How to keep getting scholarships (and jobs) in Europe?

5 tips and tricks from someone who did it

On a cold-winter night in 2014, I landed in Europe for the first time. I came for a bachelor-exchange program to stay for 6 months. Later, I went on to do a Masters and a PhD under fully-funded scholarships in different EU countries. After finishing my studies, I also managed to land a postdoc here in the EU. Along the way, I made several mistakes and learned from those mistakes. Here are five tips that I will give you if you want to survive in Europe and keep getting scholarships (and jobs).

Do not go after PR

Many Pakistani students come here and forget about the career they have. Instead, their focus is on getting permanent residence in the EU. Eventually, some of them do get a PR but everything comes at a cost. Their career is compromised, and they have to work odd jobs their whole lives. In contrast, I focused on my career. Therefore, changing countries within the EU was not a problem for me. Of course, that means I do not have PR, but that’s the sacrifice I am willing to make.

Do not focus on rich countries only

Everyone wants to study and live in Germany. No doubt that it has many job opportunities but also high competition. Also, the living standards in Germany are not as good as in Mediterranean countries like Spain and Italy. People are social and happy. The food is good and the weather is nice. Yes, the salary won’t be as good as in Germany but no country is perfect. If you really like Germany or the US, go for it. But if you just want to live somewhere nicer, there are other options.

Money vs. career mindset

Some people want to earn money, and some want to achieve their dreams (and earn money). The difference is in the preference. If money is what you are after, you will end up doing odd jobs and earn that money. But this will happen at the cost of your career. In short term, it is good to earn some cash, but investing your time and energies in you career will get you much further. Learn more skills, work on some nice research projects or volunteer. All of them will help you much more than some odd job. If you really need the money to survive, try freelancing because that will increase your skills and knowledge. That’s what I did when I was unemployed. Learn more about how I survived my unemployment with freelancing..

Learn an EU language

Yes, we all want to live in English-speaking countries but so do the millions of other people who speak English. The result is high competition and no place for average students like me. If you learn an EU language, your chances of getting employed can sky-rocket in the EU. Not to mention how it will make your life easier and worth living here. Research shows that learning a new language is also very good for the brain so you will become more intelligent.

Integrate into the EU

How to learn a language and culture of a country? The easier option is to enroll yourself in a language course but the best solution is to integrate yourself into society. Hang out with the locals and enjoy life. The famous proverb goes; when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Practice your language but also show your interest in their country. There is nothing wrong with being patriotic but sometimes we become too obsessed with our country and only want to talk about Pakistan. Show some interest in the country where you are living also. If Pakistan is perfect, there is no need to come here.

Here you go. Hope these tips help you enjoy your stay in the EU. Let me know what you think and if I missed something.

Future of Agriculture Students in Pakistan: 3 Unusual Tips for Agrarians

I got into agriculture because I could not get into medical college. Many other students are in the agriculture career for the same reason. Starting our degrees, we are told that Pakistan is an agricultural country and that 70% of its income comes from agriculture. Considering how important it is we supposed that it is a good career. However, very soon we realize that agri. students do not fit anywhere in the agricultural country. The only jobs that most of us have are in the pesticide industry (as a marketer). Consequently, many of you stay unemployed even after doing MS in agriculture and earn through home tuitions. The main cause of this unemployment is the gap that exists between our syllabus and the real world.

The problem

During the bachelor’s, we are taught the amount of seed needed for each crop and the amount of pesticides to use. Farmers know more about this kind of information so why do not we become a farmer. Our job is not to remember production technologies and make ratta of how much seed is needed. Our job is to understand agriculture as a career, what are the advancements and how can we help it grow as a field. It is not only the art of growing crops but the science of cultivating as well. The definition taught by Prof. Adnan Zahid is somehow forgotten in the length of the curriculum. Science comes from critical thinking and problem-solving. We might not remember how many kilograms of seed is needed per hectare. But, we should be able to find out the amount of seeds required for each crop that is only one google away.

