tricky to fit them in your schedule, sometimes. For example, if you are in college and have to choose between an unpaid writing internship and a pizza delivery job, it can be daunting. However, you have to think what is right for you in the long-run. If you can manage, maybe you should take both.

You may have to sacrifice some of your time, but in the long run, the writing internship can be beneficial if you want to build a career as a writer. Pizza delivery, on the other hand, does not give you hard skills like writing, communication and organization which most jobs in the market require. However, you can still gain valuable experience of hard work, cooperation and communication  in addition to financial help to get by.

These experiences may seem insignificant, but keep in mind that it is the little drops that make the ocean. These foundational experiences may eventually turn into bigger and rewarding careers. They will equip you with the life skills of interpersonal communication and living a purposeful life. For instance, if you tutor for some time, you may get a job as a teacher, and the pay and experience both can be very rewarding.

3. Learn every day/Take courses: Another way to build your identity capital is to take courses at your college, university or even online. These courses may not land you a job, but they will undoubtedly provide you with new knowledge and skills essential for the job market. Coursera offers plenty of courses in numerous fields. You can also take free online courses on Coursera. There are many opportunities if you look for them, and this brings me to my next point —curiosity and the desire to ask for help.

4. Be curious and ask for help: Look for opportunities. Ask for help. Network with the right people. If you don’t, no one will care because why should they. However, when you ask for help, be genuine, kind and have a real reason for why someone should help you. Show why you deserve it: Whether it is financial assistance for your Ph.D. or application for a free course at Coursera. Tell them what you will give back in return. If you do this, you will be surprised at the opening doors of opportunities.

5. Dress professionally: Dressing professionally may not be important to many, but quite honestly your choice of clothes does matter. It matters to the people around you and employers. To dress well, you need to buy stuff, which can be expensive but you need to be smart at it —visit the mall or a local store once in a while to search for bargains, wait for sales and get pieces that can be worn for multiple outfits. I am sure you can find a way to do that wherever you are in the world.

However, don’t get me wrong. Good clothes are not going to do much if you lack these other qualities.

6. Be trustworthy: Trust and credibility are great qualities. Your family and friends and employers will admire you for it. So be credible. Don’t just disappear from a job which you don’t want to continue. Face your boss and tell them the truth even if it is unpleasant. Be courageous and don’t hide from the harsh realities of life because the way out sometimes is through it not around.

7. Be humble but confident: Humility is a great asset. Be humble as a person. Be kind to friends and people in general. Intellectually, be humble but autonomous and confident in your knowledge. The best way to do so is to be curious and skeptical. Always be doubtful  about the world but take commitment on issues when you are sure you are right. One way to do it is by finding out the right way of thinking about things —in other words, doing philosophy. Check out this great course on Introduction to Philosophy.

8. Listen more, talk less: Many people don’t listen anymore. One of the worst implications of mobile phones is that it has worsened people’s listening habit. Their attention deficit is remarkable. Look around if you have not noticed. I don’t find many who pay attention.

So, listen to people and talk less. However, talk where you feel like you need to and avoid saying unnecessary things. This does not mean you should keep listening for hours because you will run into folks who would not stop talking. Just be respectful when you engage in a normal conversation. Don’t talk over others.

These habits may not promise immediate rewards but if you practice them enough, you will surely see positive changes in your life. They can be challenging but are worth trying.

Let me know what helps you in your every day life in the comments below.


Aslam Kakar



MOOCs and Coursera

Massive open online courses or MOOCs is an excellent resource for education worldwide. Coursera, an online learning platform, hosts thousands of courses with certificates, specializations and even degrees. To take an online course, all you need is a computer and access to the Internet. It is especially useful for those learners who don’t have direct access to higher education, or their universities don’t offer courses in advanced and diverse fields of study.

Create your profile here today if you don’t have one yet.

Refugees and students in other underprivileged parts of the world can benefit greatly from it. If you are a refugee student or just someone with a desire for learning new skills and knowledge and developing your career, Coursera is the place.

This summer, I completed three courses with certificates. Coursera charges about $49 per certificate although for specialization you have to pay extra. The specialization includes more than a course–—three to five depending on the type of specialization.

