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Related to the previous entry September 6, 2009

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Research.
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If you check this link:


You’ll find some of the ideas I talked about 🙂 pretty nice…

To return or not to return September 4, 2009

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Research, Revelations.
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One of the most discussed issues among my small circle of colleagues is travelling abroad to get a PhD. The issue has many aspects; beginning with how to get funding, and ending with how not to return home! I don’t know the opinion of the majority of teaching assistants who do want to travel abroad, but I’m guessing it’s pretty much the same with a few exceptions: We will make every effort not to return. This resolution is not carried out by most of the researchers who do travel because of many reasons; family ties, not impressing the academic people in the hosting country, and not adapting to the western life style.

But that doesn’t mean that most of us don’t want to return! What concerns me here is the reasons why these people don’t want to return home, and what should be available to make the return home more enticing. Most of the researchers who want to go to western countries are impressed with how things are done there; there’s no red-tape, the lifestyle is comfortable, and everyone is entitled for a good and respectable life. They either want financial security or research quality or both, and we all agree that the financial and research quality in our country isn’t impressive; it’s even negative sometimes and in some places! The needs most of us want regarding our job are a supportive environment for teaching and research, and academics who know what they’re supposed to do and have a clear vision and a clear strategy to execute that vision. That’s a rare occurrence around here, and we have the impression that these needs ar the norm in western academic institutions. What makes people not willing to return then is the vast chances available for them to improve their finances with no restrictions, and the positive and productive academic atmosphere. But the most important reason in my opinion is their belief system which revolves around two ideas: Things will never get better here, and we don’t want to make the effort to make things better because it will be wasted! Mostly, they want a society that’s already civilized, organized, appreciative, rewarding, and profitable. I admit that it’s very very hard for us to change our society into all those things in our lifetime; my society is one that’s so full of corruption, dirt, and clutter that it needs more than a lifetime task to fix it. BUT here’s the thing, in all our struggles with daily frustrations in our job (not just us TAs, but parents and families too), we reflected that negative image to the young people who see us every day, and they gradually became more and more ignorant, negligent, self-absorbed, and careless as a result. I said before that every academic year I find less and less students who have that inner light of love for knowledge and science and achievement, and I believe that all these young people need is role models who BELIEVE they can DO. A couple of days ago I read an article about a professor I respect very much and interacted with personally in my pre-Master studies; Professor Hisham El-Mahdy. I’m not saying that all of us should do that and think like that; some people just can’t take the lead and act, but I’m saying that people with vision and who can inspire should think beyond financial gains or ideas of “ready-made” societies. I’m telling this to myself as everyone else, because I too have the dream of living in that ready-made society and not having to participate in cleaning my society’s clutter. But when we all leave, where does that leave home? And where does that put us in that ready-made society? Do we become members? We can, but how would it feel to look upon Egypt and find it filled only with dirt and clutter and historic monuments?

I was never a patriotic, and my friends know that very well, I wasn’t raised in Egypt and never felt it was my home, but I never felt Libya was my home too though I very much wanted to. It just can’t be! I need a place to belong to, and we all need that, so I need this place to be great, but most of all, I need to be a part of its greatness! I need to make a small fix that’s named after me! I need to write a sentense in my country’s history, and I need to inspire others to write their own sentenses, so that the home we all contribute to would be a great one.

Explaining Scholarships: Part 2 June 18, 2008

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Research.
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In this second part, I’ll explain the other two categories of scholarships that researchers can pursue. As a reminder, I’ll list the four categories again:

  1. Egyptian-funded scholarships; or what we call “be3that” or in English “missions”. These missions generally involve specific research areas.
  2. Governmental scholarships funded by foreign countries; they’re typically a part of the cultural and academic collaboration between Egypt and other countries. They are called “mena7″ or in English “Scholarships”. Like missions, these scholarships involve specific research areas.
  3. Scholarships offered by foreign entities to promote higher education in developing countries. These scholarships don’t necessarily involve specific research areas.
  4. Scholarships offered by academic institutions abroad and announced by a specific research center, academic department, or school, and always are offered for a specific subject area.

