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> Applying to PhD programs in Economics

Applying to doctoral programs can be a daunting task but like all things, some careful planning (especially starting a couple of years earlier) can go a long way in helping. We offer a few tips below that may help in this process. While this requires extra effort on your part, remember that this is your future and a few weeks of extra work is definitely worth the price. A doctoral application is not a causal thing you should do over a week or so but requires several weeks of thorough work (and should in fact ideally start – at least in terms of taking appropriate coursework – 1-2 years before you apply).

Remember that there are typically a lot of students applying and many of them have good grades. While the first cut is usually on academic achievement this is hardly sufficient and therefore the admission process is really about finding reasons to reject. Given this, you should make sure that you are aware of any potential shortcomings in your application and address them before you apply.

Grades and CourseworkWhile it is clear that one should have pretty high grades (mostly A’s) to get into the top doctoral programs, students from Pakistan typically face two additional hurdles: (i) grade benchmarking and (ii) appropriate coursework.

With regards to the first problem, the issue really is that unless faculty on the admissions committee is familiar with Pakistan or the university you are applying from, it becomes hard to benchmark your grades. Even if you have all A’s from university Z, how would the admissions’ committee know whether this is a good grade or not (without being able to benchmark your university). While this is less of a problem for some of the better known universities in Pakistan, even they face this problem and currently no Pakistani university has really reached that level of international repute that a typical outside university would know how to benchmark your grades. It is in this context that standardized tests (GREs etc.) become even more crucial for students applying from Pakistan and so it is vital that along with good grades in your institution, you also obtain extremely high scores in such standardized international tests. Another way to address this is to first go for a masters degree from a well know international university and then (having obtained good grades) apply for a PhD program. However, this can be somewhat costly since it will often add 1-2 years till you finally get your doctorate.

In terms of the second issue – appropriate coursework – students should realize that most PhD programs in economics are technically very demanding and therefore one values applicants who have taken (and done well in) advanced courses in mathematics. In addition to advanced calculus (multivariate, differential equations etc.) and probability theory, it is advisable to take courses in real analysis and linear algebra. More advanced courses such as number theory, topology, and partial differential equations are not necessary but could be useful depending on what the student’s interests are. In fact, at times it may even be more important to take a course in advanced mathematics than an elective in economics (i.e. take real analysis rather than that course in development policy)

Recommendation Letters Letters of reference carry a lot of weight and you should plan very carefully who to ask for letters. While your grades will typically reveal your academic abilities, letters are extremely useful in providing a richer picture into you intellectual skills and in speaking to your research abilities. The hardest part in a doctoral program is usually the dissertation stage and this is also the hardest for an admissions committee to infer – students who score the highest grades may not be the ones who will produce the best research. Letters therefore, provide a very important way to help screen for potentially good researchers. In addition, in cases where it may be hard to benchmark grades (see above), letters may help provide additional benchmarks by explicitly stating how your grades are as compared to other (know universities) and how your performance is as compared to other students’ (particularly those who may be known to the university you are applying to since they may have been past alumni of your college).

In deciding who to ask for letters you should therefore look for letter writers who can (i) best speak to your strengths (ii) highlights aspects of your ability/research maturity and interests and (iii) are reputable academics themselves. The last is quite important since it makes a HUGE difference if a letter writer is either known to people in the admissions committee, has international academic recognition, or is affiliated in some manner with the university your are applying to or a top-ranked international university. Getting a letter from someone who is a big name in a non-academic context is typically not that useful since the admissions committee is looking for someone who can speak to the applicants intellectual and research abilities. However, simply asking someone who is a well known academic but who barely knows you is probably not a good idea either.