For instance, the creative writing specialization has five courses, which means you will get a certificate for each course you complete. However, you have to pay separately for each course.

You can find courses offered by professors from Harvard and Princeton to the University of Edinburgh on almost any subject you choose to take. The courses I took were hard to find at Rutgers University where I study for my Ph.D. Thus, online education is an excellent addition to classroom education.


How to enroll FREE for a course?

You may be wondering why the word “free” in the headline if you have to pay to take a course? Wait! The great news is yet to come.

Yes! The good news is you can take most courses for free. Generally, Coursera charges a fee, but it also offers financial aid. If you want to get a full waiver or agree to pay $10 (or whatever you decide) for a course, you need to apply for it.

Keep in mind that it is better to pay something like $5 or $10 per course than nothing. Even a humble contribution will make your application look more credible. Coursera has accepted all my requests —seven in total.

The application usually asks two questions:

  1. Why are you applying for Financial Aid?
  2. How will taking this course help you achieve your career goals?

You need to answer these two questions. In answer to the first question, tell them why you deserve financial assistance. Explain why you can not pay. Your reasons should be believable. Tie the need for help to your academic or professional goals.

The response to the second question should explain step by step your interest in the course and how it will help you achieve your career goals. For example, if you want to take a course on writing, show them your interest in writing and how the course will help you learn new writing skills. If you teach writing, say it will equip you with advanced capabilities to better prepare your students.

You have to answer each question in 250 words. Once you submit your application, you will get a notification on your profile. You will get the final decision in about two weeks. Keep an eye on the Updates option on the left side of the page.


How to get started on the course?

Once you receive acceptance, get started on the course. Depending on the course and your hard work and commitment to it, it should not take more than three weeks or a month from you to finish. It is ok if it takes longer than a month, but you should keep an eye on the deadline, new enrollment and any costs that may occur with it.

Each course will provide extensive guidelines on how to work through it. Make sure you read the material and complete all your assignments on time, so that other learners can give you feedback. You will get plenty of opportunities to partake in discussions and learn from other participants. The best thing with coursera certificates is that they are shareable to LinkedIn for your future employers to see.

With that, best of luck. Leave any thoughts or questions in the comments.


Aslam Kakar 



A research statement is similar in many ways to a personal statement, but this is an essay mainly about your research goals and career objectives. Universities and scholarship entities may evaluate your application for Master or Ph.D. program admissions based on your research statement among other documents.

Keep in mind that if required, this is one of the most critical components of your application. You should show that you are genuinely interested in studying an issue and that you are worth their time and money.

Writing an excellent research statement is indeed tricky, but there are things that can help you prepare your statement. In this post, we are sharing pointers that have helped us in writing our study research objectives for our respective Fulbright scholarships, graduate school and research grants.

The following are some tips you should keep in mind while writing your research statement:

Define your broader area of interest with a focus on some specialization: Define from the outset your more general field of study. Remember, don’t make it too broad as to include everything in the world in it. For example, if you want to study human rights in your Master, don’t say international relations.

Once you define your broad area of interest, you should specify your specialization. For instance, what is it that you want to focus on in Human Rights? it could be gender rights, women rights, etc. The more specific you are, the better. The problem with many research statements is that they are too broad and overgeneralized. Keep in mind that you can’t study everything in your field. Be focused on one single issue or a question.

Is there a puzzle/question that remains unresolved? Say what problem or puzzle in your study is understudied. However, support your claim with evidence from the literature. Sometimes, the admission or scholarship committee get hundreds of thousands of applications. Those who say something unique, stand out from the crowd. If you don’t want to waste your time on writing dozens of statements, consider this tip.

Structure of the essay: A clean essay is easy to go through. State your broad and specific interest in the first couple of paragraphs—this will be considered the introduction to your essay. Briefly give reasons for your interest.  Depending on the word limit, each body paragraph should address a specific point. The end should wrap up and explain the impact of the study on your country, the world, and you academically and professionally.

Include relevant research/work experience: Don’t forget to talk about your relevant work experience. What you studied, what you liked and what you did not. If something didn’t go well for you, explain why. This is important to mention because the point of this essay is also for the selection committee to know you better.