Enough with the problems. You probably know about problems better than I do. So let’s talk about solutions: how can you succeed in agriculture? The curriculum is not changing, professors are not changing and neither is the system. What can you do today to become successful tomorrow? Here are 3 tips that will almost guarantee your success and make you financially independent. Yes, even in this economy under Imran Khan.

1. Get advanced skills

Advanced skills cannot be the concentration of pesticides needed to apply to control a pest. They are the skills in demand right now, that everybody is looking for. Two such skills are; bioinformatics and molecular biology. In the past, we did not have enough data. Now we have much more data but fewer people who can analyze it. Therefore, bioinformatics, including programming is the most in-demand skill. Machine learning is adding another dimension to agriculture. Why remember if a machine can make decisions about when to irrigate and when to fertigate, even better than humans. The other interesting skill is molecular biology which is studying the genes, proteins RNA and other molecules present within the body (of us or plants). In the future, a huge deal of work will be focused on editing genes and genomes to get desirable characters. How to manipulate genes to increase the yield will be the most important concern in agriculture.

2. Do not limit yourself to your university (or IAGS)

In the past, the only way to learn something was to go to a university and learn it physically. I remember the time when we used to go to the computer lab to do simple assignments in the MS word because we did not have our computer. Thanks to the IT revolution, everyone has access to the internet and computer. Learning has become accessible to everyone. You do not have to go anywhere to learn something. Want to learn bioinformatics, go online and learn from the best bioinformaticians. Want to learn molecular biology, professors from MIT and Harvard can come to teach you in your room. No more excuses about professors do not teach well. Famous websites to learn skills are Coursera and EDx.

3. Start Freelancing

Do not have jobs in Pakistan? Why restrict yourself to jobs in Pakistan. You can work anywhere in the world while sitting in your room. Yes, freelancing platforms give you access to online mandi of skills where you can work for others and get paid for your work. In agriculture, freelancing was not common but thanks to COVID, things have speeded up. More and more people are looking for agrarians, horticulturists and others. There are many jobs that we can do; writers, data analyzers, personal assistants to name a few. Do not have the essential skills required to freelance? No problem, learn them online. Read: my experience with freelancing: if I can do it you can do it too.

Best wishes!

How to Publish in a Journal? 5 Tips for Students

Publish or perish is a commonly used phrase in academia. Professors and researchers who do not publish enough are left behind and have to deal with several consequences, such as running out of funding and even losing jobs. For students, publishing was not very important some years ago. In recent years, however, competition for scholarships and jobs has increased exponentially. Every year universities produce thousands of PhDs that remain unemployed because there are only a few academic positions available. Competition and several other things lead to a boom in student papers. Currently, more and more students want to publish their research in journals. Here are 5 tips to publish in journals to help you get your dream scholarship or job.

1. Convert your thesis to a paper

Most of you might already have something written for example bachelor’s or master’s thesis. The only problem is that the thesis is not publishable (by most of the journals). You need to convert your thesis into a paper. Doing that is not a straightforward task and you would need to be very critical of your work. For starters, a research paper is significantly shorter than a thesis. For more details about how to convert your thesis into a paper, you can check this article.

2. Write a review paper

Writing a research paper could be complicated. Especially if you are from a developing country and do not have access to a laboratory. An alternative could be to write a literature review instead. A review paper is a type of publication that focuses on reviewing the current state of knowledge and identifying potential gaps. It can be done without doing any experiments yourself. All you need is to read many papers. For a detailed guide about how to write a review paper, you can check out this video.

3. Help a professor

Professors have many unfinished projects. Many of their students might have finished their thesis without publishing. Their data might be sitting in the computer waiting to be analyzed and published. If you do the data analysis and write a paper for your professor, he is obliged to include your name as an author. So talk with your professors and show your interest in helping them and publishing.

4. Read a lot of papers

When in Rome, do as Romans do. If you want to publish, you have to know how to write an article. The best way to learn is to read many relevant articles. It will not only increase your knowledge about the field (a must if you want to publish) but also it will teach you the little details about how papers are written. What kind of language is used and other little details. Publishing is a world of its own, if you want to publish, get used to the new world.

