7 Women on Pursuing a PhD Degree - Experiences, Challenges, Myths and Advice
Almost every time I speak to or see one of my uncles, he asks “so when are you going for your PhD?”. I tend to mumble a response and explain that I really have no interest in pursuing a doctorate degree. But he goes on, sometimes switching to Igbo language perhaps for emphasis “you really should. You’re very smart and you’d complete it in two years. Just tell your employers to give you a 2-year study leave”. To end the conversation, I say “okay uncle I’d think about it”.
But seeing my husband go through his PhD journey, I currently think that one in the family is sufficient - asides the obvious fact that I'm not inclined to. So although I’m uninterested and sincerely doubt I’d have the determination to push through, I find myself utterly proud and impressed by women who enroll for a doctorate degree.
In this post, 7 awesome women in different fields and in institutions all around the world share their journey: on why they wanted a PhD, finding a supervisor, institution and funding, myths, perks and whether or not the title "Dr" has a nice ring they’d love. They also give incredibly valuable insights and guidance for aspiring PhD holders!
- PhD in the bag any moment now!
- VU, ITM, UB (Joint PhD)
- Research Focus: How can we use mobile applications to improve pregnant women’s health in rural areas of low and middle-income countries
Why a PhD?
The simplest answer is that I love to teach. However, I do not like parental influence and could not imagine teaching anyone under the age of 18. That is non-negotiable. Okay, I’ll be serious, I have always been passionate about health and like 40% of public health professionals my childhood dream was to be a doctor (the other 60% are actual doctors). Life had other plans for me and I discovered Public health. It was love at first sight and I realized that I had found my tribe. I am excited to discover the potential reach of the research I do. I know I won’t discover the cure for cancer or HIV. However, one of my students just might.
Ultimately my reason for deciding on a PhD was quite practical. The moment I acknowledged to myself that I wanted to make a career in academia a PhD stopped being an option and became a necessity.
Seeking out a research area, school and supervisor
By the end of my masters program I had a clear research interest. I wanted to work in the field of Sexual and Reproductive health (SRH) in sub-Saharan Africa. The path to discovering a research interest is very different for each individual but for me it was easy. I am committed to women’s issues and the field of public health, SRH deals fundamentally with issues related to women. Of course men also have SRH challenges but unfortunately, biology and the patriarchal history of many countries mean that in many parts of the world women bear disproportionately higher SRH burdens.
The school was never of great importance to me. Going to a world-renowned school would be fun but I wasn’t interested in prestige at the expense of my research topic or supportive supervisors. I had heard a number of horror stories from those who had completed PhDs at various universities. From their experiences, I learned that supervisors shape the PhD experience and sometimes even postdoc opportunities.
By the time I was ready to seek out a PhD program I knew I needed keywords to guide my search. I came up with: sexual and reproductive health, sub-Saharan Africa and FUNDED! Over the years between my masters and starting a PhD, financial independence had become essential. My priorities then became funding and research areas; I decided to just commit my supervisors to prayer. Thankfully He is a miracle working God and I ended up with amazing supervisors despite some rocky moments.
An Amazing Community
When I got into my PhD one of my mentors in my masters program told me that I could always talk to her if I needed. In her words “it takes a community to finish a PhD.” The community I have found/created is without doubt the best part of my PhD. Misery loves company, so there’s nothing better than being surrounded by people that understand your irrational anger at the question “Haven’t you finished your PhD yet? ”. The travel hasn’t been too shabby either.
Less About Intelligence
If you could navigate a bachelors or masters program you can complete a PhD. A PhD is less about intelligence and more about being crazy enough to embark on at least 3 years (likely more) of being poor while working day and night on a ridiculously niche topic and dealing with impostor syndrome - (Don’t know what this? Start a PhD.). Ok really, it is a phenomenon in which you just believe you are a fraud. That everyone around you is smarter, wiser, brilliant and you are going to be discovered as a dunce and kicked out. That all your acknowledged successes were flukes and the end of the charade is near.
- Final Year PhD Candidate
- Web Science Doctoral Training Centre, University of Southampton UK
- Research Focus: Investigating the use of social media for payments in the banking industry.
Why a PhD?
I have a passion for research and I’ve always loved the academic environment. So I certainly knew I was going to do a PhD even as an undergraduate. I studied Computing for my first degree and thought I would do something related to that. However while working in the bank, after my degree, I developed an interest in web based innovation and so I discovered the discipline of Web Science - which is the study of socio-technical systems e.g the World Wide Web. It is an interdisciplinary field of research primarily concerned about the relationship between people, society and technology.