3- Scholarships Offered by Foreign Entities to Promote Higher Education in Developing Countries

This kind of scholarships is offered by organizations that are willing to pay tuition fees for researchers so they can study in the countries of these organizations. The most important condition (besides applying and qualifying to be accepted) is that these researchers have to go back to their mother countries to serve there. Some of these organizations may send announcements to specific departments in universities, but mostly you have to work on you own to find these types of scholarships. Sometimes the scholarships are themed; for example promoting women in science or minorities or things of the sort. So it’s very important that once you find such a scholarship that you identify if it’s “themed.”

What to do: Here you have to do some work besides the routine checking of the department’s secretary. You need to develop a plan of extensive and thorough online search for such scholarships. You can use any of the following search terms:

  • Computer science PhD scholarship
  • Computer science PhD studentship
  • PhD scholarship + “Your general area of research; for example artificial intelligence”

Or any variation on these terms. Three Points to make here:

  • A studentship is similar to a scholarship but involves summer work on a research project. The financial amount paid to the recipient is normally tax-free, but the recipient is required to fulfill work requirements. Types of studentships vary among universities and countries. In the UK, studentships are rarely given out due to limited funding. In North American universities, studentships are more commonly known as teaching and research assistantships. Studentships are almost exclusively awarded to research students, preferably at the PhD. level.
  • You have to focus on the deadlines; announcements for old scholarships are sometimes found and extremely frustrating, so you may want to add the year you want to your search, preferably an academic year ahead (If we’re in 2008 then you want to find scholarships whose deadline is either by the end of 2008 or the beginning of 2009)
  • You HAVE TO prepare the language level required by the announcing organization or the institutions in that country. This may not be mandatory, but it sure enhances your opportunities in being elected for the scholarship. Did I forget to tell you these kinds of scholarships are also competitive? They are.

Useful websites that will be valuable in your search for this category are:

4- Scholarships Offered by Academic Institutions Abroad

Now this category is the most complex, but let me explain it a bit more. Basically there are two aspects to this category:

  • Academic schools or departments present scholarships every academic year for their national students as well as overseas students willing to pursue a higher academic degree. It’s a part of the school or department’s contribution to society.
  • Research centers (led by senior professors) have research projects that are funded by their governments. These professors want young researchers to work in these projects; each contributing a part to the total project and in the meantime obtaining his or her degree. Since these projects are funded in advance, the professors can pay for these young researchers to be on the project. Of course this involves getting actual performance and productivity out of the researcher.

What to do: Deciding to go for a scholarship of this kind requires extensive work. First of all, I’d like to refer you to this entry I wrote about establishing correspondence with foreign professors and academic departments. The first four steps will be done anyway (namely: identify countries of strong research status, identify top universities, identify faculties or departments or schools related to your field, and learn about the PhD research program they offer.) Once you’ve done that, you need to check the universities you chose for scholarship announcements, and make sure you check the PhD scholarships as these universities also offer scholarships for undergraduate students. After you put your hands on the scholarship announcements, you’ll find sufficient information about the application process and requirements, just make sure you check what costs the scholarship covers, because some offered scholarships are limited to only tuition fees, after that you have to cover your personal expenses. Not all of them are like this though, so you still have a good chance.

Now if you want to go the other way, which is to search for a research center’s scholarship offering, that would be your most flexible option. You can do this either following my guide here to the end, or by again searching the Internet for things like these:

  • PhD Student required (needed, wanted, and so on) in “your research area” + “preferably the next academic year”
  • PhD studentship + research center + “your research area”
  • Research Assistant required (needed, wanted, and so on) in “your research area”

Of course I’m assuming that people reading this know how to manipulate search parameters to find the best results. I use double quotes all the time, but some people prefer a more generalized form.

