How To Succeed In Pakistan’s Academia

Higher education in Pakistan is a wonderful phenomenon. Scouting websites of universities and departments, it is evident that research is well funded, papers are being published at a substantial pace, and students are graduating with higher degrees and moving rapidly to faculty positions. Moreover, new universities are popping up annually to expand the sector. Who could ask for more?

All of this success, complete with metrics, charts and rankings, was engineered by the two-decade old Higher Education Commission (HEC) set up under the auspices of an enlightened four-star general and the world’s first CEO of a country, a latter-day Al-Mam’un if you will.

The CEO moved quickly to hire a grand vizier, a distinguished director of the HEC, a sort of Chief Higher Education Officer, Super-Vice Chancellor, and Head of a Federal Research Grant Agency all rolled into one. Such a position obviously saved significant public money. Why hire separate heads for granting agencies by research area when one will do, especially in a poor country like Pakistan?

The HEC under its founding director set up corruption-free accountability driven rules for all processes, from granting university status to budding hopefuls, to research funding across disciplines, to prizes for outperforming faculty. Quite the feat.

Based on these rules, and a bit of surfing through the websites of the HEC and of the HEC Distinguished Professors (yes, all caps), it is entirely possible to distill guidelines for the budding Pakistani academic, from selecting a PhD advisor all the way to full professor and far beyond, perhaps even to the HEC directorship. Here they are.

First, dispense with the idea of going overseas for a PhD. Too many have tried this and returned to disappointment. After four to five years in the US or Canada, you might adopt a mindset that may prevent proper functioning in a Pakistani university. Besides, your colleagues and administrators may think you are too smart for your own good. But a second or lower tier UK university would be fine. You would only be gone from the Land of the Pure for three years, perhaps not enough time to absorb too much of the local culture, and so have the opportunity to return relatively untainted.

Second, pick an HEC Distinguished Professor as a PhD advisor; these remarkable fellows supervise numerous students and write dozens of papers a year – that’s how they got where they are. There are several to choose from across disciplines. Change fields if necessary; you will adapt to your second love, or third. Start from the top: a former director of the HEC would be quite the PhD supervisor to teach you the ropes – indeed, there is no better way. If that fails, go down your list of potential supervisors and be sure to use publication count as your main metric. The higher this number, the more papers you are likely to have by the time you graduate. If you end up going too far down the list, maybe a PhD in Pakistan is not for you. Tread carefully and be prepared to tune away any preconceived expectations you may have from reading about famous Western scientists.

Third, after acceptance, do everything your advisor says. He is your academic father, and deserves the utmost respect and deference. Just like your dada ji. If you get a good idea and are able to develop it and write a paper all on your own, that’s great. But deference demands you include your HEC Distinguished Professor as a co-author. After all, you would not have been able to do anything at all had you not been accepted. And besides, you’ll need a strong reference letter to get a faculty position at a good HEC Approved University (again, all caps).
After acceptance, do everything your advisor says. He is your academic father, and deserves the utmost respect and deference. Just like your dada ji

If you followed the rules through to three, you are all set to embark on an academic career. Congratulations on your first faculty position! You must now defer to the administration and senior colleagues, and above all the VC; follow him on Twitter. Learn to include your department comrades in your research projects. That isn’t hard; just add their names as co-authors, perhaps even the names of a senior administrator or two. And apply to the HEC for your first research grant. Don’t forget the metrics, and don’t go around talking about academic standards or giving political speeches. That’ll get you fired.

You will rise through the ranks if you follow the paper count guidelines for promotion. These are unique to the Land of The Pure and therefore quite important. Indeed, there is no other way to properly gauge quality. Having several publications over the minimum guideline is of course very important if you want to be on the path to HEC Distinguished Professor and Fellowship in the esteemed Pakistan Academy of Sciences.

You are now in the upper echelons of Pakistani academia. You dine with the VC and are on first names terms with HEC Director. You have a wiki page (check it occasionally for spelling and grammar). It is time to join the Editorial Board of a journal. Happily, there are many to choose from these days. This will aid in increasing both your publication and citation counts, and as bonus, increase the impact factor of your journal -- three birds with one stone.

At this point you are doing very well. Many would choose to slow down a bit, surf the waves, and be contentedly feted at conferences in high-backed chairs. But there’s so much more ahead if you are so inclined. You are at the stage of getting politically connected. Start thinking about setting up your own Institute. Your connections will be important. Who knows, you may need the PM to intervene on your behalf should lesser mortals challenge your power and authority.


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