Want to do your PhD in Africa? Here’s what you need to know

Embarking on the path to a PhD is a scary business. Shutterstock

A Doctor of Philosophy, which most people know as a PhD, is the highest academic accolade. It demands a substantial investment of time, equipment, meticulous supervision and conscientiousness.

More and more students are registering for doctoral studies across Africa. They’re doing so in pursuit of higher qualifications and better future career opportunities. But many are left floundering when they try to actually get working on their PhDs. Masters’ programmes simply don’t equip students with the research skills they need, nor the conceptual thinking and critical analysis that’s so important for PhD study.

So what is holding Africa’s PhD candidates back and what can be done differently? To answer these questions, I’ve drawn from lessons learnt while working with a group of fellows in the Consortium for Advanced Research Training in Africa (CARTA). This is a consortium of nine African public universities that supports 140 fellows who are pursuing PhDs in population and public health. Their experiences and concerns may help others who are embarking on the tough, sometimes lonely journey to obtaining a PhD.

The dark alleys of research

The CARTA fellows are mostly full-time faculty members, usually assistant lecturers or lecturers. They are talented, well respected and have the potential to be developed into research leaders. But evaluations conducted with the latest cohort reveal that none of these factors keep them from battling with even the basics of starting their PhD work.

One of the problems lies with the structure of masters’ programmes in Africa. These tend to last for two or three years. They’re traditionally assumed to be the foundation for career advancement in academia. But their focus tends to be on a strong component of course work, with limited opportunities for serious research. And research, of course, is the backbone of any PhD degree.

When research is included in masters’ programmes, the scope of the work is narrow and the quality of supervision is poor. Candidates are left to flounder in the dark alleys of research. In Kenya, where I am based, it is very rare for masters’ students to produce work that’s good enough to publish in peer-reviewed journals. Their work doesn’t influence policy- and decision-making. Masters’ graduates get a feather in their cap, but that’s really all.

During their evaluations, the fellows said they were struggling to comprehend the philosophical underpinnings of their research topics. They seem not to know that research methodologies are informed by diverse paradigms. Those from “hard” sciences backgrounds indicated that they didn’t understand philosophy nor see its value to research.

Most have difficulty in identifying the research gap in their topic of interest and insist that the topic has not been studied in the geographical area they’re focusing on. They fail to appreciate that the essence of PhD research is to generate new knowledge and that one cannot contribute to this without a clear understanding about the current state of affairs in their subject.

Our work has found that many PhD students are apathetic about searching for and reading relevant articles. They don’t have the basic software skills needed to search databases and often haven’t heard of open-source software that might make their task easier and cheaper.

Without reading and a critical appraisal of sources, the students really battle to develop a workable research question. A good number end up joining sentences derived from various journals conveniently to create what is submitted as the literature review. The write-up lacks logic and coherence, and is marked by high levels of plagiarism.

One problem leads to another: most students struggle to understand and develop theoretical and conceptual frameworks for their proposed study.

Some of the approaches we’re trying through CARTA might really improve people’s experiences of their PhDs. They have certainly boosted the fellows’ experience of this challenging academic journey.

Jump-starting the journey

CARTA has developed a month-long residential seminar during which new students are equipped with the necessary skills and competencies to jump-start their doctoral journey.

Topics in the curriculum include knowledge philosophy; reading, writing and referencing; and how to develop a good research question and a conceptual framework. The seminars are learner-centred, with space for group work and one-on-one consultations. Since the seminars are residential, the fellows also get to spend lots of time with each other, sharing ideas and advice, and with mentors.

Feedback from previous seminars has suggested that this approach is really working. Fellows say that they find the sessions very helpful and this is obvious in the quality of their work. Some have even changed their PhD topics because of the seminars and are comfortable defending their new ideas when they return to their institutions.

Of course, PhD students must bear a great deal of the responsibility for bringing their research to life. They ought to know that one cannot lead a pedestrian life and expect to receive the highest possible academic accolade. It requires hard work, commitment and developing the skills I’ve outlined here.