You should also carefully think about how to balance your letter writers. Most places will restrict the number of letters you can send. Remember the letters should mostly focus on your academic abilities but since this includes both coursework and research skills (creativity, maturity, motivation, perseverance) often one letter writer may not be able to fully address these. However, as long as you pick writers so that collectively they can address these aspects that is fine. Thus, it would be better to get a letter from someone in whose course who did well and another person who you worked on a research project for rather than only get letters from people whose courses you took. By the same token, if you have work experience (especially in research positions) it may be useful to get letters that speak not to your general work abilities but focus on those that directly speak to your abilities as a potential researcher and scholar. Thus, for example, if you are getting a letter from the head of a famous NGO who may not be a researcher themselves, the letter may still be beneficial if it can talk about your researcher motivations and abilities.

In talking to your letter writers feel free to mention to them particular aspects that you would like them to stress. While you obviously cannot ask them to say things about you that they do not agree with, most of them will welcome suggestions on what aspects you are particularly concerned about or want highlighted/addressed. In fact it is often very helpful to not only provide the letter writer your recent CV and transcript but you may also want to write several paragraphs about things you would like to have highlighted. While this varies with letter writers, you may even be able to directly ask a writer whether they would give you a strong letter or not. Often you may not be best able to gauge what someone else thinks of you and rather than get a letter from someone who may give you a lukewarm letter, it is better to go with another person who will be enthusiastic. Remember that the admissions committee is looking for reasons to reject and even a single lukewarm letter can really adversely affect your chances.

Letter writers can also serve an important benchmarking purpose. If they have done their doctorates from top international universities request them to explicitly speak to how your grades and performance compares to that of the students in these top universities. A very credible way of comparing is to compare you to a previous student from your college who got admission (and performed well) in a top doctoral program. Thus if a letter can say you rank higher or at par with person so and so who got into these and these places and are doing well, then that carries a lot of weight. Be careful though that the person you are being compared to did not flunk out of a doctoral program!

Finally, make sure you give your letter writers ample time (in addition to materials). Remember the easier you make things for them, the more likely that they will spend time and write a strong letter for you. We have often see letters which are half a page or so long. These are quite damaging since unless the letter writer is an incredibly famous economist (a nobel laureate) a half a page recommendation letter suggests they do not think that highly of you. A good letter will typically be a couple of pages long and will discuss you at quite some length speaking to your academic skills, research aptitude and even personality in so far as that affects your ability to become a good researcher.

Essays Your essays form a third and vital part of your application. Often students spend very little time on the essays. This is a BIG mistake. You should have the first draft of your essay several weeks prior to your application deadlines and then spend the next few weeks refining the essay both by getting feedback from faculty and other students whose opinion you respect. Also, while you are not being selected for your writing skills, a poorly written essay and typos etc. reflects a lack of care and attention and those are usually bad signs. Plus you never know what may put off someone in the admissions committee – while they may outwardly overlook a consistent grammar mistake, subconsciously this may lead a reader to think less favorably of your essay.

The essay is your chance to make a compelling case for why you should be admitted. While this is not an easy task, it can also be approached systematically. Rather than having a long and wordy essay, think carefully on what you want to achieve in the essay. In fact it is often helpful to draft the structure of the essay first. Each paragraph you write should have a purpose that directly addresses some aspect that will further your application chances. Essays that are concise, well written and well structured, suggest that you are someone who will have equal clarity of mind in your research.

By the time someone has read your essay they should be impressed by your (i) intellect & creativity, (ii) motivation, (iii) maturity and (iv) research ideas/interests. Everything you write should in some way or the other reflect these aspects. Thus if you want to start by some personal anecdote it should not be simply so that you can tell some story to the reader but that story should illustrate a theme. Thus saying your grandfather was a great and famous scholar and he was very fond of you is not as relevant as saying that your grandfather imbued in you a love for research and an urge to question.

Avoid extremes though. There are often two somewhat opposite types of essays students write both of which are unwise. The first type is the “I want to save the world” essay that a lot of students from developing countries write. While researchers are often motivated by personal experiences and a desire to add social value, ultimately their goal is to produce scholarly research, not to save the world. If the primarily goal was saving the world then an admissions committee member may rightly conclude that a PhD is not the right path for you to pursue. Somewhat more cynically though, such “save the world” essays reflect an intellectual immaturity and may cause the reader to infer that you are not ready to take on a doctorate as yet.