Making a Decision
I learnt about the Web Science Doctoral Training Centre which was the perfect place for me as I could combine my interests in banking and the World Wide Web. I attended public events at the Doctoral Training Centre even before applying for the PhD program and met key people in my field of research. I spoke to students who were on the PhD program to find out if it was the right place for me.
I researched everything I could find on Web Science. I registered for and completed two Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) related to the PhD program to boost my CV. Thereafter I put in an application. The programme is designed in such a way that you get to do a Master’s degree in the first year and you get to choose your supervisors based on your research interests.
Undertaking a PhD has had some challenging moments. In particular, Juggling family responsibilities and studying can be tiring but I’ve been able to devise coping strategies. There are times when I felt clueless about the whole thing and felt I accomplished nothing. In the early days of the PhD, there were days when I didn’t feel motivated and I changed my topic many times.
I think it’s such a myth that you need to be a geek to do a PhD. I believe anyone can do a PhD as long as you’ve a genuine interest in that field of research. Again many people think you should only do a PhD if you want to be an academic. Not true - as there are non-academic career options. Finally, while a first class degree is great and may secure you an interview slot, it's not the all in all. The main question is what do you have to offer?
The Perks and Good Stuff
I was awarded a full scholarship for the PhD which has been very helpful as I don’t have to worry about fees and travel grants etc. There are several scholarships for various categories of students. As part of my funding, I get a research travel grant every year so I get to travel locally and internationally and have met people I would never have imagined meeting. I’ve also acquired transferable skills I can use either in an academic or non-academic career. Finally, I’m thankful for flexibility the program affords. I work from home most days - however, you need to be self-driven or you’ll never get anything done.
On Being called Dr
I won’t feel different; it’s just a title! But, the feeling of being an expert in your field is satisfying.
For Aspiring PhD candidates
- Don't give up. My first application for a PhD was rejected. That didn’t put me off, it only reinforced my determination to get accepted for the program.
- Ensure you have a strong support system in place, you will need it during those moments when your passion won’t be sufficient.
- If you’re planning to have a career in academia, you need to develop a thick skin. Your research manuscript may be rejected but it doesn’t mean you are not good, just take it as an opportunity to make your paper better, then resubmit to another journal/conference.
- 1st year PhD Candidate
- Queens University, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
- Research Focus: Removing heavy metals, arsenic and cadmium from rice.
Why a PhD?
To be honest, I never saw myself getting more than a bachelor’s degree. I was always the business minded person in the family - starting a cake company at 18. Coming from a family of two lecturer parents and 2 siblings with Masters in Engineering and Law, it seemed like I was turning out to be the odd one. However, a couple of years down the line I began to actually enjoy my Microbiology course and gained so much enthusiasm for food microbiology. It was so fascinating, and I literally craved more knowledge…. it was an actual craving, like for a chocolate cake!
So, I did my undergraduate dissertation in Food Microbiology and it was so much fun that all I could think of was a masters degree. I proceeded to searching for a university with good ratings in Food Microbiology and gained admission into about 6 top UK universities. I was elated but they were all so expensive I had to search for funding. Luckily for me, Queen’s University offered me a partial scholarship and I found myself here and with a master’s degree in advanced food safety a year after.
My initial plan after graduation was to return to Nigeria and continue my cake business but there was this deep yearning to do more research. I was homesick, and I shut down that yearning, with the intent of finding a job in a food microbiology field upon my return. Nigeria hardly ever conforms to your plans, so after 8 months of job searching to no avail, and 8 months of hard work baking and decorating cakes, I knew I needed more. I knew my yearning had to be addressed.
So, I started the search for funding and thankfully the school I graduated from for my master’s had a research that I was actually interested in. I was offered a fully funded scholarship and I am living my best life now….. in my head that is!
Picking a Research Area
There has to be a significant degree of passion for whatever research you choose to pursue to ensure good success. As I had already identified my enthusiasm and passion for food microbiology, it wasn’t a big decision to find a general research area.
In choosing a refined research area, I considered my strengths. What area of Food Safety did I succeed the most at? What area did I have to put a lot more effort in? What area did I struggle with? Identifying my strengths and weaknesses were key to streamlining my research area. I joined an already existing research team so seeking out a supervisor was not something I had to do.
