Why PhD students spend a decade in school

Damaris Kariuki was in her 30s when she enrolled for a PhD at a local university. With a Masters degree, she had moved fast up the academic ladder and wanted to acquire the highest academic qualification before she hit 40. Her career growth was also going remarkably well as she was already a deputy principal at a secondary school in Kirinyaga when she decided to go back to class for her PhD in education management.

But close to eight years now, the 48-year-old is yet to graduate from the doctoral studies, which she says has strained her family and finances.

“Getting a PhD for me has taken longer than I expected. I have spent close to eight years now in a course I should have completed five years ago. I have to work during odd hours and my family keeps asking me why I never graduate from studies I started a long time ago. Some have even told me that I wasted a lot of money for nothing,” says Ms Kariuki.

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From a class of 40 students who enrolled in her PhD class in 2011, only seven are remaining. She says the rest dropped out of the class citing frustrations from their supervisors. Ms Kariuki who completed her coursework the very year she enrolled for PhD says her project has been delayed by a supervisor who was unavailable to guide her through the project.

“One of my supervisors was a director at a certain educational institution and was always out of the country whenever I wanted to meet him over my research project. At some point, I met him only twice in two years and on both occasions, it was obvious he had lost touch with the project,” she says.

A request to have the supervisor changed, she says, was overlooked.

Her challenges are what a majority of university students in Kenya face when they enroll for a PhD program.

In fact, it emerged earlier this month during a conference organised by Commission for University Education (CUE) on the state of higher education in Kenya that completion rates of postgraduate students were low in most universities in Kenya.

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In a report that examined supervisee challenges during the conference held at Kenya School of Monetary Studies, researchers from Kenyatta University and Mount Kenya University revealed that universities in Kenya were laying more emphasis only on coursework and relegating the research part of the doctoral studies.

Heavy workload

Dr Hellen Kiende from Kenyatta University in her presentation during the conference cited heavy supervisor workload, different supervisor orientations and poor communication between supervisors and their students as some of the factors that thwarted transition rates of doctoral students from coursework to actual project work.

“While I did my PhD, only four of us from a class of 20 students graduated in 2015. The rest had dropped out during their project work because they could not work well with their supervisors. This is what is happening in all the universities. It is the main reason why universities cannot get people with PhDs to teach in the classroom,” she said.

“There are cases where one supervisor is assigned up to 70 masters and PhD students to supervise through thesis work. This is too much work for them given that they also have to teach undergraduate students and do their own research. They end up giving very little attention to the postgraduate students,” she said.

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She said because of the heavy workload, supervisors take months to check a student’s work and to send them feedback.

Solomon Mwaniki, an administrator at Mt Kenya University who enrolled for a PhD at Kenyatta University in 2009 says he has been waiting for close to a decade now to complete his PhD. He blames his supervisors for the long wait.

 “Initially I would submit my work with a very small correction but the supervisors sometimes would take up to nine months before they looked at my corrected work. I was frustrated and decided to take a back seat too. Where they took nine months to send me feedback, I would take equally long to correct my work. I thought it was payback, but I ended up not completing my PhD in good time,” says Mwaniki.

He says it has taken almost a year to defend work he submitted to the university’s education department in January.

According to Mwaniki, 48, challenges in doctoral studies start after the student completes the initial one-year coursework and clears school fees. Doctoral studies in Kenya cost up to Sh1 million.

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“During the coursework, a student is supposed to clear payment for their doctoral studies. When it is the turn of the university to give the student quality time through guided thesis, the supervisors start playing hide and seek with the student and the problem is that the university administration never intervenes when the student suffers at the hands of an uncommitted supervisor,” says Mwaniki.

He says lack of co-ordination between the two supervisors that one is assigned also sthe student on the receiving end.

“It is always hard to make the two supervisors agree on most things as each one of them is always looking to assert themselves to you. When one corrects you on something, the other one takes the argument in a different direction leaving you stuck in the middle unable to move,” says Mwaniki.

According to Mwaniki, it is unfair that students are made to wait for long to get their PhDs.

“Most PhD students enroll for their classes in their late 30s and 40s. It is, therefore, unfair that they are made to wait for ten years to graduate when they are in their 50s as they can’t have satisfactory return on investment at such an advanced age,” says Mwaniki.

Lazy students to blame

But Dr Kiende says postgraduate students in Kenya are also to blame when they fail to complete their studies in good time.

She says most PhD students are usually busy people under work-study arrangements and are sometimes not available when a supervisor requests to meet them.

Where online supervision of a project is easier and cheaper than face to face interactions, Dr Kiende says some students are not tech-savvy, ruling out the possibility of online engagement.

“Certain aspects of the supervision process can easily be completed online without physical meetings. But some of the students we get are those who can’t sustain an online conversation and insist on meeting physically with hard copies of their projects,” she says.

Other PhD students, according to the Kenyatta University don enroll for studies just for promotion, which she says waters down the essence of doctoral studies.

“The aim of doctoral studies is to churn out policy makers but when a student only wants a PhD for a promotion, it becomes difficult for them to internalise simple issues let alone write a proper thesis. They memorise their coursework and pass exams but are unable to write their thesis when they embark on the actual project,” she says.

To manage her workload, Dr Kiende says she supervises most of her students online.

“I encourage supervisors to embrace online supervision of their students. I do it all the time and when I find out that one of my student is finding a problem understanding a concept, I request to meet them physically to guide them through their project,” she says.

She says Kenyatta Univerity has also introduced tracking forms that assess a student’s interaction with their supervisors. The forms have details of successful meetings between supervisors and their students and reasons are indicated against every aborted meeting to inform necessary punitive measures.

But according to Mwaniki, completion rates of postgraduate studies in universities can only improve if universities enrolled only students that they can handle.

“Some programmes such as medicine and engineering admit few students who are given full attention by their supervisors during their doctoral training. The same should happen across all university programmes,” says Mwaniki.

CUE CEO Prof Mwenda Ntarangwi says universities were pushed to allocate a high number of postgraduate students to a single supervisor.

“The heavy workload points to the few experts with the highest degrees in their respective fields that we have in the country and hence the challenge of individuals able to provide adequate supervision to their students. There is also a need for effective preparation of supervisors so as to be able to offer good supervision to their students,” says Prof Ntarangwi.

He says the heavy workload was harming the quality of postgraduate training in Kenyan universities. According the CUE boss, a supervisor should have a maximum of five masters and three PhD students at a time.

Prof Ntarangwi did not comment on the commission’s position on an earlier directive CUE gave to universities to ensure that they hire only PhD holders by 2018.

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