Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Studying & Teaching Security Studies in Pakistan vs. the U.S.: Interview with Sannia Abdullah, PhD
Do you ever struggle with following the path on which your heart might lead you? If so, to help motivate and gently nudge you to follow your dream, here is a riveting and deeply personal interview with Dr. Abdullah, that shows how even amid the great challenges that life might bring, one must embrace uncertainty, persist in achieving their dreams, and confidently follow the path on which their heart may lead them. In this inspiring article you will read about Dr. Abdullah's personal journey within the academia, which started in her birth country of Pakistan and is now flourishing in her adopted country of the United States of America. Once, a faculty member in the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at an Islamabad based university and now, a Research Affiliate at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, Dr. Abdullah opens up about: the ups and downs experienced by women who decide to join Pakistan's workforce, the challenges experienced when adapting to Stanford University's rigorous academic environment, the rationale behind her "motivation to study, work, and contribute towards positive change," and much more.
Interview by Sorina I. Crisan, PhD
Dr. Sannia Abdullah is a Research Affiliate with the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). She is the founder and host of the podcast show: Women with Ambition – Sharing Stories with Sannia Abdullah. Her political science research focuses broadly on questions of nonproliferation and regional security issues; and specifically, on: Governance, Organizations and Institutions, Military, and Nuclear Policy.
As a political scientist, focusing on the fields of governance and security issues, you have now worked both in Pakistan and the United States. Could you briefly describe the first steps you took to advance your academic career, right after completing your PhD? It would be fascinating to hear about your experiences working as a Research Fellow with the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI) and thereafter as a Lecturer in the Department of Defense and Strategic Studies at the Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU), in Pakistan.
First of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to share my experience.
My first job as a Research Scholar at ISSI, an Islamabad based think tank, was a lifetime opportunity in the way that I worked closely with the then director general of the institution: the former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan, (late) Tanvir Ahmad Khan. Unlike many retired ambassadors, Tanvir Ahmad Khan was a learning institution in himself. As an Oxfordian himself, he guided me early on, in the direction of becoming a scholar.
The challenge of working on nuclear and security-related issues is less about research and more about maintaining your intellectual integrity, when at a young age. For instance, I was personally contacted by the military personnel to write and work for them. At that time, it felt like a great idea, but Tanvir Khan helped me to reflect upon my career choices (i.e., whether I wanted to work for others or establish my own credibility as a scholar). I obviously chose the latter. That decision helped my course towards an academic life.
When I was selected as a lecturer at the QAU, in 2011, it was a tough road. I had military officers sitting among young students in my classroom and, during several instances, it was hard for me to balance a civilian narrative alongside a hardcore military perspective that was coming from older professionals, who did not appreciate any disagreements.
Within the Pakistani society, women like me receive less support within the workplace, because of the patriarchal social fabric [of the country]. I faced several bumps in the road, but when I look back, I feel it defines who I am today.
How have your experiences working in Pakistan's academia prepare you for the work you are now accomplishing at the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC)?
Not directly. Pakistani think tanks’ environment and academia are very different. There's more emphasis on staying in the good books of the establishment then actual research.
At CISAC, I learned a lot about how to conduct research. Very basic but, very important. Like many international scholars, I received many kicks on my project. We need them because that helps our writing skills. [While at CISAC] I worked with Scott D. Sagan, and that was the best time of my career.
By now, you have published multiple book chapters and academic articles. Your latest article was published in the Space and Defense Journal of the U.S. Air Force Academy and University of Nebraska, and is titled: Pakistan’s Space Program: From Sounding Rockets to Satellite Setbacks. Currently, you are working on a book manuscript. When and why did you become interested in conducting research in the fields of governance and security issues?
I became interested in security-related issues by default. By default, I mean that I grew up in post-9/11 Pakistan. I was in the 10th grade when 9/11 happened. When Pakistan joined the war against terrorism, the atmosphere in Islamabad changed. The beautiful City of Islamabad became a barbed-wire city with roadblocks and police checkpoints. We felt war within our country when there were rampant suicide attacks in shopping malls, festivals, and concerts or games that remained canceled for years. I remember there was a suicide attack at the university campus in Islamabad and my mother told my sister and me that she didn't know if she would see us coming back from the University. So, that fear was the motivation to study, work, and contribute towards positive change.
This year, you decided to create and run a podcast called: Women with Ambition – Sharing Stories with Sannia Abdullah. Congratulations, it is an inspiring series of interviews. I am curious to know: What inspired your choice to create this podcast and what do you intend to achieve with it?
That is a good question! The podcast has two objectives.
First, it started with a personal story. I got married to my husband, who is an American and a Christian. When I got married, I received backlash for marrying a non-Muslim. Some contemporaries at my university (back home) stirred the pot (and that included my ex-husband). I initially ignored it, as though it was a noise, until it became serious enough that I had to resign from my then job. As such, I felt the need to come forward and share my perspective, in order to clear the air.
Second, over the years I realized that in the academia and in the national security field, there are very few women. There is no mentoring for young girls and women in this discipline. In my own experience, I found very few women who genuinely support other women. So, I wanted to extend an olive branch through the podcast to simply share stories and to learn, through empathy, that we all face similar circumstances, no matter where we are born, but that we must stand up for each other.
I think that if we all talk and share about how we feel, then together, we can make a difference.
Are you noticing any academic gains from having a podcast show such as yours?
I do not think there are any academic gains, and it was not my expectation to start the podcast as well. I am trying to include women who are authors and are willing to share their journeys.
Would you like to share any remarks and/or suggestions for young scholars interested in following a similar line of research such as yours?
My advice to young scholars is to avoid shortcuts in life, particularly in research and in academia.
My students, at times, have asked me for advice on how to succeed in the academia. I honestly do not know the answer to this question. What I know is that I picked what resonated with my heart and I faithfully followed it.
At times, the decisions we make do not yield the results we are looking for and they take us in a different direction than the one hoped for. It is important to trust yourself and your choices, and to learn how to live with good or bad outcomes. So, do not try shortcuts. A longer path gives you more experience and maybe, along the way, you can find something better that you have never even imagined before the start of your academic journey.
Thank you for reading.
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Sannia Abdullah, PhD
Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC)
Podcast Founder and Host
Are you inspired by this interview and would like to learn more about Dr. Abdullah's work?
You may follow Dr. Abdullah’s work on: LinkedIn, the CISAC profile page, or her personal website. You may also listen to her inspiring podcast: Women with Ambition.
Want to learn more about the topics covered in this interview?
Consult Dr. Abdullah’s publications on Academia or on ResearchGate. Some of her publications, in English, or which have been published in Pakistani journals, may be found on: the South Asian Voices website, War on the Rocks website, or Dr. Abdullah’s personal website.
For a quick view, here are Dr. Abdullah's latest publications.
Abdullah, S. (2021). Pakistan’s Space Program: From Sounding Rockets to Satellite Setbacks, Space and Defense Journal, 12(2): 40–57. Available online here.
Ganguly, S., Smetana, M., Abdullah, S. et al. (2019), India, Pakistan, and the Kashmir dispute: unpacking the dynamics of a South Asian frozen conflict, Asia-Europe Journal, 17, 129–143. Available online here.
Abdullah, S. (2018). Nuclear Ethics? Why Pakistan Has Not Used Nuclear Weapons … Yet, The Washington Quarterly, 41(4), 157–173. Available online here.
Illustrations by: The main article photo is by Jonathan Farber, downloaded from Unsplash, courtesy of Wix.com photo gallery. The profile photo used on this page is made available on Dr. Abdullah's profile page with CISAC.
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