The second type of unwise essay tries to impress the reader by referring to some academic piece the student has worked on or a research area where the student professes to have great expertise. Such essays are almost invariably doomed for failure. Unless you are a prodigy (and very few people are), it is unlikely that you will be able to make some ground breaking or original contributions in your essay or any research you may have done as a student. Moreover, it is likely that the person reading your essay knows far more about your proposed area of expertise than you do. In all likelihood therefore instead of impressing him by your supposedly novel ideas and your reference to the few papers you have read (which are often attempts at name dropping), you will leave the reader feeling unimpressed.

So what is left then? Well often what works best is a more modest and mixed approach. It is usually a good idea to draw on your personal interests/background/ideas but you can do so by more broadly talking about what excites you. Try to pick an area or themes that you are truly excited about and are motivated by since a reader will often be able to tell if you are faking it. So while this motivation could be driven by a desire to do good – for example, you are troubled by the presence of street beggars – you don’t simply end up by saying you want to save all street beggars. Rather you then use this as a springboard to illustrate how a scholar in the making approaches such an issue. Thus you can say that driven by this question you have started reading a lot of the literature on panhandling and the economics of street crime/mafias etc. You can mention what you have read and what you infer from it. You could also maybe refer to some project you undertook (maybe for a course) that provided the opportunity for some more work (maybe field interviews, possibly secondary data analysis) in this area. If you have truly done so, there will undoubtedly be some further questions and insights that emerged from doing so. For example, you may find that a lot of street beggars voluntarily choose this profession and in fact prefer to do so rather than work a 9 to 5 job. You may also discover they have an elaborate network of beggars who, while a source of competition, also act as a means of mutual insurance. While you could raise a series of such questions and new insights, make sure that you are quick to acknowledge that you know there is a lot more to learn about this question – not just in terms of the literature but also the methodological tools and structured perspective that you would need that a doctorate in economics would provide. Moreover, you do not want to end up giving the impression that all you want to do is research on street beggars. You should state explicitly that you recognize that during your PhD you will be exposed to a lot of other ideas and literatures, through your coursework, seminars, reading papers and interactions with your peers and faculty. Thus the purpose of building on a specific example (if you choose to do so) is more to illustrate one particular question that you have been currently thinking about. But really implicitly what you are doing is letting the reader know that you do have the ability to ask interesting questions and then develop them further the way a researcher would. Moreover, in doing so you have naturally arrived at the need to acquire more skills. As such the decision to apply for a doctorate becomes a well thought out and natural next step rather than something someone told you to do or you thought was simply what one does as a next degree.

Research Experience Compared to the above three (grades, reference letters, and essays) having research experience before applying to a PhD is not as necessary. However, there is an important caveat. Often what a year of research (say after your Bachelors degree) does is that it improves both your reference letters and essays. Working closely with a faculty member (especially if this is someone of international repute) will provide you a much better sense of what research is about and this will directly affect how you write your essay. Research is really learnt best to apprenticeship rather than coursework. In addition, provided you end up doing good work, this will also provide you with a recommendation letter that can speak in depth about your research abilities. Moreover, while you are often limited in who you can get your letters from, by getting involved in a research project you may be able to expend your letter writer list to international scholars. There are a lot of top ranked international faculty working on issues in Pakistan (In fact one purpose of CERP is to facilitate such research) and you could work for them. Given this, it may indeed be worth your while to do a year or two of full-time research before you apply to a PhD program.

Where to Apply Even if you do a great job in applying, remember that there is a lot of noise and unpredictability in the application process. You never know how someone may react to a specific aspect in your applications – the admissions committee is human after all and prone to being affected by a variety of subjective and at times irrational factors. However, if you have a strong application, in expectation you should be able to get into a good place. But expectations are only on your side when you apply to a large number of places and so we would generally recommend that you apply to 15-20 places.