5. Do a research project

If you do not have any thesis and no professor is willing to help you publish, start a research project. Doing your research project is the most common way to publish. All you have to do is find a research problem and work on it. Once you have data, analyze it, write a paper and publish it. Meanwhile, you might need some guidance and you are free to ask your professors and seniors. It is recommended that you have a thesis supervisor for this reason.

Want to utilize your papers in the best way possible to get scholarships and jobs, check this article: Why your publications are not letting you win a scholarship (or job)

Why your publications are not letting you win a scholarship

Ahmad finished his master’s with 15 publications. After trying for a year, he could not get a PhD scholarship. He was not sure what was the reason for his rejection and asked me for advice. I told him that his publications are the reason why he is not getting a scholarship. You might be thinking the same as he thought after hearing my comment: “What do you mean?” Here are the 5 reasons why your publications are the reason you are not getting a scholarship.

1. Quantity without quality

We know that publishing is good. What we do not know is that having one publication in nature is much better than having hundreds of publications in predatory journals that nobody knows. Your publication record immediately shows what type of work you did. Therefore, focus on having one good publication instead of having hundreds of low quality. By good quality, I mean papers that are well written and published in high-ranked journals.

2. Predatory journals: Something is not better than nothing

We believe that publishing is good for our profile. It improves our CV and makes us a good candidate. However, publishing in predatory journals is worse than having no publication at all. It says two things about you. First, you did not do quality work (same as somebody without a publication). Second, you also do not know what are predatory journals. That is why, publishing in predatory journals will make you look like a bad candidate, even in comparison with somebody who does not have any publication. Learn more about predatory journals and how to avoid them.

3. You published more than you could

Publishing is not an easy task. First, you have to do experiments for months and sometimes up to years. Then you have to analyze your data and finally write a paper. If you published 15 papers in a master’s, it immediately says that something is fishy about your work. Most of the PhDs do not publish 15 papers so how could a master’s student publish so many papers.

4. Your papers contain several authors

Papers are mostly written by several authors and collaboration is always encouraged in science. However, if 30 people are the authors of a minor paper that requires no collaboration, there might be something wrong with the publication. Evaluators might perceive that you did not earn the right to be in the publication. In comparison, if you have a paper as a first author, you will be evaluated positively.

5. You cannot explain what you published

Publishing an article means that you have done extensive research on the topic. If you cannot explain your work in a simple and straightforward manner, it means that you did not do the work in the first place and probably did not deserve to be an author. Learn how to present your papers effectively during interviews. Prepare a brief summary of your paper and get ready for some relevant questions.

If you are applying for a PhD scholarship, check out this article to get some tips.

How to Choose a Major, Field or Specialization? 7 Tips

Selecting a major sounds like a big deal, probably because it is. Once you have chosen a particular career, it is very hard to switch. Imagine if a doctor wants to be an engineer. If you are indecisive and cannot make up your mind about choosing a particular field, major or career, here are some tips that can help you choose a field/major;

  1. Decide what do you want to do in your life. Did not decide yet? Do not worry, take your time but try to picture where would you like to work. For example, some majors are very good if you wanna pursue a research-oriented career like Biology,  others could be better suited for private industry i.e. Agriculture.
  2. Research the particular field that interests you by asking professionals. Don’t just ask your favorite teacher or friend. Go outside your comfort zone and talk with someone you don’t know.
  3. Consider what you like. You don’t necessarily have to study what you like but sometimes if you are particularly interested in something, you can make it a career. For example, if you like gardening, maybe you can choose botany.
  4. Consider what you are good at. I think it is the most important point because some of us have special gifts. If Gandhi wanted to be a doctor and Eiffel wanted to be a social activist, maybe we would not have known them. A good scale to know what you are good at is to ask your friends or family. You might also consider your grades. If you are consistently performing well in a subject, it might be because you are very good at it.
  5.  Consider the infrastructure; a particular major may have the better infrastructure or more opportunities at the institute where you are studying which can also be a deal-breaker. The funding situation of an institute or lab is important and can kickstart your career.
  6. Consider the professors: Some majors may have better professors. You may like the particular way of teaching some professors. Also, consider the diversity of the professors. A major is worth more for me when it has professors from many sub-fields because it guarantees that I will be learning different things.
  7. Do not depend on a random example. You may find a very successful graduate of one major but that does not mean that everybody is successful from that major. If you want to know the opportunities in a field you should do a survey. Consider at least 10 randomly selected students to have an idea about the future of a particular field. Alternatively, you can do online research about what is in demand.

