A PhD Experience is a Lot of Things: An Interview with Dr. Chikezie Uzuegbunam

In this interview, Doing A PhD in Africa member, Dr. Chikezie E. Uzuegbunam, shares his doctoral experience at the University of Cape Town.

Tell us about yourself

My name is Chikezie E. Uzuegbunam, a Nigerian-born academic with a social impact niche. In December 2019, I was conferred with a doctorate in Media Studies (focusing on digital media and young people) from University of Cape Town’s Centre for Film and Media Studies, where I was also a teaching and research assistant since 2016. Before then, I had been a lecturer in Mass Communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Nigeria. I have attended and received certificates in courses in media and communication research from University of Bergen, University of Witwatersrand, University of Ghana, London School of Economics (University of London) and University of Cape Town (UCT). My research interests are digital media, young people, cultural studies and political communication in Africa and I have published over 20 papers in these areas. In 2017, I was named one of Africa’s 100 Brightest Young Minds (BYM) by BYM South Africa and Barclays Africa. I serve on the editorial board of African Journalism Studies published by Routledge and I am a 2019 fellow of the Oxford Media Policy Institute at Oxford University.

Why did you choose to do a PhD in Africa?

I must say that I did not initially want to do a PhD in Africa; it happened by providence. Like many people, I started out desiring to go to the UK for my PhD and had applied to a few universities, especially those that offered funding opportunities. In 2015, in the middle of all of this, I got a fully funded opportunity to travel to South Africa for a two-week course on ‘African Media in a Global Age’, organised by the academic partnership of the London School of Economics and Political Science and UCT. It was while attending the course at UCT that I discovered what an incredibly beautiful and highly-rated university it was. I made the decision to apply for a PhD once I got back to Nigeria. And I did. The application was successful as was my application to University of Nigeria, Nsukka. By this time, my resolve to study in the UK or Europe was beginning to wane. In the end, I chose UCT even though I had no funding at the time. The rest is history.

Describe your PhD experience

A PhD experience is a lot of things; it’s a roller coaster ride. One minute you’re raring to go, full of enthusiasm and courage. The next minute, you’re depressed, confused and full of doubt. This is the experience of many of us, whether you’re in Africa, Europe, Asia or the Americas. But in retrospect, my PhD experience was phenomenal, challenging and deeply rewarding.

With respect to challenges, funding was a huge one. I mentioned earlier about not having funds at the outset of my studies – I had to pay for my first year in 2016 and living expenses with personal funds  Although my department awarded me a postgraduate bursary for my second year, it only covered tuition, not even fieldwork. Thankfully, in 2018 and 2019 I was awarded the UCT International Postgraduate Students Scholarship which eased the burden a bit, because compared to the financial budget each year and what local students get, it was meagre.

Aside from the funding, I experienced excruciating mental health issues throughout the journey. Indeed, the mental health of postgraduate students, especially doctoral students is not engaged enough in the academia. And it’s worse when you’re an international student in unfamiliar terrain and away from family and loved ones. I went through a triple bout of depression, anxiety and loneliness that no one could understand but me.

On the positive side, however, my PhD experience was beautiful in many respects. I had the opportunity to travel to a lot of countries, including the UK, France, Sweden, Ghana and Spain for conferences where I presented my work and fellowships where I met and networked with like minds in the field. I also had the pleasure of being appointed a research and teaching assistant in my department as well as the postgraduate students’ coordinator for two years. These experiences and many more, made my journey phenomenal and rewarding.

What has helped you to get to this stage of your doctoral studies?

Beyond the challenges, I count myself very blessed and privileged to have had the kind of support I had from people who matter, people who had my back, people who went to the ends of the world for me to succeed. And this is my wish for PhD students everywhere. My supervisor, Professor Tanja Bosch, was particularly instrumental to my overall success and getting me to finish in record time. I finished in exactly three years. Now this came with lots of sacrifices on my part and my supervisor’s, but it was also made possible because when you are studying with funding constraints away from your home country,, you rarely have the luxury to drag your feet much with your PhD programme. You’re under pressure to get it done  or suffer the consequences of the time lag.

