From Florida to Topi: A Returning Fulbright Scholar’s Search for an Academic Position

By Zeeshan ul Hassan on
March 16, 2015
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“Get good education and move to a bad neighborhood” was a constant advice I received from my advisor over the last six years that I spent at the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT) as a Fulbright scholar for my MS and PhD programs in Computer Science.

As soon as I realized that I was going to graduate in Fall 2009, I started sending out my resume to prospective employers in Pakistan. I started telling the world, ‘Look, I am young, energetic, full of ideas, and I have a PhD. I would like to improve (almost) everything. Hire me!’ So, with a beard on my face and “all the single ladies” tone on my blackberry, I returned to my homeland with the hope that I would get my dream job in few days, and will live happily ever after. Little did I know that what would follow was a time to make tough decisions and to re-explore the definitions of “higher education” in Pakistan.

I traveled to 13 cities, appeared in 35 interviews, and received 26 job offers. Academia, private companies, government organization, and NGOs — I explored every opportunity that I could. The majority of my interviews were at universities, and this is what I would like to share here.

For me, a university needs three things to survive and progress: teaching, institution-building, and research. I believe that everyone in Pakistan is doing a decent job in teaching. Of course, some are better than others and there is always a room for improvement but thanks to HEC’s syllabus recommendations, at least we know what we are supposed to teach.

There is a gap in institution building. Most universities in Pakistan are dependent on one person; if that person was removed, the whole institute may collapse. For example, what comes to your mind when we say Dr. Javed Leghari, Dr. Arshad Ali, Dr. Wahab, and Dr. Naveed Malik? SZABIST, NUST SEECS, MAJU, and Virtual University. We need to produce clones of these fine individuals – a lot of them – so that the institutions can survive for the next 100 years, and more. But, I don’t find myself educated or experienced enough to play that role as yet. I was just a student a few weeks ago and now, all of a sudden, I am an “expert” on everything? I totally disagree.

For now, I want to do research, and write proposals for funding. Very few people in Pakistan are correctly doing that, and I want to add value in that area. I also wanted to join an institution that gave me ample time to work on my projects. That means having a reasonable teaching load and limited administrative responsibilities.

There are several other interesting problems that one has to face after coming back to Pakistan. For example, during my interview process, the registrar of a well-known university told me that I would have more value if I had graduated from Karachi instead of Khairpur, and if I was born in Karachi instead of Sukkur. In another instance, my interviewer told me that I can only publish in HEC-recognized journals in ‘W’ category (I have no clue what that is), and everything else is useless. I tried my best to explain to him that we have quite a few reputable conferences in computer science, with the acceptance rate as low as 5%, but he wasn’t ready to listen. He told me that if I don’t have an Impact Factor of at least 5 (again, based on HEC recognized journals’ list) I won’t qualify for “HEC-approved PhD Supervisor” and he won’t hire me.

Government organizations have a totally different hiring style. You have to get an application form from a particular officer, fill-it-out with black ink, make 7 copies, attach 9 photographs and 8 CNIC copies duly signed and attested by a first class magistrate in the city court, and submit it via postal service with the demand draft of Rs 200! Well, I do not have patience to do all that, so I gave up after applying to a few places. Another issue with the government organizations is the salary package and the only perk they usually offer is the “permanent” position.

Private universities offer high salaries and good incentives packages; smaller universities pay the highest amount. For example, a fresh PhD can get an excellent salary package and directly become an associate professor (skipping the assistant professor position) or even the Head of Department somewhere in rural Punjab or interior Sind. The salary is between Rs 40,000 and Rs. 80,000 for Masters, and Rs. 80,000 and Rs. 200,000 for PhDs. Universities with good working and research environment usually pay far less from what you can get at a relatively new setups.

The problem I had with small private institutes is twofold: first of all, they have totally unrealistic expectations. They think that after returning from the U.S, you have a magic stick that can use to turn their institutes into LUMS in no time, and you alone can do all the work. The second problem is one’s personal and professional growth. There is very little hope of doing original research after being bombarded by unprofessional and entirely commercial interests of the management. In one instance, my employer told me, that he is not hiring me to teach, or “do some research that [he] cannot understand” because he had several “low-salary individuals who can do that.”

The teaching load in most of the universities is another issue. In one instance, I was requested to teach 12 credit hours per semester (4 courses), be an advisor to a batch of 113 students, be the convocation manager, and I was expected to spend 40% of my time on administrative work.

After going through this prolonged exercise, I came to the conclusion that there are very few places where I can work while surviving the reverse cultural-shock; places that offer a good working environment, have professional ethics, and understand the needs of a young researcher. GIK Institute turned out to be a good choice for me. GIKI makes landing very smooth for returning scholars. Pay is good, and teaching load is very reasonable (two courses every semester and summer teaching is optional). Perks include a free 5-room luxury apartment, schooling for kids, medical center, including the cost of diagnostic tests and medicines, internet, campus-wide telephone, and house maintenance (you will know how big a blessing it is when you have to find a plumber in Karachi). The location has its own charm; pollution-free environment and a quiet and secure campus. Furthermore, there is a lot of space for your own research lab. GIKI also gave me a seed funding to start my research center. So, for me, GIKI turned out to be the best choice. For others, especially those who might have their homes in major metropolitan cities and don’t have to pay a hefty monthly rent, other universities may be a good option as well.

While I am learning the ropes of my new job, I would like to leave the readers outside Pakistan with one request: In the end, this is our country, it deserves to be better, it can be better, and we will make it better. Please return to your homeland. We need a lot of you to synergize our efforts for a prosperous Pakistan. Amen!

Reproduced after permission from here

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