My personal thoughts on this last method is that it’s better and more systematic to search for academic departments and research centers in your research area and check whatever they may be offering. It will save you a long and painful screening process of the search results.

Finally some useful link for this entry in general:

I hope this entry would be of use to anyone reading it, and if anything needs more clarification, I’d be happy to respond to the request by e-mail or via comments.

Explaining Scholarships: Part 1 June 17, 2008

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Research.
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This is the third topic of its kind; previously, I wrote two entries about managing a thesis and establishing contact with a foreign academic institution. This time, I’m going to talk about the complex subject that is SCHOLARSHIPS, and how could anybody get one. A scholarship is an award of access to an institution, or a financial aid award for an individual student scholar, for the purpose of furthering their education. (Definition from Wikipedia.org)

The key to understand this topic is to realize that it has four branches:

  1. Egyptian-funded scholarships; or what we call “be3that” or in English “missions”. These missions generally involve specific research areas.
  2. Governmental scholarships funded by foreign countries; they’re typically a part of the cultural and academic collaboration between Egypt and other countries. They are called “mena7″ or in English “Scholarships”. Like missions, these scholarships involve specific research areas.
  3. Scholarships offered by foreign entities to promote higher education in developing countries. These scholarships don’t necessarily involve specific research areas.
  4. Scholarships offered by academic institutions abroad and announced by a specific research center, academic department, or school, and always are offered for a specific subject area.

I’ll explain the first two in this entry then the other two in the next entry.

1- Egyptian-Funded Scholarships

Missions are scholarships that are funded by the Egyptian government in order for researchers to acquire academic degrees in subjects for which the resources are not available locally. Of course, that’s a “rosy” theory, because in real life these scholarships can be for any subject the researcher may choose. The Egyptian government specifies a budget for research, a part of this budget is allocated to missions. This part of budget is distributed to the Egyptian universities, and each university in turn distributes its part of the budget to the faculties. I don’t know the exact mechanisms for this distribution or how the decision of the allocation is made (is it equal distribution? is it based on the number of TA staff? does it depend on the importance of the faculty in serving community?) But I heard that the process begins with the academic departments; they specify what they need in terms of missions, this goes all the way up until it reaches the university council, then the budget needed is determined and requested.

I don’t think young researchers have any say in the matter, they can however pressure the faculty administration for more missions, especially if it’s a faculty like ours with a young and promising specialty (i.e. computer science.)

What to do: Keep in contact with the department head and the faculty vice dean for postgraduate affairs. Constant nagging is a magical tool to get what you want from them. Also, you can go to the university’s cultural affairs department “Alsho2oon Althaqafeyya” and ask employees about upcoming missions. This will keep you up to date maybe even before the news reach the faculty. Another useful thing is to constantly check the web site of the cultural affairs hosted by the Ministry of Higher Education, in addition to the local newspapers. Announcements for missions can always be found there when such missions are available.


2- Governmental Scholarships Funded by Foreign Countries

These scholarships are announced by academic institutions on their web sites. These institutions send mail announcements to the Egyptian universities and these announcements can always be found at the departments’ secretaries. These scholarships have deadlines, meaning that if you have to apply before that deadline. There are three main problems with these scholarships:

  • They sometimes come from countries that we don’t fancy as research destinations (for example Malaysia or China or Eastern Europe.) That’s not always the case though.
  • The mail announcements from these institutions sometimes arrive just before their deadline due to poor postal service, this leaves the researcher with a narrow window of opportunity to successfully apply.
  • Applying for these scholarships does not guarantee admission, because they’re highly competitive. The institutions receive many applications and filter them based on academic merits and specialties.

What to do: Keep in contact with the department secretary, you don’t want to miss the deadline of a good scholarship by a day (exactly what used to happen to me!) Also, such announcements are sometimes available through the cultural affairs website: http://www.mohe-casm.edu.eg/ and also the website of the postgraduate affairs of Mansoura University: http://www.mans.edu.eg/arabic/pgs/. When you do get your hands on a good scholarship, pay attention to the details of the application process; you don’t want to waste your efforts because you did something wrong.