You should also be realistic and systematic in choosing these places. A good strategy is to pide up places into three groups – the middle group is places you think you have a quite decent chance of getting into (say above 40% or so) and then a top/better ranked group where you may have lower chances and a bottom group where you have higher (say above 70%) chances of being admitted. You should try and apply to a roughly equal number of places in each group.

Be realistic about constructing these groups. For example, if you haven’t scored almost all A’s in your courses (especially in courses in economics and mathematics) then your chances of getting into say the top 10 ranked places in the US is quite low. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever apply to these places but these will then be in your top group (provided you have a decent GPA). Also compare yourself to past students who applied from your school and see how they placed. That gives you a way of being realistic about your chances. Students can be both over and under optimistic about their chances so it is important that you also ask your faculty, outside faculty and current PhD students to give you a sense of where you stand.

In terms of constructing these groups it is usually the easiest to identify the top group – usually that is places that have high rank based on the various university rankings that are available (see academic rankings). However, in this case you may want to give some thought to apply to places where you may have a higher chance of getting in. These are usually places which may have a better ability to benchmark you either because there is a faculty member who is familiar with Pakistani universities or because these places have had doctoral students from Pakistan (or better yet from your college) and these students have done well.

The middle and bottom groups require more thought, particularly the bottom one. Students often are obsessed with overall rankings but there are lots of universities which may not have the best overall ranks, but have a sub-specialty in which they are very good – usually because there is a very active and prominent faculty member there. While it is not easy to identify these universities there are several ways you can go about doing so (all of which require effort but ultimately it is worth it). You can first look at rankings by field and sub-discipline and look for places that may not have the best overall ranks but are ranked highly in a sub-field you are interested in. Next you can also trace the faculty whose papers you have been reading and like (especially if they are recent ones – having a very senior but inactive faculty member is probably not as useful for you) and see which universities they are in. Finally, you could talk to your faculty and peers and any other faculty/researchers you encounter (especially those active in the international academic circuit) and get their advice. Finally, don’t restrict yourselves to universities in the US and the UK. While they indeed have the most top ranked places, there are several good places in mainland Europe, Australia, Asia that you may also want to consider.

>Graduate School: On Admissions and Missions

Junaid Bin Jahangir & Muhammad Farooq Naseer

What should one do after bachelors? It is a simple question that merits careful thought. The situation is that of a man faced by a crossroad daring him to tread the next path. Which road to travel next might be clear but why tread it is something one focuses so little. For it is easier to choose between attending graduate school and seeking enlightenment in a cave, the harder part is to understand why. One could go through the entire application process, pack one’s bags and board for the schools of the West. The ensuing time would be spent in acquiring mathematical tools and eventually one could end up with a graduate degree and all the laurels therewith. However would this be how one would wish to spend the next years of his life? And is one sufficiently motivated for it, and for the right reasons? Think.

In the following article, we are going to largely assume that you have done some soul-searching and feel confident to pursue further education: either because you prefer academic career or because you want some more time and knowledge before deciding on the appropriate career choice to make. The authors would like to share their experience of admission process, education and life at graduate school because we feel there is a need to dissipate more information about all this in Pakistan. Given the somewhat varied nature of our experience, we would like to address both the masters and doctoral candidates and try our best to be representative of economics education in US and Canada in our assessment.

Different people come to grad school for different reasons. Whatever the reason might be there is one crucial element that often seems to be lacking in the decisions made by many a young people. The element is joy, one that fills the heart with much exuberance, and a want for more. It is this keynote that the famous logician Raymond Smullyan[1] attempts to strike in his writings. His thesis is that a life of achievement must also be one of joy for only in the presence of the latter can one be motivated to exert oneself to the fullest. To proceed without heeding the simmering of the heart, then, would be to live life as a vegetable and surely one could always do better than that.