Impact of the study: Mention how your research will impact the broader field of study, your community or country, or even the world. Don’t just make assumptions, but state your claim carefully and with supporting evidence. Here you can also tell briefly how this particular study will impact you professionally.

For a scholarship, give valid reasons to fund you, including your post-study expectations. Of course, it is hard to know where you are going to be, but you should have a broad idea of what you want to do after getting your degree. Hopefully, your future goals will align with the interests of the scholarship.

Why is the program good for you and what would be your contribution? Tell them why does the program fit your objectives. Also, briefly state what you would bring to the program. This may range from increasing the diversity of campus and community life to contributing new perspectives to the classroom.

Keep to the word limit and other requirements: Although there is a standard format for a research statement, different institutions may have different requirements. Don’t disregard the rules. You don’t want your essay to be ignored for something as silly as the number of words.

Good luck!

Paulina A. ArancibiaAslam Kakar: Paulina is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology and Evolution and Aslam a Ph.D. Student in Global Affairs, Rutgers University  


The following ten questions apply to all writers, but some may be more relevant to you than others.

  1. Are you challenging yourself continually to search for new ideas and write about them? Without search and curiosity, it is difficult to bring innovation and creativity to writing. If you are keen, ideas are everywhere to find. John Steinbeck said, “Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
  2. Are you thinking about what it takes to serve or inspire a change in the world through writing? It is essential to have a goal and a strategy in mind for why you write and how it serves the desired purpose. Martin Luther said, “If you want to change the world, pick up your pen and write.” Anaïs Nin wrote, “The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.”
  3. Are you finding ways to stand out among the humungous crowd of writers? And where are you looking? Skillful and successful writers always look for creative ways to stand out among other writers. E.L. Doctorow said“Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader – not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
  4. Are you thinking about influencing a thousand people through your writing? Also, how can this be possible? Capturing anything in words in the way that people can relate to requires an exceptional talent. If you can write in a way that influences, at least, a couple hundred people, it means you are doing something right. Find more ways to sharpen your skills to affect a thousand and more people positively.
  5. Are you reading some of the top writers and bloggers? Are you reading at least a page or two every day about topics unrelated to your work? Reading and learning every day is the key to productive and creative writing. New researches and findings surface quite frequently. You should keep yourself abreast of the new knowledge in your field and in related disciplines. Stephen King writes“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
  6. Is your desire for writing driven by some purpose such as effecting a change in the world, or is it a means to a financial end? The French-Algerian writer Albert Camus said, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” In Why I Write, George Orwell enumerates four desires or motives for why we write: sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose. Orwell wrote, “They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living.” One can also add financial motive to the list. You should be aware of your motive.
  7. Is your desire to become an excellent writer keeping you awake at night? Are you losing sleep over it? Ambitious writers have big dreams. Realizing them requires much thinking, hard work, discipline and commitment to it. However, it does not mean that you should not sleep at all. It just means that your ambition to become a better writer concerns you more than anything else in the world.
  8. Are you carrying a notebook and a pen with you at all time? Most experienced writers keep a notebook and a pen to write their thoughts. They know that ideas, no matter how insignificant, are precious and disappear right away if you don’t note them. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, “I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.” You should fall in the habit of writing your ideas if you have not done so yet.
  9. Are you keeping yourself healthy in solitude? Writing can be a lonely career, so it is good if you are ok with being on your own for a while or find a way to have some peace and quiet during your family routine.
  10. Are you writing every day? Will you write even if no one cared? Most importantly, you should write every day. You should write even if no one cared. Libba Bray says, “Write like it matters and it will.” If you are not writing, none of the above matters.

I would love to know in the comments about what questions inspire you to write.

Aslam Kakar




Admissions for graduate school in the West require applicants—both for Master and Ph.D.— to submit a personal statement among other things. Without it,  admission is impossible. If you have ever applied for a scholarship or to a graduate school, you know what we are talking about.

For those of you who have not heard about it, a personal statement is a short essay about your personal, academic and professional life. A personal statement is different from a research statement and a resume. A research statement is a short essay about your academic experience and how that relates to your current academic interests and future goals. We will write a separate post on it.

