A while ago, I received a message from a very concerned well-wisher. He wondered why I chose to pursue a PhD in Africa – and in Ghana of all places (those were his exact words). He added that I was one of the most intelligent people he had met (we met during our undergrad days), and a number of our peers – including himself – went on to pursue postgraduate programmes in the US, UK and Canada. If you ask me, his concerns were valid, and I had my reasons. Well, as an adventure lover and an adrenaline junkie, I decided to take the life-threatening risk of doing a PhD in Africa just for the fun of it. Lol… Ok, I am kidding! But jokes apart, I had my reasons, and you need to be patient enough to read this piece to the very end to understand them. Deal?
You know how motivational speakers say, “you lose ALL the opportunities you do not take”? I would say that I explored ALL the available opportunities to me at the time, and I settled for what I felt was best. Of course, it was a calculated risk…but it was one that I was willing to take.
What I anticipated... Before I started searching for PhD opportunities, I was clear about why I needed a PhD and what I wanted from a PhD programme. I decided to think outside the box and explore all available opportunities irrespective of where they were – thank God I did. The most important thing to me (at the time) was the PhD opportunity that would provide me with the greatest learning experience.
The opportunities I saw... The centre in Ghana where I undertook my PhD programme was (at the time) a recently established centre of excellence that was generously funded by the World Bank and Wellcome Trust. They had state-of-the-art facilities that could enable me to conduct high-quality research within the shores of Africa. As part of my PhD fellowship, they offered an all-expense-paid 6-month experiential learning period in any lab of my choice anywhere in the world (including the US, UK, and Canada). Also, most of the faculty members were foreign-trained and had returned home to build capacity. The centre also had a rich network of international faculty members from some of the top universities worldwide who visited periodically to teach courses, deliver guest lectures, or undertake collaborative projects.
The 4-year PhD curriculum included a year of coursework, equivalent to a Master’s programme in some institutions. The course work would acquaint me with different concepts in my area of specialisation – particularly useful because I was venturing into something different from what I studied in previous degrees – and would be invaluable for my long-term success. This one-year coursework would serve as a buffering period to help me acclimatise, I thought within myself. I saw an opportunity to observe first-hand the evolution of a start-up research facility into the leading hub for studying infectious diseases in West Africa and one of the best in Africa. This kind of research leadership training cannot be acquired even in the best leadership schools. It was my dream to someday set up a similar facility in my home country… To eliminate any personal bias, I reached out to students already in postgraduate programmes in the centre, and I got first-hand testimonials that informed my final decision. I got a very competitive PhD fellowship that was an excellent opportunity for me to be very objective. So, you see, it wasn’t all about the adrenaline rush… lol.
The REAL reason... I have shared a bit on my thought process prior to settling for the “African PhD opportunity”, but let me add this (because this is the most important reason, whether you believe it or not) … As a Christian, I know the importance of committing my plans to God and asking Him to direct my steps. I sought the face of God in the place of prayer for guidance on what steps to take, and I felt God leading me to come to Ghana. I shut out all the noise when people asked in bewilderment, “Did you say you are going to Ghana?” “What is the attraction to Ghana?” “Would you get the right training you need there?”, “Are there good PhD programmes in Ghana?” “You are too smart to settle for Ghana”. In retrospect, my stay in Ghana so far has been a schooling process. Not just in terms of my PhD, but life in general. I have learnt so much… I have grown so much… I wouldn’t have done things any differently.
Thinking win/win... While I was searching for PhD opportunities, I came across a professor based in one of the universities in the UK, which I thought was a great match for me. His area of research dovetailed with my interest, and his name appeared on almost every paper I read related to my proposed area of study. Luckily, I was introduced to him through a friend I had met during a course I attended (the benefits of networking… lol). Our interaction has been one of the most revolutionary moments of my career. He remains my career mentor to date. Interestingly, I had a PhD offer from his university at the time, and I was seriously looking forward to working with him. We were exploring scholarship options to fund my study. So, when I got this PhD fellowship offer, what did I do? I told him about the offer I had received and asked him if he would mind co-supervising my PhD research. Of course, he agreed. Mind you, this understanding was after I had discussed it with my lead supervisor, who welcomed the idea. So, it was a win/win for me. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to carry out a study that I designed (not one that was dictated by available funding), was interested in, and also for the liberty to work with a carefully selected supervisory team that I was happy with.
Should I have waited longer for the perfect opportunity? Maybe. However, I want y’all to know that there is no such thing as a perfect opportunity. Every opportunity is, in reality, what you make out of it. I believe that the ability to quickly make decisions that present perfect growth opportunities for you is a life skill that everyone needs to hone. If I had waited a little longer, I inevitably would have gotten what some of my well-wishers might have considered “more prestigious” opportunities…but that would have come at the expense of precious time that could have been spent more productively.
Making it work! I can’t begin to tell you how challenging it is to do a PhD programme in an African university. The honest truth is that a PhD programme anywhere in the world is challenging. However, a PhD in Africa takes this challenge to the highest imaginable level. (I am not even joking; you need to experience it to understand better). First, you need to come to terms with the reality, then BE PREPARED TO PUT IN THE WORK REQUIRED TO MAKE A SUCCESS OUT OF IT. I cannot over-stress the need to be very intentional about looking for courses/conferences/seminars within and especially outside of Africa to stay abreast with emerging trends in your field and acquire skills that would make your research a little easier. You would also need to establish a rich network of fellow PhD students, collaborators and mentors that can support you during your “tempestuous ride “… lol. There are lots of ways you can achieve this these days.
Do I have any regrets? Not exactly. A valuable lesson I have learnt in life is how to turn life’s lemons into lemonades. Therefore, I do not see my African PhD as a disadvantage. In fact, I think it is a competitive advantage. It has helped me develop incredible resilience in pursuing my career goals and think innovatively to use the available resources to achieve my target objectives. These skills, and other skills I have learnt in the process, have defined (and refined) me, and I would not trade these experiences for anything in the world.
Are you considering a PhD in Africa? I hope this piece inspires you to give that decision a critical thought, so you can decide on what works best for you. Do you have any specific questions you would like me to answer? Feel free to drop in the comments below, and I would be glad to answer them.
What's next for me? With my (African) PhD, my career prospects are limitless. I know my worth, and I am confident enough to know how valuable I would be to any organisation that I choose to work with. If any prospective employer in the global scene allows my African degrees to blur their sense of judgment so that they fail to give me a chance to prove my worth, too bad! I deserve a lot better than they can offer. Periodt.
You know how this kind of story ends in the movies, “Don’t try this at home!!!”. If you are an adventure-seeker (like I am), be guided.
PS: I am curating a very detailed memoir of my PhD experiences. I want it to be beneficial and relevant to YOU…so please, engage with this post. It would help me know how to tailor it to suit your needs. Many thanks.
Categories: My PhD Experience