Thus to answer the question raised at the beginning it can be safely said that while various constraints might dissuade an inpidual from pursuing the optimal path, one must always learn about the true path that should have been tread. Those who know about it can always devise ways to follow the call of their hearts and hence make their lives extraordinary. As for those who have yet to discover themselves, we leave them with the golden words of the Mother Abbess[2]

Climb every mountainSearch high and lowFollow every by wayEvery path you know.

Climb every mountainFord every streamFollow every rainbowTill you find your dream

A dream that will needAll the love you can giveEvery day of your lifeFor as long as you live.

Schools and AdmissionsThe term ‘application process’ might bring to your mind the sequence of events that begins with your purchase of a GRE Book and culminates in the mailing of application forms. It is almost true. Unlike undergraduate admissions, wherein all sort of co-curricular and extra-curricular activities may count and students start building their resumes years in advance, getting into a good graduate school is more about your academic performance and analytical abilities. So while you would still want to have a good academic record (of course), your ability to host TV talk shows or some official recognition of your tendencies towards social work is not important, at least not in the case of Ph.D. applicants.

If there is one skill that you can flaunt on your application form, however, is your convenience with mathematical analysis. There is an old joke about Berkeley Economics Department that the very first filter they apply to their pool of doctoral applicants is to sort their Math GRE scores in descending order and delete everyone below 780! This emphasis on mathematical ability tends to reflect the fact that the majority of mainstream economics these days is highly formal and quite technical. A sound knowledge of mathematics would not only help you survive the rigors of graduate school but would ultimately be useful in producing the kind of research that is being done these days. It is generally helpful if one has taken courses on Real Analysis and Differential Equations as well as an advanced course each in probability and statistics theory, in addition to the sequence of ‘core’ math courses. However, there is no reason to despair if you do not have the requisite knowledge. The single biggest asset of a graduate student is his determination to learn and persevere.

Once one starts searching for schools, a question that inevitably comes to mind is which schools to apply and how many. There are no standard answers to that question. But there are certain helpful guidelines that can be followed. Some people go to usnews website for a ranking of U.S. graduate schools and take that as a criterion. Also, in the case of Canadian schools there are similar subjective rankings that people have developed over the years (mentioned later). Such rankings serve as a good reference point but there are better ways of going about it.

If you intend to do a Ph.D., it is important that you first have an idea of your research interests – the particular sub-fields within economics that interest you – and then look for schools where the leading researchers in that field are currently working. Doctoral programs all over the U.S. are quite homogenized when it comes to first year course curricula and the level of technical exposure that they ought to give you. What really matters is your specialization field and that is where the schools have varying strengths. For instance, if you were interested in Institutional Economics and History you would perhaps want to work with Douglass North regardless of the ranking of Washington University, St. Louis where he works. I know it is hard to have it all so cut-and-dried right after your bachelors but if you have a fair bit of idea of your broad fields of interest, it is quite likely that you and your prospective institution would prove to be a good match.[3]

Those intending to do Masters in Economics may have already made one key observation: there are very few good Economics masters programs in the United States. Being research institutions, the primary focus in many top schools in U.S. is on their doctoral programs and even though some might offer a masters degree, it should generally be viewed as a side business. Canada, however, is different. The Masters programs there are much better institutionalized and usually provide some decent funding to most handsome applications.

While there are no established rankings for Canadian Economic schools, years of experience have allowed the faculty to claim the relative superiority of various departments. Hence the Toronto, UBC, Queens and Western Ontario schools are ranked the four best for doctoral studies with Alberta, Simon Fraser and McMaster being considered decent places for a masters program. However the relative rankings change when one considers Business school programs. For doctoral programs in Finance, one would place Toronto at the helm followed by UBC and Alberta respectively. It should be noted that the rankings would change once again if the MBA program were considered.

