A jour­ney through my PhD - A suc­cess sto­ry of some fai­led attempts

It was an exhaus­ting and warm day of the sum­mer 2013 in Kabul. I just arri­ved back to office from the bud­get defen­se com­mit­tee of the minis­try of finan­ce. The results of dis­cus­sions with the bud­get com­mit­tee were disap­poin­ting; the government could not gua­ran­tee to secu­re and allo­ca­te the requi­red fund for my rese­arch pro­ject on “Radio­metric ana­ly­sis of envi­ron­men­tal sam­ples from Kabul”. The­se disap­poin­ting news rang a bell in my mind, a bell which chan­ged the cour­se of my life fore­ver. Some inner part of me asked why not go glo­bal? Send your pro­po­sal around to the uni­ver­si­ties abroad and if accep­ted, with litt­le chan­ce you may even have a PhD degree with that. From that very moment, I star­ted the quest for fin­ding a sui­ta­ble rese­arch team in uni­ver­si­ties abroad. My main focus was on Ger­ma­ny whe­re I had finis­hed mas­ter stu­dies in the small town of Sie­gen in the west of Ger­ma­ny three years befo­re. The need to find a PhD through which I could sup­port my rese­arch pro­ject was reaching the bur­ning thres­hold.

Even though I had the idea of wri­ting a pro­po­sal, the­re was an obsta­cle; Ger­mans in gene­ral and Ger­man pro­fes­sors in par­ti­cu­lar are known to be tough. It is not easy to reach out to them befo­re or even during the stu­dies for help! This is a com­mon ste­reo­ty­pe about Ger­mans in that part of the world.  It took me one week or so to draft a pro­po­sal and send it to few inter­na­tio­nal insti­tu­ti­ons, most of them did not reply to my email, I thought I was laun­ching some fai­led attempts for an unknown suc­cess.

Insti­tu­te for Radio­eco­lo­gy and Radia­ti­on Pro­tec­tion at Leib­niz Uni­ver­si­ty of Han­no­ver was one of tho­se insti­tu­ti­ons that respon­ded posi­tively to my request of having me as a post­gra­dua­te rese­ar­cher on a one year trail.

I left Kabul for Han­no­ver. In the very first mee­ting, my super­vi­sor Prof. Dr. Cle­mens Walt­her told me that it is bet­ter to call ever­yo­ne here with his or her first name inclu­ding him. I was relie­ved with this sug­ges­ti­on; from the first day I was given the fee­ling that I was just a new mem­ber to this fami­ly (insti­tu­te) rather than a total stran­ger from a dif­fe­rent part of the world. I star­ted thin­king about the fact that eit­her my cal­cu­la­ti­ons about Ger­man pro­fes­sors, rese­ar­chers and col­leagues were wrong or the peop­le here were just excep­tio­nal­ly nice to me.

After a coup­le of mon­ths at the insti­tu­te, my pro­fes­sor and I par­ti­ci­pa­ted in a sum­mer school. Based on my cul­tu­ral back­ground, food wit­hout chi­li tas­tes not­hing more than grass to me; my pro­fes­sor noti­ced that I was loo­king at the food like an ali­en. He asked me the rea­son and I told him the rea­son was lack of chi­li. That after­noon he dro­ve about 20 km away to find me the hot­test chi­li of the town. In the evening we clim­bed a hill and took some pho­tos whe­re my pro­fes­sor was hap­py to give me his Whats­App num­ber to send him the sel­fies. During the breaks we dis­cus­sed about my work and he encou­ra­ged me to move for­ward with his posi­ti­ve feed­back. I was ama­zed by the degree of dif­fe­rence bet­ween a pro­fes­sor in my home coun­try and the one here.

As the days pas­sed by and I was inter­ac­ting with more and more indi­vi­du­als from Uni­ver­si­ty spe­ci­al­ly the Inter­na­tio­nal office staff, I lear­ned that ever­ything can be simp­le here if we only under­stand them right. I star­ted to rea­li­ze that Ger­mans atti­tu­de is 180 degrees dif­fe­rent in offi­ci­al work­place than in soci­al life. For for­eig­ners like me and other PhD stu­dents, it is important to under­stand and respect the dif­fe­ren­ces in offi­ci­al, public and pri­va­te spaces.  It is a com­mon mista­ke to mix up the­se set­tings and find the Ger­man atti­tu­de in life too bureau­cra­tic or in some cases even offen­si­ve, which results in our fee­ling out of place, uncom­for­ta­ble and being a for­eig­ner. I think this famous mis­con­cep­ti­on comes from lack of infor­ma­ti­on about the Ger­man way of hand­ling offi­ci­al, aca­de­mic, public and soci­al set­tings.

I feel now that our pre­ju­di­ce about pro­fes­sors, aca­de­mics and even indi­vi­du­als in Ger­man socie­ty are not reflec­ting rea­li­ty. I sug­gest to all stu­dents and rese­ar­chers who are wil­ling to take their chan­ce for pur­suing their hig­her edu­ca­ti­on or rese­arch in a coun­try other than their own, to learn a bit about the cul­tu­re and the way of life in offi­ci­al, aca­de­mic and soci­al spaces befo­re you start your stu­dies or rese­arch. This makes the under­stan­ding ground bet­ween you, your pro­fes­sor and your col­leagues very wide and makes life much easier.

The wish to stick to your cul­tu­re and way of life is just natu­ral, but in order to live and fit into a new socie­ty, one must be eager to learn about their cul­tu­re, values and way of life. It is important to know that the­re are no good or bad cul­tures but merely dif­fe­rent cul­tures and one must ack­now­ledge the dif­fe­ren­ces in order to avo­id misun­derstan­dings and over­co­me the chal­len­ges of living abroad. Every human wants to help, it is in our natu­re, but we need to learn the ethics of asking for help and respect the spaces, bounda­ries and limits of peop­le.

My jour­ney into lear­ning and living the Ger­man cul­tu­re star­ted with one bag of chi­li pow­der. Let­ting go of ste­reo­ty­pes and pre­ju­di­ces and kee­ping an open mind in order to learn and inte­gra­te, made the past three years and eight mon­ths the best of my life. I finis­hed my rese­arch not only among col­leagues but fri­ends for life. I sug­gest you do the same; learn, respect and under­stand your host country’s cul­tu­ral values and enjoy your time. Thank you Ger­ma­ny, thank you Leib­niz Uni­ver­si­ty, thank you Han­no­ver and thank you my gre­at col­leagues and fri­ends.

Moham­mad Rah­ma­tul­lah Tan­ha


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