A resume is a presentation of your overall work and academic experiences. A personal statement is a carefully curated blend of these two elements, plus your personal history. The purpose of the essay is to introduce and ultimately convince the selection committee of the scholarship awarding entity or academic department at the university, to grant you admission and/or funding.

The personal statement is one of the most important elements of your application. It should represent your history, personality, academic achievements and aspirations for future studies in the best possible and most concise way. It is especially important because you probably won’t get a chance to present your case in person.

Here are some guidelines on how to write a personal statement:

  1. Do your research: Start with researching the requirements for the scholarship or institutions you want to apply to. Although there is a standard way of writing a personal statement, different institutions may have specific guidelines for you. It is important not to overlook them.
  2. Start working with enough time ahead: A good personal statement may take you over a month to write— in many cases a lot longer. Starting early gives you enough time to finish the first draft, edit and have friends and colleagues proofread it for you.
  3. Meet with qualified people in your field: It is important to meet with experienced people in the relevant field to bounce ideas around. Learn from their expertise as they probably had to write similar statements.
  4. Make it personal: Find a good, trueimage_6483441 and an interesting story about yourself and tie it neatly to your academic trajectory. But keep it short. This is not your autobiography. Keep in mind that a good story can make your essay stand out among hundreds of applicants. For instance, in her Fulbright application for a Ph.D. program in the natural sciences, Paulina started her essay telling a story about how she as a child loved reading a comic book about the life of anthropomorphic condor. She tied the native–species status of this bird to her interest in nature and biology and more specifically ecology.
  5. Start Writing: At this point, you should have enough ideas to sit and start writing your first draft. Bear in mind that there will be many drafts if you are serious about writing a perfect essay.
  6. Don’t talk about everything you have done: There is only so much that you can fit in a thousand or fewer words. Aim for relevant experience and story points. You will get down to the nitty-gritty in the resume.
  7. Walk away: Once you finish your first draft, drop it for a day or two. Then read it with fresh eyes and edit. Don’t get too attached to your words. Revise and edit. Be ruthless.
  8. Share it with friends and colleagues: Once you feel a hundred percent satisfied, share your revised draft with friends and colleagues. Give them enough time. Consider that they may have busy schedules, so don’t expect them to give you feedback from one day to the next. It is always good to have a fresh pair of eyes go through your writing. They will find mistakes and omissions that you haven’t (and also typos!)
  9. Write your final draft: Consolidate feedback. Check once again for formatting details and typos and submit.

Good luck!


Paulina A. Arancibia & Aslam Kakar: Paulina
is a Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology and Evolution and Aslam a Ph.D. Student in Global Affairs, Rutgers University  





Yesterday, I was invited to give a talk about writing in a pre-academic training program to a group of graduate students from Kazakhstan at Saint Peter’s University. Usually, international students with a modest background in the English language are required to attend the pre-academic training before starting their actual degree programs. The pre-academic sessions are designed to address the inadequacy of fluency in English, which includes writing, reading and speaking.

Although some of these students were admitted to excellent universities such as Columbia, New York University and Cornell University, they were still required to go through the training. I talked to the group about a broad overview of writing. Because of the limited amount of time, I touched briefly upon some major topics in three parts.

In part I: writing, I talked about writing, editing, the philosophy behind writing and types of writing. In part II: tips and tricks, I talked about the essential do’s and don’ts, tips for beginners, myths about writing, email-writing etiquette and finally essay writing. In part III: writing tools, I talked about the tools and applications writers use to edit their work. Grammarly and plagiarism checkers are popular among students and writers in general.

Finally, I recommended a list of books on different types of writing. For professional writers, I included questions they should ask themselves every day. You can read the details in the presentation slides I have attached to this post.

Screen Shot 2018-07-14 at 11.02.41 PM

You can Download the presentation in pdf below:

Writing Workshop-AslamK

Aslam Kakar



One night a few weeks back, I was feeling bored and anxious, or perhaps dissatisfied. I could not think of anything to do and finally decided to watch a movie. My taste in movies, friends say, is weird. I like action-thrillers, preferably the likes of Liam Neeson’s Taken in which a father goes after the bad guys to save his daughter.

That night I chanced upon Acts of Vengence. In the movie, Antonio Banderas plays a man who takes the law into his own hands to bring the killer to the book after his wife and young daughter are taken and brutally murdered one night in a mysterious way.

