“I didn’t lose anything by studying in Africa.” Interview with Dzifa Torvikey, PhD

Dzifa Torvikey, PhD Development Studies, University of Ghana

Ms. Dzifa Torvikey successfully defended her thesis in development studies at the Institute for Statistical, Social and Economic Research, University of Ghana in May 2020. In this candid interview, she shares with Doing A PhD in Africa her experiences and survival tips, especially for women with family and mature students.

@PhDinAfrica: Thank you for making time to speak with us today. Congratulations, once again, on a successful defense.

DT: Thank you.

@PhDinAfrica: Why did you choose to do your PhD in Africa, in Ghana?

DT: Okay, two reasons. The first was by default due to failure to get into other universities outside Ghana, especially in Europe. I applied to a couple of universities in Germany, Bonn in particular. I had interviews and then my certificate delayed. In fact, I submitted my MPhil Dissertation at the end of July 2012 and I graduated the following year in November (2013). That is over a year!

@PhDinAfrica: Wow. Over 12 months?

DT: Yeah. So at the time, I was applying with the mind that I would use attestations or that my certificate would be ready at the right time. In fact, I was very close to getting funded PhDs in Germany and South Africa. One university asked me, “Other people have qualified, you have also qualified, but where is your certificate? ” So I had no choice but to abandon that plan until I could get my certificate. When I got it, I decided to apply to the University of Ghana since I was already working at the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy (CEGENSA) as a teaching assistant, so I decided to try because I was getting fed up with universities abroad. I applied to universities in Canada, New Zealand, Germany, South Africa and many other places. I decided finally to apply to the University of Ghana because I thought that due to difficulties in getting jobs when people return from abroad, sitting in there for between three to four or five years would give me the networks to help me get jobs after school, not only from the university but even in government sector, ministries, etc. I knew that in the course of my PhD study, I would do projects and talk to people across Ghana. I realised that many people go abroad and the networks are cut back home.  The networks to get jobs are not so solid so they come and they’re frustrated or they don’t want to come at all. I meet a lot of people like that. So I thought about it and said let me just sit here and then build the networks and get the experience so that I enhance my chances to get jobs in Ghana.

@PhDinAfrica: It’s interesting to hear you talk about this because the reverse situation came up in a recent e-meeting we organised. One woman shared that she felt foreign-educated academics find it easier to get jobs when they return to the continent, especially those who study in the US and the EU.

DT: In the past, universities were prioritising certificates from abroad. I have seen that changing so much that universities are now taking on a lot more of their trained students.

@PhDinAfrica:: That’s useful to know. Looking back now, considering that you started by wanting to go outside; do you think staying here was better for pragmatic or strategic reasons?

DT: I would say yes, for two reasons. The first is about the connections, getting the networks which have become so expanded across different layers of government, communities and the development sector. And at the same time, I was able to go out for fellowships and conferences. So I’m here but my roads are all over every continent which has not been the case for many of our friends who go there [abroad]. They may go around but getting the networks, especially in institutions here, I know is difficult for many of them. I think I have not lost anything by studying here; in fact, I’ve gained so much.

Also I’ve done a lot of projects here which have given me experience. I’ve not regretted at all. I tell people, especially those who want to go abroad by all means, “If you try abroad, try here too. These are the advantages. If you stay here, you [get to] work on projects and once you’re hardworking, you’ll get projects to work on. As you’re doing this work, know that you’re building your networks for tomorrow.”

@PhDinAfrica: That’s very insightful, thank you. You talked about some international fellowships that you had. By way of encouraging others to apply for such opportunities, can you share what you gained from these experiences?

DT: I’ll talk first about the exchange in Germany which is part of the PhD programme at ISSER. You go for two months at the end of the first year, even before you’ve done your proposal. That was the time that many of us got access to resources, and without the distractions of home, we were able to do a lot and we met a lot of students and faculty who helped us to rethink our work. I was in Geneva for three months where I had access to the library and so many resources that I couldn’t access here. There were other events that I couldn’t attend in person because of travel challenges, so I participated by Skype. In some of these fellowships, we were supposed to produce papers which were published in the very popular IDS Bulletin, which was also a learning curve for us, especially for some of us who want to end up in academia. The publication process was very rigorous, the papers were reviewed up to ten times! It was demanding but at the end of the day we produced good quality work and learnt how to plan research, how to organize our thoughts and all that. That particular one is the Matasa Fellowship based at University of Sussex.

@PhDinAfrica :Okay. Describe your PhD experience. You’ve mentioned some of it already. Do you want to add anything else?

DT: Some of them are in the stories I posted on Facebook about [how] the PhD doesn’t start from the PhD itself. It starts somewhere where people push you and they are sure that you can do it. So you start building up confidence from there before you move. I think that the PhD itself was very tedious and I’ll say it’s a very tedious process. Some people (academics) tell me if you’re not overwhelmed, then you didn’t do a PhD; you should be overwhelmed, like it’s part of it.

I’ve had very good supervisors. I want to emphasize that for this part of the world, doing a PhD here and also being a supervisor here is just more than academics because our supervisors even give us loans. Your supervisors have to look for jobs for you. Professor Dzodzi Tsikata would send me lots of opportunities and ask me to apply. Even though I was funded, the stipend here is very small compared to Europe because rates are calculated for ‘developing countries’. In Europe, the rate was €1200 compared to €500 here whereas Accra is very expensive. Even the Swiss stipend was $500 so you still have to run around and find resources somewhere to add up.

