My PhD Story

I decided to become an academic after my first year as an undergraduate student at Aligarh Muslim University. It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about it before. University teaching had been my first choice ever since I understood that medical was not the subject I would pursue, but I wasn’t sure I was academically capable enough to become an academic. Before going to Aligarh, I studied for one year as an English literature student at Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh. Although I loved reading literature, I didn’t find studying literature as a student was particularly exciting. I realised that it would be difficult to become an academic of a subject that wasn’t my passion, so I started thinking of other professions, like journalism in which I showed glimpses of potentiality during my one-year part-time job as a Sports Reporter at The Bangladesh Observer.

Aligarh changed my life completely. I found Linguistics a fascinating discipline, and immediately ‘fell in love’ with the subject, which enabled me to study the subject intensively with constant encouragement by some wonderful teachers. When I came to know, after the publication of the First Year results, that I topped in my department I regained my self-confidence, and made up my mind that university teaching would be the job I should pursue. I started to work even harder maintaining my top position throughout my undergraduate and postgraduate studies. I always knew that PhD was essential to succeed as a university teacher. As a postgraduate student in the same department, I witnessed some PhD viva in the department and used to dream when I would find myself defending my thesis.

My initial plan was to do PhD in a western country. My plan was to join a university in Bangladesh, and then start trying for PhD admission in the USA, Canada or the UK. However, as soon as I came back from India after my MA, I came to know that my eldest brother, who was the only one living with my parents, would be leaving for Saudi Arabia with an excellent job at the Islamic Development Bank. The family decided that I needed to stay in Bangladesh to look after my parents. Therefore, I decided to do PhD in Aligarh by keeping my research area in Bangladesh so that I could stay in Bangladesh and pursue my research by travelling to India two or three times a year for discussions with the supervisor. I contacted my favourite teacher Prof. Fatihi, and told him that I would do PhD only under his supervision. At that time, Prof Fatihi was a Reader of the department, and was allowed to take maximum five PhD students at a time. Unsurprisingly, Prof. Fatihi’s quota was full at that time, so I decided to wait until there was a vacancy. Meanwhile, I got married and started my teaching career at a private university in Bangladesh.

I got admitted into the PhD programme at the Linguistics department in Aligarh in September 1997. I was given a waiver of regular attendance in the department during my PhD – thanks to the support of the Chairman of the department, and special support from my supervisor. However, my PhD work was getting slower because of too much teaching commitment in Bangladesh. Years passed, but my thesis was not ready. This annoyed Prof Fatihi who asked me to spend enough time in India away from all other responsibilities once my data collection was over.

After my data collection was complete I decided to spend two months in India to complete my thesis and submit it. It was April 2002. I asked for two months’ visa to the Indian High Commission, but they granted only one month. I thought I would extend it from there, so I left with the hope that two months would be enough to complete it as I already had done a couple of chapters. At that time Prof Fatihi was working in a government project in New Delhi, so I decided to stay in the Indian capital to be able to get his guidance regularly. I contacted one of my close Aligarhian friends doing PhD at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who offered me to stay in his hostel room as he was coming back to Dhaka at that time for a couple of months.

I had written two chapters in Bangladesh and gave them to Prof Fatihi in our first meeting the next day after I reached New Delhi. When I went back two days later to get his feedback, he looked furious. I still remember his first sentence – “Salman, you have lost your touch. This is not a PhD thesis.” I was extremely demoralised at hearing this. Prof. Fatihi soon regained his cool and showed me specific areas where I needed to work. He then gave me lots of encouragement, and said that all these problems arose because of my distance from him, and reassured me that he had full confidence in my abilities.

Before I could start on the thesis, the first thing I had to do was extend my visa for another month, so I went to the Visa Office hoping that it would not be difficult to extend the visa for only one month. I was shocked when I heard that they would not extend my visa. Not only that, the behaviour of the visa officer was appalling. He said, “Break your leg and get a medical certificate, then I will extend your visa.” I was flabbergasted. What should I do? I immediately went to Prof Fatihi and told him that I won’t be able to submit that time as I had less than one month to complete a monumental task. He listened to me with patience, and then told me that I should try to complete and submit within one month. He assured me that my data was rich, and my writing ability was good and fast, and if I could keep my shoulder to the wheel, it was possible to accomplish the task. I don’t know how, but his words of encouragement gave me renewed confidence. I resolved to submit the thesis by any means.

