Reflections on a PhD Journey

By Maruf Sanni

It all started with the realization that in order to have a successful career as a researcher, I need a PhD degree!  The actual journey started on a rather interesting note from my work place to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. I was offered an admission as a PhD candidate in Public Policy in the School of Social Sciences, Howard Campus. At the same time, having to leave your family to study in another completely different environment was not particularly funny. So I wouldn’t say I left Nigeria as a very excited student. But then, I left anyway! It wasn’t as if I had any choice. The flight ticket had been bought with the loan that I had to source for to make adequate preparations!
On getting to South Africa, I met with the man who will later change some of my perspectives about life! The man who showed me how PhD supervision should be done, my supervisor. We interacted and I told him about the challenges with my work place that I would be happy if he could help me speed things up with my proposal defense. Then the bombshell came when the PhD coordinator said it was not possible for me to enroll in the programme because there are backlogs of students. For some reasons, the man I was meeting for the first time stepped in and told the coordinator that he has to take me in. In order for him to be able to do this, he took in additional PhD students from the backlogs of students.  At same time, true to his words, he arranged for me to do the proposal defense so that I could go home to attend to the issues at my work place. I cannot even begin to imagine what he must have gone through to get enough people to form quorum for the proposal defense at a very short notice.
Then came the AfricaLics PhD Sandwich Programme (APSP) at Aalborg University, Denmark. I responded to the first call for the APSP, in which they encouraged African PhD students in innovation and development disciplines to apply. Then I got an email from the Globelics secretariat that I had been selected to participate in the programme. And this happened to be the beginning of an amazing PhD journey. The APSP exposed me to many learning and experience sharing platforms such as AfricaLics PhD Academy in Mombasa, Kenya; Globelics Academy in Tampere, Finland. And other programmes such as PhD Course on Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Roskilde University, Denmark and Innovation Management (advanced) at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark where I learnt about cutting edge innovative activities from different top firms. Of note was how the two Academies fit perfectly well into my PhD programme. The AfricaLics Academy helped shape my PhD proposal and I was able to present my preliminary results at the Globelics Academy. So at each critical stage of my PhD programme, I had help all the way. And how can I forget the several social events starting from trips to the commune, to virtually all the houses of staff members at the Globelics secretariat, Department of Business and Management, Aalborg University.
So what are the imports of this story to current and potential PhD candidates? First, you need a strong motivation to engage in a PhD research. As simple as this sounds, it is important for students to know if having a PhD degree is the right step to take in the first place. Don’t waste three, four years of time doing what you would not need eventually! Besides when the chips are down, you need a very strong motivation to continue. Such motivations are usually stronger if they come from within. Second, when you are applying for a PhD programme and you are allowed to choose your own supervisor, try to look for a supervisor who would have your interest at heart. Ask around, check his or her profile! It is not enough to have supervisor in your field of interest. Institution matters. Look for institutions that best fit the kind of PhD you intend to do. I was able to participate in APSP and many other opportunities while on my PhD programme because my department does not have coursework for PhD candidates. Third, as a PhD candidate, always look for opportunities that will enhance your PhD programme and help you finish on time. The APSP fits into my programme perfectly because I was sure the programme would add value to my PhD. Fourth, as a PhD candidate, have clear picture of what you want to do in your head. A good PhD research takes a lot of time to conceive. Few students have their PhD research projects as an extension of their masters’ degrees. My PhD was not an extension of my Master’s Degree. I had an idea of what I wanted for my PhD research long before my application for an admission at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Fifth, you need faith, spiritual upliftment or whatever gives you the energy to push through even when the motivation to continue seems to have gone. Lastly, try to imbibe the LICS (Learning, Innovation, and Competence building and System networks) culture: Work Hard and Have Fun.   
Thank you!

This article first appeared on Africalics blog