So, you want to get a Ph.D ?

About half a dozen friends have reached out to me, over the last two and half years since I have been in a Ph.D program (in the U.S.) to ask me what it is like. While it is impossible to fully describe what it is to be a full-time student, and the joys of going through this process, I’ve tried to condense a few key issues into the points below. Much of what I have written here applies to American academia. I hope it helps those who are sitting on the fence or are undecided if a Ph.D is for them. Here goes:CaH

  1. You will be poor – for a long time: While the glamor of being surrounded by intellectuals, really smart professors and access to (quite literally) all the books in the world is sexy, remember that unless you have a lot of savings of your own, a significant other who is supporting you financially or are from a rich family; you will be poor. And this means, deciding between indulging in a $5 pizza or saving it for a book, that you need. It can be depressing, at times. And this could range from between three or five – at times ten years, depending on how quickly you can finish your work and how cooperative your committee is.
  2. You will be terribly lonely – also for a long time: This is another fact. Unless you have a super-high IQ and a photographic memory, you’ll have to read, re-read and discuss ideas, books and films that will form you as an intellectual. This means that you will have to spend time alone. By nature, I can be reclusive, while maintaining a social personality, so this has been easy for me. But I do wish my program had more social events/ gatherings and occasions to meet people. Remember that in your undergrad or Masters level courses, there are dozens of likeminded people you can meet, but in a Ph.D program the cohort is typically small, sometimes as small as six people, three of whom you may not like. The other two may be whackos. So, good luck making friends.
  3. Get used to feeling stupid – hopefully not for ever: The first year is the hardest. I felt incredibly stupid in my first year in the Ph.D program. But I have started feeling better, incrementally. Remember that almost all the people you will interact will have a Ph.D and may not necessarily understand your work, unless they are all in the same field, which is unlikely. So, putting a bunch of very high IQ people together, who don’t understand each other makes for an interesting situation. Much of the time, you may end up being the most junior person around and as a consequence, feel like you don’t know anything worth knowing. Unless you are a cocky son of a bitch! In which case, everyone will hate you.
  4. You will be criticized, called out and perhaps attacked – All in good spirit, though! Academics are notorious for tearing each others ideas apart, telling you that none of what you are researching makes sense. I have been told more than once that I should consider an alternate career, rather than research and teaching. We’ll see what comes of this process…on the other hand, there have been people (academics) who are incredibly supportive and think that I will ‘re-define the field of research on Islamic philanthropy’. The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. Only time will tell. The point is, that everyone is trying to finetune their ‘critical thinking’ and being critical of others intellectual output  becomes second nature. I am much more critical of issues in general now, than when I started the program.  But this also means that you need to find a group of supportive, faithful friends who will see value in your work and help you grow intellectually.
  5. Your life will change : As one of my mentors at the Maxwell School said: “If you are single, you’ll get married, if you are married, you (may) get divorced and if your parents are alive, they’ll probably die, during your Ph.D program.” A sobering reality indeed. And yes, in my case, some of his predictions are turning out to be true.

Now that i’ve delivered the bad news, here is some good news, some of the  redeeming factors:

  1. It can be the most intellectually rewarding experience of your life– The process of thinking through, debating, writing on issues that you care about deeply can transform you, as a person. Also, I’ve been terribly lucky to have met, worked with and hung out with some of the smartest people in the world.
  2. You will start feeling smart about yourself, after some time – I’ve gained some of the confidence that I lost in my first year in the program. Once you start realizing that there are few people who are as focused as you are, in your area of research, your confidence will (usually) grow. That is, if you are putting in the effort, getting ‘peer review’ that is positive and getting published in peer-reviewed journals – a sure sign that you are doing ‘something right’.
  3. You will perhaps be the only person in the world who will know (almost) everything there is to know about your topic. An economics professor shared this wisdom with me, about a year ago. Her words still ring in my ear. She said “Once you finish your Ph.D, you will probably be the only person who knows the most about your topic, in any room you enter.” Think about that for a minute.
  4. You will probably end up in a very stable and rewarding career, after the struggle is over.
  5. June, July August: As one of my other mentors said, the best reason to get a Ph.D and enter the Academy – June, July and August. You get three months off work. And if you are lucky to get a tenured track position, this means you get to write a book, research or travel during these three months. Which other job allows you to be so free and independent? I can think of a few…

