My “African” PhD Journey

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

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43 replies

  1. This experience of yours is very encouraging. It speaks of hope and gives the assurance that good opportunities still exist in Africa. I hope this also encourages some supervisors to continue to help researchers achieve their dreams and finish their researches in record-time. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Definitely! There are lots of great opportunities within the African continent. I wish more people won’t be too myopic to see them. It’s really heart-warming to know that you find this post encouraging.

      You just raised a very valid point there: the nature and quality of supervision in Africa. That is one of the numerous hurdles one had to contend with. I should do a post discussing the challenges of PhD programs in Africa and proffering solutions to some of these that worked for me. You have just given me ideas for a follow up blog post. Thanks so much 😍

      Liked by 1 person

      • Very bold and courageous. I quite appreciate your attitude and resilience.
        Congratulations.

        Liked by 1 person

      • This has been very helpful.
        I saw you a couple of times in WACCBIP but you looked too busy to approach.
        This has opened my eyes to not narrow my search but widen my horizon and to actively listen and involve God in my decision making.
        Thank you very much.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Awww… I am so glad to hear that you found this blog post very helpful.

          😀 A number of people say that too… Everyone is typically busy, but you never know how lucky you can get unless you try. I think my nerdy eyeglasses makes me look way more serious than I actually am 😅

          Sure. There are lots of opportunities everywhere. We need to find them, take advantage of them, and let God handle the rest.

          Like

  2. Pearl you are an inspiration.
    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This is inspiring,
    Thanks for sharing ma
    God bless!!!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Boluwade. I am really glad you found this piece inspiring. Would you like to share what aspects you found inspiring?

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s always a pleasure to read your blog posts, ma’am. Thank you for being generous with these wonderful lessons on finding, TAKING, and making the best of opportunities (I think I love the TAKING part 😅).

        I particularly resonate with this excerpt: ‘…there is no such thing as a perfect opportunity. Every opportunity is, in reality, what you make out of it.’ But there are, of course, several other lessons to glean on networking, taking initiative, and trusting God.

        I’m curious about having your research co-supervised by professors from institutions, across different continents. Is this a norm or a rare exception? Did it come with any challenge, or perhaps, additional advantage?

        I’ll look forward to your response.

        Thanks, once again.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Wealth,

          I’m really glad that you enjoyed reading the post and learnt valuable lessons from it. I make far too many mistakes, so it’s always my pleasure to share the lessons I have learnt so no one repeats my mistakes 😀😀 I’m so glad God allows me grow through these and to inspire others as well.

          Well, it depends. In some programs (especially those funded by the World Bank), you are required to have at least one supervisor in a different institution. That’s one of the ways they promote a collaborative research environment in Africa. Of course, there are pros and cons. I’m going to write a blog post on PhD supervision in Africa, and this is one of the concerns I’d address in that post. In my case, the pros by far outweighed the cons.

          Like

  4. Thanks for sharing Pearl
    What resonates with me is to quote you “there is no perfect opportunity but every opportunity is what you make of it”
    It’s just to keep focused and resilient in pursuing your goals without allowing anything distract you .

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Much inspiring, focussing and kind relationship with God lead the way. Well done sister.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Very interesting write up, thank God for your success story, we all key into this. Pray God to help us in Africa to be more tolerant and helpful to ourselves. God bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I always come to this blog to read stuffs about how to push through a challenge and that, beautifully. Thank you, Pearl for always making this place such an encouragement zone. Ride on!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awwwww… Chrys. I’m so delighted to know that God could use me as a source of encouragement to you, and really excited to know you enjoy reading my writeups. I give God all the glory. Thanks so much for your kind words 😊

      Like

  8. Thisis inspiring. I’m currently doing a PhD in a world bank funded project in Ghana and I really think Ghana isn’t bad for a post graduate programme depending on your area of interest of course.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Inspiring! I am currently doing a PhD, a world bank funded project in Ghana. Ghana isn’t as bad as people paint it though

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re right, Nomsy. Ghana isn’t a bad place to pursue a PhD program. I acknowledge that the world bank African Centre of Excellence are some of the better places to do PhD programs. However, irrespective of our circumstances, we can find ways to make things work.

      I’m so glad you found this piece inspiring, Nomsy. Would mind sharing what inspired you the most?

      Like

  10. There are no such things as “Perfect Opportunities”… That literally woke me up.
    Thanks for Sharing!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Wow… interesting
    Beautiful write-up.
    Thank you for sharing.

    Well I love couple of stuffs you pointed out…God factor which is the ultimate…making the best out of any opportunity and benefits of networking etc.

