How to be Professionally Confused

The following is how I fell deep into the mud of a professional identity I never wanted but convinced myself I did.

I grew up in Peshawar, where we moved when I was 6, and where I stayed till I escaped for college. One doesn’t have too many options in Peshawar. Aside from the utter lack of scope of alternative professional avenues, there is a stifling societal pressure to heed the advice of your elders and let them decide your fate for you.

Which means they decide your career. I had some choice; my parents benevolently asked me if I wanted to be a doctor or an engineer when I was 13. I muttered something about becoming an artist but they just gave me a sympathetic smile, looked at each other, and decided that I was going to be an engineer.

And since I’m a sucker for self inflicted punishment, a masochistic asshole who refuses to make things easy for himself, I did a Bachelors, a Masters, and then enrolled in a PhD program in technical engineering.

There are a few why’s to be asked here. Why did I stick it out in Engineering? The simple answer is to not shame my parents or defy my culture or be labeled a quitter. I was young then.

Why did I stick to academia? The simple answer is it beat the alternative; finding a job at some oil rig in interior Sindh or a soap factory in Karachi or tobacco plant in KPK, spending your time optimizing those systems and frantically scrambling to climb up the corporate ladder faster than the next slick somehow didn’t appeal to me. At least universities have air conditioning, and who doesn’t want to be called a professor? Might as well make the best of a bad situation I figured.

Also, it became a sort of game. One with defined rules, known variables, a closed system. After almost failing out of GIKI in the third semester I learned how to get my act together, and that momentum kept driving me, that rush, in a very nerdy but real sense made me feel accomplished. I’m good at games. I hacked the system, learned the appropriate study tricks, did well. My greatest achievement came in my last semester of grad school when I studied for a three credit graduate level course – Linear Control Systems it was – for a total of one hour. And aced it.

Why did I enroll in a PhD? The answer to that can be found here. All of these applied to me.

Those 8 years – 4 undergrad and 4 grad – marked a period of self inflicted punishment of the worst kind. I had hopped on this train to nowhere to escape a shitty little city and forgotten to hop off. One day during my PhD this hard truth hit me and I realized I had to quit or be lost forever.

And quit I did. I cashed in the PhD courses to get a second Masters level degree, said goodbye to friends (veritable family), and headed on home, much to the displeasure of my father. I had no idea what was going to happen or what I was going to do.

It was the best decision I have ever made.


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