My supervisor also was instrumental to my being able to manage my mental health. I remember this one time when I was suffering from writers’ block and I had yet to send her a draft as we had agreed on. I sent her an email berating myself and promising to deliver soon. She responded and simply said, “Be kind to yourself. Take a break from the writing and enjoy some of the other things you love doing and then ease back into the writing process.” That would be the kindest and the most profound thing anyone would ever tell me during the PhD journey. With that, I felt seen and understood in a way that was refreshingly liberating. That kindness was like adrenaline that rather pushed me into breaking free from my ‘perfectionist bubble’ and writers’ block, and a few weeks after that, I was back on my grind and wrote every day until I submitted the thesis in February 2019.

Did I mention that Professor Bosch also inspired me to take my physical fitness seriously? I registered at the university gym, started running and hiking and took up various outdoor activities. That saved my life. Another thing that helped was that my supervisor and I resolved early on to have regular meetings to go over my progress and clear up outstanding issues. She read drafts, gave corrections promptly and consistently, and was on top of administrative issues throughout the submission and external examination processes. She was my angel in human form.

Do you have any survival tips for other colleagues?

Oh, I have lots, but I won’t bore you with all (laughs). But first, I’d say to get rid of the perfectionist mentality, because your PhD thesis is not meant to be a perfect piece of academic writing or endeavour. It may help to consider a PhD as an apprenticeship – one that signals a beginning rather than a destination. As such, the thesis is not supposed to be perfect, because it is an ongoing work even after your graduation. I pasted these words on my door, and was constantly reminded that, ‘A good PhD is a finished thesis. A great PhD is a published thesis. A perfect PhD is neither.’ I’m convinced now more than ever, that a PhD student’s success does not depend on how smart and hard they work as much as it depends on the kind of supervisor they have. I wish doctoral students would realise that their supervisors are their greatest ally and supporter – not their enemies or rivals – throughout their programme and even beyond.

Doctoral students’ mental health is something we’re too ashamed to engage with and to admit. Physical exercises helped me a great deal and I discovered how lifesaving fitness truly is. I also strongly recommend having or joining a community of PhD students with whom you share, organise and connect. One of my proudest achievements during my PhD was that I resuscitated our departmental postgraduate network and successfully organised two postgraduate colloquia where we presented our work to each other and the faculty and received helpful feedback. 

What would you do differently if you had the chance to start your studies over?

Nothing! And this is not to sound overly optimistic, but it’s the truth. I feel deeply grateful and blessed to have had the journey I had. It was my journey and I loved every bit of the complexity, sheer excitement, uncertainty, emotional highs, devastating lows, the blood, the sweat, the tears – I loved all of it, but in retrospect! I say in retrospect because you never quite know how all of your experiences, even the difficult ones, add up in the end to make you the sound scholar that you become. I’d choose to study at UCT over and over again, not because it’s the best in Africa or one of the best 100 in the world, but because it’s really a great place, and it’s right here in Africa!

What are your plans for the future?

Oh, the future is vast, and we will seize it. I prefer to work towards my plans without talking much about them. Maybe because I always feel they’d be jinxed when you talk about them (laughs). But on a serious note, getting a PhD is one thing that makes you fully qualified to practise as an academic in your chosen field. It has given me the confidence and the right of passage to explore and become my fullest self. I can’t wait to see all that the future holds.

What informed your decision to join the group, Doing A PhD in Africa and what has been your experience so far?

I think I joined DAPIA sometime in late 2018, although I was a lurker for a long time. It’s such a great space for early career academics on the continent and I always recommend such a space for PhD students and scholars in general. It’s an incredible work that Titi Ajayi is doing with the platform and I commend her greatly for taking on such a huge assignment and one that’s very needed in these climes.

Chikezie E. Uzuegbunam holds a PhD in Media Studies (focusing on digital media and young people) from the University of Cape Town’s Centre for Film and Media Studies, where he has been a teaching and research assistant since 2016. He has contributed to important projects including Social Media and Electoral Democracy in Africa Vol 2 (Palgrave Macmillan 2020), Handbook on Media Education Research (Wiley-Blackwell 2020), The Sage International Encyclopaedia of Mass Media and Society (2020), New Media and African Society (Nairobi Academic Press 2018), Exploring political and gender relations: New digital and cultural environments (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2017), The Power of the Media in Health Communication (Routedge 2016).

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