Apart from that, some of these funding that come from Europe are based on the length of their own PhDs, which is three years. My university signed some of those agreements when the PhD was three years but when it changed to four years the agreements didn’t change. So affected students were left to fend for themselves for the extra year’s tuition and all other costs. I was lucky, my supervisors wrote and explained but some funders were very rigid.

There are also a lot of social and psychological things that have affected many PhD students. I know a lot of students broke down in my department. Some of us students had to pick our friends up. We don’t have structures in place that speak to students’ welfare. I know the University of Ghana has a counselling unit but how much do students know about it and how well resourced is it? I see foreign students falling apart in a foreign country because they don’t have money. People break down seriously. At the departmental level, we should have counselling units but they’re not there. I was in my first trimester pregnancy when I went to Geneva. I hadn’t informed them beforehand but when I arrived they immediately looked for ways to support me.

Here, my university is so gender neutral, they don’t see that there are different needs, that we have students who are mothers and all that. A practical example is that we normally do our seminars from 2pm. But a lot of female students were missing them because they had to leave at the time the seminar starts because of traffic, especially for those who live far from town. I put it across to the organizers, the seminar coordinators and told them that they should vary it so that some seminars could be hold at 10am but they didn’t do anything about it because they’re not thinking about the different needs of students. I’m lucky because I have a committed domestic worker. Many of my colleagues don’t have this and you will see that constantly, female students were lagging behind in participating in some of these important academic events. Several women did not submit within four years, partly because of our reproductive roles.

@PhDinAfrica: That’s such an important point…

DT: One coursemate had serious trouble combinng pregnancy with a child transitioning between schools in different cities and another child who was admitted to hospital for severe illness. Many people don’t know this so they see you and they tell you, “Oh you didn’t finish and I’m worried”, but nobody comes to discuss with you or tell you, “These are the measures we’re putting in place.” Some students are very worried about it but when you know the issues, you realise it’s not a big deal. It’s not a crime if you don’t finish early or on time. I finished in five years instead of four because I became pregnant and had to take an extension. It affected the way I worked. You also have to consider the structure of the PhD at University of Ghana. You spend the first year on coursework. The second year on comprehensives and experiential, leaving barely two years for focused research.

Part of the problem is the deadline submission system. I don’t know why students can’t submit when they finish instead of rushing to meet fixed deadlines. It puts a lot of pressure on us and affects the quality of work. If you miss the deadline, you pay half school fees and many students do not have the resources to do that.

@PhDinAfrica: What helped you to get to this stage of your doctoral studies? You talked about helpful supervisors, fellowships and funding; do you want to add anything else?

DT: My support system. My domestic worker has been with us for six years. If you see me in Germany, Geneva, Bangkok, Abuja or anywhere, it’s because of her. I know students who have never attended any international conference because they don’t have that system. The best they can do is send their children to their grandmothers wherever they are. My family has also been very supportive.

@PhDinAfrica: If you had the chance to start again, what would you do differently, if anything?

DT (laughs): I think one of the things I learned mainly is about the [thesis] structure. I would delay writing the literature review. Because once I got my data, I realised everything I wrote before that was chaff yet I had spent so much time writing and rewriting it. It shouldn’t be an early priority. The priority should be getting your questions right and then do your literature when you start getting your results. If I had to start over I wouldn’t bother about literature review except to help frame questions and design data collection tools but not to take meticulous references that are not useful and still have to be rewritten to suit your data. The effort wasn’t wasted though because most of those notes are being turned into papers but they were not needed immediately and I could have used the time differently.

@PhDinAfrica: That’s very helpful. Thank you for sharing that. Any survival tips for other colleagues?

DT: I think one of the main problems that I have seen with students is that school fees are expensive so many students are working. Again, I was lucky, I wasn’t a full-time worker. In fact I resigned from my teaching assistantship before starting my PhD so a lot of the work I did during my studies was part-time—what we call ‘galamsey’ in Ghana. A lot of it related to agriculture (which is related to my research) so it helped me in my work. But this isn’t the case for many students. Everybody wants to have education so they have to make some critical decisions and also do their planning very well because if you don’t do your planning very well, you’ll suffer. Your PhD will suffer because the supervisors are so overwhelmed with their own work, they have to publish and do research. So you have to write very well to make it easier for them to read your work. I know students who leave grammatical errors for supervisors to correct. Some don’t send their final work for proofreading.

And I think one of the things I’ll tell students here is to find shadow supervisors. It doesn’t necessarily need to be someone in your university or an academic. It could even be some of your friends who can critique you very well. I discussed and shared draft chapters and ideas on different topics with people who are experts in those areas. If your work is multidisciplinary, you must find people around in each discipline to read relevant sections and they even give you useful references. When I presented in Geneva there were anthropologists who gave me useful references and also useful ways of rethinking things, even though I framed my work in political economy language.

The last thing is for students to not be afraid to share their work. I know students who worry that this will expose their weaknesses but it’s better for your weakness to be exposed now! Students should also stop competing among themselves as if something is at stake/someone is going to win the award for best thesis. It’s important to help one another in the area of your strength. A PhD takes a village so you shouldn’t go and sit in one corner gyrating.

I think students are not adequately consulted on issues that affect them. We still work within this gerontocratic system. What’s the point of inviting people to vivas when they never had the chance to contribute to other critical phases like proposal presentations? I really hope this changes soon. Also, universities should provide spaces for students to work. It’s not enough to just admit them; they need resources to work. Students can’t be productive in crowded single rooms. They need offices.

@PhDinAfrica: Thank you so very much for your time.

DT: You’re welcome.


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