In the end whatever you choose, if you work hard, there are very good chances of your success. Best of luck. Wanna stand out in your selected major? Check out this blog: how to stand out in a world full of competition?

How to Stand Out in a World Full of Competition?

(Shortcut to success)

It was a beautiful sunny day at Punjab University. A soothing breeze woke me up. I took a shower, got ready and walked from my dorm to the campus. It felt like a race between thousands of students rushing to the campus. Students of all backgrounds, poor and rich, black and white. All were the same in this race. The race was not about reaching university fast but being the best and succeeding in life. Everyone wanted a formula, maybe a shortcut to compete with others. It is not like I never tried to compete, but I failed every time. How could I compete with people who were better than me in every single aspect? Umer was more confident, Hafiz was more intelligent, and Intezar was more diligent than me. And here I am, the lazy one, not very confident nor intelligent. But somehow, I stumbled upon an idea that turned into who I am today. I want to share this secret with you in this article.

Months later, I was attending a business plan competition in Germany. This event had nothing to do with my studies, the pathogens of plants. But deep down, I felt a strong connection between the business and research. I found the shortcut and the formula that everybody wanted. I thought if I learn how to do business, I would write better research proposals and influence people. I would be able to market my research better.

This craze of mixing up very different majors did not stop there. I started learning different things. The things that nobody in my field could imagine learning. Social activism, psychology, environmental sciences and molecular ecology are just a few examples. I was not an expert in any of these subjects, but just knowing the basics of them and applying their knowledge to my field made me stand out.

How long does it take to learn something? It takes years to be an expert in every field. According to Malcolm Gladwell1, we need 10,000 hours of work to be the best in anything. That is three hours of working a day, for a whopping 417 days. For lazy guys like me, this was just too hard. I came to know about new research2 that states that we need only 20 hours of systematic work to learn anything.

Let that sink in for a moment. I mean, how powerful is this statement? It means you can learn anything in 20 hours. Learning a guitar, photography or whatever your passion is: it’s just 20 hours away from you. You might be thinking: if that is so easy, why is learning so hard? Because the very first few hours when we start learning something, we suck at it. And that is when most of us quit, thinking that we will never improve. If you suppress this urge to quit and finish your 20 hours, you will see how powerful is this formula.

Fast-forward four years and here I am attending a lecture about cancer cells in Brussels, Belgium. I am thinking how much I suck when it comes to animal sciences. Probably I will always suck because I will never stop exploring new areas. And that is the secret: never stop learning. The learning that comes from you being humble, and from having a mindset that in reality, you do not know anything.

You will always be better than me in pathology, business, psychology and environmental science. I will never be the best in any field but I will have my particular skills. The skills and combinations that are difficult to find. By using this simple formula, I found my place in academia. Go find yours!

References:

  1. Gladwell, Malcolm. Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK, 2008.
  2. Kaufman, Josh. The first 20 hours: How to learn anything… fast!. Penguin, 2013.

Writing Expected Results of a Research Proposal

Nobody knows the future. At least not the scientists and students. They are not “peer-fakeer” or prognosticators. Yet, many students already know what will be the result of their research. I tell them, “If you already know the result of your investigation, there is no point in doing it in the first place.” Predicting the future also shows that you have zero curiosity about the topic. You might ask what is the purpose of expected results if no one cannot predict anything.