If you are university educated, be sure to thank the 11th century Iranians! – Conversations in philanthropy #7

If you are college educated, have attended a traditional university, as we know it; anywhere in the world – then inadvertently you have benefited from a system that was pioneered in Iran in the 10th and 11th century, as part of the system of  Islamic Philanthropy, i.e., the Waqf, or endowment (Arjomand 114). While it is widely recognized that the world’s first university is the Al-Azhar university in Cairo, Egypt, built almost 1000 years ago ( also as a Waqf institution), not many people know that the concept of endowments was put into practice as a public policy in the Muslim empires of the medieval ages. This is a short article that delves into the development of Waqfs and how they have impacted the field of education. While contemporary Waqfs in Muslim majority countries are not as wealthy as they were in the past, their role remains significant and key to serving social needs as well as preserving art, culture and human dignity.

photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons
photo courtesy: Wikimedia commons

Historical growth of Waqfs as institutions of public policy

While Waqfs are private endowments and were meant as a measure of private initiative of the wealthy, they inadvertently became entwined with the public policy of the era. As Singer points out, in its basic form, a Waqf consisted of specific endowed properties, the revenues of which were designated in perpetuity to maintain and sustain a particular project or initiative- a soup kitchen or an educational institution. This is particularly noticeable in the field of education (Arjomand 125) which I will examine briefly.

There is value in his argument that that it was the non-qur’anic Waqf and not the Qur’anic Sadaqa or Zakat that became legal policy in the Islamic empires – and provided the basis for philanthropy in Islam. The jurists developed zakat into a poor-rate incumbent on all believers to be collected by the state, but given its difficult collection, it fell into disuse and also due to corruption; fell into disuse. The Waqfs that were developed in this era were mosque-educational complexes that housed both a place of worship and a learning center, where scholarship and teaching could occur. This eventually turned into a full-fledged residential facility that was the precursor to what we call a “college.”

Students at Al-Azhar University
Students at Al-Azhar University

Maksidi argues that the college was then imported into Europe in the 12th century first by the Knights Templar of the Levant whose headquarters was in England and who founded the Inns of court in London, who must have seen madrasas in or on the way to Jerusalem, and endowed the college des Dix-Huit in Paris for 18 poor students in 1180. In the mid-13th century, the first three colleges of Oxford were founded as charitable trusts. (Maksidi 19).

He further points out that the Ottomans used Waqfs as state policy for the development of cities such as Edirne and Istanbul (Arjomand 125). Amy Singer, another scholar who has studied  medieval charity in Muslim societies corroborates this view, when she points out: “Waqfs have been extensively researched, probably as much because of the prominence of particular foundations, as because of the relatively large amount of evidence available about them. Foreign visitors and colonial rulers alike carefully scrutinized Waqfs, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries, because the entire institution seemed to interfere with the establishment of modern private property regimes and the reform of landholding for purposes of agricultural modernization and development.” (Singer 92).

While I am not making the claim that the idea of an endowment itself was an innovation by the Muslim rulers (different forms of endowments did exist in Pre-Islamic Iran), the Muslim rulers did popularize and spread the notion and made it mainstream. Arjomand adds: “The law of Waqf developed in the formative years of the Islamic law i.e, 8, 9 centuries. There was influence of pre-Islamic Iranian law that impacted Waqf laws development. the Sasanian law book Maktakdan-I Hazar Dastan ( Book of thousand judgments) has helped us understand the epigraphic evidence on the institutions of private endowment for the soul or “for pious purposes” whose purpose was determined by the founder and set forth in an instrument of endowment (Arjomand 110)