PhD Application Challenges
The main challenge I faced related to internet issues. As I was in Nigeria when I was applying for these positions, and interviews were to be conducted via Skype, I knew I needed a perfect internet condition. One university actually stated that if the connection failed once, they wouldn’t try again. I started a search for the best internet provider in my city, Ibadan. I asked people how well these providers were and eventually settled on one. I Skyped my friends often to test the connection and even identified hotspots in my house. Thankfully all my Skype interviews went well.
So Not True!
“Wow, you’re a PhD student, no exams, no classes… you must have a lot of chill time”
I hear that a lot - but oh, how I wish. The fact that the PhD student drives their research almost single-handedly can be a blessing and a curse. True there’s no one breathing down your neck for deadlines but then working at your pace could make you a lot more relaxed.
I have learned to find a balance as it's very easy to get consumed by your research. An escape route is key and mine is cake decorating!
Best Moments So Far
I've loved obtaining results that are novel, can contribute to the literature in my field and actually have an impact on the health of consumers. It is a privilege to be able to be on a team that is quite popular in the field and so the prospects of partnering with more experienced researchers is exciting.
As I am still in my first year, I haven’t travelled much as I am looking to settle in fully before considering such opportunities.
Am I really a Dr?
Obtaining a PhD degree is definitely a feat to be proud of, but it is basically just being a specialist in one streamlined field and definitely cannot, in my opinion, be compared to a medical doctorate degree. So I’m not sure I actually agree with being called Dr. as well. And as a shy person, I would prefer to actually just be called by my name. When people joke and already call me Dr., I feel this pressure to succeed and I kind of channel this tension into my research and just work as hard as I can.
- 1st Year Doctoral Student
- University of Toronto, Canada
- Research Focus: Investigating the African Economic Integration Agenda and its effectiveness in driving intra-African trade and development.
Why a PhD?
I love education. I always have. I like the atmosphere of school. There's almost something magical about a place of learning (Nerd alert!) so I always excelled in school. In addition, I have had lots of experience teaching. I taught A levels literature and history when I was 18 years old! When I was 19/20, I founded a tutorial centre to prepare students for TOEFL examinations and only last year, I was teaching legal methods and commercial law on a part-time basis in Lagos. I enjoyed every single one of those experiences and also realised I loved research. In addition, I had worked in a law firm and as in-house counsel and in both positions, I found out that I was naturally trusted to do a lot of heavy research. I became convinced that I was expressing my academic tendencies in these environments and it would just be better for me to pursue academia full time!
On Choosing a research area, institution and supervisors
I chose my area of research because I was fascinated by it and wanted to know more. That's the only reason you should pick an area of research.
I chose my school because of the reputation and the quality of supervision available. I had also previously studied in England and I wanted to experience a North American approach to law, which I must confess, has been invaluable.
I have two supervisors and I am incredibly blessed to draw from their experience. Applications to schools differ. Some schools ask you to contact potential supervisors and others don't. I wasn't required to but I had to indicate interest in them when I filled my form. I did a lot of reading about them and saw that they had worked together on several projects and were very knowledgeable in my field. You have to be strategic while researching supervisors because even if you have a great project, without a supervisor who is interested, you won't get admitted.
I've had a few challenges along the way and most of them stem from having to get accustomed to the North American Approach to scholarship. This is very different from what obtains in Nigeria. I'm having to re orientate myself, learn new skills and make myself more competitive. It is a process but I'm better than I was last year!
A Plethora of Advice
Funding is a big issue, but many PhDs are fully funded and you can apply for research grants, but a PhD life is not one of Gucci bags, more like a backpack life!
A PhD gives so much access to experts in your field! The opportunities are a lot but one needs to strike a balance between thesis work, conferences, publications and one's personal life. I'm still at the beginning of the journey so I'm in the process of getting a hang of it!
To do a PhD you need an open mind. One question or perspective could unravel your whole thesis! You have to be able to listen, adjust and be open to criticism, which is always easier said than done.
A PhD is not an automatic ticket to anything. The job market is tough and you need to put in the work to truly stand out.
If you are pursuing a PhD, you must be ready to make yourself vulnerable and share ideas, no matter how bad you think they are. Also be ready to receive rejections from funding bodies, conferences, journals and so on
A PhD should be pursued because of passion. The journey is fraught with doubt, questions, making yourself vulnerable to criticism and lots of grant and conference applications. These take a toll on you in several ramifications and you need the elixir of passion to restore you.
- 3rd Year PhD Candidate
- Curtin University Perth, Australia.