The aim of “expected results” is to tell the reviewers what would happen if the hypothesis is accepted and what if it is rejected. Let’s explain that with an example. The hypothesis of your study is this “life is possible on Mars.” There could be two results of this study; 1) accept the hypothesis, meaning yes, life is possible on Mars. You can then go on to explain how this will help humanity etc. But the other possibility, which is almost always neglected in proposals, is this. 2) Rejection of the hypothesis means life is not possible on Mars. Now you have to explain how your study would help humankind if this is the result. For example, this study would save a significant amount of time and resources for space missions, which would otherwise have to go to Mars and test for living conditions there.  

Writing about the rejection of your hypothesis is painful and needs some kind of vulnerability. However, vulnerability is powerful in science, as in life. It shows that you are more open to science than being right. It shows that you are curious and you have the fundamental integrity needed to perform quality research; hence you are a good Ph.D. candidate.

A paragraph about future applications of your study is also appreciated in this section. This is something that you are not exactly doing but contributing to. In our example, you can write about how it could be possible to have human colonies on Mars in the future. Although you are not sending humans to Mars or making human colonies there, your study indirectly contributes to that bigger purpose. Reviewers love seeing the bigger picture. It makes them feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves. However, stop yourself from exaggerating and stay humble. You are not sending humans to Mars but just contributing a tiny aspect by doing this research. In addition, stay focused on the data and previous evidence. Cite other authors heavily here instead of just writing as you are not writing science fiction.

That is it for our blog series about writing a proposal. I would appreciate it if you leave your feedback in the comments below.

Materials and Methods of a Scholarship Winning Research Proposal

Ali wrote an excellent proposal but still could not get a Ph.D. scholarship. His profile was also outstanding. So it was hard for me to identify a problem with his application. His proposal also appeared to be sound, especially the introduction part. Then I had a look at the materials and methods section of his proposal. Here it was; a very detailed methods section that included every minor step. A lengthy and detailed methods section gives an impression that he copy/pasted the methods from a research paper. Alternatively, he does not know how to write the methods section in a proposal. In both cases, the reviewers could have frowned upon it.

The aim of the methods-section is to tell the readers that you selected the right techniques and experiment design. From right, I mean the most suitable experiment to test your hypothesis. A big misconception is that every experiment should include modern techniques and equipment. Science is not about equipment or techniques and simple experiment designs are always favored. However, considering state-of-the-art technology could be beneficial and add new perspectives to your study. In our last example of a bulb not working, how would you test the hypothesis that there is no electricity? One option is to use a modern device and check if there is electricity. However, a more straightforward option is to check other devices already connected with the circuit. Alternatively, you may ask your neighbors if they have electricity.

Writing a detailed methods section can have other consequences. Professors could disagree with your techniques and the more you write, the more you risk. For example, if you mention that you would use a computer for the data analyses, you are hard to disagree with. Whereas, if you write that you would use SPSS version 5.0 to do the data analysis or add 5ml of liquid to a solution, the professor might say that no, you are wrong because that is not the right approach. Another problem that comes with writing a detailed methods section is that we do not know the lab’s funding situation. For example, you want to use a PCR machine, but no PCR machine is available in the lab. That’s why I recommend keeping the methods section very short and to the point. Just enough that it provides some idea about what you want to do meanwhile avoiding specifics.

Many proposals have another problem. The methods section is written in the past tense, just as a journal paper. You should know that the methods section should be written in the future tense because you are supposed to do the experiments. For example, instead of writing that the bulb was checked visually, write that the bulb would be checked visually. Past tense should be avoided overall in the proposal unless you are citing previous studies. Because remember, a proposal is a work that will be performed.

The next blog will be about expected results, so stay tuned. See you!

How to Write the Introduction of a Research Proposal?

It is raining. You are enjoying the cold breeze, clouds and drizzle. Finally, a break from the scorching heat. You are feeling a little romantic. You go to your room and observe that your lightbulb is not working.

What the hell! You say. And think;

Why is my bulb not working today? (Scientific question)

You come up with different possible answers (hypotheses);

  1. There is no electricity: load-shedding, welcome to Pakistan.
  2. The bulb is fused.
  3. Something is wrong with the wiring of my room.