Guide to Establishing Good Correspondence With International Professors and Institutes November 16, 2007

Posted by mervatabuelkheir in Research.

In this second installment, I’ll talk about what a researcher should do and in what order to establish a correspondence with an international professor or institute. The process is not greatly different if you’re pursuing a Master or a PhD degree, when there are differences, I’ll try to highlight them.

First of all, this is an extensive process that can give you a smash hit from the start or can go on and on for some time, so the key to complete it successfully and reach the goal is to be patient, dedicated, and appreciative (I’ll get to the appreciative part later). The following steps pretty much summarize what’s to be done:

1. Identify the countries in which your research is strongly established (for example: East Asian countries are strong in hardware-oriented research, robotics, AI, …, while European Countries have a strong base for applicable research, business-oriented research, …)

2. In each country you choose, identify the list of top 100 universities there. Note that there are numerous terminologies used there that are different in meaning. For example: a university is either composed of faculties (just like us) or schools (a school being an analogy for faculty), or departments (a department being an analogy for faculty). Faculties and schools of a university are not necessarily in a single building, rather they’re distributed all over a campus that’s much wider that what we know here. A faculty or a school can be composed of many departments, possibly located in a single building. A university also may have research centers which can be either independent (resembling a faculty) or a part of a certain department or faculty.

3. Now that you identified the list of universities, check in each one whether they have a faculty, school, department, or center that are related to the field of study that you plan to pursue. Keep an orderly journal on your computer for each university so that you won’t get confused, I personally use Microsoft Office OneNote (brilliant!).

4. In each faculty/school/department, you’ll usually find the following information:

(i) General info about the faculty/school/department
(ii) What undergraduate students study
(iii) What postgraduate students study
(iv) Research activities and areas
(v) Scientific degrees given
(vi) People (Faculty –> meaning professors, doctors, lecturers)
(vii) Current events and activities

In the previous list, only (i, iii, iv, v, vi) are of importance to you. You want to know about the faculty/school/department, what degrees they give (so you know if you can go there or not), what are their research areas (so you’d know whether they can support your proposed research or not) and what postgraduate students study, because that’s what you are. You also want to know the names and contacts of faculty members and what their research interests are so you can later choose who you’d want to contact.

5. The next thing to identify is whether the faculty/school/department provides the degree you’re pursuing by research or by courses. Usually, a Master degree is provided by courses, while a PhD degree will differ according to the country of choice. Let’s elaborate further:

  • A Master degree by courses means that the faculty/school/department offers a collection of postgraduate courses that you need to choose from until you complete a certain amount of credit defined by the requirements (will discuss requirements later), these courses usually are taken over a year if you’re a full-time student. After you complete the courses, you need to choose a research subject and write a research proposal to be presented to the faculty/school/department. If they agree to your proposal, they assign a supervisor to you and you start working for the amount of a year-two years max, by the end of which you need to present a dissertation (thesis) and defend your work orally in front of a referees committee. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the preparation of a research proposal is a piece of cake; it has to be detailed yet not long, and you need to device your research methodology carefully. It can be rejected if it does not meet the standards of the faculty/school/department.
  • A PhD degree can be obtained either by research or by courses. In fact, there’s not a great difference between the two. A PhD by research involves working with the supervisor(s) during the research phases proposed by you, with the possibility of taking some courses in the first six months of your stay at the university. A PhD by courses involves taking an extensive set of course for the duration of a year to two years (depending on the number of courses you should take to fulfill the credit required) then proceeding to work on a research dissertation; just like the Master degree. The difference here is in the amount of course credit required, which depends on whatever previous courses you took back home and whether you already hold a Master degree (Yes people, you don’t need to hold a Master degree to take a PhD degree, though you’ll need to take additional courses). Some faculties/schools/departments will acknowledge your Master degree while others will not. Anyway, whether you choose a PhD by research or by courses involves preparing a PhD dissertation (thesis) that you will defend orally in front of a committee. Not all faculties/schools/departments offer both options, in USA and Canada and some universities in Japan and Hong Kong, you can only take a PhD by courses. IN the rest of the world, you have a choice or you work by research. So you need to read carefully what the type of PhD offer is. As to the matter of which is better, it really depends on you:
  1. A PhD by courses has the following advantages: the courses provide a variety in study and practical involvement with teams of other researchers, and some people are more comfortable with course work, whose objectives are clearly defined. Also, courses give you a chance to see how different professors work and think and makes it possible for you to make an informed decision about who’s the professor you want to work with. The courses will often involve seminars and projects that are considered preludes to the actual PhD work, giving you more ideas about the “hot” points in current research. However, course work involves a lot of studying, and you have to maintain high grades in all course for all the duration it takes to finish course work and you have to work on many projects for different courses. So unless you’re fully prepared to meet the stress with equal vigor and hard work, you’ll take forever to finish.
  2. A PhD by research resembles what we’re doing here in Egypt; you make a proposal, then you’re free to conduct your research at your own pace. This has the advantage of being a little less stressful and does not involve the hectic course schedule and project deadlines. However, since you work more independently, you risk the possibility of falling behind your timeline. So you must not give yourself much slack and you need to try and stick to your own schedule. Foreign supervisors are often polite; they will not chase after you with a stick to finish because they realize it’s your own work!

