Woman to Woman: Love Letter to Female PhD Aspirants and Candidates By Victoria Lihiru, PhD

Dr. Victoria Lihiru is a lecturer of law at the Open University, Tanzania. She completed her doctorate in law at the University of Cape Town in 2019. In this piece, she shares her experiences of combining doctoral study with being a wife and a young mother at a time when she had no external financial support. She urges other women to follow their dreams, no matter the odds.

Sisters! Thank you for the congratulatory texts, calls, cakes, parties, flowers, coffees, luncheons, and dinners. With swag, most of your texts would read, ‘Congratulations Dr. Vee, but how did you make it at 31 years old with kids and work responsibilities?’ Well, before I go into that, you will be happy to learn that I dedicated my Ph.D thesis to you! Yes, the thesis is dedicated to all girls and women from all walks of life. It is also accompanied by a note we may all be familiar with, ‘Dreams are valid.’

If one of your 2020 or new decade’s resolutions is to start or finish your Ph.D, I am here to answer the ‘how did I make it’ question. Getting a Ph.D at 31 is a great achievement, but you can get yours even earlier. Yes, it is possible. Many people have pulled it through before. You can also get it in your 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s.The fact is that it can be done. A word of caution: I am not a motivational speaker. But I hope that a glimpse of my Ph.D journey will help you with a point or two as you kickstart or strive to finish your Ph.D.

Before you start, you will need to know why you want to get a Ph.D. I had a strong desire to explore my research problem further to a depth that my LL.B and LL.M could not offer. As a young girl, I wanted to attain the highest degree the world could offer before it was too late, I resolved to do a Ph.D even if I was not going to end up in academia. I was inspired by a friend, Dr. Natujwa Mvungi, who got her Ph.D at 28 years old. I wanted to break her record, although I was unsuccessful in that mission. I started applying for Ph.D programmes when I was 23 years old, immediately after completing my LL.M in 2013.

Know this: You may not be able to start when you want. In both 2013 and 2014, I was unsuccessful with scholarship applications, refuting the presumption that those with high grade point averages attract scholarships easily. Despite my 4.2 (LL.B) and 5.0 (LL.M) GPAs, all of my scholarship applications failed. Even the programme that funded my Master’s degree, which I was heavily dependent on, couldn’t afford to grant me a Ph.D. scholarship.

Sisters, you may need to refuse to wait. As I couldn’t wait any longer for a scholarship,  I made a decision to fund my studies on my own by any legal means. Settling with the fact that I couldn’t afford private sponsorship in Ivy League universities, I asked myself, if I will be paying fees from my hard-earned money, why shouldn’t it be in exchange for a Ph.D from the best university in Africa? With that in mind, in 2015, I went against the principle of ‘not putting all eggs in one basket,’ by applying only to a self-sponsored Ph.D programme at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

After getting admitted at UCT in 2016, things started falling into place. Fastjet was flying to South Africa with affordable ticket prices.  In my first year of studies, I paid annual fees of approximately 2.5 million Tanzanian Shilling. I considered this amount fair for two main reasons: the spirit of regional integration—students from the Southern African Development Community region pay local fees in South African universities—and the high rate of inflation of the South African Rand in early 2016. Soon after I was fully registered as a Ph.D student, some good news arrived. I got a bursary from UCT’s Faculty of Law, which would go on to finance a great deal of my studies. At that moment, I cherished my previous decision to not wait for a scholarship.

Sisters, you will need to choose a topic you are very familiar with. I had worked closely on Tanzania’s 2012-2014 constitutional reform processes and also researched and worked on legal aspects of women’s political participation since the start of my career. I am a keen follower of new developments in both fields in East Africa and beyond. While waiting for possible scholarship opportunities, I spent three years pondering and reshaping the focus of my thesis. When I started writing, although my original thoughts kept on evolving, I had a clear roadmap for what I wanted to achieve with my research.

Getting my proposal approved was the first hard part of my Ph.D journey. I had to change it into a statement of interest, then change it back into a proposal. I had to redo the literature review twice and attend to three rounds of my supervisor’s comments. The proposal had to go for an English grammar check, then came back to me, to the supervisor, back to me again, to the supervisor and then to the Doctoral Degree Board for approval. This process took 6 months!

As my people say, it is better to know the road to the market early. I found it necessary to have an early understanding of the key steps required to complete my thesis. The idea was to avoid wasting time for something that, if known earlier, would be taken care of in a timely manner or parallel with other processes. With this approach, I was able to write applications for ethical clearance, obtain research permits and prepare research tools while writing my research proposal. I submitted the applications to the authorities the day after my proposal was approved. If I had not done that, i would have spent   another month compiling such applications.