Modernization and Education in the Muslim world

One of the most direct impact of the Waqfs in public policy has been in the field of education, research. While entire systems of patronage existed that perpetuated certain types of knowledge (in medieval age, as it does today), the university and madrasa became the centers of not only debate and change but also reform. Speaking of the education system in medieval era, Fazlur Rahman, one of the most prominent American scholar on Islam points out: “Medieval education became very formulaic and original thinking didn’t happen, this can explain the decline of any scientific thinking in the Muslim world, since then. The Muslim scholars also focused more on religious education, versus “worldly” education and this was a wrong focus to have. There were commentaries written on other commentaries and they had very little new things to say.” (Rahman 29).

He further argues that a kind of secularism developed in the Muslim world in pre-modern times, because of stagnation of Islamic thinking in general and because of the failure of Sharia law and institutions to develop themselves to meet the changing needs of society. (Rahman 43). One can make a case for the impact of shift in patronage systems to the schools of learning (through Waqf endowments) that made this change occur. Also, the Waqfs themselves were dealt a death-blow with colonization of Muslim countries. He uses the examples of India and Egypt to discuss how this occurred, with the death of genuine scholarship and also the unfortunate distinction between “this worldly” and “sacred or religious” knowledge, an idea that took genesis in the 13th century and that ultimately brought about the stagnation of original scholarship in the Muslim world.

Rahman points out that there has been a fear of intellectualism in the Muslim world and also this was related to patronage or support. Law brought employment, while medicine, or math did not guarantee the same kind of support. In the last 100 yrs or so, Muslims have shown an increasing awareness of reforming traditional education and integrating the old knowledge with the new (136).



Taking a close look at the development of Waqfs and Education system in the Muslim world, historically can give us insights into the current state of Muslim societies and the challenges they face. Through a clear understanding of this, one can evolve a strategy for advancement of fields of knowledge that will better serve the people of the countries and humanity, at large. I believe that Waqfs are a good lens to look at this shift in both systems of patronage and also to understand which form of knowledge was seen as relevant.

As Singer points out, philanthropy is a complete language, with its own codes, lexicon of actions that acquire meaning through a grammar of social order and syntax of significations this then becomes a part of religion, public policy, law and social norms. She further argues that to understand this requires the close study of relationship of what is being invoked and by whom, for what purposes (Singer 221).

There is also the problem of lack of scholarship in the field, as I am discovering, and something that Singer is clear about (Singer 24). She points out it is strange that barring one book by Robert McChesney, there is virtually no book length treatment of the concept of Zakat and Islamic notions charity in English. With more research and scholarly work, one can hope to unravel and unpack the story of how institutions have shaped fields of human endeavor.



Works Cited

Arjomand Said Amir. Philanthropy, the Law and Public Policy in the Islamic world before the modern era – Philanthropy in the world’s traditions. Ed by Warren F. Ilchman, Stanley N. Katz and Edward L. Queen II. Indiana Uni press, Bloomington and Indianapolis. 1998. Print.


Maksidi. Muslim institutions of learning in eleventh century Baghdad. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 24,1. 1961. London. Print.


Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity. Chicago, University of Chicago Press. 1982. Print.







“We Need to Heal the World Through our Work,” – Father Joseph Philippe


 Passover this year was unusual in many respects. While I am not Jewish and don’t observe the day, nor do most of the people at Virginia Tech; an unlikely visitor reminded us of the key message of Passover- Freedom and Liberation. This visitor was Father Joseph Philippe from the University of Fondwa, Fondwa, Haiti. He came on a mission to educate, inspire and also acquaint the audience of the challenges to higher education in Haiti.

            Father Joseph spoke of the Judaic notion of “Tikkun Olam,” or healing the world. “As human beings, we are all responsible for each other. We must help, stand by and support one another through difficult times and heal each other’s hearts,” he said. Going back to his own story of how he got into humanitarian action, he added:” I come from a very poor family and my mother was a street vendor. I saw poverty around me and struggled to bring myself up and educate myself. This quest lead me to become an Accountant and then a Priest. I realized early on that the main thing in life is to realize and be grateful for everything we have.”