The most important parts of a research proposal are its scientific question and hypothesis. The proposals usually have two problems; either no scientific question and hypothesis are defined or they are poorly defined. What is a scientific question? A scientific question is a question based on observation/literature review that can have an answer and be tested. It is typically a research gap/problem that has not been answered by any of the existing research in your field. Hypotheses are all the possible answers to your scientific question. You might ask how to identify a research gap. A comprehensive literature review is needed to
identify a research gap in your field. The best way to do that is to find top review articles published in Nature/Science or Annual reviews journals in your field. They typically tell us what we know about the field and the research gaps we need to work on. For example, you know that computers can read males’ minds, but no computer can read females’ minds . This could be your research gap. Based on this research gap, you have to define a scientific question. An excellent scientific question is very specific. In our first example, the question was “why is my bulb not working today?” It defines the location, the time and the problem. A poor scientific question is “why bulb is off?”

Scientists are strange. Whatever they do, they want to tell people. Identification of research gaps and hypotheses are lengthy processes, which take days and months of work. That is why we write about how we come up with these things. This, in turn, tell our readers/reviewers if a scientific question is worth investing time/money in. That the question, if answered, will substantially increase our understanding of nature. That the question can solve a problem or a knowledge gap. All of this information goes to the introduction part and takes others on a journey from the basic literature review to the identification of the hypothesis.


The next blog will be about how to test our hypothesis aka. the methods section. Stay tuned!

How to Write a Ph.D. Proposal to Win a Scholarship?

Every year thousands of students apply for Ph.D. scholarships. Still, many students fail to win a scholarship and secure admission. Many rejected candidates have good profiles, high-quality motivational letters and CVs. However, they lack the most important thing; a quality proposal. Most of the universities evaluate your applications with a point system. A proposal typically has the highest points and carries the highest weightage in your application. For example, the University of Venice has reserved 42 points for the proposal out of 70 points for an application. If you have lower grades and a not-so-good profile, you can be selected if you write a quality proposal. Vice versa, students with high-quality profiles can be rejected due to a low-quality proposal.

Ali (name changed for anonymity) contacted me to evaluate his application for an Italian Ph.D. scholarship. After I inquired him about the proposal, he told me that he would use his friend’s proposal and I didn’t need to review it. He put the least effort into the most crucial element of an application. Ali is not alone because this has become a custom of our students, copy-paste a proposal and send it. We don’t even realize how much it hurts our application. One student told me that since his proposal is 27 pages long, it should get full marks. He and many of us don’t know that a single-page proposal could also be a high-quality proposal. And yes, it does not have to have a rocket science idea. However, it does have to follow a pattern, a scheme usually used in Science.

I will start a blog series about proposal writing, keeping in view how important it is. The purpose of this blog series is to take you through a journey of transformation from knowing nothing about proposal writing to being proficient at it. Proposal writing skills are helpful to get a Ph.D., but they can also help you win research funding and kick-start your academic career.

The proposal writing starts even before you write something. Your first task is to search for what to write. Most of the students search for any proposal they could get their hands on and send it. No wonder why they rank the least in applications. YOUR JOB IS to KNOW WHAT YOUR PROFESSOR IS INTERESTED IN. If you don’t know that, chances are your proposal would not capture the attention of anyone at the university. Even if I want to make a human-flying machine and no professor is willing to supervise it, a proposal about it is worth nothing. I want you to be a detective and look for what a professor is dying to work on. Yes, every professor has that dukhti rag. If you could identify that, he will select you and make sure that you join his lab as soon as possible.

You might ask, “How can I do that?” How to identify his dukhti rag, the passions, the interests of a professor. Read their recent papers. First, you will know what field they are working in and their interests by reading their articles. But to identify dukhti rag go a little bit deeper. Identify the questions they raised in the discussion of their papers. This is where scientists usually write what could be interesting for them to work in the future. Reread the last sentence. Discussion of their paper includes what interests them. If you write a proposal about that, you are already one step ahead of your competitors who just read the call and applied without searching for professors, identifying a supervisor and writing a proposal catered to his/her interests.

The next blog will be about the pattern of a research proposal. Stay tuned!