Five things you should know about doing a PhD in Africa

Undertaking a PhD programme in Africa has been one of the most challenging things I have ever done in my life. In my previous post, I narrated my rationale for settling for my programme of choice. Also, based on my personal experience, I noted that good PhD opportunities exist in Africa. In this post, I provide more insights to help you make an informed decision that works for you (if you are yet to decide) or brace up to the challenges ahead (if you’re already in). 


Are you ready to hear this? 

Most PhD programs in Africa are self-funded. A vast majority of PhD students in African universities are funded by their salaries, loans, in-kind donations from family and friends, among others. Some who are lucky get scholarships to cover their fees but have to bear their research costs – which can be extremely expensive (you might have to sell one of your kidneys to raise funds – if your kidney is in good condition, that is – and I’m not even joking). If you are in the life sciences (like I am), most of your research supplies need to be imported. With fluctuating exchange rates, that means even if you had a budget before you started your programme, you are definitely going to exceed that budget. Many students also have to work full-time while doing a PhD to fend for themselves and their families. This challenge directly impacts the quality of research outputs and the completion time of PhD programmes. I’ve heard some people have done PhDs in Africa for up to 10 years.  


You need to work REALLY hard at it, but that does not guarantee success. I’m sure you know that a PhD anywhere in the world is a lot of work already, so that’s not news. In Africa, you’d need to work thrice as hard as your peers in other places. That’s because nothing around you would work as they should: power/electricity supply, water supply, internet, equipment, if you are very unlucky – supervision. Even your government would fail you. Despite all these, you must not fail yourself. Now, after you’ve worked so hard, you should know that you’ve met just 20% of your graduation requirements. This can be very frustrating, I know. On many days, you’d feel like quitting…but you mustn’t. You’d need to persevere till the end. With hard work and perseverance, you’d have met only 50% of the requirements. What’s left then, you might ask? I can’t think of an English term for it, but I’d say it as one of my professors told us during my Master’s programme. He said, “A PhD means Perseverance, hard work and Dobale”. “Dobale” is a Yoruba word that literally means “prostrating”, but in this context, it speaks a lot about one’s people skills in managing student-supervisor relationships. It could mean “massaging the ego of your supervisor”. This point has deeply rooted cultural undertones, which explains why complexities with supervision are a huge challenge in Africa. Anyway, without saying too much, know this “the success of your PhD programme is directly dependent on your PhD supervisor”. Now that you understand the power dynamics, you need a lot of wisdom to know how to behave yourself appropriately. Admittedly, the quality of supervision in Africa may be far from optimal (more on this in a future blog post). So, to achieve 100% success, you have to be very innovative about making things work. 


You would need to learn to manage your supervisor - but more importantly, yourself and your life. This point is a continuation of my preceding point. This point is even truer if you are a woman (because your responsibilities are a lot more – especially in the African context). You’d have to learn the fine art of managing everything and everyone around you to achieve your set goal. I remember the first time I was introduced to this concept of managing my supervisor; I cringed at it. “How am I supposed to do this?” I wondered. Well, it’s pretty simple. You need to show clear leadership in communicating your expectations, needs and timelines to your supervisors. Let them know your challenges, but don’t be that student with a truckload of problems – learn to come up with potential solutions. You are just one of many other commitments they have, so make it easier for them to help you. Respect their time, too – know when you should go to them for help and when you can easily get help from others. Don’t overwhelm them with your personal challenges – that may only make you look very unserious (and they would help you waste your time since you do not value your time or theirs either). If you need to vent, call your family and friends, even talk to God – but you may want to leave your supervisors out of it. Again, wisdom is key.  

There is a very thin line between self-care and unseriousness. You know all those posts, tweets and what have you that you read online about taking care of your mental health: taking breaks when you need it, not working at weekends, closing at a decent hour, going on vacations around the world, and having hobbies outside of your PhD? They are good ooh…and in fact, you need it. However, you need to be aware of the reality here and know when to strike a balance. The truth is: no one cares about how you feel, what goes on in your life, the weather, or anything like that. You are expected to WORK!!! Some PIs expect PhD students to always be in the lab morning till evening: doing experiments, reading/writing papers, analysing data – even on weekends, sick days, and public holidays. You would quickly realise that your mental health is YOUR responsibility, and you need to make things work. 


Thesis examination often takes a lifetime! Whenever your friend or family member tells you that they have submitted their thesis, don’t even bother to ask them the next logical question that comes to your head: “when is your viva coming up?” or “when are you graduating?” That’s because nobody knows! Only God and the angels in heaven know. So, after you have done everything within your control to finish, know that there are some things that you cannot control. I know people who have waited 1.5 years after submitting their thesis for a viva, some even 2 years. While this might not be the case for some universities, it is the case in many others. 

So, you see, a PhD in Africa is not for the faint-hearted. Therefore, whenever you meet someone with a PhD undertaken in Africa, doff your hat twice!


PS: Have you learnt anything from this post? Can you relate to any of the points raised in this post? Have you undertaken any degree in Africa? What was (or has been) your experience? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

Disclaimer: This is not in any way meant to discourage you from pursuing a PhD in Africa; I did mine in Africa, after all, 😊 and my experience was, to a considerable extent, one of the better ones out there. I aim to provide you with the information you’d need to take the right decision for you. Also, the points listed here do not necessarily reflect my personal experiences. Instead, these are mixtures of personal experiences and experiences learnt from peer interactions.



Categories: My PhD Experience

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2 replies

  1. Insightful ‘preparatory’ tips for succeeding at an African PhD. The fourth point stood out for me. I particularly love its sincerity and realistic presentation. A PhD is stress, hard work, and sacrifice. It is important to know where to draw the line between self-care and sheer lack of commitment, especially when it might impact the progress of one’s program. Striking this balance is even more expedient for funded programs when one is expected to complete his/her research within fixed time frames.

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    • Awwww… I’m so glad you could connect with this write-up, Wealth. Exactly, very thin line between self-care and lack of commitment. Wisdom is knowing when to indulge and when to buckle up your shoes.

      As you mentioned, there’s a lot more commitment required from a funded student than one who is self-funded. Still, both would face serious financial challenges in the event of a delay. It’s just best to completely avoid all delays – where avoidable.

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