    However, with due respect, I don’t agree with the choice of words “African PhD”. Personally, I feel PhD anywhere in the world should be given when a person produces an original research that expands the boundaries of knowledge which in a broader sense implies that the person loves wisdom. Like you rightly pointed out one should make the best out of any opportunity…Thus, the emphasis should be on who you are (creativity, authenticity etc) and what you are able to offer (transversal skills, leadership etc) after a PhD program and not necessarily the continent you got it from…it’s understandable if you use the name of the University that awarded the degree but not the continent…

    Yes, the African inferiority complex maybe perceived but there is always an exception. Indeed yours is truly an exception because your research adopted a local content/approach with a global perspective and this is truly exceptional. Finally, I couldn’t agree more with you that an organization that fails to see your worth will indeed be missing out on an extraordinary opportunity to expand their base.

    Best wishes in your program.
    My best regards to you and your beautiful family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Chioke,

      I am so glad you enjoyed reading the writeup and learnt from it.

      I am so thrilled to know that you connected very deeply my thoughts and I perfectly understand your reservation. I agree with you on the fact that no degree undertaken in African institution should be called “African” – and that is why I put the African in quotes.

      I settled for that title because I felt would capture the attention of my readers and make them curious about what I was writing about. From your fears, I can say I successfully achieved that aim.

      I personally don’t see my PhD as African even though I am African 😜 A PhD is hard work which must never be under rated, irrespective of where it was acquired, like you rightly mentioned.

      Thanks so much for your kind compliments. I’m so glad you can see those qualities in me. I’m actually blushing now.

      Thanks for engaging with this post, Chioke. Keep it coming!!!

      Like

  12. Indeed, you have seen phases and faces. Bravo!
    I salute the birthing of your doctoral degree in our motherland. May God bless our homeland.
    I am full of admiration for your dogged, tenacious progress so far.
    Thanks for caring and sharing this amazing part of your fantastical memoir.
    Hmmm…the charms of Pearl’s quest(s) are real.  When it was all gloomy, she throws in some sun and … it stops raining! You rose above the intrigues of choice and the setting. You brought to the fore some core values which I know you possess. In fact, everyone must aspire to hold them dearly. Thanks for showcasing the fear of God, excellence, diligence, collaboration, integrity and commitment with which jewels can be unearthed in Africa or anywhere in the world.
    I am proud to wish you hearty congratulations on the completion of your doctoral degree, Dr. Mrs. Pearl Ihuoma Akazue. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am really emotional reading through your comment. It just brings back flashes of memories that make me teary. As you know, it has been a bumpy ride, but I can look back and say that God’s been the rock in my rock-bottom moments. I am also super blessed to have a very supportive network of family and friends that cushioned the low moments. I really do appreciate your thoughtful comment. God bless you richly 💕

      😅😅😅 I am not yet qualified to be referred to as “Dr” yet but I would be soon by God’s grace.

      Like

  13. Such a beautiful and inspiring write up. My take home is that THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS PERFECT OPPORTUNITY’ make every available opportunity a reality!

    Thanks for been a inspiration. Wishing you success as round up this phase of been a PhD holder.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Wow.

    Such a great piece.
    I had to read all the comments too.

    I’ve always had my vote of confidence on you 100%.

    This is also timely too as I prepare to start my PhD program.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and your thoughts.

    Regards.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awwww… I am so delighted to hear that you found this helpful and timely, Philip. I really appreciate your confidence in me and I pray God continues to help me to inspire more.

      Congrats on the commencement of your PhD program.

      …and I’ve got my confidence in you 100%, so go and smash it!!!

      Like

  15. Hi Ms. Pearl,

    This is no doubt an interesting read for me. I had no such idea that such a facility exists in Africa. I believe an African PhD is not a limitation as you said it’s about finding the right(perfect) opportunity.

    I didn’t know this much when I opted for further studies abroad. I guess it’s the euphoria of being in a new space, meeting new people and having a string of diverse discussions as well as share experiences. However, I am glad I did as I found what I will call my perfect opportunity working on a project in the emerging field of systems biology.

    I do really wish there are more of such Institute/Centre back home. I personally do hope to help facilitate this course in the future. God willing!

    Thanks for this article.

    Like

    • Hi Henry,

      You are not alone. A lot of people are also not aware that such opportunities exist, but they do.

      I am happy to hear that you found and settled for an opportunity that was perfect for you. That’s what is most important at the end of the day.

      Same here. It would be very nice if we had more of such here, and I hope that we can contribute to creating such opportunities in the near future.

      I’m glad you enjoyed reading this writeup 😊

      Like

  16. Praise God I am also a follower of Jesus from Zimbabwe doing my Phd abroad as well we should connect my sister

    Like

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