The rest is history. I decided to allocate six hours for sleeping, eating and praying, and work 18 hours a day. I didn’t see the daylight, eating whatever horrible food was available at the hostel dining room so that no time was wasted. I contacted a typist who would type whatever I would write in every two days. By the endless blessings of the Almighty, I finished writing all the chapters three days before my scheduled departure for Bangladesh. I was confident that Prof Fatihi would approve the thesis, because he was very pleased with the chapter I had showed him earlier.

It had been planned that I would take the draft to Prof Fatihi for his approval by 5 pm on 12th April so that he could take it with him to Aligarh. I would then go to Aligarh the next day and complete all the formalities of thesis submission so that it could be submitted on 14th April – the day before my departure on the 15th. I was praying all the time for His help in doing all the tasks on schedule because one miss would have a knock-on effect, which could jeopardise the whole effort. However, Allah’s test was not over. I had an experimental chapter in which there were some statistical calculations for which I had to go to a specialist typist. Unfortunately, the typist could not finish on time because of the power cut. I called Prof Fatihi at his office to wait a bit longer. He agreed to wait until 6 pm but said he couldn’t wait after that, because he would miss the train. There was no way I could hurry things as I needed to revise the statistical calculations several times to ensure precision. When I ultimately reached Prof. Fatihi’s office, it was too late. He had left after waiting until 6.15 pm.

I instantly took the decision to leave for Aligarh at that moment. When I reached Prof Fatihi’s house in Aligarh, it was almost 11 pm. The lights were off, so there was no way I could hand him my draft that night. I went back to him first thing the next morning. What would you expect my supervisor to do? He had already made all arrangements for me. He asked one of his students who had submitted his thesis the previous month to help me with the process. He had also contacted the person who would format the thesis and do the binding. He asked me to leave the draft with him so that he could go through the thesis while I did the formalities. This is Prof Fatihi, who would always go the extra mile to help his students.

Things became very smooth in Aligarh due to the help I got. There are a lot of formalities to submit a PhD thesis, but everything was done on time. While I was running from one department to another, the basic formatting of my thesis was being done at the binding centre. I met Prof Fatihi in the evening to get his feedback, and also for his signature if he approved. Although I was confident about the quality of the thesis, I was also aware that in spite of being very supportive, Prof Fatihi would never sign a thesis, which doesn’t deserve to be submitted. He removed all my worries with a smile as soon as he stepped into his living room. He said that very few people could do what I had done in such a short time, but added, “Although your ability is even better than this, it is certainly good enough to earn you the degree”. Then he signed and wished me good luck to submit it the next day. The next day, 14th April 2002, after a crazy one month I finally submitted the thesis.

After a tensed few months’ wait I got an e-mail from Prof Fatihi that the examiners’ reports had come, and I should travel to Aligarh to defend my thesis. Within a week, I found myself in Prof Fatihi’s home in Aligarh. I was informed that my two external examiners were from Banaras Hindu University and University of Michigan in the USA. My worry was whether I would be awarded the degree immediately, or whether I would be asked to do some corrections. Prof Fatihi assured me that I should not worry as both the examiners’ reports were very positive.

The next day, I sat in the departmental seminar library to defend my thesis. The examiners’ panel included the external examiner – Chairman of the Linguistics department of Banaras Hindu University, the Chairman of my department Prof Beg, and my supervisor. There were about 35 to 40 people attending the viva including all the teachers of the department, some teachers from the English department, and Research scholars and MA students of my department. The viva took almost two hours of intense questions covering all the chapters. As the viva progressed, I felt more and more confident and answered all the questions to the satisfaction of the examiners. The panel went back to the Chairman’s room, and after about 15 minutes, they all came back and the Chairman announced, “The PhD is awarded”. I was over the moon, and before all the felicitations and hugging, I said, ‘Alhamdulillah’.

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