There are only two places in Canada that are currently offering the lucrative MA Economics and Finance program i.e. Toronto and Alberta. While the Toronto school has the strategic advantage of having the Toronto Stock Exchange located in vicinity, Alberta is quite generous with funding and is the most cost-effective place to reside. Another feature that distinguishes the two is that while the former program requires a mandatory internship the latter expects a project for graduation.

One thing that foreign applicants should keep in mind is that certain academic institutions tend to follow some unsaid and implicit admissions policies. Rumor has it that there are some schools, like Princeton and Berkeley, that are just plain ‘choosy’ when it comes to recruiting international students. Also, the economics department at University of Chicago has a notorious 50% policy in which they only let half of their first year graduate students to pass through to the second year. Now unless you have some strong reason for applying to these institutions, it would probably be a good idea not to invest your money there. The best way to learn about such policies is to contact some graduate student in the concerned school. Oftentimes such efforts do get some response.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, let us also remind you that no matter how smart you may be it is a good idea to have some back up in lower tiers in case you cannot get into your choicest. The key to selecting a back up is that it must be an institution where your chances of admission are quite high and where you are prepared to go if all else fails.[4] Arif Zaman would motivate the need for a back up like this: ‘It is always a good idea to have a back-up because sometimes the admissions committee might just have to toss a coin to decide between two equally good applicants’.

One major step in the entire admissions process is taking the entrance examinations, which in the case of most economics schools would be, a GRE General Test along with TOEFL. However, some schools like Harvard and Yale also require a GRE subject test score. This essay would be incomplete without a passing reference to these tests. In principle, the GRE-general is designed to quantify your analytical and verbal skills – skills that you develop over a long period of time. But this does not mean that you should not prepare for it. Heavens, No! It is a well-established fact that preparation can significantly improve one’s score on the test. We have no specific tips for taking the General Test except to say that you do need an awful lot of practice and also some luck.

While a lot of guidance is available for the General test, there is very scarce, and often inaccurate, information on the Economics GRE in the market, which makes it worth saying a little more on this subject. In the days when I took the exam, there was a brown-colored book around that claimed to give you some flavor of the subject test. The questions covered things like Say’s Law, Adam Smith’s theories and concepts that you never came across during your undergraduate training, even if you were paying close attention. Well, after having gone through the exam myself and after being confused hours on end about the entirely new material that the guide book contained, let me tell you that you do not need that book to prepare for this exam.

If you have taken a sufficient breadth of field courses in your advanced years of study, all you need is a revision of the key results and concepts from those courses. For instance, you might get a question asking you about the difference between uncovered interest rate parity and covered interest parity or they might examine you on the statement of Rybczinski’s Theorem (hope I spelled it correctly) on International Trade. Another set of questions in the exam, I remember, was designed to determine the test takers’ ability to judge whether the parameters in a given system of equations in an econometric model were over-, under-, or exactly identified. In short, it was all quite familiar stuff.

One key difference between the General Test and the Subject Test is the negative marking for incorrect answers in the latter. This makes a lot of difference in the approach that you need to take towards the two exams. While the test takers in a General Test are actively encouraged to guess when in doubt (well, with the computer-based version you have no other option), you would be well advised not to do that in a Subject Test. Here, you would be better off by relying on your learning and preparation rather than guesswork. As a rough rule of thumb, if you feel that the guess relies more on luck than any fleeting memories or learned intuition, leave that question and move over. The subject test report shows all the details – the number of questions answered correctly, incorrectly, and left un-attempted. It is perhaps better in some vague subjective sense to have a score that looks like 80:5:45 rather than the one which reads 80:20:30. And the first score definitely has a higher percentile rank, in strict quantitative terms.