I never stopped writing, I kept writing and reworking some chapters as the supervisor was reviewing other chapters. At the beginning of my studies, my supervisor and I developed a flow of chapters, sections and subsections. Although it kept changing, it helped me to stay focused and keep writing. Being an academician myself, after I submitted my first thesis draft for my supervisor’s review, I was able to review it on my own to capture errors and streamline my thoughts and flow. It helped the thesis to benefit, not only from the supervisor, but also from my sense of flow and complementarity of information.

Dear Sisters, your family will have to agree to miss you for some time. With my intention to break Dr. Natujwa’s record while avoiding the risk of losing the motivation to keep writing, I struggled to practise a Ph.D student-wife-mother-work-life balance. During the three years I spent doing my Ph.D, I was more of a student than I was a mother, daughter, sister, employee or wife. Most of the time, I went to bed at 8pm and woke up at 3am, working on my thesis until 6am. I would carry it everywhere I went. My handbag was always full of printed articles so I could catch up on new developments whenever I had free time. My closet became a huge mess with papers everywhere.

Your hobbies and regular can still co-exist with your Ph.D journey. Just be careful not to let them distract you. In 2016, I signed up and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro all the way to Uhuru Peak. In 2017, I had my second child. In 2018, I ventured to read the whole 1000 plus pages of John Maxwell’s Leadership Bible. I also attended a five-week professional fellowship on inclusive employment and, later in 2019, founded Her Ability Foundation,, an NGO for university girls with disabilities. But I only did all these things after I had  worked sufficiently on my thesis at each point in time.

You will have to change how you spend time with your friends. I made good use of mine. My husband would review every chapter for grammatical errors before I sent them to my supervisor. When I got tired of looking at my laptop, I would call friends to ask them to type for me as I talked through my thoughts. I asked senior colleagues in academia and in civil society organisations for insights on comments I was getting from my supervisor.

You will sometimes need to throw your hard work in the recycle bin, based on supervisor’s comments. I had to discard large sections of some chapters, sometimes entire chapters. Pitying my energy and time spent, I tried to use the data from discarded sections and chapters to beef up arguments in other parts of the thesis. However, in some incidences, throwing them in the recycle bin was the only option.

Sisters, writing is not the only sign of progress in a Ph.D. Sometimes my supervisor would write in the comments section, ‘I don’t hear your voice in this chapter’ or ‘this chapter is purely descriptive, there is no analysis here” I learnt to set time aside to reflect on other authors’ publications, my own thoughts and realities on the ground to better shape my conclusions. I also had to make time to learn and perfect other skills. Ensuring that footnotes started at number 1 on every page, that the front page was unnumbered, and that numbering alternated between roman and normal numbers was hard, but I had to master it.

Woman, you will have to close off all negativities. In any conversation about being a ‘PhD student’, questions will arise about your topic, methodology and key findings . You will find positive people who will give you critical feedback. You will also meet negative people purporting to know your area of study or the employed methodology better who will disparage your work. Listen to both of them, but don’t be discouraged or derailed by negative comments. One day, I met a professor who has a number of publications in the area of my Ph.D. and I really thought her views would help shape my thesis, but she watered down every bit of my arguments without justifying her point of view. I chose to move forward anyway.

You must make a point to celebrate key milestones during the Ph.D. journey. I celebrated key milestones, such as when I was admitted, got a bursary, when my proposal was approved, when i finalised each chapter and, finally, when I produced a full draft thesis . I also celebrated when I was able to write my abstract, rework footnotes and references, submitted a second draft to my supervisor, then submitted the thesis for external examination.My joy was fullest when, having reviewed my thesis, external examiners recommended that I graduate after attending to minor changes. My happiest day was 13 September 2019 when I was told, “It’s done and you will be graduating on 12 December 2019”.

Ph.D Aspirants and Candidates, back up your data on Cloud to avoid starting your work all over again. Make use of technological systems to ease your writing and referencing, and find a reason as simple as ‘I want to break Dr. Natujwa’s record’ to keep you motivated. The role of a supervisor cannot be underestimated; pray you get a good one and be careful with the tradeoffs you make in balancing yours and supervisors’ expectations of your thesis. Allow your tears to flow on difficult days. On more ,rewarding days, celebrate hard. Don’t forget your daily support system. For me, prayers, daily affirmations and good coffee made the difference.

My Ph.D journey ended on a bright December day in 2019. In my lavender dress, red graduation gown and black hood trimmed with gold, my full citation was read aloud and I was capped and conferred my Ph.D by the great Mama Graça Machel. The presence of my mother, Ruth and my longtime friend, Keritha made the day even more special. I took photos with family and the vice chancellor that were shared by phone to family and friends. Coffee with my supervisor and a sunset boat cruise with champagne marked the end of the day I had worked towards for three good years. And now I have my life back, trying to compensate for what I missed.

Precious Friends, let me end here. Do keep me posted on your journeys as they progress and know I am here if you need me!

Bye for now.

Dr. Vee.

This story was first published on Udadisi, a Tanzanian blog, in January 2020. It has been edited for Doing A PhD in Africa’s purposes.

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