- Research Focus: Exploring how existing laws and policies in Nigeria can impact/ enable the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals on gender equality and women empowerment.
Why a PhD?
I started my PhD by chance. Towards the end of 2015, I was just feeling very dissatisfied with my job in Lagos. I yearned for something more challenging and I knew I couldn’t continue there. I resigned, moved to Australia - to finalise my immigration and citizenship requirements and begun the search for something to keep myself busy in that one year.
I already had a Masters and I wasn’t ready to put myself through any rigorous study as I wanted to be able to work too. I was looking out for diploma, graduate certificate or advanced certification or just anything to do in that one year, that was when I stumbled (a PhD was the last thing on my mind at that moment) on this Doctor of Sustainable Development Programme- a professional doctorate.
Applications for that session were closing in about 2 weeks; I submitted the proposal and application within a week. Looking back now as an early researcher, that was a rubbish proposal, but it got me in and here I am running towards the finishing line.
My background is Law - both at undergrad and post graduate level, but I had been working in International Development for about 5 years prior and I enjoyed it. I knew my research area was going to be in Development/ Humanities. However, my law background still has a major influence on the research.
I live in Perth so I knew I wasn’t moving outside of Perth to pay rent anywhere. As I was not specifically looking to do a PhD, I found a school that offered what I wanted in Perth. Everything just fell in place. Although you are free to choose your own supervisors, my University nominated mine and I have been happy with them.
The Valley of Despair?
Some days, I just feel like I don’t even know what I’m doing - like it all doesn’t even make sense. I am constantly asking: what did I get myself into? will this even achieve anything in the end? This is very common PhD students - It has been described as the valley/pit of despair. And is quite different from the Impostor syndrome we often deal with too.
Somedays I just feel so overwhelmed by the sheer number of materials and data that I end up thinking: “This time could have been spent travelling and sleeping in hotels and solving pressing world problems, or working in UN or World Bank. Here I am with no money trying to change the world”. But then I find a way to look at the bigger picture.
Parenting and PhD
Because my husband doesn’t live here, (he works overseas but he comes in from time to time) I’m like a “Single Mum”, so it’s a different ball game for me. I bear the sole parental responsibility for my son. However, I have all my immediate family around - my parents and siblings- so it makes it easier. On days when Dad or Mum are free, they watch my son and help in many other ways.
If I could, I would have done it before I got married. It would have probably been easy to finish sooner, but I have no regrets.
My tuition is fully funded as I’m a domestic student and I didn’t have to pay anything. However, I do not have a scholarship and this comes with its own financial challenges. I used up all the money I saved in the first year, so I had to be frugal in the following years. If you don’t have financial support and you have to work, combining work and study is a bit tough.
Student Discount Feels Good Too
That people trusted me with their story, information and shared their experiences with me was very encouraging and fulfilling. Once I interviewed some women who said to me “Please tell the government, however you can, what we have told you. It will go a long way to help women” It was good to see they believed this research is impactful.
And of course, the student discounts! When I use public transport to Uni, instead of paying a standard fare of $3.80, I pay $1.60. Movie, shopping and phone plan discounts save you bits of dollars - to be enjoyed while it lasts. Finally, it's pretty cool going to conferences, especially in countries you ordinarily will not think about travelling to!
It's important to not be excessively hard on yourself and do other things you enjoy. My coping mechanism has gone from Cooking, Baking, Zumba to just listening to some lovely music. This journey has really opened me up to enjoying other genres of Music that I wouldn’t have ordinarily listened to.
Considering a PhD?
Good and supportive supervisors make a whole lot of difference in the PhD. So choose well or do proper research on whom your supervisors will be. It’s a 3-4 year affair/relationship.
- 2nd Year PhD Candidate
- Rhodes University, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa
- Research Focus: Materials that glow under certain conditions and their properties as applied in fields such as electronics, geology, nuclear and medical physics.
Why a PhD?
I love knowledge and have always wanted to study up to PhD level; however, I didn’t really consider enrolling for a PhD programme so soon. I had always thought I would consider a PhD programme after getting married (for fear of the myth about men not wanting to date or marry someone who is about having a PhD).
But then, I started as a Physics lecturer at a University in Lagos - as doctorate Is a criterion for being a full-fledged University lecturer, I got pressure from the University asking me how far I have gone with PhD - when in fact I had not even started.
So, I began nursing the idea of enrolling in one. I contacted my M. Sc. supervisor at the University of Ibadan, but he wanted me to consider research on Theoretical Physics which I wasn’t really interested in.
