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Want to pursue a PhD? The arduous route to earning one

By Ratemo Michieka | September 27th 2021

Research takes a lot of time, patience, denial of basic life, leisure, and a high-level disciplined. [Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

Every progressive stage in human life requires some degree of struggle, patience and perseverance.

A nursery school child puts in efforts to graduate to the next level of learning. This is true to all endeavours, whether in business, sports, farming, and universe explorations.

The academic setup in Kenya and indeed most commonwealth countries borrowed a lot from the British education system.

Students must struggle to pass examinations in order to progress to the next level. Education, however, is basically viewed as a success in life in every country and is supposed to guarantee good living.

There is no single country without a university. Every single country takes pride in its universities, whether it is government-supported or not. This is their pride in problem-solving and national development. It is more prestigious than sports in its output.

Why do individuals struggle to earn the highest degree? Everybody wants to be on top of what they do best, so is a PhD struggler; to earn a name, to shine, to be recognised, and stay at the apex. This is a human desire.

However, this top-notch struggle has its woes. It has some cost, life trade-offs, life denials, and risks.  To earn recognition,  one must follow a route, sequence of events and arrive at the required destination.

The normal four, five, or six years of undergraduate is a standard requirement to earn a first degree in many universities. There may be variations in some countries.

To earn a Master’s degree, one has to add another two, three, four, or five years beyond the first degree; again this is common in Kenya under reasonable conditions.

The Master’s degree is usually by taught courses and publishable research undertakings. Some universities may expect students to conduct research or opt to use taught courses alone, with a comprehensive examination.

The mode of the award may vary from one university to another. To be accepted to register for a PhD, one must have had a Master’s degree - this is where debates arise. Again, there are variations in the requirements. Some can be lenient while others are stringent.

To be accepted to register for a PhD, one must have had a Master’s degree. [Coutesy]

That is where Commissions of university education come in to assist and equate the requirements. Rarely do students who have a first-degree register for PhD.

The thrust of this argument is based on the route of earning, reading for, or studying to get a PhD degree.

The degree has its requirements just like any other school entry requirement. It is, however, more rigorous at PhD. I assume an applicant has fulfilled all the requirements to be registered as a PhD candidate.

Let me use the route the University of Nairobi employs and make myself a living comparative example in a foreign university, Rutgers. I will cite the differences where they occur.

Before a student is admitted to the University of Nairobi, he or she must apply, show all required documents; must have completed a Master’s degree in the area applied for.

The student and the chair of the desired department must discuss who will be the main and other supervisors.

Applications are sent to the department; if approved, forwarded to the faculty board of postgraduate studies for further approval. Once satisfied, the potential candidate writes an elaborate research proposal which is subjected to a Department/Faculty member for scrutiny and comments.

Most PhD students are required to take a minimum number of taught courses. In my case, I took 48 hours of six taught units which translated to 288 contact hours spread over a period of four years.

We were allowed to take higher-level Master’s and Statistics courses, for example in research methodology.

In UoN, a similar method of research and coursework is blended. There may be some exceptions.

The reason is to ensure adequate subject coverage in one’s area of expertise and proposed research. This is the first leg towards earning a PhD.

The next phase is the most demanding, rigorous, and brain wrecking! A student must write a plausible, researchable, current, and novel proposal.

One that may unravel an issue, solve a problem, be useful to the society and international community.

The proposed new research must be fully discussed with the supervisor(s) in the same area of expertise, assisted by two other professors in related areas, for consultations.

A candidate must prove that such research has not been done anywhere, no replication, no plagiarism, no direct quoting of past research. [Coutesy]

It was true in my case and each PhD that I have supervised goes through this route (I normally handle one candidate at any given time). Once the candidate and the supervisors agree on the research details, experimental designs, data collection, and indeed something new shall possibly come out, the rest is straightforward.

The candidate must prove that such research has not been done anywhere, no replication, no plagiarism, no direct quoting of past research.

Review by previous work must be cited and missing gaps of chosen topic elucidated to justify the expensive PhD research.

Such rigorous work is normally taken up by a professor who must have gone through such training and appreciated the route.

That is why one professor cannot undertake the supervision of more than three students concurrently. Even Master students go through such rigor but on a smaller scale.

In my case, I never had more than two Master’s students at any given time. It is time-consuming if the supervisor had to do a thorough, fair, and proud job to the student. We call this Mentoring. Continuous meetings follow the review progress and quarterly reports are submitted, signed by supervisors.

Research takes a lot of time, patience, denial of basic life, leisure, and a highly disciplined individual. For a PhD research, one must conduct at least two field trials (In Agriculture) and produce comparative data or repeat experiments.

PhDs are international in recognition and results from their research are normally published in academic journals and where possible, innovations are expected.

If all goes well, the prospective PhD candidate is required to write at least three publications in a refereed, high-impact journal.

This is a firm requirement at the University of Nairobi. In addition, the candidate must present at least three public seminars/lectures to the faculty and community.

In my case, I gave four and was engaged in teaching free the undergraduate students under the close supervision (in attendance) of my main supervisor. That is further mentoring of potential PhD holders.

Finally, the candidate is expected to present, defend, justify and own the research findings. At this point, even the supervisors are actually tested here.

PhDs are international in recognition and results from their research are normally published in academic journals. [Coutesy]

No sane supervisor would allow his or her student to present any findings whatsoever until and unless he or she is fully satisfied that the candidate will perform. The supervisor who worked with the student is (almost) fully accountable for the work of the student.

He or she cannot however speak in support of the candidate: The peers and the public will indirectly ridicule you alongside the student! You do not need this embarrassment from the public and colleagues.

The public, the faculty are allowed during defence, and can raise any question at that gathering. It is the role of the university to publicly advertise and invite the public to the PhD defences.

This is not done here. During my defence, I saw industrialists and large-scale farmers in attendance because my work was funded by chemical companies.

A student can fail, pass with conditions on a specified period of time or pass with no “qualifications.” The supervisor is then left to correct any issues with the student. A PhD student will always admire a thorough and progressive team of supervisors despite the agony experience.

A PhD therefore can easily take several years to complete in the course. However, the duration will depend on the discipline under study. Completion is even more challenging to the full-time working candidate. He or she must be highly disciplined.

The protection of an earned PhD is therefore unquestionable. It touches the core values of an individual’s inner heart; you earned it in sweat and sacrifices and not in a golden platter. One then deserves the title of a Doctor of Philosophy in his or her area of study. The rest is futuristic.

Honoris causa is different. This is a free award for exemplary work for the nation or other nations. It is an honour proposed by the awarding academic department or faculty, the award is based on a discipline closest to the awardee. For example, Economics, Politics, Leadership, Law, etc. The award must show benefit to the society.

The degree is a prestigious “gift” not equatable to an earned PhD. All that the recipient is requested to do is submit a detailed CV to the respective department, scrutinised by Senate with the Council’s approval. However, the honorary “degree” must belong to the proposing Department/Faculty with clear justification, supported by the candidate’s CV.

I recall awarding only four during my 13 years at JKUAT. President arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki, Horiuchi Matsuura, Former UNESCO director-general, and Prof Risley Thomas Odhiambo (ICIPE). The first two as my chancellors by law and the other two as international contributors to humans wellbeing.

Prof Michieka is a lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

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