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Navigating the Research Terrain for Graduate Students in Africa: A Reflection

Early this year, a woman I know from her public engagement in Uganda walked up to me after I had spoken at an event, politely requesting some of my time for a brief chat. We stepped aside and she poured out her heart—her master’s dissertation was not going well. She wanted me to give her feedback on what she had written so far because she felt lost. Although she was not studying at my university, I agreed to read her work. She sent her work to me the same day.

Two weeks later, I eventually found some free time to read her work. To my horror, I realised that Jane (not her real name) had been enrolled to receive her MA since 2007; we are now in 2019. Looking back, I was in my second year of my first MA degree in 2007, did another MA in 2012 before enrolling for a PhD in 2014, which I completed in 2017. In the ten-year period it took to complete my entire graduate studies, one brilliant woman had been bogged down in graduate school trying to obtain a degree she was supposed to complete in two years but had yet to finish it after twelve years. I felt very angry and disappointed as an academic and as a woman. However, I admired her determination and resilience.

After discovering that her work had serious methodological gaps, I decided against sending comments by email and instead invited her to my office for a discussion. During our conversation, I found out she was not fully aware of the gravity of these gaps and their implications for her dissertation. She told me the dissertation had gone for examination twice and returned to her after three and six years respectively, each time leaving her more confused about what was required of her.

I tell Jane’s story as a case among many. Students often tend to blame their supervisors for such situations. However, some students are not blameless. Even then, it is difficult to explain Jane’s situation. While there isn’t enough space in the article to fully explore the complex circumstances behind the delay in the completion of Jane’s dissertation, such cases tend to feed misgivings about the quality of higher degrees in African universities. It should be noted that such cases are not very common, and much effort is being made to address them.

My own graduate school research experience has been very different. This is not to say I was a better student than Jane, because I was able to complete my degrees on time. I was perhaps just luckier to have had supervisors who motivated me and devoted time to giving me clear and concise comments, with just occasional delays. Each supervisor and I worked well together. We have since become friends and developed strong collegial relationships. They were excellent mentors and I understood my place as a student, always willing to take comments positively, and asking questions respectfully. I realised early on, that understanding my supervisor, creating meaningful boundaries, and staying focused were crucial for completion.

As I reflected on Jane’s case, I looked back on the things that truly prepared me as a researcher and lecturer, two of which I will focus on specifically.

While studying at Daystar University, Nairobi in 2012, I responded to a call inviting researchers to apply for a fully sponsored Multi Methods Research Course in Africa (MMRC) that would run for a year in modular form. I barely met the requirements, which included having a PhD, but I applied out of sheer determination, arguing that I intended to enroll for a PhD and that the MMRC would provide me with excellent preparation for that journey.

The Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR), the Institute for Development Studies, Sussex, and the University of Ghana were partners in this project, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). What MMRC did for me was build my confidence as a researcher. Increasingly, PASGR trains many PhD candidates who complete their degrees because they experienced a fundamental shift in their thinking about research. They see research with ‘fresh eyes’ and renewed interest.

Being co-opted to the MMRC College of Instructors in 2014 in a mentorship arrangement, gave me the privilege of training some of Africa’s finest researchers, engaging with internationally acclaimed researchers, and working with brilliant men and women from all over Africa, a truly humbling experience.

Winning the Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa (Next Gen) Dissertation Research Fellowship in 2015 was the next most wonderful thing that happened to me. The Next Gen Doctoral Research Fellowship was what I needed to put my research skills to the test without worrying about funding. One of the ways the Next Gen fellowship contributed to the completion of my PhD dissertation was through the provision of support to attend international conferences. This offered me platforms to present my work to peers from other parts of the world and engage in robust intellectual debates and discourses. I joined the African Studies Association (ASA) and International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR). Interacting with people whose writings I had read was truly inspiring. I remember, with lots of nostalgia, discussing the women’s movement in Uganda with Professor Aili Mari Tripp during the 2016 ASA Conference held in Washington D. C. She showed interest in my work and checked on me a few times thereafter. Also, learning from committed and experienced mentors like Professors Alcinda Honwana and Sarah Ssali, in my case, during and after SSRC Next Gen training workshops was like having additional supervisors and role models.

Most of my current research skills, I owe to both PASGR and the SSRC’s Next Gen fellowship. I now have incredible opportunities to contribute to my community through research, mentoring younger colleagues, and being an active member of the African and international community of scholars.

I know that good research training continues to be challenging in the African context. The cost of training doctoral researchers is huge. Governments and universities invest relatively scant resources in research in spite of rapidly expanding student enrollment. I would not have been able as a junior academic to afford the cost of the high-quality training and mentorship I received through PASGR and SSRC’s Next Gen Fellowship. Yet, the need for data and policies informed by evidence-based research is ever increasing. So, in addition to having great supervisors, I was constantly learning and developing my research and writing skills.

On the one hand, you have a few stories similar to that of Jane’s, and increasingly on the other hand, those like mine. That is because programs like the Next Gen Fellowship not only enhance completion rates for doctoral candidates, but also transform their teaching and knowledge production capacities. I now teach research methods to students in my program and do my best to motivate them. The Next Gen fellowship will no doubt contribute towards filling an important gap by supporting the production of highly-trained locally-based university faculty and providing a fresh impetus for the projection of multiple African voices onto global scholarly discourses and knowledge production. My story reflects on some of the challenges, successes, and possibilities.

This has been reposted from https://kujenga-amani.ssrc.org/2019/08/09/navigating-the-research-terrain-for-graduate-students-in-africa-a-reflection/