You may be wondering why I am telling this. Keep reading. I promise you will find out soon.

Devastated by the tragedy, Banderas wanders aimlessly through the dark streets of the city. While wandering he happens upon a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the millennia-old Roman emperor and philosopher.

“The best revenge is not to be like your enemy,” reads a quote when he first opens the book. He flips through the pages and stops at another quote: “To pursue the impossible is madness: and it is impossible for bad men not to act in character.”

Alright. Enough. I will stop with the spoilers. You should watch the movie to find out what happens next.

The reason for bringing up the movie here is that it introduced me to the book. I was impressed by the depth and wisdom in the quotes. I felt empowered, relieved and curious and wanted to find out more about the philosophy of the man who I had never heard of before.

Out of habit, I wrote down the book’s name in my notebook. Next day in the afternoon, because I woke up late, I rushed to the library to get the book, fearing it may close soon.

With a copy in hands finally and making my way out of the library, I was already reading it. I read it all the way to my apartment, which is half hour walk from Rutgers University where I study for my Ph.D. It might have taken a little more than that because I had to be extra-careful in crossing roads while reading.

I have almost finished reading it. It has been a life-changing experience. I hung some of my favorite quotes from the book in my room as reminders during difficult times. The book before Meditations that saved and changed my life was Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl.

I tell people Frankl’s book is my Bible, Quran and Bhagavad Gita. Marcus Aurelius’ monumental work is no less than it.


Picture of the quote in my room.

I can’t express how much at peace I feel to have found Meditations. I carry it with me in my backpack wherever I go. In my room, I keep it on a chair to the right of my bed. I read a few quotes or pages from it before I go to sleep and before starting my day in the morning or whenever.

The book comprises twelve sub-books which contain the emperor’s musings to himself about life and death, human nature, the universe, pain, power, greed, happiness, sadness, misery, shame, kindness, courage, fear and a host of other topics that concern humans every day.


Another quote from the book in my room.

Here are some powerful quotes from the book which have moved me and will stay with me for as long as I live. I hope you find them inspirational for guiding the journey of your life, too.

  1. “Remove the judgment, and you have removed the thought ‘I am hurt’: remove the thought ‘I am hurt’, and the hurt itself is removed.”

  2. “And… remember that all that lies within the limits of our poor carcass and our little breath is neither yours nor in your power.”

  3. “What does not benefit the hive is no benefit to the bee.”

  4. “Pain is neither unendurable nor unending, as long as you remember its limits and do not exaggerate it in your imagination.” – Epicurus

  5. “But bear in mind that a person’s worth is measured by the worth of what he (or she) values.”

  6. “Today I escaped from all bothering circumstances – or rather I threw them out. They were nothing external, but inside me, just my own judgements.”

  7. “Work. Don’t work as a miserable drudge, or in any expectation of pity or admiration. One aim only: action or inaction as civic abuse demands.”

  8. “The healthy eye must look at all there is to be seen, and not say “I only want pale colours”- this is a symptom of disease. The healthy ear and nose must be ready for all sounds and smells, and the healthy stomach must accept all food in the same way that a mill accepts all it was made to grind. And so the healthy mind too must be ready for all eventualities. The mind which says “my children must live,” or “there must be popular acclaim for all I do,” is the eye demanding pale or the teeth demanding pap.”

  9. “All that happens is an event either within your natural ability to bear it, or not. So if it is an event within that ability, do not complain, but bear it as you were born to. If outside that ability, do not complain either: it will take you away before you have the chance for complaint. Remember, though, that you are by nature born to bear all that your own judgment can decide bearable, or tolerate in action, if you represent it to yourself as benefit or duty.”

  10. “The pride that prides itself on freedom from pride is the hardest of all to bear.”

  11. “So any man with a feeling and deeper insight for the working of the Whole will find some pleasure in almost every aspect of their disposition… he will seek a kind of bloom and fresh beauty in an old woman or an old man.”

  12. “There is nothing that hinders you from doing what must be done.”

  13. “If something is possible for any other man (woman), it is possible for you, too.”

I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments about books that have transformed your life.

Aslam Kakar

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