6. (Requirements part!) The next important thing to check is the admission requirements for the degree you’re pursuing. Usually you’ll find that in a section or link for “prospective students ->postgraduate”. Read the basic information provided and do not forget to check the requirements from international students, which usually involve the language scores required and whether recommendation is needed by local professors. DON’T forget to check the accommodations provided (in-campus housing, near campus, or private; the best option is in-campus if available). Also, check for the deadlines for admission, usually deadlines for international students are earlier that the official deadlines (for matters related to limited places and required visas, …)

7. Make a checklist of all the required paperwork and check which is already available to you and which needs to be obtained (TOEFL, GRE, Recommendation letters,…)

8. Begin to make a list of all the professors/doctors/lecturers in the faculty/school/department you’re planning to join and who specialize in the subject area of your interest. Then proceed to write e-mails to them explaining your wish to join the faculty/school/department and your wish to have them as supervisors. That’s only preferable if you’re conducting a degree by research. There are a number of rules for writing these mails:

  • Address the professor as: Dear Professor …….. or Dear Dr. …….. According to his/her title
  • The first thing in the body of the message is to state your name and affiliation: I’m ….., a teaching assistant in ……, university of …..
  • Then proceed to state that you’re planning to apply for the degree you want and that your research interests are so and so, and that you’ll be honored if he/she agrees to supervise your work
  • State any research publications, test scores that you ALREADY have. They’re great assets in you advantage.
  • Say thank you for the time spent reading the mail; he could discard the mail and don’t bother at all, it’s gracious of him/her to read your mail and take the time to reply (that’s the appreciative part!).
  • Write a detailed signature stating your name, affiliations, and contact info.
    If the professor replies with a no, you have to reply with a thank you anyway for your time, otherwise, he/she will usually ask for your plan of work, so be ready with it! Also be ready with any information they need about your place of work or future plans (when do you plan to join the research,…)
  • Make the mail as short as possible with separate paragraphs for separate parts of what you want to say. Be concise, don’t tell a life story!
  • DO NOT write to more than ne professor in a single department or school. Write to as many as you like, but not to two people who work together. Wait a week until the first replies, if he/she doesn’t, then safely proceed to his other colleagues. Notice that they have a weekend on Saturday and Sunday so don’t send Friday expecting a reply the day after. Also notice the time zone differences.
  • Wait, be patient, and watch for admission deadlines and send your papers before them, the earlier you send your papers, the earlier they will process them, and the earlier you’re granted admission and accommodation.

I hope this article sheds some light on this subject that’s usually left to the imagination of the researcher!