Finally, there is one other LUMS-specific recommendation that we would like to make with regards to filing applications. Since LUMS faculty composition is always in a flux, it is probably a good idea to have your professor write a statement for you on a plain paper and have it signed and sealed. That statement is more important than checking boxes on the official recommendation letters that you get with admission packets. You may take time deciding your schools and getting admission packets and there is a chance that your preferred recommender would be unavailable by the time you have it all ready.[5] Moreover, this may also ease the workload of the professors who are suddenly asked to oblige all their students as the deadlines draw near.

Graduate EducationThe academic life of a doctoral student is different in one fundamental respect. Never before in academic life did one encounter so many hurdles so narrowly spaced that must all be cleared before one can embark on the research and peace that lay ahead. Throughout United States, graduate schools in economics require students to pass a written exam at the end of first year of study, alternatively called as the comprehensive exam or the general theory exam. In these exams, all that matters is 60%! All the theory that the profs taught you during the year, or they thought they taught you, will be tested in a 3 hour exam: both in Micro- and Macroeconomics. Welcome to the ultimate nerd’s paradise. The rewards on clearing these exams are not that high but the relief at having cleared the single most intimidating hurdle in the entire program definitely is.

Most of the time, the format of class sessions is lecture-oriented and there are also weekly TA sessions and problem sets. So the routine is not all that different from that of an undergrad. What is interesting though is the level of intellectual discourse that takes place on the campus all the time. During the last academic year, Yale economics department has been visited by such brilliant economists like Stanley Fischer, Joseph Stiglitz, Thomas Sargent, and Gregory Mankiw who gave talks on topics ranging from East Asian crisis to some abstract new theories of labor market. So within such an environment of mutual exchange of ideas, one gets started with research on one’s topics of interest and gets feedback from professors and peers on the results that one obtains.\

The education is also different in terms of its mathematics and the research project wherein some original thinking is required as opposed to a critique or review in the undergraduate. A significant departure at graduate school is in the formulation of one’s thoughts. The old fashioned ways of thinking in terms of diagrams gets upgraded to communicating in, and making sense of, a system of equations so much so that, at times, one may even think that economics has been superceded by Greek! This anxiety is akin to that of a seven-grade student who gets blown out of his wits when he notices that grade ten chemistry is much more then he was trying to remember.

With time, however, one begins to realize the implication of strange symbols and uncanny equations. The entire structure suddenly speaks to one and at this point one may rejoice for a major mission of attending graduate schools gets fulfilled. But throughout one’s stay at graduate school, one must continually reflect to discover the self. In every lecture, assignment or term paper the question that should be raised is that whether this is something one would like to pursue further.

It is here that we would like to raise those big questions of life. Is it all about securing high marks, acquiring fellowships and then high paying jobs? If one is unable to get admission to a top university or scores poorly on the GRE or fails to acquire a job for that matter, does it mean all has come to an end? The answer

Surely not! For when the Lord closes a door he opens a window somewhere else[6].

Having said all this let me implore you to read ‘Qatba’ by Ghulam Abbas. Better still I leave you with the wise words of my teacher, which I am unable to translate for I fail to capture the essence and powerful effect of her original words.

‘Is dunya main bohat kuch panay ki khawahish to hum sub mein hoti hai. Lekin lakh koshishoon aur unthak mehnat kay bawajood kabhie kabhie hum apni taqdeer kay hathoon haar jatain hain. Aisay mein baa-himat log himmat nahin haartay wo apna raasta badal kar, apni taqdeer ko badalnay pay majboor kar daitay hain’

Social LifeFor many it would be the first experience to travel great distances all by oneself and without any warm reception at the destination. Never before was one subjected to such solitude and the responsibility to attend to miserable minutiae ranging from paying rents, preparing food, surveying places all the way down to cleaning the toilet. It is a drastic change in lifestyle unless one could afford to live like the Saudis. Occasionally, the first few days are spent in the hermitage of a youth hostel wherein solitary nights break even the ‘man’ man to tears. These first mornings in a strange new land dawn on an inpidual with all their might; however one soon gets over the nostalgia as work gathers momentum and new acquaintances are made.

