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Maryam Shafiee, an Iran-based doctorate scholar in US

Iranian women ahead in education, behind in jobs

By Ali Arshad

Maryam Shafiee, an Iran-based doctorate scholar in US
Maryam Shafiee, an Iran-based doctorate scholar in US

TEMPE, US: Just like Pakistan, Iranian women are taking a lead in the admission pyramid of public universities over the last two decades, as they are usually more studious than men and gain better grades, however, they are unable to have access to equal job opportunities with men, although they are able to compete men in the job market. These thoughts were shared by Maryam Shafiee, an Iran-based doctorate scholar of electrical engineering at Arizona State University.

Following are the details of her discussion with The Educationist, a premiere education newspaper of Pakistan:

The Educationist: First of all please do tell us about your early life and education, in brief. (native city, parents, where your schooling, high school, etc )

Maryam Shafiee: I was born and raised in Tehran. My elementary school, mid school and high school all were public schools. I did my undergraduate studies at Shahid Beheshti University (National University of Iran) and my masters at Iran University of Science and Technology, both of top universities in Iran, in electrical engineering. Currently I am doing my PhD in EE at Arizona State University.

“Iranian women are having a more and more significant role in higher level education over last 100 years. Statistics show that more than 60 percent of the admitted participants in entrance exam to public universities are women.”

The Educationist: Please tell as briefly about the basic primary level, middle level and higher education system of Iran.

Maryam Shafiee: When I was going to school, the primary school included 5 years, middle school 3 years and high school was 3 years. In second year of high school the students must choose their major from one the four options, 1) Mathematics and Physics, 2) Applied science 3) Human science 4) Fine arts. The last 1 year which was named as “pre-university’ level, supposedly prepared you for the college entrance exam or Konkoor. The exam includes questions from a vast variety of topics among more than a million competitors. One could guess how significant could be the exam for the students and their parents. Recently I know the system is changed to 6 years of primary level and 6 years of high school but the rest are the same as before. Schools are either public or private which apparently are much more expensive than the other type for claiming a better preparation for Konkoor. Universities also are divided into two types: 1) Public (Governmental) 2) Private. On the contrary to public pre-college schools, the best universities in Iran are mostly public universities. Some are better than others but at the end even the not very well known public universities are considered better than private ones.

The Educationist: Where women stand nowadays in university education in Iran?

Maryam Shafiee doing work in lab
Maryam Shafiee doing work in lab

Maryam Shafiee: Iranian women are having a more and more significant role in higher level education over last 100 years. Statistics show that more than %60 of the admitted participants in entrance exam to public universities are women. Women are taking the top ranks in the admission pyramid of public universities over the last two decades. They are usually more studious than men and usually gain better GPAs in higher education levels. Nevertheless, they are not able to compete with men in the job market yet.

The Educationist: What are the pros and cons of doing an engineering degree in Iran?

Maryam Shafiee: Engineering is one of the most prestigious degrees in Iran. It is pretty hard to get admitted to engineering programs in top universities. Once you get in, you are expected to be very strong in mathematics. In my major Physics also plays a significant role. Professors mostly focus on theoretical side more than practical side of the topics. Thus, as a student in Iran you turn into more of a theoretician than a practicing engineer. There are pros and cons to this educational method. You can analyze and theorize the problems better but you may not be a well prepared practical design engineer. One of the reason for that is universities in Iran usually don’t have access to higher technology design software or high tech lab equipment. Also there is zero or very small collaboration between universities and industry.

Engineering is one of the most prestigious degrees in Iran. It is pretty hard to get admitted to engineering programs in top universities. Once you get in, you are expected to be very strong in mathematics. Professors mostly focus on theoretical side more than practical side of the topics. Thus, as a student in Iran you turn into more of a theoretician than a practicing engineer.

The Educationist: How is it difficult to be an engineering student as a woman?

Maryam Shafiee: Being an engineering student is not easy as this is a challenging area no matter in which country you study. However, I would like to explain how it is difficult to be a female engineering student. For whatever reason, engineering is most times known as a masculine area. No wonder that I often find myself in a room full of men, having not only to represent myself but also my gender. As a woman, I always have to work double; first same as every other engineer, I face the challenges and do my best to make things work, and second I have to prove myself to my male companions; that I am right and I know what I am doing; that I am a good engineer despite the fact that I am a woman!

The Educationist: Why did you decided to do your PhD in the US instead of Iran?

Maryam Shafiee: For higher level of education, US universities have more facilities and better disciplines. I wanted to do my degree in one of the most well-known universities across the world. I am most likely not able to find a proper job out of Iran with a degree from Iran but I can easily find my desirable job anywhere in the world with a degree from a top university in the US.

The Educationist: Tell us about the faculty behavior and practical facilities in ASU in your academic discipline.

Maryam Shafiee: “I’m happy to say that I have a helpful and supportive adviser. There is trust between my adviser and me, and I know she believes in me, which is especially necessary for professionalizing young scholars who are also adjusting to new culture and country. Unfortunately, I have seen some dysfunctional advisers-advisee relationships that can really break down a promising scholar’s morale: (cuts, threats, contempt,etc).”

In the case of practical facilities, we have a big lab with a variety of lab equipment that are almost sufficient for any type of testing and measurements.

The Educationist: Any weakness our suggestions for improvement regarding academic system in Iran, because you have closely observed the system here?

Maryam Shafiee: To answer briefly for my home country, open collaboration between industry and universities, focusing the curriculum on relevant subjects, trend toward practical course projects in the syllables, provide more facilities in the labs, friendly and respectful relationship between professors and students and avoid employee-boss interactions, hiring faculties based on competency not patronage.

The Educationist: What difference you have noticed in American PhD students and others including those of Iran, India and Pakistan etc?

Maryam Shafiee: There are not many American PhDs in engineering. In fact zero number in my department. They would rather at most finish a master degree and join industry for earning much more money. Students from Middle East or Asia are hard workers since they have fought with many problems to be where they are now. The other thing is since foreign students are not citizens of the US and because of their fragile immigration status, they are obliged to stay at school anyways. Hence they are very susceptible to any sort of abusing from faculties or staff.

The Educationist: What is the cost of education and living is US?

Maryam Shafiee: Tuition for my program is almost $35000 a year although I don’t pay a

Maryam Shafiee, with here class-fellows and friends
Maryam Shafiee, with here class-fellows and friends

nything since I am working as a research associate. Education costs a lot if you don’t have any scholarships. Living costs of course depends on your lifestyle. As a student for instance you might share a home with one or more people to decrease the rent cost and etc.

The Educationist: What is the difference within Maryam Shafiee before coming here and after being here. What remained missing in you if you never been to here in ASU?

Maryam Shafiee: In terms of education, I learnt a lot. I could see me as an actual engineer here. But generally speaking, living in another country was the experience I was aiming for before moving here. I learned to live by myself. ASU gave me the opportunity to meet people from various cultures and made new friends. I learned to tolerate very different opinions. Diversity is one of the ASU’s policies. If you want to learn something new or some skill ASU is the best and cheapest place for that. It’s quite an awesome experience!

The Educationist: What are your plans after completing your doctorate degree?

Maryam Shafiee: I have not decided yet. I want to live in my home country close to my family, but at the same time I am not sure if a proper job (either in academia or industry) is guaranteed for me in Iran.

The Educationist: What message you want to give to those students who are still perusing for admission in engineering doctorate in US, especially ASU?

Maryam Shafiee: Make sure you are very motivated to do this. You need to be prepared for some difficulties for sure. Starting a life by yourself is not an easy task. Add to that no friends or family, different language and culture and adapting to new environment.

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