            His life-work seems to be testimony to this positive attitude, as Father Joseph is the founder of Fonkoze, a microcredit institution and also the founder of University of Fondwa in Haiti. Higher education has especially taken a hit in Haiti, following the 2010 Earthquake. Pointing to the key challenges, he said:”Some of the challenges before us are basic: infrastructural and human resources. Since so many of the talented people died in the Earthquake and others fled, we are in dire need of people who have education and talents, to serve.”

            While his pitch to recruit volunteers was strong and he recommended that anyone wanting to volunteer must come with the mindset of a warrior, so as to be ready for anything; he was also aware that this is not for everyone. “I don’t want to create a new class of poor people, in the effort to remove poverty in Haiti. We need your help and will gladly give you any position that matches your qualifications or experience, but ask that you provide for your own salaries, as we don’t have the money to do that.” He pointed out.

            While the debate rages on about how development aid is channeled and used or abused, the fact remains that the situation in Haiti, especially in Haiti is quite dire.


Higher education in Haiti

His visit also points to the recent efforts by academics and humanitarians to address the needs for higher education in post-conflict and post-disaster zones. A recent report by Teacher’s college, Columbia University points out:” Given the severity and duration of these social upheavals, and the current state of human security around the globe, international and local actors have argued persuasively for turning attention to education. Education, they assert, can be a way to mediate conflict, and education services should be included in humanitarian aid packages, together with water and food, shelter, and medical treatment (Aguilar & Retamal, 1998; Johannessen, 2001; Machel, 2001; Save the Children Alliance, 1996; Sinclair, 2002). Backing this policy change, several international organizations have designed a number of education “tool kits” and other materials to assist humanitarian workers, educators, teachers, parents, and community members in providing education services during a complex emergency (Nicolai, 2003; Pigozzi, 1999; Triplehorn, 2001)[1].”

            Another report published in 2010 detailed the destruction of the close to 30 universities in Port Au Prince, which were already dilapidated and were not in very good shape to begin with[2].  Some of the recommendations include creating online classes for Haitian students, to enable them to graduate, and also to provide them access to online journals, to make up for the lack of libraries in Haiti.  There is a growing demand for support to local institutions, rather than offering opportunities to students to leave Haiti. Brain-drain is also identified as a negative consequence of the fellowships and scholarships offered by western institutions.

While there are a vast array of factors that have made the situation what it is, Haitian state-making failure is underwritten by a complex array of destructive local and external institutions, as well as natural constraints, including class, lack of elite cohesion, geography, population growth, the social origins of the Haitian polity, imperialism, and technology.

The solution to Haiti’s problems may not be simple, but they are within reach. What is needed is a strategic push, as this report by INURED points out. A combination of grassroots, government and international NGO efforts can help build Haiti, in the longterm. But as Father Joseph pointed out, it is the actions of every individual that count, in this case.” The individual who wants to transform himself through service is the one we are looking for. You will find your new self, a self that is bigger, greater and more generous than what you are today. Come, work with us to find that new self.” He pointed out.


About Father Philippe

Father Joseph B. Philippe, CSSp, founded Fonkoze in 1994 and continues to serve as Coordinator of Fonkoze, President of Fonkoze Financial Services, and a Board Director of Fonkoze USA.Father Joseph is also the founder of the Peasant Association of Fondwa (APF) and has been its coordinator since 1988. As part of the APF, Father Joseph established and helps manage numerous commercial projects, including an agricultural, reforestation and animal husbandry project, a bakery, a guest center/educational tourist program and a restaurant, as well as an auto parts shop, a guest house, a cement store and a scaffolding rental company. In 2004, Father Joseph also founded the University of Fondwa, an educational institution committed to sustainable and integrated development in rural Haiti.