In all this, the first important detail is to have a place to live. There are a few ways to ease your quest for a new living place. Sometimes your school would have opportunities for on-campus living for graduate students. In that case, they would provide you with enough information to facilitate choice among a number of different options. If there is no on-campus living options or if you would want to live off-campus, for whatever reason, then the information base is really thin for those back in Pakistan. In such circumstances, it is best to contact someone you know in the area, for instance your MSA representative or the nearest mosque, and ask for a temporary space to live once you get there, while you search for an apartment. Sometimes, the local Islamic center has a few apartments that it can rent out to people and that may suit your needs well enough.[7]

Aristotle was quite perceptive in observing that ‘Man is a social animal by nature’. Thus, unless one is a Buddha on the path to enlightenment, it is only natural for one to explore signs of cognizance in foreign territory. For many decent Pakistanis, the first places of interest are usually the Pakistan Student Association – the ‘Qaumi’ community – or the nearest mosque. With all the homesickness, there is an eagerness to associate with the first moving sign of familiarity, yet the following should caution the gentle readers against the risk of laying bare all one’s anxieties and apprehensions.

Beginning with the House of God, it must be noted that it might not turn out to be the haven one would have hoped for. With much yearning a disconsolate person could enter the mosque only to be dismayed by the indifference of the godly men. Many would not care a hoot about a new face and those who would, might expect of the newcomer to join their protests and other multitude of supposedly godly activities or perhaps even help Brother Abdullah move his house. All this would be expected out of moral obligation much the same way as happens in mosques back home. But one good thing about moral obligation is that it works both ways, only if you know how to present your case.

Heaving and sighing, one might turn towards the PSA but there is absolutely no reason to believe that it would be any different. The characters would be brown with a typical ‘tinge’ of petty squabbles so unique to our part of the world. It might happen that rather than make your initial days more comfortable you might be asked to espouse some of their agenda and be expected to bear the drudgery of meaningless talk of their constitutions. Their discourse could at times revolve around article 3 or 4 of the constitution and it may all seem as if a very important bill was going to be passed in the Parliament. Of course, there is a purpose that such places of association can serve provided one learns to say that simple word ‘No’. Thus a golden piece to remember would be to maintain a balanced posture rather than joyfully leap at the first instance of acquaintance.


The entire transition period is quite trying from GRE scores to acceptance letters and from lodging to adapting in a strange milieu. It has been our endeavor in this article to lessen such apprehensions and anxieties of many yearning applicants who live and breathe in a world of crucial uncertain events. We have underscored key observations on the application process and sketched a rough picture of the life that lies ahead in the hope that it would either broaden your awareness or at least bolster what you already might know. Occasionally we raise issues of fundamental import that many ignore in the entire process and leave you with words to give a thought or two. Having said all this, we hope that you find the graduate experience rewarding as well as immensely joyful and bid your leave with a prayer for your continued success.

* University of Alberta. Edmonton, Canada.** Yale University. New Haven, USA.

[1] This book needs no title, by Raymond Smullyan

[2] The Sound of Music, 1965

[3] JBJ classifies human beings into two categories: those who like literature and philosophy and those who like maths and logic. Those belonging to the first category he consigns to the study of more ‘humane’ subjects like history, institutions and political economy while the latter he considers more likely to wander into contract theory, finance, econometrics etc. You may want to use his rule of thumb.

[4] In my case, the back-up institution was Boston University and they sent me two reminders when they didn’t receive my TOEFL scores. Contrast this to the behavior of MIT, which did not even send me the decision letter and finally e-mailed a measured ‘apology’ when reminded of the deadline. (Farooq)

[5] If I had put off my letters for one more day, I would not have been able to get a recommendation from Arif Zaman. At least, not for another 40 days! (Farooq)

[6] Adapted from The Sound of Music, 1965

[7] One good resource for learning about such things is or else you may contact your university for advice.

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Last modified on Monday, 16 May 2016 06:45