I wanted experimental work. As time went on I realised it would be difficult to combine full-time work and study. So, I opted to focus on a full-time PhD programme outside Nigeria and also gain access to efficient modern laboratory facilities.
Considering All Options
As soon as it became clear to me what I wanted, I started my search for a supervisor in the area of Physics which I preferred (Radiation Physics). It was challenging finding schools that offered my programme of choice as well as finding a supervisor specialized in the preferred field of Physics.
Having no specific school in mind, I began searching on the internet. I checked the websites of various schools, to look up existing departments as well as staff profiles, where I got the email addresses of those in related-research fields to mine. I wrote to those people attaching my CV, B. Sc. and M. Sc certificates, and my research proposal. Most of the professors replied they wouldn’t be able to supervise my work, either because they were already retired or were into a very different field. Others suggested a renowned professor in a particular University who never replied to my email.
Of all the people I wrote to, only one professor accepted to host me. He wasn't particularly interested in my initial proposal and suggested another - sending me guide articles. I finally put together a new proposal which impressed him and he sent me an application form for PhD. Few weeks after submitting this, I received my admission letter. The next step was scholarship hunting. I applied for an NRF-Freestanding scholarship and AIMS/DAAD scholarship but I was unsuccessful. Thankfully, my supervisor opted to nominate me for PhD funding by the National Research Foundation of South Africa. I've also had the privilege to work as a Research and Teaching Assistant.
I haven't had any horrible encounters of living in South Africa, despite a few worries I had. What has been more challenging is adapting to extreme cold weather and foreign food. I still rely on food items sent through from Nigeria!
PhD for Geniuses Only?
A PhD is not for geniuses! It is not an intelligence test but a research project. What PhD requires is diligence, dedication, skills, inspiration and subject knowledge to see through an original research project at an advanced level. It's also not an opportunity to invent great ideas and world-changing discovery, but rather to enhance your research skills and transform you into a successful researcher such that you can make a significant contribution to knowledge through your thesis and research papers.
It's Not Just Free Travel!
It's great that a PhD allows for fully funded travel to conferences. However, it's not all free. In many cases, conference participants are expected to make a presentation at the conference.
No Dr. here please
I don't feel comfortable being called a "Dr" because, in my humility, I would prefer being called just my name. And it's strange that people already call me "Prof" which is a higher title. I don't understand why, but I can't fight it, so I let them be.
Why a PhD?
I always knew I was going to get a PhD, but I wasn’t sure when – since I viewed a PhD program as something you embark on in your 40s or older.
I chose to study Medicine at age 3 or 4 - the other 2 courses I knew of were law and engineering, law sounded boring and engineering sounded like a guy’s thing. After my 2nd MB examinations in Medical School, I knew I wasn't going into Residency training - but that I wanted to teach as well as write and speak. Due to my love for Anatomy and Physiology, I wanted to do my Masters program in Anatomy so I could become a lecturer – and hoped to improve the notion that Anatomy was difficult.
Upon further research, I realised that niche would be irrelevant to me if I chose to return to Nigeria. Since Global Health was on my list as a second Masters program, I switched to Public Health.
My biggest challenge would be the culture shock that is emphasized by the language barrier and poor knowledge of ‘Africa as a country’ - but you learn to use it as an opportunity to educate or live with it depending on your mood.
What would I change if I could? Maybe nothing. But it would have been great to have a good grasp of the language before I boarded my flight!
When I enrolled for my program, there was a scholarship program that was just kicking off and you were encouraged to go on to PhD on the same program. As this program is really focused on capacity building through interdisciplinary programs and cultural promotion (with almost all the regions represented in the program), I’ve had the rare privilege of rubbing minds with people whose way of thinking and culture are so different from mine and of course travelling to many countries and being in rooms I could only dream of - from the World Health Organisation and World Bank in the US, to ADB and WPRO in Philippines and Shanghai.
Last Word for PhD students!
Live a little more, soak in every moment. It can never be as bad as your head is making it up to be.
Okay, I know, this was a long one! But I found it so insightful particularly for people who are considering their doctorate program. There's a lot of similarities running through: they all wanted this at some point, great opportunity for travel, it's more about determination than intelligence.
What did you think? Do you have a PhD degree or pursuing one currently and can relate to this? What has your experience been? Are you considering now or in the future? Share with us!
pS: Why do they seem uncomfortable with the title "Dr?" Is it something about women and typically being too modest?